It should never be spoken of again, but yes, Dwyane Wade's year in Chicago was rough for everyone. His defense was sporadic at best. His experiment with three-point shooting produced uneven results. He only played in 60 games, but in the locker room, he was as domineering as ever even as the team stumbled through six months of mediocrity. "I can look at Jimmy [Butler] and say Jimmy is doing his job," Wade complained one night. "I think Jimmy can look at me and say Dwyane is doing his job. I don’t know if we can keep going down the line and be able to say that." On the court, he had an even higher usage rate than Butler for a Bulls team that was perfectly average (41 wins) and absolutely brutal to watch.
Wade's lone season in Chicago is generally how it goes for aging NBA superstars. We saw the same phenomenon take hold with Kobe and Iverson toward the end of their careers. Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo have been living this story for the better part of a presidential term. Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George could be in a similar spot four or five years from now. This is how the NBA life cycle works.
Particularly among stars who rely on athleticism to dominate, even slight regressions to mortal levels can change everything. That levels the playing field with the rest of the league and complicates their game as they try to play the way that always made them dominant. The solutions are often simple—conserve energy, pick smart spots to help, and play off the bench—but accepting those limits can be just as complicated for stars.
So given his pedigree and given last year's disaster, Dwyane Wade deserves a lot of credit for what he's doing in Cleveland this year. He's been coming off the bench and he's been excellent. With Wade working on the second unit Cleveland's discovered a rotation that gives them one of the deepest benches in the league. After getting played off the court in a few starts to begin the year, Wade's averaging 15.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 51.5% shooting over the past 10 games, all of which resulted in Cavs wins.
More than anything else, it's been great to watch an aging superstar find a second life that makes sense. The crafty, not-quite-washed-up veteran who picks his spots is much easier to appreciate than the slow, allergic-to-defense superstar who demands his share of touches, minutes, and shots.
This role obviously becomes far more attractive on a title contender than it was on the Bulls last year. Earlier this week Fred Hoiberg alluded to "a couple conversations" about a bench role for Wade that apparently went nowhere. And as Wade himself admitted, "I didn’t want to just come off the bench on a team that’s rebuilding. I would’ve been very unhappy in a basketball sense. And if basketball isn’t going right, nothing is going right. I didn’t want to put my family through that."
The logic underpinning that sentiment—"I didn't want to come off the bench for the sake of my family"—seems a bit dramatic, but it's not unique. For superstars who have spent their entire careers as franchise players, there's built-in pride that's completely reasonable, and sometimes that makes a reduced role seem inconceivable. Consider Carmelo Anthony in Oklahoma City.
Don't ask Melo about coming off the bench ???????????? pic.twitter.com/dHtymfEjGm— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) September 25, 2017
The chuckling arrogance in that clip, the imperious charm, the total lack of self-awareness—all of that is classic Carmelo. He leans into every stereotype, and if it's part of what makes him easy to criticize, it's also part of what's always made him fun as a superstar. Players like him make the league more interesting. But even long-time Melo apologists (read: me) have to concede that his failure to even consider a bench role makes life a lot more difficult for Billy Donovan and the Thunder.
To begin with, OKC has ball movement issues that could potentially be solved by replacing Carmelo isos with Patrick Patterson spot-ups from three. It's not to say that Anthony deserves blame for the state of OKC's offense, but tweaking the lineup could help mitigate some of the issues. What's more, moving to the bench would allow Anthony to feast on overmatched reserves, and he'd help anchor the offense for an OKC second unit that's currently relying on Raymond Felton as a catalyst. (He'd also have fans and dumb writers like me fawning over his sacrifice instead of nitpicking his game to death, but that's a secondary win.)
It makes a lot of sense in theory. It's clearly worth exploring. But even as the Thunder have struggled, a lineup change remains a remote possibility. Or, as Anthony put it, "Hell no."
Considering the divergent paths of both players and both teams, it's tempting to use Wade's sacrifice in Cleveland to underscore Carmelo's shortsighted approach in Oklahoma City. That's probably the logical conclusion here. Wade's clearly the blueprint for how Carmelo could succeed in OKC, and if anything, his initial failure in Chicago is the best reason to have hope for Anthony over the next few years. He still has time to figure this out.
The bigger picture is more interesting. Both players are trying to navigate changes that are tougher to pull off than most people appreciate.
Aging NBA superstars are some of the the easiest targets in sports—their games decline along with their athleticism, but their national profile stays the same. Carmelo is still a hundred times more famous than Robert Covington. So eventually every conversation about them becomes an excuse to talk about how far they've fallen and how overrated they've become. None of that's wrong, but it's an incomplete picture of what's actually happening. The truth is that it takes an incredible level of self-confidence to be a superstar who dominates night after night in the NBA, and that confidence can become counter-productive when it's to time to evolve. It's really difficult to be Kobe Bryant from 1997–2014 without also becoming Kobe from 2015 to retirement.
None of this should be surprising, and when stars fail to accept their own limits, I'm not even sure it should be disappointing. Most critics would be every bit as stubborn if they'd ever been half as successful. In life or basketball, it's more surprising when the greatest careers don't take a turn toward complacency and mediocrity as everything winds down.
That's why the past month in Cleveland has been such a delight, no different than watching Vince Carter pop up on the Grizzles and Mavs for the past five years or Manu Ginobili finding a way to harass James Harden in the playoffs last May. The rule for aging stars is Carmelo in OKC and Wade in Chicago. Wade in Cleveland—?working through his Netflix catalog, taking Dad photos, killing the Bulls, carrying the Cavs bench—looks like he's turning into another fun and strange exception.