Dwyane Wade has been great at many things on the basketball court. But one skill has always escaped him: 3-point shooting.
This isn't breaking news to anyone who has followed his tenure in the NBA. Wade is a career 29 percent 3-point shooter, a sorry figure that places him 311th among the 315 players in NBA history who have shot at least 1,000 3-pointers.
But Wade has adjusted. Starting in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Wade kicked the habit for the most part and generally expelled the 3-point shot from his regular jump-shooting diet. In 2013-14, Wade's propensity for shooting (and making) the 3 hit a career nadir; he took only 32 trifectas and made only nine during the entire regular season. Five years ago, he might have stumbled into making nine treys in a single week. Those days are long gone.
But here's the crazy thing about all that: Opposing defenses still glued themselves to Wade off the ball like he's the next Steve Kerr.
This isn't just a theory; there is quantifiable evidence of this phenomenon. According to data provided by STATS LLC from cutting-edge SportVU cameras that track the movement of the ball and every player last season, defenses stuck to Wade on the perimeter as if he were an elite 3-point shooter.
The question is, why?
During one of last week's practices, Wade was on the Miami Heat's practice court upstairs at AmericanAirlines Arena. The team has been struggling to find its identity in the wake of LeBron James' sudden departure this summer, and Wade had just wrapped up a long, arduous practice meticulously going over coach Erik Spoelstra's defensive principles. Wade and his teammates are tired, and the general mood feels grim after a string of hard losses.
But in this moment, Wade is laughing. He's giggling because for so long he thought he was going crazy, seeing something on the court that had to be a figment of his imagination. Opposing defenses just won't leave him alone off the ball. To him, this didn't make any sense. He's not a 3-point shooter.
"Lately, I've been seeing everybody start doing this more," Wade said as he turned his back pretending to be a defender gluing himself to a perimeter shooter. "And I'm just like, 'Damn, did I just start shooting 3s and I didn't know about it?'"
To Wade's elation, the data from SportVU cameras corroborated his story. He wasn't seeing things; defenses were really playing him that way.
What Wade was describing was the dynamic of a floor-spacer who spreads the defense thin, a characteristic almost exclusively held by 3-point sharpshooters. Ask an NBA coach to name the best floor-spacers in the league and chances are you'll hear names like Kyle Korver, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. You do not leave these guys on the perimeter and live to tell about it. In the domain of floor-spacing, shooters rule the day.
Wade, however, is the quirk in the system. The statisticians at STATS LLC have crunched the SportVU data to come up with two advanced metrics which they've called "gravity score" and "distraction score." By tracking how the defense shifts at every instance in the game, gravity score attempts to quantify how much defensive attention a player receives when he's off the ball. In other words, a player's gravitational pull on the opposing defense.
Distraction score takes this one step further and quantifies how much a player's defender is willing to help off him to stop the ball handler. If a lights-out shooter is standing in the corner, his defender will rarely leave him to stop a penetrating point guard. Coaches have noticed this, but SportVU quantifies it, through comprehensive optical tracking and innovative algorithms.
I wanted to examine which players performed strongly in both metrics so I could identify the NBA's true floor-spacers. So I blended the two metrics together to create a composite metric, which I've called "respect rating."
Now, this is where it gets interesting. Flipping through the leaders in respect rating is like glancing at a list of 3-point contest candidates. There's Kevin Durant. Predictably, Korver's name shows up high on the list. So do Curry and Thompson. Ray Allen. J.J. Redick. You name the sharpshooter ... he's there.
But oddly enough, so is Wade. He is the anomaly, the lone floor-spacer who ignores 3s altogether.
As illustrated above, Wade converted 0.2 3-pointers every 36 minutes on the court last season, which is remarkably low for someone ranked in the top 25 of respect rating. On average, the other 24 players made far more trifectas than Wade, about 2.2 3s every 36 minutes. Wade was unique in this sense. In fact, no wing player with fewer than 0.5 3-pointers every 36 minutes even cracked the top 100 in respect rating. Tyreke Evans, Shaun Livingston and Tony Allen? All nowhere near the upper echelon.
But then there's Wade.
"I don't think anybody has ever called me that term -- a floor-spacer -- before," Wade says. "But honestly I've always known that I'm a floor-spacer, just in a different way."
So what makes Wade different? Why do defenses treat Wade like he's an elite 3-point shooter even though he's not?
"They're always up on me," Wade says. "I always wonder why."
The answer to this riddle is not simply that Wade scores a lot of points. It's how he gets his points that matters. More specifically, he's a deadly off-ball threat not because he's a 3-point shooter, but because he's a lethal cutter.
The mystery starts to reveal itself when you look at the Synergy numbers. Since losing the 2011 Finals, Wade says he has dedicated himself to cutting off the ball more for easy buckets. Not surprisingly, the data backs this up. According to Synergy's video tracking, Wade has accumulated 497 points on cuts off the ball, which is 100 more points than anyone else in the league over that time.
What's clear is that Wade is indeed a floor-spacer, but he does it by cutting, not shooting.
And SportVU has detected that defenses are programming against it. Through their algorithms, SportVU has found that Wade pulls his defender away from the ball handler. Last season, Wade ranked 21st in the league in respect rating, which, interestingly enough, places him even higher than James. Part of the reason: James is not quite the same cutter off the ball as Wade.
I think once I became a dynamic cutter, then it became a part of the scouting report," Wade says. "If you turn your head and go help ... boom, I'm cutting backdoor."
On the practice floor, Wade put on an impromptu demonstration all by himself. He acted like a coach, moving around the perimeter and angling himself in different ways to demonstrate how defenses used to guard him compared to how they've guarded him more recently. Before he developed his off-ball cutting game, his defender used to shade off of him on the perimeter, sinking into the paint and keeping a close eye on the ball. "Now," Wade shouted as he slid from the paint to the 3-point arc, "they will guard me like this."
Wade's gravitational pull has gotten so impactful that he began to use it against his opposition.
"There have been a lot of times where I tell my teammates, 'Just drive on my side! They're not leaving me!'" Wade said, laughing.
Wade then backtracked a bit.
"Well, it's not like 'Ray Allen not leaving me,'" he says, "but it's my version of not leaving me."
Indeed, Allen placed higher than Wade in respect rating last season. Evidently, Wade's remarkable cutting abilities have not gone unnoticed. Heat.com writer Couper Moorhead has chronicled Wade's now-you-see-me-now-you-don't routine, dubbing it "ghost cuts." Last season, Wade scored 147 points on 97 plays ending in a cut, which translates to a ridiculously good payoff of 1.52 points per play. Only Dwight Howard was more efficient. By comparison, leaving Allen open for a catch-and-shoot play last season -- a defensive cardinal sin -- resulted in a 1.2-point average payoff. Wade's move was more deadly.
Wade stood in the corner and described how he works his magic. He preys on his defender as soon as he drifts away and loses focus.
"It's a feeling, but I'm watching my guy's eyes," Wade said. "I'm looking at the ball and where it's going, because sometimes my job is to run to the top of the key, but if I see he's out of position and he's just looking [toward the ball] ..."
Wade darted to the basket.
"... I'm gone."
But that was then, this is now. Can Wade be effective on cuts without James around anymore?
This is the elephant in the room. James is a passing virtuoso who can see above the defenses like he's observing from an air traffic control tower. Wade was always one pass away, and no player assisted Wade's field goals more than James last season.
It remains to be seen whether teams will be willing to pack the paint more when Wade is off the ball. Why respect his cutting game so much if James isn't around to deliver the pass? It turns out Wade would welcome the extra breathing room.
"That'd be great, fine by me," Wade says. "It'd give me a chance to get my 3 off."
Uh-oh. The career 29 percent 3-point shooter wants to shoot more 3s? Teams may be rooting for that counterpunch.
Wade has indeed taken more 3-pointers this preseason. He's shot 2.7 3-pointers every 36 minutes thus far in five games, which would be his highest rate since 2009-10. He made just 30 percent from deep that season.
"It's funny," he says, "because in the last couple games, I've hit a couple 3s and the guys who are guarding me have looked at me like, 'What?'"
The look typically comes from younger players who only know the James-era Wade.
"Y'all forgot that I did shoot 3s," Wade says. "Last three years I just haven't done it."
And that discipline worked in the Heat's favor. Oftentimes, there were better shots available thanks to James' presence. But now the exchange rate has been disrupted with James gone.
The Heat may have lost James' passing abilities, but they hope that free-agent signee Josh McRoberts can fill some of the void. McRoberts, who has missed the preseason with a toe injury, averaged 4.5 assists per game last season in Charlotte, which marks one of the highest rates in the league among big men. And much of those went to Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, two players who like to cut off the ball, like Wade.
This introduces an interesting wrinkle for Wade's season, and really the rest of his NBA career. Will he need to start shooting 3-pointers to maintain his gravitational pull as he ages? Or has the attention derived from his cutting game made the 3-pointer irrelevant?
Nonetheless, get ready for more 3-pointers from Wade.
"I'm going to shoot 'em more," Wade says, which sounds a little like a warning than a prediction. "It is what it is."
You have our full attention, Dwyane. Let's see how long it lasts.