Cavs: Was the ‘D. Wade 5’ last season’s best lineup?

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Dean Wade shoots the ball. (Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward Dean Wade shoots the ball. (Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports) /
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Dean Wade, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images /

Captain Obvious alert: The Cleveland Cavaliers struggled last year.

The 2020-2021 season’s 3rd-youngest roster posted a minus-8.3 Net Rating while being plagued with serious offensive efficiency issues. Their most frequent lineup of Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Larry Nance Jnr and Jarrett Allen recorded a Net Rating of minus-13.9 in 141 minutes – 83rd out of 87 five-man combinations which played at least 100 minutes per The result was an equivalent of 25 wins in 82 games of NBA normalcy – tied for 4th worst in the league.

But peruse last season’s data a little further and you’ll notice a Cavs lineup that not only featured a positive Net Rating but was also their second-most used five-man combination. This unit, the same as above except for Dean Wade over Nance Jr., logged 113 minutes which was 69th most out of 2000 lineups per The outcome was a Net Rating of plus-2.1.

Yes, swapping Nance Jr. for Kevin Love also yielded a positive Net Rating (+4.0) but that was in less than half the number of games and 33% fewer minutes. The next positive Net Rating lineup – Andre Drummond, Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, Damyean Dotson and Okoro – also had a significantly smaller sample size of 78 minutes in six games.

A Net Rating improvement of plus-16.0 between these lineups was significant. Per the average differential between most-used units to second-most was actually the opposite: minus-1.43 last season. Only two teams – Atlanta (17.8) and Chicago (17) – saw bigger Net Rating increases in their next-most frequented lineups. In short (and as expected), a team’s second-most-used unit didn’t perform as well as its most-used. The Cavs went the other way and by a substantial margin.

In the midst of a difficult season, the Cavs found one lineup that dominated. What was the secret?

So what made this lineup a success? Was the data meaningful or just a murky coincidence? Was Dean Wade really the difference? Was this last season’s best lineup? Before jumping in, I wanted a name for this 5-man combination – first to save myself writing ‘lineup’ so much but later because it turns out this group deserved one:

I introduce to you the ‘D. Wade 5’

Not yet acquainted with Dean Wade or need a refresher? After going undrafted as a senior out of Kansas State, Wade signed a two-way contract with the Cavs in 2019 and despite only playing 71 NBA minutes the Cavs clearly saw something, locking him into a multi-year deal. Last season the 6’10” power forward increased his playing time to19.4 mpg in 63 games, averaging 6.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists while shooting 37% from three-point range. The partnership worked.

Despite the meaningful sample size of the ‘D.Wade 5’ however, lineup data remains highly contextual. The inherent variables in two, three, four and five-man combinations require supporting evidence to be understood with any clarity. Individually, all members of this unit posted negative differentials last season and while other metrics, especially a crazy defensive rating, agreed on the impact of this lineup, I wanted to see exactly what it looked like. All 113 minutes. In watching them all there was a lot to digest, but five things stood out examining the ‘D. Wade 5’. Here they are in ascending order: