All things being equal, the NBA’s best sixth men would rather be starting, of course. On other teams, there’s a chance they certainly would be. You don’t have to look much further than Jason Terry. He’s been the second-best player on a championship team and one of the fourth quarter shoulders the Dallas Mavericks have leaned on for the past eight seasons. Is he good enough to start? Of course. Even though his numbers are down this year (13.9 points, 41 percent shooting), Terry’s been hitting big jumpers and spot up threes for the past decade. As a starter, he’d be a nice player. As a bench player, he became a staple of what it means to be a great sixth man.
The difference with these 10 and other bench players is that they’ve understood there are two ways to take the news of being a sixth man â€” feeling like first runner-up or a spark plug â€” and have thrived. Because sixth men are valued for their efficiency given their limited minutes, we took the Player Efficiency Rating into account heavily, but not as a final arbiter of their worthiness. Make no mistake, these 10 aren’t just efficient, they’re out to dominate once they check in, whenever that may be.
Besides Terry, here are the league’s 10 best sixth men this season.
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10. Carl Landry, New Orleans
Hope isn’t exactly springing eternal on the bayou this year after Chris Paul was dealt to the Clippers, but Landry is one of Monty Williams‘ best off the bench or as a starter. His run of in-the-face slams alone is an interesting development: Greg Stiemsma, Chris Andersen and Nene (below) have all been caught. Landry’s proven he won’t lack for scoring in his limited minutes, getting at least 17 points six times this season. With six starts he has the most time logged in pre-game player introductions of any of this list, but Landry brings the team’s fourth-highest PER of 17.9 (against the 13.8 league average) off the bench for the Hornets’ frontcourt.
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9. Nate Robinson, Golden State
In one of the best games of this young season, Robinson went for 24 points in the Warriors’ overtime win over Miami on Jan. 10 in front of a pulsating Oakland crowd. He wasn’t pretty from the field, just 4-of-12, but made all 14 free throws and scored 17 points in the fourth quarter alone. What he did do, though, was bring an excitement that’s as much a part of his game as his hops. A sixth man is literally fresh legs coming off the bench, and Robinson brings an energy to a building few can match. Playing more than 27 minutes per game for Mark Jackson, another fiery former point guard, has Robinson back to the kind of minutes he got in 2010. Smartly, Jackson understands Robinson needs to be known he’s wanted for his confidence to build and his game to take off, and the extra minutes have translated to 11.7 points. Most impressive, however, is his huge PER jump of 18 from the 10.2 and 3.9 he put up last season in Boston and Oklahoma City.
8. J.J. Redick, Orlando
There’s no disguising Redick’s role for Orlando, but he’s mixed in better defense and will venture into the paint for tough buckets better than ever. He’s actually getting more shots at the rim this year (boosting his shooting there to 68 percent), resulting in career-high free-throw attempts and fewer from three-point range than last year. Somehow his percentage from long range has gone down to 38 percent â€” in three games this year where Redick scored 17, 20 and 21, he shot 9-of-16 from three â€” but he’s still averaging a career-best 12.1 points per because of his work closer to the rim. The bottom line: Redick has a clearly defined role, but he executes it better than most sixth men while simultaneously adding to his game.
7. Jamal Crawford, Portland
Nate McMillan promised a team that would run more this season, and Crawford is the gunner the Trail Blazers needed to carry that goal. Good friend Brandon Roy‘s retirement created a hole in the team’s scoring from the two-guard spot. The Michigan man has fixed it. It hasn’t been a seamless transition. His shooting percentage is down from 42 to 35 percent over last year and scoring down a point to 13.2 per game. He’s been more inconsistent than McMillan would prefer: Only four times has he had consecutive games in double-digit scoring. Still, Portland’s second unit isn’t known for being selfish enough with capable players (Nicolas Batum) not necessarily the same ones to create their own shot. Crawford makes defenses gameplan for him coming off the bench and is unpredictable as a freelancer in McMillan’s offense..
6. Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia
The young 76ers are still hanging around, a pleasant surprise after making last year’s playoffs, and Young has mirrored his team’s development. Young’s always been one of the league’s most dangerous athletes with his leaping (cue video of his denial on help D below) but it’s what he’s not doing this year: turning the ball over. Young’s turnover percentage has dropped like an anchor from 12.5 per 100 possessions in 2010 to just 7.9 this season. His steals and blocks are at career highs, so while his offense stays around his career average at 12.5 per game, Young’s key to keeping Philly in the race is not giving other teams buckets.
5. Ian Mahinmi, Dallas
The 25-year-old Frenchman? Really? Yes, the surprisingly efficient 25-year-old Frenchman â€” really. Mahinmi, when not surprising Kevin Durant with a right-handed helping of yam, is shooting 65 percent. That’s fifth-best in the league when you take outliers (We’ll toss out Eduardo Najera and Ronny Turiaf‘s six combined games).
Rick Carlisle more than doubled his minutes this season to 19.9, and in turn his points have more than doubled, to 7.9 per, and his rebounds have doubled, too. Mahinmi might not cut the classic stereotype of a big-minutes sixth man teammate Jason Terry does. JET is doing his usual thing of 13.9 points even if his shooting is down five percentage points. But Dallas was awful in the season’s first weeks because it couldn’t find a big man to replace Tyson Chandler. Other than talk about trading for Dwight Howard, the Mavs won’t find that dominant big man this season. If it’s a guy who shoots it at 77 percent at the rim you’re looking for, with a respectable defensive game, Mahinmi is happy to prove he’s your man.
4. Mo Williams, L.A. Clippers
We heard all December about the Clippers in the backcourt not named Mo: Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, and how the Clips weren’t the first choice for either (Case in point, Mo being introduced as Chauncey). Williams has been strong for Vinny Del Negro in 12 games this year, with the highest PER of his career at 21. You can credit most of that bump to the 10th-year pro with his sixth team, somehow putting together one of his best seasons. He’s shooting 54 percent (his career average is 44) from the field and 45 percent from three (his career average is 39 percent). We can talk about the effect of old legs during a compressed season, but he’s knocked down more shots than ever. Need more evidence? Of the top 10 scoring games by a reserve this season, Williams has three after going for 26, 26 and 25 in a four-day stretch starting Jan. 18.
Another benefit he brings from playing in L.A. last season is familiarity with his teammates. Billups and Paul are still working that out. Just because it’s Lob City doesn’t mean understanding the nuance of teammates’ playing styles doesn’t count.
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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