Dwyane Wade has returned to playing productive basketball, causing an endorsement from LeBron James as the Sixth Man of the Year.

Over the weekend, before the Cleveland Cavaliers took on the Memphis Grizzlies, LeBron James praised the recent play of Dwyane Wade. After starting the season ahead of J.R. Smith on the depth chart, Tyronn Lue decided to move Wade to the bench, and James’ recency bias has him picking Wade to win the Sixth Man of the Year award.

“He’s probably the No. 1 candidate,” said James to Joe Vardon of cleveland.com on Saturday. “Not even being biased, that’s one of my best friends. Just looking at the teams. Eric Gordon has had to start a lot this season because CP (Chris Paul) was out,” continued James. “(Andre) Iguodala’s been out a little bit, you look at Manu (Ginobili), you look at Jamal Crawford … those are sixth man guys, right? D-Wade would probably be leading that right now, but there’s a long way to go.”

It’s wishful thinking by James to put his teammate on a pedestal, and that’s what leaders are supposed to do. He’s trying to maintain the confidence that the Cavaliers have, and Wade has been playing exceptional basketball during their winning streak. Over the last 10 games, his scoring average is up to 14.8, and he’s connecting on 48.7 percent of his shot attempts. Wade’s also hauling in 4.7 boards and dishing out 4.1 assists. LeBron’s argument, however, glances over the other players who are in the race.

He’s right about all of the guys he listed, though. Gordon moved back to being a reserve just six games ago; Iggy has been in-and-out of the Warriors lineup, and both Ginobili and Crawford haven’t played well enough to catch any eyes. Wade, as of late, is playing better than those four, but he still has a long road ahead of him.

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The sixth man role varies from team to team. Sometimes, the first guy off the bench is a spark plug offensively, like Gordon; other times, it’s someone who does whatever the coach needs him to do, like Iguodala. Wade’s role with the Cavaliers is different. Lue doesn’t call his number for defense or scoring or anything like that — he uses Flash as a secondary ball handler because the Cavaliers are bootstrapped at the point guard position. Wade’s putting up 8.2 assists per 100 possessions this season, the seventh-highest for his career.

That doesn’t jump off the stat sheet, but, believe it or not, Wade’s decision-making is why Cleveland keeps putting the ball in his hands. He’s turning the ball over just two times a night, which is on pace to be a career-low. The per game average, however, is skewed because the minutes are down significantly. If we extrapolate it to the 100 possessions scale, we get 4.2, which ties his second-lowest mark. Every organization needs a backup ball handler who’s smart with the rock and will make the right play. Being 35, Wade’s days of playing hero ball are over. Should he sustain this momentum for the rest of the season, voters will consider how well he served his role, even if the numbers are lacking. And that’s where James’ assessment is off.

To be eligible for the Sixth Man award, all contestants must come off of the bench for more games than they start. It’s straight-forward. Wade, barring anything catastrophic, will check that box. His competition, however, is stiff.

At the time of this writing, Dec. 4, I’d pick Tyreke Evans as the Sixth Man of the Year. According to NBA.com, Evans is first in scoring (17.7) among players who have at least 10 games coming off the bench. He’s also maintaining a PER of 22.1 and a true shooting percentage of 58.7. Without a doubt, this is the best we’ve seen Evans since his historic rookie year, and the Sixth Man is an award that focuses on the individual. Of course, being impactful on a better team helps. But Memphis has spontaneously combusted and lost their last 11 games.

Dec 2, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Tyreke Evans (12) shoots over the defense of  Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade (9) during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 2, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Tyreke Evans (12) shoots over the defense of Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade (9) during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the Grizzlies, Cleveland has played stupendous basketball over that same stretch. I touched on Wade’s regular stats a few paragraphs up, but the advanced metrics are eye-catching. His usage has ballooned to 26.8 percent, second to LeBron, so Cleveland is becoming more and more reliant on Wade. He boasts an incredible net rating of plus-17.4, and his Player Impact Estimate — NBA.com’s version of Player Efficiency Rating — is 14.3, trailing only Kevin Love and James.

If we wipe out the rest of the field and stick with Evans and Wade, the former also has the edge in PIE (14.6) despite a sickening net rating of minus-11.6. That metric, however, is indicative of Memphis’ struggles as a team. Evans isn’t entirely responsible for the losing streak just as Wade isn’t responsible for his team’s winning streak. Both play a role, but there is still a lot of cake to go around.

The Midwest looks like it’ll be well-represented in this race, but Los Angeles has a couple of guys who deserve to be in it — Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson. There’s a slight caveat, though: Williams has started the last five games for the Clippers because injuries have hit them like a semi-truck. If those starts keep adding up, he’ll fall out of the conversation.

As a reserve, Williams was second to Evans in scoring (17.5), and his ability to catch fire in two-thirds of a second was beneficial to the Clippers at the start of the season. He’s still the same player, but a myriad of issues has run the team into the ground. Nevertheless, Williams’ last 10 games have been dominant even though Los Angeles has trudged out to a 3-7 record. His scoring has jumped to 21.8, and the assists are at 5.9. Unfortunately, two things have helped stifle the national awareness of Williams when he doesn’t have a big game. The first is the west coast time zone. It’s especially painful to those on the other side of the country. I mean, who wants to be up until 1:30 just to watch the Clippers get pounded? Not me, sorry. The other is the jokes about the Kardashian curse. They’re incessant.

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Jordan Clarkson is the other that hails from Hollywood. His numbers, like Wade’s, are relatively pedestrian, but Clarkson’s still pouring in 14.9 points in just 25.1 minutes over his last 10 games. The Lakers want him to be a lethal scorer off the bench and not worry about having to play point guard. It’s worked out well for them. But being a young team, they have their issues. Clarkson’s plus-three net rating is impressive, and his PIE (11.3) is only a few points below the field. If Luke Walton decides to allocate more minutes, there could be a rise in some numbers, and Clarkson is a Sixth Man sleeper who could gain a ton of momentum if he gets hot.

It’s only December. There are four months left to see how this award race plays out. As outstanding as Dwyane Wade has been lately, he hasn’t overtaken the likes of Tyreke Evans or Lou Williams in the Sixth Man of the Year race, but anything is possible. The role that Flash is in now is working for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Lue has done an exceptional job of figuring out which lineups work best for each other. However, even James took note of just how much time is left before the presentation.

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