There was a time when it was hard to envision Dwyane Wade accepting a bench role with the Heat.
That seems like a long time ago.
In Wade’s 16th and final NBA season, he’s turned into the Heat’s most consistent and reliable reserve in a role he moved into early last season with the Cavaliers before being traded to the Heat. He’s started just three games since the beginning of 2017-18 after starting 904 games during the first 14 seasons of his career.
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“I actually did it myself,” Wade said of accepting the sixth-man role, with the Heat off until Wednesday’s home game against the Pistons. “I was like, ‘I’m going to come off the bench because I want to make this work.’ This is when I was in the other place [Cleveland]. And then obviously coming back here, coming to this team that already had things going, I was comfortable already in my role.
“But for me, it was just trying to figure out, ‘How can I be successful? How can my team be successful?’ What I needed to do. I really didn’t need to reach out to somebody to find that out. I needed to look within, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Wade, 37, is averaging 14.2 points on 43.8 percent shooting, 3.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 25.6 minutes in 56 games this season, all off the bench. Among those who have played 30 or more games off the bench, he ranks 10th in scoring and fourth in assists.
Even in a reserve role, though, Wade is still asked to carry the Heat’s offense at times. He’s averaging the second-most shot attempts on the team (12.6) for the season and is averaging a team-high 14.1 shot attempts in 10 games since the All-Star break.
Wade also owns a team-high usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while on the court) of 26.1 percent this season. Among Heat rotation players, Goran Dragic is second at 24 percent and Hassan Whiteside is third at 21.5 percent.
“Each night is different,” Wade said. “But I understand what this team needs from me no matter if I’m 37 or in my 16th year, this team needs for me to lead, they need for me to make plays in the fourth, they need for me to be a leader and a voice. And that’s what I do. … They can count on me knowing that, ‘Listen, we know when the game matters, we have somebody out there that we can trust that’s going to get something for us.’”
Despite still playing in a featured role, Wade’s mind-set is different these days. Not just because he’s coming off the bench, but because he knows the Heat is also trying to grow its young core of Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow.
“It’s different from the standpoint that on some nights it’s like, ‘Oh OK, Josh you go’ or ‘Oh OK, Justise you go,’” Wade said. “Back in the day, it would be like, ‘My time, everybody move out of the way. I got it.’ Or when LeBron [James] came, it was, ‘Hey, what you want to do?’
“Now it’s cool because there’s big games where you can see whether coach is calling plays or you see the young guys like Josh or you see Justise, you see those guys, they want it. And when I see that look in their eyes, I go in the corner or I go do what I can. And then you see some games where they’ll be like, ‘D.’ And I’ll be like, ‘All right, it’s time for me to earn my check.’”
With 16 regular-season games and possibly a trip to the playoffs separating Wade from retirement, he still looks at playing off the bench and finding the right balance between deferring and taking over as a challenge. A challenge that still keeps him going this late in his career.
“It’s cool because I’ve been in so many different situations and trying to be successful in each situation is a challenge,” he said. “Right now, that’s what I look for. I look for any kind of challenge I can find within the game. That’s the challenge within the game for me.”