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Gabrielle Union On Acting, Dwyane Wade’s Move to Chicago, More

Gabrielle Union discusses her acting career, the move to Chicago, Dwyane Wade leaving Miami and much more.

Alex Kennedy

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For two decades, Gabrielle Union has been entertaining us with her acting in over 70 films and television shows. Recently, she has also found her way into our homes through social media, developing a huge following on Instagram (6.5 million followers), Twitter (3.12 million followers) and Snapchat, where she gives daily glimpses of her life to a similarly large audience.

Union is currently starring in Being Mary Jane, a hit show about a television news anchor and all aspects of her life. For her role as Mary Jane Paul, Union won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special. She is also set to appear in upcoming films such as The Birth of a Nation, Almost Christmas and Sleepless.

Despite her impressive success, Union might be best known among NBA fans as the wife of perennial All-Star Dwyane Wade. Union is a huge sports fan – she grew up in a family that was obsessed with Nebraska Cornhuskers football – and she shares her opinions on social media quite often. Now, in addition to focusing on her busy career, Union will be moving to the Windy City as Wade makes the transition from the Miami Heat to the Chicago Bulls.

Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Union to discuss her career, activism, social media dominance, the move to Chicago, her reaction to Wade leaving Miami and much more.

Alex Kennedy: You earned a degree in sociology and did a number of things before turning to acting. When did you realize that you wanted to be an actor and start looking at that as a full-time career?

Gabrielle Union: “When I made money (laughs). It wasn’t for the love of it initially, it seemed like a great way to delay adulthood for a while. I started while I was still in college. I kind of always looked at it like, ‘Well, I could always go to law school.’ That was my plan back then. But I was making $6.60 as the book buy back supervisor at UCLA, so I thought, ‘Let’s see if I can make more than that!’ And pretty quickly, I was like, ‘Ah, I can make a living doing this.’ So I never looked back. But even in the back of my mind, I always had that thought of, ‘If I don’t love this or I’m broke, I can still go to law school and carry out the rest of my initial plan.’”

Kennedy: Growing up, who were some of your favorite actors? Since you weren’t in love with acting at a young age or thinking of pursuing that career, I’m sure you weren’t looking up to certain actors or studying them or anything. But still, who were some actors you enjoyed when you were younger?

Union: “Yeah, I definitely wasn’t looking at acting like, ‘I love Meryl Streep. As a child, I watched Helen Mirren and took notes.’ I never looked at it that deep. I’d probably say Eddie Murphy because I liked his movies (laughs). Oh, and Vivica Fox had a guest-starring role on 90210 and that was big for black girls who wanted to see themselves reflected onscreen. Having Vivica on my favorite show was huge. But I definitely wasn’t looking at acting or actors like, ‘Wow, that was a great scene!’ (laughs) I just wasn’t looking at movies or shows in that kind of way.”

Kennedy: Who are some of the actors that have mentored you and helped you improve your craft?

Union: “Jennifer Lewis, right off the bat. Jennifer has been amazing. She just wasn’t interested in watching me, or any of the other actresses she’s mentored over the years, fail. In our town, it can be a little cutthroat and some people take joy in other people failing. But she’s just not one of those people. Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold have been really helpful and not just on the acting side, but also on the business of Hollywood and how it can kind of take an emotional toll on you. If people aren’t looking out for you, you can kind of lose your way in a number of different ways. Regina King is awesome. Having her directing episodes of Being Mary Jane now is great because we’ve been friends for a long time and she has looked out for me for so many years. I’ve been lucky to have those ladies.”

Kennedy: Speaking of Being Mary Jane, it has become a huge success. Congratulations on that. What has it been like to dive into that role and how rewarding has it been to see it take off the way it has?

Union: “Normally, we don’t see characters where we get to see 360 degrees of their life. You see them at work or you see them at home with their friends or spouse. But it’s rare that you get to see every angle of their life. What I love about Being Mary Jane is that you see her at work being that boss bitch. Then, you see her on the toilet. I like the fact that you see her masturbating and sexually free. I love that she doesn’t have the best, easiest relationship with her family. The family dynamic is complicated. She’s just so interesting and she’s definitely someone I would want to know. I’d want to sit next to her at a bar or sit next to at the airport during a delay. She fascinates me and I enjoy her. And I’m glad other people enjoy her as well.”

Kennedy: I think with your activism, positivity and the way you use your platform, you’ve become a role model for a lot of people. What is it like to have that kind of support and know you could be positively influencing the next generation?

Union: “Hmm. Well, it’s nice to have a voice. For so long, women have been silenced. Black women, women of color, have been silenced. It’s nice to have the respect of people and be respected because you opt to use your voice in a positive kind of way. It just feels nice and it’s humbling. But it’s sort of doing the right thing and being patted on the back for it. I feel like, ‘We’re all supposed to be doing this, but thank you! I appreciate it!’ Some say ‘role model,’ some would say ‘decent human being.’ But I’ll take either (laughs).”

Kennedy: One way that you reach that next generation is through social media. You have a huge following on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat among others. What’s been the key to building your social media following and how nice is it to have that huge platform to reach your fans?

Union: “I can only go based on comments and feedback, but I seem to be pretty cool (laughs). I just try to be entertaining. There are a lot of Snapchat [accounts] that I just scroll through where I’m like, ‘Okay, I can’t unfollow you because you’ll know when you try to chat me, but you’re just not that interesting.’ Like, me watching you lip sync isn’t that entertaining. I’d rather watch you sing badly. So I thought, ‘Maybe people would like to watch my bad singing!’ So I bad sing a lot. I joke with D [Dwyane Wade] a lot. I don’t know, I just try to be as normal as I can be, but interesting at the same time. If I can give me a chuckle, I’ll try to do that too. It seems like people have responded to that!”

Kennedy: You’ve done a ton of great work, but I’ve seen in interviews where you’ve said that Bring It On boosted your career to that next level and sort of made you a mainstream name. What was it like becoming a household name and having all of that attention come your way?

Union: “I think initially it just feels really good. Initially. Then, it can feel weird and I think everyone is changed by it in some kind of way. It’s a bizarre thing at times. Because sometimes I just want to sit in a sports bar and have a beer. And if someone is looking, in my head I’ll be thinking, ‘Why are they looking?’ I immediately think there’s a booger in my nose because why else would you be looking at me? (laughs) It doesn’t quite compute, at least for me and my friends in Hollywood. Once it gets to be normal, that’s when you know you’ve lost your mind. I’m glad for 20-plus years, it’s felt a little weird. But on the positive side, it just lets you know that people have seen your work and taken something away. And not all of the stares are positive. Provided that people respect your space and safety, it’s pretty cool.

“One time, I was with my girl who played a character that had some questionable things. We were in Miami in a club and this girl slapped the piss out of her. She yelled, ‘Why did you go with that white boy?’ And I know her boyfriend and I’m like, ‘Huh? I know her boyfriend and he’s a large black man.’ But she called her by the character’s name, and the character was dating interracially and this woman hated it. So she slapped the crapp out of her. That was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It makes you realize that there are some people who don’t know reality from fiction and that’s frightening. That was the first taste I’ve ever gotten where it was like, ‘Oh shit,’ and you see the downside of that attention. As much as I love playing questionable characters, some people take it to a scary point when they don’t realize it’s fantasy. A lot of people think you are your character. For years after Deliver Us from Eva, people would come up and be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think you’d be nice! You play these bitchy characters so well!’ But they’re characters! Sometimes people forget that.”

Kennedy: Are there any actors that you haven’t worked with that you’d like to work alongside in the future?

Union: “There are many. Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster. Also, this new girl who was in Chi-Raq, Teyonah Parris – she is just super talented. Zoë Kravitz is another. I could just name a thousand because there are so many great actors. And now with cable and web series and things like that, there are so many avenues for people to express their art. You don’t have to wait for somebody to give you your big break; you can create your own. A lot more people are [getting] the opportunity to be seen. Also, there are a thousand actors I’d love to work with whose names I don’t know, but I love their work. I’m like that weirdo in L.A. who will creep up at them in CVS and be like, ‘I LOVED YOU IN RAY DONOVAN.’ I’m a creeper. But yeah, there are so many to name.”

Kennedy: In a 2008 interview, you talked about the lack of roles for black men and women and I think that’s a really important topic. Eight years later, do you feel like there has been progress made on that issue?

Union: “We’ve seen more progress in TV, for sure, and it’s hard to just focus on the roles for black women when there are so many women of color who are way worse off than I. So I’ll open [my quote] up to all opportunities for all women of color, in front of and behind the camera. It’s improving, but we’re nowhere close to being a real representation of the way the world looks. We just aren’t. I think the more inclusive the people who run the studios and networks – the people who greenlight projects – then the more inclusive the casts and directors and producers and writers will be. We need to think it holistically as opposed to just casting, because there are so many levels in which people of color are grossly underrepresented.”

Kennedy: I’m sure you’re used to criticism due to your career, but sports fans can be pretty insane. Maybe not slap-your-friend crazy, but I’m curious if you’ve had to deal with criticism from rival fans and crazy people online since marrying Dwyane?

Union: “Never in person. Ever. I’ve gone on the road a few times to games and you never know how opposing fans will be. But it’s really been kind of a lovefest in person. I think it goes to show that when people have the chance to say something to your face, they opt for kindness. Perhaps the anonymity of social media [lends itself to the negativity]. I mean, I rarely get criticism from people who use their own name in their Twitter handle. It’s usually an egg or some nonsensical name. Very rarely is it normal people like Allen Smith from Pittsburgh. No, it’s generally egg haters. And when I do get it, I retweet it with something funny attached. Or I’ll be like, ‘Mom, is this you?’ I don’t take online hate that seriously, unless it crosses a line. What I’ve seen my female sportswriter and sportscaster friends endure is not even sane. Nobody has threatened to rape me or kill me or both. I don’t get that kind of crazy negativity that a lot of women I know in sports get.”

Kennedy: It’s sickening. I’ve seen what women like Jessica Camerato, Kristen Ledlow, Rachel Nichols, Ramona Shelburne and others have to deal with in their mentions and it’s disturbing.

Union: “Cari Champion and Jemele Hill are good friends of mine and they’ll get everything all of the other women get plus a dose of racism as well. It’s the vilest shit I’ve ever seen or heard. It’s insane. So, no, I don’t get it to that degree. I don’t even get the same stuff that fans have given Ayesha Curry, which is vile and gross. It’s insane.”

Kennedy: You brought up Ayesha and that kind of leads to my next question about the wives of NBA players. What are some misconceptions about being an NBA player’s wife?

Union: “I think there are some stereotypes, but I mean some people live out those stereotypes (laughs). I do think there’s this idea that we’re all the same though. If one person opts to speak out, they’re a sinner; if one person opts to stay quiet, they’re a sinner. There’s the idea that everyone is a dim gold-digger who is just in it for a buck. Women who are married to professional athletes get a bad rap.”

Kennedy: It’s weird to me that you’re all grouped together and people make so many generalizations.

Union: “Right, it’s like saying, ‘All men are like this. All women are like that.’ There’s so much diversity within the wives of athletes. There’s just an enormous amount of diversity. I could go through so many stereotypes, but I’d just like for people to know that there are lovely, intelligent, amazing women who happen to be married to an athlete. And being married to an athlete isn’t the most interesting thing about them. You have to actually get to know people beyond, ‘Oh, this is Dwyane Wade……. and his wife.’ A lot of people will dismiss you, or act like just marrying this guy was some accomplishment. No, that’s not an accomplishment. Having a successful marriage is an accomplishment. I don’t liken getting down the aisle with graduating from UCLA (laughs). We didn’t luck out or hit the jackpot. D and I happen to be each other’s best friend, so we lucked out in that sense. But him being in the NBA or me having a job and my own money, that wasn’t a major selling point. Well, I guess you’d have to ask him (laughs). I’d like to think that it wasn’t a major selling point. There’s just a lot more to us than the stereotypes or the reality shows.

“Also, this idea that women can’t formulate their own ideas when it comes to sports is the biggest load of shit I’ve ever heard. If I tweet something about sports, sometimes people will say something like, ‘Okay, Dwyane can hand the phone back now.’ The thought that we aren’t watching the same games as everyone else, the thought we aren’t capable of having sports knowledge or having a high sports IQ is absurd. The idea that we’re somehow speaking for our husbands or saying things that they wish they could say is insane. If I’m at the game, then nobody is freaking telling me what to say, obviously. I’m from Nebraska, where if you don’t know Cornhuskers football, it’s preferred that you just don’t speak. I come from the kind of family where you have to know sports. So my opinions are based on facts, not just willy-nilly like, ‘Oh, I like this guy better than that guy or this team better than that team.’ I’m pretty honest and reasonable as it pertains to anything, including sports.

“And this idea that, ‘Women need to stay in their own lane’? Get the fuck out of here with that. My lane is whatever the fuck I want it to be. How about that? For myself – and I’d imagine any other wife of an NBA player – I’m watching at least 82 games each season. Even if I didn’t have any sports knowledge, by the end of 82 games, I probably would’ve developed an opinion! I probably would’ve been able to see patterns! I probably would’ve been able to spot tendencies. From that alone, I’d be able to put together a 140-character tweet!”

Kennedy: It pisses me off that you have to deal with that kind of stuff.

Union: “Yeah, and it pisses me off that [Stephen Curry’s wife] Ayesha has to deal with this stuff. And it pisses me off that people have ‘decided’ who [LeBron James’ wife] Savannah [Brinson] is just because she opts to not be heavily involved with social media. Whether or not you use social media doesn’t define your soul! You know what I mean? There are dope, cool, amazing mothers and businesswomen – let them live! But this idea that your tweets define who you are or that your lack of tweets define who are is insane. And for people who say that ‘a woman should know her place,’ stop it. Stop. It. My place is where I determine it to be. If I opt to use my voice, good! If I opt not to use my voice, that’s okay too!”

Kennedy: Dwyane obviously surprised people this offseason by joining the Bulls. How much are you looking forward to the move to Chicago and the new opportunity for Dwyane and the family?

Union: “It was shocking. There’s no way around that word. It takes some getting used to. We had just built our dream home in Miami and everyone sort of had their life in Miami so it’s big move for everyone. We all love Miami so much and Miami will still be one of our homes. For Chicago, I think the biggest thing for everyone was winter. There was the fear of winter. It was like Game of Thrones, ‘WINTER IS COMING!’ (laughs) Once we moved on from that, we just found our home and we got the boys in school, it was good. We were afraid because we were thinking, ‘Oh, the boys are about to start high school and how is that going to work?’ And they were, by far, the most eager [to move]. They’re like, ‘Ah! Cool, let’s go!’ As long as they got to keep their South Florida AAU team, they were cool with it. Everyone is just kind of jumping in. We can either dip our toe into the pool or cannon-ball and we’re cannon-balling. I think they like that they got to practice at the Bulls’ facility too. They love it, they’re excited. The first month was cool; hit me back later and we’ll see if they still love it (laughs). No, we’re all really excited.”

Kennedy: You mentioned the dream home in Miami and Dwyane obviously had a ton of history there. When did you start to realize that Dwyane leaving Miami was a possibility?

Union: “Even when we were on vacation, I think me and everyone just kind of assumed [we’d be back]. Like, ‘It looks kind of bleak right now, but they’ll work it out. They always work it out! They’ll work it out.’ It probably wasn’t until Denver’s offer came in that I realized. That offer was… a lot. Then there was another offer and another offer and another offer. And it was like, ‘Oh wait, hold on. Are you thinking about this?’ I mean, how can you not? When there’s an offer on the table that is, what, $13-15 million more than to stay home, it’s like, ‘Wow. Okay. Wow.’ But even still I thought, ‘I’m sure they’ll figure it out. They’ll figure it out!’ Really, even down to the hour that he made his decision, I just thought they’d work it out – like everyone else thought. But Chicago made the moves necessary to make his offer work. He didn’t go with the most money. Some people are saying it was just about money, but he would’ve taken Denver’s offer if that was the case. Denver’s offer was a lot, a lot – considerably more than even Chicago’s offer. It was just about finding a place where he’s comfortable, and he’s comfortable at home. Then, the rest of us had to get comfortable with it (laughs). It just seemed like after the season he had and then the postseason, he was just so excited – more so about his body and his health and that he was able to take his game to a different gear. Moving was the last thing on his mind, but yeah…”

Kennedy: You know Dwyane better than anyone. How determined is he to make this work in Chicago and silence his critics who are doubting him and the team?

Union: “I think more than making it work to silence the critics, he wants to put himself in a position physically, health-wise, to continue playing at a high level. That’s very important. Getting to know Jimmy [Butler] and [Rajon] Rondo is very important. But they haven’t even played together yet, so I don’t know where the criticism is coming from. You have Jimmy, who is an up-and-coming star and on the Olympic team. You have Rondo, who led the league in assists. I don’t know how a guy leads the league in assists and is an assist machine, but somehow gets no credit. You have my husband, who is already top five in shooting guards in the last two years in the NBA, but if you factor in what he accomplished and the amount of minutes he played, he’s one of the most efficient players in the league. What is there to criticize? But I get it. Everyone needs page views and things like that, and criticism does a lot better than raving endorsements so I get the business of criticism. But it’s kind of absurd. Now, if a few months in around the All-Star break it looks nuts, then, by all means, criticize! (laughs) But to criticize how it’ll work when these guys haven’t played together is just insane, in the same way that anointing the Warriors champions for adding KD. It’s like when the Big Three came together in Miami. Everyone was like, ‘Ugh, they’re going to win it all. Change the rules! We have to stopppp thissss!’ Cut to different teams winning championships. I mean, the Warriors have to get used to this because they haven’t all played together. Even in the Olympics, where you have three of them, it’s still not the whole team. They need time to get to know each other, to gel, to figure out the system and how it works with all of these moving parts.

“It’s all exciting though. I think the Warriors are exciting. Just like I think the trio of Jimmy, Rondo and D is exciting. I think Carmelo [Anthony] D-Rose, Joakim [Noah] and Kristaps [Porzingis] in New York is exciting. Seeing how the Spurs will do without Timmy [Duncan] is exciting. There are a lot of great storylines. To critique now is the lowest-hanging fruit. I’d rather err on the side of excitement.”

 

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: What Players Can Learn From Brandon Ingram

By implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice, Brandon Ingram may be ahead of the game. Jake Rauchbach dives in.

Jake Rauchbach

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For younger players, maybe one of the most important elements of successful progression is their ability to mentally and emotionally self-manage.

Throughout a career, and as the stakes increase, the amount of external variables that a player is faced with processing can multiply exponentially both on and off the court.

For players with effective and leverageable skill sets for clear decision-making, as well as mental and emotional self-management, this is a valuable asset. However, for many, it can be like a trial by fire. This means that habits picked up through a career to cope can be either supportive or destructive.

However, players who have the foresight to employ proactive self-management tools — before the volatility of life hits — have a leg up on overall well-being, and with on-court performance.

Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram, who is still only 22 years old, helps to shed light on how important it is to have mental and emotional processes in place.

Ingram, who is having a career-best year in New Orleans, averaging 25.4 points per game on 49% shooting, experienced ups and downs during his time with the Lakers.

Whether through proactively seeking out mental skills or by picking them up along the way, BI has seemed to find a process that works for him. He also seems to have found an understanding of how important it is to train these internal habits.

“People around me, they can give me talks, they can tell me what to do, but if I don’t have the right mentality, then nothing good is going to happen for me because I’m not going to be confident,” Ingram said.

As one of the younger up and coming players in the league, it is no coincidence that Ingram learned early the importance of implementing a Daily Gratitude Practice. He employs this tool both in the morning and at night after practice.

Neuroplasticity & Epigenetics

As neuroscientists like Dr. Joe Dispenza are now showing, the differentiating factor in human potential may be the ability to harness thought and emotion. In his Wall Street Journal bestseller, Becoming Supernatural, Dispenza provides several studies showing how these two variables are being shown to directly affect the up or down-regulation of the human gene. Meaning, for every thought or emotion that is produced in the body, there is a corresponding chemical reaction. Each one of the reactions, whether positive or negative, either up-regulate or down-regulate the gene. This is especially true for longstanding thought patterns.

According to neuroscience, Ingram, through his Daily Gratitude Practice, may be positively influencing more levels to his game than he consciously realizes. Players like Ingram who can entrain to higher mental and emotional habits can positively influence physiology and performance.

Conversely, a player with chronic and ingrained negative thought and emotional patterns, such as depression, often produces volatile or underwhelming on-court results. On a psychosomatic level, their mental and emotional states are affecting their physiology and performance.

A player like Ingram, who self admittedly went through many ups and downs, has been able to stabilize and hit his stride this season with the Pelicans. What about the players that have not been able to right the ship?

A deeper understanding of how mindset and emotional states affect a player’s physiology and performance can help us understand what is going on under the hood.

Player Development tools that do this can work to reshape long-standing mental and emotional patterns. Furthermore, providing players with a systematic way of shifting well-being and performance upwards can provide alignment.

Energy Psychology – Player Development

As discussed in previous columns, Energy Psychology – Player Development works on the habit level of the player to remove mental and emotional barriers that inhibit peak performance and overall wellbeing.

Based on Dispenza’s neuroscience findings, when holding all else constant, there seems to be real evidence to show that a player’s thoughts and emotions are the drivers behind overachievement. With this, EP methods help player’s upshift mental state, physiology and performance by neutralizing subconscious blocking thoughts and emotions.

Whether by the player proactively implementing these techniques or through standardized programs set up by the team, working in this fashion goes much deeper than just getting up shots.

Younger Players & The G-League

Ingram is ahead of the curve in regards to implementing elements of consistent mental skills training into his everyday routine. Other players should take heed.

For younger players still on their rookie contracts — or those just coming into the league — support like this may be a deciding factor in how they move throughout the rest of their career.

The G League also may be an ideal proving ground. A proactive mental performance initiative could provide players still trying to solidify an opportunity for an added skill-set. This could provide a leg-up, not only on the court once that call-up opportunity does come.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019

A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.

Douglas Farmer

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In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.

A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …

5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.

At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.

4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers

No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.

In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.

3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.

If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.

That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.

2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.

His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.

1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.

His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.

The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.

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NBA Daily: Equal Opportunity System With Butler Fueling HEAT

Seemingly always trapped in “good but not good enough” territory, the Miami HEAT have finally turned a corner. They might even be contenders, writes Drew Mays.

Drew Mays

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209 wins, 202 losses.

That’s what the Miami HEAT have to show in the record column since LeBron James left in the summer of 2014.

Their record tells us out loud what we’ve known over the last five years: Miami is a proud franchise. The team maximizes what it has and is a perennial postseason threat no matter who is on the roster.

Middling seasons aren’t necessarily a good thing by NBA standards, however. Competitiveness is a stepping stone to title contention. Without contention, it makes sense to bottom-out and rebuild through draft capital and assets. 40-win seasons are neither of these things.

But what the HEAT have in their favor is their location. NBA stars love South Beach. And this summer, Miami got what it needed: A star to push them over the hump in Jimmy Butler.

Butler wasn’t the shiniest addition, but he was one of the most important. A top-15 player, Butler’s antics in Minnesota frustrated his value over the past few seasons.

Those annoyances were overshadowed by his play for Philadelphia in the playoffs last spring — even with Joel Embiid, Butler may have been the 76ers’ best player. Either way, he was definitely their most important. He took control of games as a ball-handler down the stretch, repeatedly working from 15-feet and in and running pick-and-roll when the games screeched to a halt and defenses were loaded up. With Butler in tow, the Sixers were a few bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals — although, he’d tell you they would’ve won the whole thing.

Instead of running it back in Philadelphia, Butler flew south in free agency to where he’d always wanted to go: Miami. His signing, followed by the arrival of rookie Tyler Herro, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, a jump by Bam Adebayo and the support of the rest of the roster has the HEAT at 15-6 and poised to make a deep playoff run.

Miami has seven players averaging double figures. Kelly Olynk, averaging 9.2 per game, is close to making it eight. The balance extends beyond scoring numbers – those eight players all play between 23 and 34 minutes, with fifth starter Meyers Leonard as the lowest-used regular at just under 19 minutes per game. No one shoots the ball more than Nunn and his 13.8 attempts per game, and four players average over 4 assists each night.

While most teams are built on top-down schemes with a few stars and role players filling in the blanks, Miami is thriving in an equal-opportunity system. Much of this has to do with their culture and ability to amplify each player’s talents.

This even attack wouldn’t exist if Herro wasn’t flourishing in his rookie season; if Nunn hadn’t become a revelation after going undrafted in 2018; if Adebayo hadn’t made a leap, detailed recently by Jack Winter; if Goran Dragic hadn’t accepted going to the bench after starting essentially the last seven years; if Duncan Robinson hadn’t developed into an NBA rotation player.

All of these things are hard to predict individually, let alone them coming together at once. But with Miami, and with what we know about Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, it was almost a foregone conclusion.

Butler’s infusion into Miami’s culture has been the perfect marriage 20 games in. His toughness matches the HEAT’s, and he seems to respect the work ethic of his teammates – something that’s been a huge problem in the past. He’s been able to be “the guy” without forcing it, leading Miami in scoring, but trailing Nunn in attempts per game.

The HEAT’s diversity on offense has led to an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent, second-best in the league. They’re 3rd in three-point percentage, 6th in two-point percentage, and 7th in free throws made. They’re 10th in assists. Even with their league-worst turnover percentage, they are 11th in offensive rating and 6th in overall net.

Defensively, the team is doing what Miami has traditionally done. They’re eighth-best in opponent field goal percentage and 2nd in the entire league in three-point percentage at 31.6%. In today’s NBA, defending the three-point line that well will breed success.

After defeating the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — and the defending champions’ subsequent loss to the Houston Rockets — the HEAT are tied with them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. And we’re 20 games in, so what we’ve seen from them so far is real. They are contenders to represent the East in the Finals in June.

Toronto and the Boston Celtics are good. They’ve both had strong starts, bolstered by the ridiculousness of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Kemba Walker, respectively. But they aren’t markedly better than Miami. Are their offenses good enough to overcome the HEAT in a playoff series?

The Milwaukee Bucks, the proverbial frontrunner, still have the glaring non-Giannis weaknesses. They lost Malcolm Brogdon and showed their vulnerability by losing four straight in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia struggled out of the gate, but have won 8 of their last 11. But sans Jimmy Butler, the Sixers face the same questions they faced before his arrival in 2018-19: Who is the guy down the stretch? Who can create offense late in a playoff game?

That hasn’t been answered for Philadelphia yet. There’s no assurance that it’ll be answered at all. That question is answered in Miami.

They have Butler now. They have their star.

Combine that with Herro, Nunn, Adebayo, Dragic, Justise Winslow — who they haven’t even had for half of their games thus far — and the rest of the package, and Erik Spoelstra has what he hasn’t had since LeBron James was still in Miami.

A contender.

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