3. Al Harrington, Denver
Harrington’s peak year, by minutes and points, was in 2009 with New York. He averaged 35 minutes and 20.7 points, but in doing so personified one of the worst Knick teams by being a shot vacuum. Passes came in but rarely went out, and he averaged nearly 17 attempts a game. Likewise, the Knicks’ style of play sucked the fun out. The wins also were nowhere to be found, and New York finished 32-50. Fast forward more than two years and you have his resurrection in Denver, where he scored 29 off the bench against the Wizards on Jan. 20, tied for the highest scoring game by a reserve this season. Without J.R. Smith, the Nuggets had a void for a pure scorer that Harrington has dutifully filled. He’s averaging 15.5 points in 25 minutes via a 54 percent rate from the floor, 12 percentage points better than a year ago. The ‘D’ in Denver doesn’t stand for defense often, but also worth applauding is Harrington’s swipes, where he’s averaging nearly a steal more each contest than last year.
2. Lou Williams, Philadelphia
Another deserving 76er makes the cut. A sixth man extraordinaire who has the 19th best PER in the league this season at 22.7, Williams is tracking Harden as the best reserve so far. His average scoring (15.5) is the best of his career, and his turnovers are at a career low. Earlier this month, coach Doug Collins praised Williams’ development as a late-game closer.
“He’s been brilliant,” Collins said of Williams. “It’s a godsend.”
He’s only started 38 games in his six-plus seasons, so getting comfortable in the role isn’t the issue. Instead, he’s hit another level by increasing his field-goal, free-throw and three-point shooting. Is it any surprise the 76ers are one of the league’s best young teams? According to HoopData, Williams’ consistency from 10-15 feet has been a literal game-changer: his 48 percent shooting from the mid-range is 16 percentage points higher than last year. By keeping defenders honest on his jumper, he’s set up his drives, and Philly in general, that much better.
1. James Harden, Oklahoma City
Manu Ginobili used to be the standard-bearer of all sixth men, but a new leader has cropped up in the Midwest. The man with the Moses beard has started only one game but still plays nearly 30 minutes and isn’t so much a change-of-pace sub as he has been a change-the-game sub. Wonder why the Thunder are the West’s leading candidate for a title? Harden gives the Thunder 16.8 points per game off the bench in his time, nearly identical production to starters John Wall, Nick Young, Tyreke Evans and Paul Pierce. His PER rating is the highest of any sixth man at 23.0, well over the league average of 13.8.
You’d be a fool to think Harden’s success wasn’t predicted after his development in OKC, followed by a breakout summer that included dropping 51 in the Drew League. We know about the team’s much-discussed chemistry between stars Kevin Durant and Russ Westbrook, but Scott Brooks‘ equation wouldn’t work nearly as well without Harden’s role. As much as it seems KD and Westbrook go off every game, with a teammate like Harden right now, they don’t need to.
Who are your top picks for the best sixth men this season?
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