Being a great sixth man is all about energy. Currently, the NBA’s Sixth Man award’s criteria is quite simple: a player must play more games coming off the bench than they start. The rule has no minutes per game requirements. Why is this important? Last year, J.R. Smith won the award playing 32.5 minutes a game, which was second most on his team. Essentially it doesn’t matter if you’re a key guy on your squad — players like Manu Ginobili, Jason Terry and Lamar Odom have all won the award in recent years while being one of the top players on their teams.
This year the top guys in the running are primarily guards and wings. It’s an incredibly tough award to win as a legitimate big man. Players in possession of the offense can stuff their box score numbers more quickly than the third big coming off the bench, often asked to rebound and defend. The last time a true center won the award was in 1987-88 when Dallas’s Roy Tarpley won the award.
Below, I’m ranking the top ten candidates for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year this season.
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10. MICHAEL BEASLEY
It’s crazy that a guy who was on his last legs in the NBA is this high in the rankings. Beasley has had his problems but he’s always been a capable NBA scorer. He’s had trouble finding the right team, and keeping himself focused but playing with the league’s best player has done wonders. In all seriousness, find me one player who was worse off playing with LeBron. (Chris Bosh doesn’t count — screw the numbers he has two rings.)
Beasley has come off the bench in relief of the four-time MVP and is providing valuable minutes of rest for the superstar. He’s filling the offensive void efficiently, averaging the least minutes of any player on this list and still dumping in 11.1 points a game at 53 percent shooting, which leads all players on this list. Beasley, who also sports a PER of nearly 20 (40th in the NBA), could be the difference-maker in a tough series where Bosh or Wade isn’t producing offensively.
9. RODNEY STUCKEY
Stuckey is having a quiet and yet productive season. It’s hard to grab attention when Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings are on your team, not even mentioning Detroit’s two best players in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, but Stuckey had a run earlier this year of 11 straight games with at least 16 points.
I put Stuckey so high because he’s been asked to play primarily at the shooting guard position. Stuckey is undersized for the role and on a nightly basis has to battle with bigger and more talented players. Not only that, but he has to fight his own team for shots. Stuckey shoots 11 times a game at 45 percent while Smith and Jennings each shoot 15 times a game, at 40 and 39 percent respectively. The guy who starts over Stuckey, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, is one point away from regaining membership in the “more shots than points” club.
Things are going to change in Detroit, at some point they will realize it’s not working. Stuckey may or may not be a part of that future, but at this point he’s been one of their most productive players.
8. DION WAITERS
The second-year player has had his struggles this year, both on and off the court. The Kyrie Irving/Dion Waiters relationship is murky, and there have been several trade rumors about the explosive scorer from Syracuse. He is erratic with his shooting and his percentages aren’t where you want them to be (42/38/70), but the guy can score. If he doesn’t find a home long-term in Cleveland, I’d love to see him get a chance to really run an offense somewhere else. (He appears to think the same way, reportedly pushing to get traded to Philly so he could run his own team.)
Coming off a six-game losing streak, without Irving or Andrew Bynum, the Cavaliers got a good win in overtime against the Orlando Magic last Thursday. Dion Waiters was the catalyst in that game. Watching him play with the ball in his hands at the end of the game was something special. Not once, but twice in the last 24 seconds he attacked the basket and he got to the rim, scoring, and keeping the Cavaliers alive. The Cavaliers’ shameful record, along with the up and down nature of Waiters’ game, has held him down this list, but things could change if Pau Gasol does come to town. As it is, Waiters has been a better player coming off Cleveland’s bench, averaging 16.1 points on 43 percent shooting in that role.
7. JAMAL CRAWFORD
The 2009-10 winner will have a lot of pressure to produce with Chris Paul out for 3-5 weeks. The Clippers will rely on Crawford and Darren Collison to run an offense full of role players whil their captain is out. In the Clippers’ first game without CP3, a blowout against the Spurs, Crawford rang up 24 points and seven dimes, while taking 22 shots. The opportunities will be there, regardless of if the team’s starting point guard is dressing. The Clippers will need a continued, steady, output of offense from the combo card if they hope to stay within range of the top of the Western Conference.
Of this ten-man list, Jamal Crawford has the ninth-best player efficiency rating (14.67). Crawford’s flashy play style can be disruptive to his team as is one of those guys who will just launch shots up without thinking. That being said, Crawford has had the same story since his first year in the league. He’s incredibly talented but still hasn’t quite put it all together.
6. TAJ GIBSON
The first of two bigs on this list, Gibson is quietly having a career-year. Although his statistics aren’t mind-blowing, you can see his mentality has changed. The talent is there — in two games as a starter, Gibson is averaging 15.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks — and he’s now showing he can be aggressive and isn’t the crutch he used to be on the offensive end. He’s always been a very good defensive player, but whether you attribute that to him or coach Tom Thibodeau is up to you.
Gibson rarely gets mentioned in the tabloids or appears on a SportsCenter highlight (unless he’s dunking on someone), but he’s a hard-working glue guy who is averaging 11.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and leading all bench players (minimum of 15 games off the pine) at 1.4 blocks per game. It’s not entirely his fault, either, that people overlook him. The only thing people seem to care about with the Chicago Bulls now is the Derrick Rose injury.
Unlike most the guys on this list, Gibson will never be a starring scorer, but he knows his role and he plays hard within it. There is something to be said about hard-working role players who don’t disrupt their team’s flow for personal gain.