The Extra Pass: Breaking down the race for Sixth Man of the Year

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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.

 

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.