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March 13, 2009
Heating Up
Dwayne Wade Carries Miami

by Kevin Pelton

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It doesn't take advanced stats to appreciate how dominant Dwyane Wade has been since the All-Star break. In the last 12 games, the Miami Heat's star has averaged 36.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.6 rebounds per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the field. The stretch has allowed Wade to force his way into the MVP discussion, challenging LeBron James' status as the favorite.

Taking a deeper look at the numbers can help us gain greater appreciation for what Wade has accomplished. If just his last 12 games were considered his entire season, Wade would rank as the league's 61st-most valuable player in terms of Wins Above Replacement Player. Compare Wade's advanced statistics over this stretch to what he has accomplished over the course of the season:

           Win%    ORtg    DRtg    TS%    Usg   Ast%    2P%    3P%
Season     .806   114.4   103.3   .575   .358   12.1   .527   .314
Last 12    .928   123.1   102.6   .667   .356    9.3   .594   .431

Wade's defensive and rebounding numbers are largely unchanged, and it would be difficult for him to take on a larger role in the Miami offense than he has had over the course of the season. What Wade has done is become much, much more efficient, shooting a better percentage on both twos and threes. He is also handing out more assists.

This stretch came largely without warning. That much is clear from looking at Wade's game-by-game performance. For a quick and dirty measure of single-game performance, I used the NBA's Efficiency, a simple linear-weights formula in which good stats (PTS, REB, AST, STL, BLK) are added and bad stats (missed FGA, missed FTA, TO) are subtracted. Check out this graph, with the line dividing Wade's last 12 games from the rest of his season:

There was no particular sign Wade was about to go off. In fact, his play before the All-Star break was down from what Wade he had done over the rest of the first half of the season. So why the abrupt change? One obvious explanation is the trade the Heat made just prior to the All-Star break, sending Shawn Marion (and Marcus Banks) to Toronto in exchange for Jermaine O'Neal and Jamario Moon. O'Neal and Moon made their Miami debuts when play resumed after the break.

82games.com's player pair data offers a way to explore this angle by breaking down Wade's performance by when he has been on the court with O'Neal. Unfortunately, the most recent update covers just the first six games after the All-Star break, but the numbers are still revealing. Wade and O'Neal played 167 minutes together in that span, with Wade shooting a sizzling 58.3 percent from the field. By deduction, we can find that Wade shot an even 50.0 percent in those six games when O'Neal was on the bench, more in line with his shooting percentage over the course of the season.

Why would O'Neal's presence have such a positive impact on Wade's performance? Even though he is no longer the go-to guy in the post that he once was, averaging 12.3 points per game, O'Neal still commands the respect of opposing defenses. The same certainly cannot be said of Joel Anthony, the shot-blocking specialist who started 28 games at center for the Heat prior to O'Neal's arrival. Anthony is one of the league's worst offensive players; just three other NBA regulars use a smaller percentage of their team's possessions than Anthony's 8.0 usage rate. O'Neal has taken minutes away from Anthony, who is averaging just 7.1 mpg over Miami's last 12 games, as well as past-his-prime veteran Jamaal Magloire. That has been a tremendous addition by subtraction for the Heat's offense and has apparently given Wade more room to operate as well as a more effective receiver for his passes in the paint.

Add in hot shooting from Moon (hitting an even 40.0 percent of his threes and 57.1 percent of his twos since arriving in Miami) and the Heat's offense has been rolling along since the All-Star break. On the strength of three games of 120 points or more, Miami's Offensive Rating is 115.1 over the last 12 games. That's up from 107.9 points per 100 possessions before the break, and it would rank the Heat second in the league over the course of the season, behind only the L.A. Lakers.

The problem for Miami is that all those high-scoring games have come when the team needed to put up points to win because of porous defense. The Heat beat New York 120-115, Phoenix 135-129 and Chicago (in double OT) 130-127. Since the break, Miami's defense has gone in the opposite direction of the team's offense. The Heat has allowed 115.9 points per 100 possessions, up from 107.2 over the first 52 games. That's enough to drop Miami from the league's top 10 in defense all the way to the cellar.

On paper, this makes little sense. O'Neal is a good interior defender who continues to block shots at a rate of nearly two per game. Indeed, the Heat's defense has been only slightly worse (1.5 points per 100 possessions) this season with O'Neal on the court. The plus-minus data fingers Moon as the culprit, with Miami allowing a Defensive Rating 4.4 points higher when he is in the lineup. Oddly, Moon's plus-minus numbers were consistently strong in Toronto, and the Raptors allowed 8.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Moon.

Whatever the explanation, the defensive woes have completely undermined the improvement Miami has made offensively. The Heat had outscored opponents by seven points on the season before the trade. Since the break, Miami has been outscored by nine points despite going 7-5 in that stretch to threaten Atlanta's hold on the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

If the Heat can get on the same page defensively while retaining much of the improved offense, the Hawks--currently a game and a half ahead in the standings--are certainly within reach. If Miami does that, Wade will certainly be a popular candidate in the MVP discussion, a notion backed up by the numbers. James has led the league in WARP since early in the season, but suddenly Wade has pulled nearly alongside him, with 20.0 Wins Above Replacement Player to James' 20.6. (James retains a large advantage on a per-minute basis, since Wade has played more minutes for the Heat.) With the Cavaliers in position to claim the NBA's best regular-season record, James' candidacy may be a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless, Wade has been playing at an MVP level throughout the season and particularly since the break.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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From 344 to 65 (03/13)

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