The Cleveland Cavaliers are an awful defensive team. Since November 3, 2017 (where they played the Washington Wizard, ended a losing streak, and began playing good basketball), the Cavs have the seventh worst defense in the NBA. But, in a surprising turn of events, Dwyane Wade has become a lockdown defender this season, and because of it, is an unsung hero for Cleveland.
Analytically, these numbers are clear. Steve Shea – a progressive force in basketball analytics – has created a new metric that examines how a player works to prevent a higher expected shot value. I.E., a good player forces his opponent into taking shots delivering a lower expected value. By this metric, Wade is the 24th best defender in the NBA.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus – which uses a regression-based model to estimate the overall value of a player compared to the league average – ranks Wade as the 9th best two-guard defender in the association.
Meanwhile, J.R. Smith ranks as the worst defender in the NBA by Shea’s metric, and per ESPN’s metric he is the 29th worst shooting guard defender in the NBA. This provides for an interesting analysis.
Switching J.R. Smith and Dwyane Wade in Cavalier lineup data is illuminating. Per NBA Wowy, with J.R. on the court and Wade off, the Cavs give up 1.16 points per possession, equal to the worst defense in the NBA. When Wade plays and Smith does not, however, Cleveland surrenders 1.06 points per possession, good enough for fifteenth best in the NBA.
Overall, Wade turns the Cavs from one of the worst defensive teams in the league when he sits, into a middle-of-the-pack team while playing. Synergy’s playtype data can explain why.
First, and most importantly, 66% of Wade’s defensive shots contended have been on spot-ups and pick-and-rolls. On these plays, with Wade as the primary defender, opponents are averaging .763 points per possession. Comparatively, on average, players are scoring .925 points per possession on these two plays. Thus, Wade is defending spot-ups and pick-and-rolls significantly better than the average NBA player.
But what is causing Wade to defend this well?
Dwyane Wade’s sheer athleticism, at one point during his career, made him an elite defender. In today’s NBA, though, Wade relies on two factors to maintain his elite defense: basketball intelligence and physical strength.
Wade’s intelligence allows him to avoid mistakes, do more with less movement, and defend quick, less nuanced drives. Tyronn Lue generally has Wade interrupt passing lanes against pick-and-rolls. Because of this, Wade generally has to cover more ground, and he does this beautifully.
On this play, Dwyane Wade’s first responsibility is covering the passing lane between McCollum and Nurkic after the latter rolls to the rim. Once he notices no available pass to Nurkic, McCollum makes the smart play, and passes to Wade’s man (Aminu). In order to somewhat contest the shot, Wade pushes off of Nurkic and raises his arm while jumping up and lunging forward. This allows him to block Aminu’s vision and prevent an uncontested three-point shot.
This play is similar. Wade takes an early position that makes a dump pass to Ed Davis unappealing. Yet, a missed rotation results in both Pat Connaughton and Aminu being left wide open. Wade makes the easy decision to cover Aminu, thus preventing the open three and allowing Kyle Korver to closeout on Connaughton. Yet, after contesting the initial shot, Wade makes the intelligent decision to rush to the basket because he knows there is nobody on the right block that could rebound the basketball. This allows Wade to grab an uncontested rebound and gives the Cavaliers possession.
This type of intelligence is refreshing to see. Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, and Jeff Green all make head-scratching defensive errors. Thus, Wade’s calm demeanor makes the Cavs somewhat less frustrating to watch on defense.
On top of being a pivot for the Cavs’ defense, Wade’s positional knowledge results in him forcing turnovers.
This intelligent play is the primary reason Wade leads the Cavs in forced turnovers per minute, and has the second most blocks of any shooting guard, directly behind Michael Jordan.
It honestly is incredible to think about. Wade’s ability to force turnovers constantly snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Hell, that last play he blocks Dwight Howard off a roll in the low post! Or who could forget this block on Giannis?
Yet, Wade’s most important contribution to the Cavs’ defense this season has been forcing players, other than his man, to take shots. Teams simply have not targeted the Cavaliers’ guard when he is the primary defender. For Cleveland, Kevin Love, LeBron James, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson, and Iman Shumpert have been the primary defender on more possessions per minute than Dwyane Wade.
The main reason for this is because of Wade’s sheer physical strength.
This is a pick-and-roll between Ben Simmons and Richaun Holmes with Redick flashing behind the play to drag a defender away from the attacking players. Channing Frye covers Holmes by blocking the latter’s path to the rim. As a consequence, Frye cannot protect the rim from Simmons. Yet, Wade uses his sheer physical strength to force Simmons to pass out of the drive.
This is no small deal. Philadelphia has dominated teams when Simmons play against opponents’ bench units, and more importantly, on plays like this. Per Synergy, the Sixers score 1.33 points per possession when Simmons starts a pick-and-roll on the right side and passes to a spot up shooter. By covering him individually, Wade prevents the need for defensive help, making Simmons’ pass-out benign.
On this possession, Wade prevents Trevor Booker – one of the best bigs at establishing low post position in the NBA – from making any ground, thus forcing a play reset.
And on this play Wade does not let Dario Saric into an advantaged offensive position, and then successfully boxes out the significantly bigger Sixer big!
The last two plays show a type of defense that is not properly appreciated in today’s NBA. It is one of the reasons I love guys like Marcus Smart, Eric Bledsoe, and even James Harden. They all thrive off stopping much bigger players. And Wade has added this type of defense to his game, creating unique wrinkles when the Cavs are out-sized.
Finally, Wade can use his strength to make up for his decreased – yet very passable – lateral quickness.
Here, Wade picks up CJ McCollum in transition, prevents him from getting an open lane to the basket, then uses his strength to force the Portland guard into a difficult shot. Finally, Wade boxes out McCollum and grabs an easy rebound.
This level of defense is something we have not seen from Dwyane Wade since his days with LeBron in Miami. Wade has shown an ability to play solid defense against Houston, Golden State, and Boston. This will be crucial come the NBA playoffs.
Additionally, while an outstanding offensive player, Isaiah Thomas is a historically abysmal defensive player. Thus, the Cavaliers’ other guard must be able to cover for Thomas, and Wade will probably face the responsibility throughout the postseason.
Nonetheless, without an improvement from the rest of the Cavaliers’ roster, the team will continue to struggle at stopping the league’s best offenses.