The seminal moment of the 2017-18 season occurred on Nov. 6.
Kyrie Irving had just put up a masterful performance against the Atlanta Hawks, dropping 35 points on 22 shots, and the floor general’s explosion led to the Boston Celtics earning their sixth win in a row.
Meanwhile, his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had just lost to that same Hawks squad the night before, were having trouble finding their footing in the new league year, getting off to a rocky 4-6 start through ten games.
That’s when LeBron James changed everything.
It wasn’t by putting up some absurd stat line or hitting a game-winning shot. Rather, James shifted his team’s fortunes through one exquisitely timed meme.
The now-infamous Arthur meme sparked a complete turnaround for the Cavs – one that has them performing at an elite level.
Tyronn Lue’s men have not only ramped up their defensive intensity, but even their already-excellent offensive numbers have seen an uptick.
And just like that, Cleveland flipped the proverbial switch far earlier than anyone expected.
Although the Arthur meme did have some sort of unifying effect on the team (James’ counterparts all posted their own version of the classic cartoon on their respective Instagram accounts soon after the four-time MVP did), obviously, there are other factors in play when discussing Cleveland’s improved play.
Like, for example, Dwyane Wade’s brilliance off the bench.
Many advanced metrics don’t speak kindly of Wade’s 2017-18 contributions, but his steadying presence as the Cavaliers’ backup point guard has paid major dividends for the franchise.
Since moving out of the starting 2-guard role and into the reserve floor general post, the former Miami Heat star has averaged 11.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists per contest. What’s more, Cleveland has outscored opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions with Wade on the floor this season – easily his best on/off differential since 2012-13.
The future Hall of Famer’s main value stems from his ability to create out of the pick-and-roll, be it for himself or his teammates. Per Synergy Sports’ database, Wade is producing a respectable 0.985 points per possession (PPP) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler (passes included) thus far this year – a clip that places him in the 69th percentile.
However, according to Synergy, when screen-setters make contact on Wade’s defender, that number shoots up 1.129 PPP, the No. 8 mark in the league among players with at least 30 such opportunities.
Wade’s craftiness, developed after so many years as one of the NBA’s top scorers, has helped him shine, even despite him losing the freakish explosiveness he once possessed.
Of course, Wade can’t take all of the credit, as the rest of Cleveland’s bench has been fantastic, too.
The Cavaliers’ Wade/James/Kyle Korver/Jeff Green/Channing Frye lineup boasts an incomprehensible net rating of +26.8, making it the league’s third-deadliest five-man unit featuring at least four reserves (minimum: 30 minutes on the floor together), per NBA.com.
It’s not difficult to surmise why the quintuplet has had so much success. After all, it features the best player on the planet, an excellent secondary play-maker in Wade, the NBA’s best spot-up shooter (according to Synergy) in Korver, an athletic two-way wing who can defend multiple positions in Green, as well as the ultimate luxury: an excellent floor-spacer at the 5-spot in Frye.
In particular, Green deserves praise for finding his niche with this latest rendition of the Cavs. The 31-year-old forward attacks the offensive glass with aplomb, has a great sense of when to cut while playing off the ball and isn’t a total liability as a spot-up threat.
But it’s still Wade who functions as the engine that makes Cleveland’s bench go. The 6-foot-4 guard should be lauded for having the unselfishness to willfully come off the pine – something that many aging superstars struggle coming to terms with as their careers start to wind down.
Wade recently spoke to The Vertical’s Michael Lee about just that:
“The last time I came off the bench, I think I was in sixth grade, playing on an eighth-grade team…. I’m used to starting…. Now, it’s a little different. Got to change it up a little bit. [But] I’m not really coming in worrying about my statistics or numbers. Fifteen years in the league, I don’t care about that no more. I’ve done all that. For me, it’s about being a part of something special.”
Whether or not Wade and the rest of the reserves can sustain this level of form will be fascinating to track over the coming weeks, but the recipe for success exists.
Cleveland’s bench mob can space you out, opening up crevices for one of the best bucket-getters in league history, and score points in bunches, while doing a serviceable job on the less glamorous side of the ball.
Plus, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have someone with a Finals MVP trophy on their resume running the show with the second unit.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.