December 16, 2017

The rise to prominence is a process. Rarely do teams or nascent careers form ready-made. The Philadelphia 76ers loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night was a reminder of two things:

First, for all the early returns on their promise, the 76ers are still at an early phase in their progress; second, the descend from glory is often just as much of a process—playing out in fits and starts.

Understandably, the former is fraught with excitement and attention.

Watching Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid develop chemistry has been one of the joys of the NBA season. Each action is new with the promise of developing into mainstays for the next decade:

The latter…the latter also deserves its due respect.

Early in the fourth quarter, Simmons swept across the lane on a pick and roll at the elbow—an already established staple of the young duo—throwing a lob over the top on the switch. Embiid had an unsteady gather, going up off balance only to be rejected by Dwyane Wade.

Perhaps history’s greatest shot blocking guard in his prime, Wade’s defensive playmaking moments come further and fewer in between.

There is still some lift in Wade’s legs and coordination in those long arms, but the suddenness of his burst has greatly waned. Everything is more deliberate. Where a younger Wade might have appeared in a flash, the older one uses his positioning to get into Embiid’s legs before the catch, cutting the big man down to size by not allowing him the lift needed to go over the top of Wade’s diminished vertical.

Dwyane Wade scored 15 points, five assists, four rebounds and two blocks off the bench for the resurgent Cavaliers, winners of their last eight.

Over the last 10 games, Wade is averaging 11.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 24.2 minutes off the bench. His true shooting percentage, a paltry 49.7 percent, belies a 15.3 Net Rating with a 116.2 offensive rating per NBA.com.

For the moment, the Cavaliers and Wade have struck a happy balance where his usage (24.2 percent, down from 29.6 percent with the Chicago Bulls last year) is low enough that the utility of his game overpowers its inefficiency.

This won’t always be the case, just as the 76ers youthful athleticism and talent won’t always bail them out. Aging is a process, and one that’s more complicated than scaling back.

Barring catastrophic injury, decline is rarely a steep and sudden drop off. What we perceive to be a player’s peak is already fraught with ebbed physical attributes. It’s just the accumulated knowledge and skill more than outweighs the slightly deteriorated abilities.

Wade still possesses all his craft, it’s just been a matter of figuring out how and where to apply it within the new realities of his body. Like youth, the old suffer from an overestimation of ability. But if a player can check his ego, experience works wonders for a quick patch.

Working one-on-one against Dario Saric, Wade’s hesitation before the crossover here is augmented by a pull-up jumper that still carries weight with NBA defenders. At the beginning of his decline, perhaps Wade relies on his burst to suffice after the first, resulting in a contested shot at the rim.

Here, he uses one advantage to create another. It’s a less direct line, but effective nonetheless.

Rather than working to turn the corner against an overzealous defender, Wade uses a give-and-go to exploit the defense’s aggressiveness:

Dwyane Wade’s joining the Cavaliers was met by some with a mix of amusement and derision. A 35-year-old shooting guard on the decline with no three-point shot was clearly of no use to a team with the Golden State Warriors in mind. A name to appease LeBron James and little else.

But Cleveland wasn’t expecting the Miami Heat version of Wade. To a degree, utility is as important as efficiency and, at a lower volume, Wade’s star turns into inefficiency can still draw enough spotlight to prop up the play of more limited players.

Here, Wade’s ability to hold a defense’s attention off ball screens and patience in reads is enough to keep Kyle Korver’s off-ball machinations on the periphery of the defense’s attention in a way previous backup point guards could not.

And, of course, the ability to read a defense—even from a standstill—will always be helpful.

The Cavaliers aren’t necessarily looking for Wade to shine, but to take up enough playmaking to allow others to make the system hum.

A move to the bench, which on Wade’s part must be an acceptance of his new standing on the court, has been one of the things the Cavaliers have figured out, where Wade can do more with less, running second units and propping up lineups without LeBron James in ways the Cavaliers struggled to last year, posting an 8.7 net rating without James per NBA.com…all after struggling with Wade in the starting lineup and a more prominent role earlier in the season.

Neither progress or decline are linear. Players and teams solve for one problem only to have other obstacles pop up. A new skill might carry with it the penalty of a temporary step back as a player or team figure out how to incorporate it.

Youth has the advantage of being exceedingly more flexible and adaptable, but it would be a mistake to write off Wade or the Cavaliers too soon because of it.

As advancements in player health extend careers, we might see more of this process play out. Tim Duncan was an All-NBA power forward until he wasn’t, and then he was again, if only for a moment.

His post scoring and ability to hedge had greatly diminished, so the Spurs and Duncan set about to remake his body and their system, relearning the game and coming back strong in 2012 than he was in, say, 2010.

Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, to lesser extents, followed suit.

There is no missing link of deterioration in Michael Jordan’s game, but he also stepped away from the basketball court in that rough feeling out point where a player must figure out how to deal with aging, returning to basketball, stylistically, a rebuilt player.

None of this is to say Wade will continue to improve as he settles into his role with the Cavaliers; just as there are not guarantees the 76ers will grow into a perennial Finals contender. And though one is more probably than the other, it all remains a process—and one the Cavaliers trust they’re on the right side of this season.

Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and ESPNsa.com. Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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