The Sixth Man of the Year award usually isn’t that close of a race, and often times one player rises above the rest to the point where his winning it in a given season is a foregone conclusion.
J.R. Smith won by a wide margin last year, thanks to being every bit as important to the Knicks as Carmelo Anthony in helping lead them to the second best record in the Eastern Conference. And the season before, James Harden was even more dominant in helping propel the Thunder to an NBA Finals appearance.
It’s a little tighter than usual this year, but one player would still appear to be the runaway favorite — if only he can manage to qualify.
There’s a field of five players that can try to stake a legitimate claim to having earned the honor of the most super sub: Jamal Crawford, Manu Ginobili, Markieff Morris, Reggie Jackson and Taj Gibson, and we’ll look at some of the advanced numbers for each. But Crawford of the Clippers stands out above all others, as long as he doesn’t finish the season starting too many of his team’s games.
In order to be eligible, a player has to come off the bench in more games than he’s started. This may prove problematic for Crawford, who already has 23 starts under his belt, though he has come off the bench in his last two games as he returned to the lineup after battling a calf injury. But should he remain in a reserve role for the bulk of the rest of the season, the numbers would seem to say that the award should be his.
Crawford is by far the highest scoring bench player with his average of 18.4 points per game, and his usage rate is highest among the other true candidates for the award, as well. His team’s net rating when he’s on the floor — the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions — is third among the players we’ve mentioned, but more than respectable at a +6.9.
If Crawford should start too many games to finish the season, Manu Ginobili — who’s a close second due to his role in the Spurs continued success — would be a more than capable replacement.
Ginobili has played the fewest minutes of anyone on this list, due to being sidelined by injury as well as his coach’s propensity to give his veterans some rest. But his impact has been the greatest in his time on the floor, with lineups he’s appeared in having a net rating of +14.1, the biggest margin by far of any of the other candidates.
Morris has been a part of the surprising success the Suns have seen this season, but while he’s simply pedestrian in his affect on net rating, he dominates the other candidates in both win shares (5.5) and win shares per 48 minutes (.144), using the calculations of Basketball-Reference.
Simply put, win shares is a metric that estimates the number of wins a player produces for his team, though the calculations that go into it are quite complex. It’s just another way to measure impact, and Morris has been the key reserve for Phoenix all year long, even taking home a Conference Player of the Week honor back near the beginning of the season.
The final two candidates on our list will likely get some votes, but neither has a great case to pass one of the three we’ve already mentioned.
Reggie Jackson has been capable off the bench for the Thunder, stepping in to provide some consistent scoring and defense after the team lost Kevin Martin in free agency. Like Crawford, the amount of games Jackson has started (33) may disqualify him before the season is finished. But even if it doesn’t, while his 13.3 points per game have been appreciated and the net rating when he’s on the floor is a legit +9.3, his win share numbers are below average and it’s tough to argue that his impact has been anywhere near as great as the others in the conversation.
Taj Gibson of the Bulls has surged in this category recently, thanks to remarks made by his head coach, Tom Thibodeau. And, averages of 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds while playing more minutes than anyone on this list certainly deserves consideration. But the lineup data isn’t on his side as strongly as it is with the others, and the teams with better showings in the standings are likely to get a longer look than are the over-achieving Bulls, who currently sit in fourth in the East.
The award, in all likelihood, is Crawford’s to lose. But it wouldn’t at all be a surprise for Ginobili to sneak in there and steal it given both his level of contribution, as well as the Spurs’ season-long dominance. Morris is the clear-cut choice for third if the voters are paying attention, with Gibson and Jackson in some order the most likely to round out the top five.