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NBA Rookie Extensions: Utah Jazz

Will the Utah Jazz extend Alec Burks and Enes Kanter? Nate Duncan breaks it down.

Nate Duncan

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The 2014 rookie-extension class is one of the most interesting in several years due to the high number of quality players entering their fourth seasons. As most readers likely know by now, teams have until October 31 to reach extensions with first-rounders entering their fourth season or the players become restricted free agents next summer. This year, many of these players fall into the fascinating middle ground between total busts and obvious max outs, and their negotiations are further complicated by the unknown effect of the league’s recently-announced new TV deal.*

*Teams and agents may also be waiting for additional clarity as the league and union discuss how to avoid too much shock to the system from the new money.

Due to the rising cap, it is useful to think of new deals in percentage terms. For example, a $10 million contract under the $58.044 million cap in 2012-13 was 17.2 percent of the cap. For the 2016-17 season, assuming the cap is $80 million for that year, an equivalent contract would be $13.8 million.

Alec Burks
Age: 23 (July 20, 1991)
Draft Position: 12
2013-14 PER: 15.82
2013-14 ORPM: 1.43
2013-14 DRPM:-1.74
2015 Cap Hold: $7,585,890
2015 Qualifying Offer: $4,175,274

At 6’6 with a 6’10 wingspan, Burks has prototypical shooting guard size and quickness. His greatest asset is his ability to get to the basket off the dribble. Burks took over 50 percent of his shots inside of 10 feet a year ago, and shot an outstanding-for-a-guard .644 within three feet.  The Colorado product got to the foul line like crazy, boosting his True Shooting Percentage to .547, well above the league average for shooting guards. He also showed improvement on threes, although he needs to replace more of his long twos with those considering he shot about 35 percent on both types of shots.

Burks has a lot to work on, like most 23-year-olds. He suffers from a bit too much freelancing on both ends, but the hope is that Quin Snyder can reign him in while still allowing him the improvisation that makes him a tough guard offensively. Burks needs more concentration applying his tools defensively, but at least he has them. And he needs to improve his shot from downtown and get better at creating for others. But unlike a lot of extension candidates, Burks has already shown proficiency (or at least improvement) in the areas that will make him worth the money he is seeking. A fully-formed Burks will have the same core skills as the present version, only better.

Burks’ skills are also a solid fit with the existing roster, since Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward and (eventually) Dante Exum should be able to provide shooting around his drives while Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert make solid pick and roll partners. Burks also helps reduce the need for a backup point guard, allowing the Jazz to utilize smaller shooters with less playmaking ability should they so choose. With the dearth of wings around the league, Burks’ value over replacement offensively is higher than at, say, point guard.

So what is Burks worth?

Burks DeRozan Comparo

 

Burks is by nearly all measures the superior player to DeRozan when he was extension eligible at the same age.  The Toronto Raptor received a then-panned but now-steal four-year, $38 million deal.* DeRozan is the superior athlete and perhaps could be seen as higher ceiling, and now at age 25 he has morphed into one of the league’s better shooting guards. Nevertheless, it is very conceivable Burks could reach that level, especially considering the upgrade in coaching from Tyrone Corbin to Snyder.

*That extension may be the bane of front offices in the future, as agents will compare their wings favorably to DeRozan’s statistics even though there was very little to indicate that would be a good deal at the time.

When DeRozan signed his deal for a flat $9.5 million per season, it represented 16 percent of the cap, which will fall to 12 percent over the life of the deal. That amount of the projected $67 million cap would be $10.7 million when Burks’ extension kicks in for 2015-16.

It seems pretty clear that there is a deal to be made here that provides Burks life-changing financial security while giving the Jazz some upside if he blows up, which is a reasonable proposition. Burks’ agent Andy Miller has enough clients that he does not need to rely exclusively on Burks’ deal to impress. The sides should be able to play with the particulars to make a deal with a starting salary in the $8 to $11 million range. A few options:

  • Provide Burks more money up front with a declining salary, since the Jazz are more likely to be at the point of adding free agents near the end of his deal as the cap rises.
  • Give the maximum annual raises to start Burks lower and allow more room to add a piece in 2015 (more on that below).
  • A player option for Burks’ fourth year to mitigate the risk on his end in case he reaches All-Star level as the cap rises.

Burks has enough upside to make such an extension worthwhile for the Jazz, while it is hard to imagine he is not at least a starting quality two (or top-sixth man type) even on the downside. It is highly possible that Burks was really held back by Tyrone Corbin and Utah could be buying low right now. This is a deal that can and should get done, and at these numbers it should not hamstring the Jazz’s future flexibility. (More on that below.)

Enes Kanter
Age: 22 (May 20, 1992)
Draft Position: 3rd
2013-14 PER: 15.70
2013-14 ORPM: -2.88
2013-14 DRPM: -1.75
2015 Cap Hold: $11,389,348
2015 Qualifying Offer: $7,471,412

The Jazz may have less information on Kanter than any team has on an extension candidate. Kanter was famously ineligible at Kentucky in the 2010-11 season. He was the fourth big his first two years behind Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors, although he posted impressive per minute numbers.* When the first two departed prior to last year, the Jazz hoped to get a look at their theoretical frontcourt of the future. But that pairing proved disastrous on both ends in a 1-14 start, necessitating a return to the bench for Kanter behind Marvin Williams.

*Including a 17.6 PER, .588 true shooting percentage and 14.5 percent offensive rebounding percentage in 2012-13 as a 20-year-old.

The strengths that made Kanter the number three pick in the draft are still evident. He has an excellent touch around the rim, hits the offensive glass hard, possesses great strength and can score in the post. But his limitations, especially at center, have really prevented him from playing winning basketball to this point. He does not protect the rim, is not quite quick enough to defend the pick and roll and has struggled on the defensive glass at times. Those limitations have been exacerbated by his lack of experience, as he has struggled to execute the system defensively and has not flashed much passing ability as yet. As a result, Kanter was among the worst regular players in the league last year by plus/minus metrics. The Jazz were outscored by 10.8 points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the floor, but only 2.8 points/100 when he sat. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus rated him 409th in the league.  That’s bad–far beyond salvaging with a free frogurt.

While big men who could score inside were once coveted, the league has turned away from traditional pivotmen, as detailed by Grantland’s Zach Lowe.  As he explained, the league has had progressively less use for big men who do not shoot threes or protect the basket. While Kanter was not mentioned in the piece, he very well could have been.

A related issue is how well Kanter fits with Utah’s other long-term bigs, Favors and Gobert. At one time, Kanter was considered the center in the pairing with Favors. But by last season it became apparent that Kanter does not protect the rim well enough, and Favors does not shoot well enough, to support that role for Kanter on either end. Gobert, of course, is a center all the way. With Favors a year ahead of Kanter while possessing a higher upside (especially on defense), it has fallen on Kanter to change his game.

Those efforts have been somewhat hamstrung by health problems, as he missed much of the past two summer due to shoulder and knee injuries. Nevertheless, Kanter has made some solid strides in this area that should not be ignored. He has transformed his body, lowering his body fat significantly and getting much quicker. Becoming fleet of foot is too much to expect, but Kanter has at least evolved beyond traffic cone status, even for a four.

More important though is his potential evolution to a more outside-oriented game under new head coach Quin Snyder. Kanter has been encouraged to take three-pointers after taking only one last year. While he managed only 3-15 in the preseason, even taking those shots has its own value.  The Turk also increased his assist percentage this preseason in Snyder’s system, which demands more ballhandling and passing out on the floor from big men. The hope is that Kanter can complete the evolution to a stretch big who can also take advantage of smaller fours on the block.

The problem for the Jazz is that Kanter’s ultimate evolution remains a mere hope at this point, as ESPN’s Kevin Pelton’s projections for this year indicate. While he could ultimately evolve into an offensive force at the four who can drain threes, post up, pass and adequately defend his position, he has only come close to showing one of those skills in his career. Moreover, he is never going to be one of the more athletic big man in the league. His defensive ceiling is probably league-average at power forward, and even worse at center. That is not the end of the world next to quality defensive bigs like Favors and Gobert project to be, and the superstarless Jazz may need his offense going forward even if he has defensive shortcomings. But it also limits the Jazz’s upside defensively, especially without any other players who project as true perimeter stoppers among their young talent.

Despite these limitations, Kanter is worth an extension if he can become an efficient 20 points per game scorer. He certainly has that potential, but the chances of fulfilling it are quite uncertain. Given this risk, it really only makes sense for the Jazz to extend him at a price that would make him underpaid if their bet on him pays off. Even if he reaches his absolute full potential, Kanter is not a maximum type player due to his defensive limitations as a frontcourt player. And if he does not manage the transformation the Jazz envision, he may not even be a starting-quality big man. Value-wise, he will likely range between a $12 million a year player on the high end and a $7 million a year player on the low end over the life of the contract, at least based on the $67 million projected cap in 2015. A four-year extension around $9 million a year would probably be fair. A player option for the fourth year might mitigate the risk for Kanter if he blows up, allowing him to hit the market again at 26 after the 2018 season when the cap will be much higher. Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, a true center who is probably better (though older), got a four-year, $48 million extension.*

*Per our Eric Pincus, reports that it was in the $53 million range included incentives that are currently characterized as unlikely bonuses. That extension was not unreasonable, but may have been a bit of an overpay by the Magic, who do not have other young bigs the quality of Favors and Gobert like the Jazz do.

Would Kanter take such a deal? Probably not. Because he was the number three pick, his salary is much higher than later-drafted players like Burks, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler with qualifying offers below $5 million. Kanter makes $5.7 million this year, and even if he doesn’t get any bites in restricted free agency next summer, the qualifying offer will still pay him $7.4 million. That is a real game-changer from other potential restricted free agencies. Unless Utah offers a starting salary significantly above that on a long-term deal, Kanter would have little reason to accept because the opportunity cost isn’t nearly as high as for lower-drafted players.* And due to anchoring, a raise of a couple million a year probably will not entice Kanter the way it would for a lower-paid player. Then consider that Kanter is the only big-name client for his agent Max Ergul, and there is even more reason to believe they will hold out for a big deal.

On the other hand, the risk for the Jazz in offering into eight figures a year is significant. They are not even sure that Kanter is part of their future, and he has already suffered a fair amount of injuries. Unlike players like Butler, Thompson and Kawhi Leonard, the threat of a Parsons-style offer sheet may not scare the Jazz, as they likely are not sure that they want to commit to him for big dollars over four years anyway. And while lots of teams will have cap room in restricted free agency, no teams jump out as wanting to break the bank for a scoring big like Kanter who needs to be paired with an elite rim-protector. That is especially so because such teams will have to really overpay to make accepting an offer in restricted free agency more palatable to Kanter than just taking the high qualifying offer.

Although he has a high offensive ceiling, Kanter is so far from reaching it and has played so little until now that the downside of potential overpayment likely overshadows the risk that he blows up this year and gets a huge offer in restricted free agency. Maybe, one could argue, Corbin really held the Jazz back and they would be wise to lock up these players before Snyder boosts their value. But on the other hand, one could argue that Gobert could well eclipse Kanter as a prospect this year, and if he and Favors can find a way to make it work offensively they could form a monster defensive frontcourt. In that case, there really is not room for Kanter to make eight figures on this team long-term.

Depending on what happens with the team and Gobert this year, there is a possible (though not likely) scenario in which it behooves the Jazz to move on from Kanter in the next two years. If the Jazz surprise and get into the 30s in wins, they may want to add a three and D wing in free agency this summer as they try to ascend to the playoffs. Someone like Wesley Matthews, Danny Green, Luol Deng or Arron Afflalo would provide veteran defense and shooting on the wing as a better fit than Kanter. Such a signing would also allow the Jazz to play small with Gordon Hayward at the four.

But to have enough space for such a player, Kanter’s Bird Rights would have to be renounced and his qualifying offer revoked (which can be done through July 23 without his consent). His cap hold is $11 million, and he likely would not sign the qualifying offer to reduce his cap number to the $7.4 million until late in the summer. With a cap hold for Kanter and an extension starting around $9 million a year for Burks, the Jazz probably would not have enough room to overpay (likely a necessary evil) for a meaningful wing, especially after accounting for a 2015 first-round pick.

Burks Extension
However, the Jazz would not have to renounce Kanter until they knew if a free agent were coming. If they extend Kanter and Burks now though, it would likely foreclose any major free agent addition in 2015, and even leave them without a ton of cap space (relative to the rest of the league) in the crazy summer of 2016 when the cap goes up.

Burks and Kanter Extensions

Thus, there is the very real possibility that the Jazz may want to part with Kanter during one of the next two summers.  Meanwhile, any extension they’d be willing to give would not be enough of a raise for Kanter to make it worthwhile. With such misaligned incentives, an extension makes little sense for either side.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Pacers Preparing For The Future

Without their star player leading the charge, the Indiana Pacers have quietly been laying the groundwork for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Chad Smith details how Indiana’s strong start will pay dividends in the second half of the season.

Chad Smith

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Head coach Nate McMillan entered this season fully aware that he would be without his superstar guard for several months. He was cognizant of the roster turnover and understood that the team chemistry was going to take some time. He also knew that the Indiana Pacers had a soft schedule to start the year and that they had a golden opportunity to position themselves well upon Victor Oladipo’s eventual return.

Things got off to a rocky start, as they dropped their first three games, which came against the Cleveland Cavaliers and then the Detroit Pistons sans Blake Griffin. Since then though, Indiana has been on a tear by posting a 14-5 record since the night before Halloween. Over that time span, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers have won more games.

Even the losses have been close, tightly contested games too. They lost an overtime thriller in Charlotte, suffered a nine-point loss in Houston, fell to the Bucks and had a three-point loss in Philadelphia. Given their situation with all of the injuries and new personnel, it has been a remarkable first quarter of the season.

While the schedule has been extremely light and the easiest in the league there have been quality wins as well. They have beaten Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Memphis, plus Orlando two times each. They also have a victory over Utah, but the Jazz haven’t quite been the elite team that many pegged them out to be before the start of the season.

Sure, it sounds cliché but you can’t worry about how the schedule looks, you have to win the games in front of you. Every team will have some easy stretches on their schedule, but those are the games that must be won. For Indiana, this is especially true as they fight without their All-Star guard. Once healthy, this should be a formidable group in the Eastern Conference.

Jeremy Lamb has already missed nine games, while Myles Turner lost eight with concussion-like symptoms. Then there’s Malcolm Brogdon out for three and Domantas Sabonis was for an additional two games. Edmond Sumner has missed the most time as he has played just three games due to a broken hand.

Brogdon was the big addition this off-season, and he has been sensational. The former Rookie of the Year is averaging 19 points, five rebounds and eight assists as the head man. The dynamic guard led the league in free throw percentage a year ago and is on pace for a repeat performance again this season.

Indiana’s biggest concern heading into this season was if the duo of Turner and Sabonis would work. So far, so good. Sabonis is having a career year averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds while also dishing out 4 assists per game. The former Gonzaga product is a big reason why the Pacers have had success in the paint.

Turner led the league in blocks last season, but somehow didn’t even make one of the three All-Defensive teams. That has motivated him to be more aggressive and more diligent in his defensive positioning. His rebounding has improved, and he continues to be an elite stopper at the rim averaging 2.3 blocks per game.

After his first five seasons in the league were clouded by defunct teams in Phoenix, TJ Warren has proven that he is a capable scorer at this level. After shooting a career-high 43 percent from three-point range last season, he is just a tick below that (41 percent) so far this year. He is shooting nearly 52 percent from the floor, averaging nearly 19 points per game. When the Pacers need a bucket, they have been consistently going in his direction with the ball.

This squad is the very definition of the word team and is proving it on a nightly basis. Each night, a different guy is stepping up, whether it is on offense or defense. Indiana ranks fourth in defense, tenth in offense and they have the fifth-best net rating entering today’s game in New York. The Knicks, who just fired head coach David Fizdale yesterday, will get Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back.

The schedule will ramp up for the Pacers after this weekend. They will host the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, then play in Boston 48 hours later. A showdown with LeBron James and the Lakers awaits the following week, followed by a brutal back-to-back set with Milwaukee and Toronto just before Christmas.

An early tip time awaits on New Year’s Eve against Philadelphia, which is then followed by a matchup with Denver. In this nearly three-week span, the Pacers will face Philly, Minnesota, Denver and Miami two times each. This will be a difficult test, but one that they need.

We are only a week into the month of December but, oddly enough, Indiana has already finished up their four-game series with Detroit. The Central division foes will only meet again if they find each other in the postseason. That is the destination for the Pacers, who will likely get their franchise player back before the All-Star break.

The Pacers still have not yet announced a timeline for Oladipo’s return, but indications are that he will be coming back within the next two months. After such a devastating injury, you can expect the organization to proceed with extreme caution once he returns to the floor.

Oladipo himself has admitted that he has been itching to make his return and that he wants to go full throttle once he is given the green light. Indiana will, of course, limit his minutes early on and there is no chance he will play any back-to-back games. This slow but necessary transition will be another speed bump on the road to the postseason for the Pacers.

The players have had 22 games to get a feel for one another. When you consider how much time each of them has missed, it is actually much fewer than that. They are still trying to build chemistry and camaraderie among themselves. As they inch closer to that point, a new wrinkle will be thrown in when the time comes to work their star back into the lineup.

But, ultimately, it is a good problem to have for Indiana. Adding a top 25 player to your team is obviously a major positive, but it won’t come without any setbacks. The team will once again have to gel and understand how to play with one another — most notably the newest additions to the team, which include their other star guard, Brogdon.

Fortunately for Indiana, the season is a long one, and they should have ample time to get Oladipo back fully integrated into the system. It will be a mega boost for the team and could be a major thorn in the side for the rest of the teams in the East.

A defensive unit with Oladipo, Brogdon and Turner fueled with the offensive firepower of guys like Sabonis, Warren and Lamb could prove to be elite. Should they find themselves healthy, they will be factors in the playoffs yet again. Of course, to get there, they have to keep winning the easy games on the schedule.

So far, so good.

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NBA

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

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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