It’s not where you start, but when you play. Like a baseball middle reliever shoring up the mess a starter left behind or holding the lead the starter built, the best Sixth Men hold the line given them, then build on it with their own play. There’s a certain distinction that goes along with being a starter, but there’s something devastating about changing the flow of a game at the first substitution. These 10 all have that capability, and it’s why they’re the top 10 candidates for 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year. All week Dime has counted down the best rookies and best coach for our awards predictions. Today, let’s look at the super subs.
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10. MARSHON BROOKS, BROOKLYN
MarShon Brooks is already on record as saying that his goal this season is to win the Sixth Man Award. In 2011-12, Brooks showed that he can create for himself off the dribble, averaging 15.5 points per 36 minutes with a .502 true shooting percentage, but the rest of his game was less impressive. Most omnibus stats suggest that he was a below replacement level player: 12.9 PER (Hollinger), -4.1 Simple Rating (82games.com), and -1.0 WARP (Basketball Prospectus).
It’s important to note, however, that these numbers came in 29.4 minutes per game as Brooks started 47 of 56 games for the Nets last season. This trend is unlikely to continue given the addition of Joe Johnson to the Nets’ starting five. His playing time was further complicated recently by talk that CJ Watson might be first reserve guard for Brooklyn. How his productivity might be affected by these changes is an open question at this point. Thus, in order to earn (back) time in Avery Johnson‘s rotation and become a true Sixth Man award candidate, Brooks will need to become more efficient in the minutes he does receive to start the season. This begins with better shot selection (5 percent of Brooks attempts were blocked), and hitting the open jumpers afforded to him by the presence of Johnson, Deron Williams and/or Gerald Wallace (he made just 27.9 percent of spot-up three-pointers last year, as reported by Basketball Prospectus).
9. ANDRE MILLER, DENVER
Although Andre Miller was initially skeptical about accepting substitute duties in 2011-12, he’s since proven to be a reliable first option off the bench for the Denver Nuggets.
Miller’s role in George Karl‘s high-altitude, high-octane offense was twofold last season. First, he served as a back-up one guard to Ty Lawson. Miller assisted on 36.5 percent of Denver’s baskets while he was on the floor, and averaged 8.8 apples per 36 minutes (controlling for his minutes at PG this number actually improves to 10.8 per 36), 5.7 of which ended at the rim. He actually ranks first among all NBA PGs in the latter category. The additions of Andre Iguodala and JaVale McGee to the blue and gold promise for even more highlight reel alley-oops by way of Miller.
The 13-year veteran complements Lawson well in backcourt, too. Miller is an excellent off-ball player, employing his court awareness to slip into high-percentage scoring positions when guarded by taller SGs and muscling smaller defenders in post. According to 82games.com, 37 percent of his attempts came from “inside,” where he shot 63 percent (37 percent were assisted). Miller is also a surprisingly good rebounder for his size as evidenced by his 6.39 per 36 rebounding rate last year (eighth highest for PGs).
By all accounts, Miller is set to undertake similar bench obligations in 2012-13. If he can boost his point and assist totals over similar minutes (27.4 per game), he’s sure to receive greater recognition from writers than the single third-place vote in the Sixth Man awards they gave last season.
8. J.R. SMITH, NEW YORK
Like Miller was last season, J.R. Smith is none to pleased about the prospect of playing a secondary role on the New York Knicks. Two weeks ago, he told New York reporters when asked about being named Sixth Man, “I think disappointed is an understatement. My whole process of getting better this summer and everything I went through was to be in that starting role.”
Despite Smith’s desires, his skill-set is probably best suited as a spark off the bench. In eight NBA seasons with New Orleans, Denver and New York, he has posted decent averages of 18.6 points, 3.0 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per 36 minutes respectively, with a .544 true shooting percentage. Smith’s uncanny ability to get hot in a hurry makes him a dangerous player… when he’s on. Indeed, few forget his 43-point performance off the bench in February 2008, but his regular 5-for-13 outings are far less memorable. The 2011-12 campaign, for example, was below average for Smith in terms of offensive production (16.2 points per 36, and his second lowest TS percentage); though, in his defense, it’s hard to tell how much of this was owing to spending half of the NBA season locked in a contract with Zhejiang Chouzhou of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Improved consistency be should a priority for Smith this season (if it’s not already) as the Knicks will require him to bear a large chunk of the scoring burden in the short-term, given injuries to Iman Shumpert and Amar’e Stoudemire, along with the off-season loss of Jeremy Lin.
7. JAMAL CRAWFORD, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Jamal Crawford, like several others further down the list, already won Sixth Man of the Year with the Atlanta Hawks in 2009-10, so he has at least some understanding of “the right stuff” it takes to win the award. His award-winning season also offers a useful starting point for Crawford’s candidacy this year. In 31 minutes per game, Crawford averaged 18.0 points on 45 percent field goal shooting, to go along with 3.0 assists and 2.5 rebounds. (For consistency’s sake, let’s convert those to per 36 and TS figures: 20.9 points, 3.5 dimes, 2.9 rebounds, and 57.3 percent respectively). According to both Win Shares, and Hollinger’s PER stat, it was Crawford’s best year as a pro.
After signing J-Crossover to a four-year, $21.4 million contract, the Clippers want him to recreate some of that ATL magic in Los Angeles this winter. At first blush, it seems like he has a decent chance of doing so. He has demonstrated a diversity of individual offensive skills throughout his career â€” slashing, three-point bombs, getting to the line, and even a solid midrange game â€” but with All-Star point guard Chris Paul feeding perimeter players off lane kick-outs and Blake Griffin drawing attention from opposing defences, it’s unlikely that Crawford, the off-guard, will need to do much else other than shoot. Indeed, over the course of the preseason, he averaged 13.3 points on 44 percent field goal shooting in 26 minutes.
The only potential speed bump on Crawford’s road to winning another Sixth Man of the Year Award is that the Clippers are unusually deep at the guard and swing positions (Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe, Chauncey Billups, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Caron Butler). The resultant competition for minutes may mean that Crawford has some run ticked down.
6. LOUIS WILLIAMS, PHILADELPHIA
Last season as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Louis Williams finished second in Sixth Man award voting, garnering 231 total points â€” but a little more than 350 short of the eventual winner, James Harden. Indeed, Williams’ numbers deserved high praise last season. He posted 20.5 points per 36 minutes (52.5% true shooting percentage), and contributed 4.7 assists per 36.
Impressively, Williams was one of the team’s most efficient players â€” 8.2 WARP (Basketball Prospectus), 20.2 PER, 6.1 Win Share â€” despite playing fewer than 30 minutes a game.
Williams signed with Atlanta this offseason, where he will take on a similar reserve role. Williams’ aggressive style (he drew fouls on 14.6 percent of his attempts in 2011-12) should do both he and the Hawks well this season in Larry Drew‘s run-and-gun offense. Importantly, however, if Lou wants to earn more time in the Hawks rotation behind Jeff Teague and Devin Harris, he’ll need become more generous with the basketball in order to provide big Al Horford and Josh Smith with the touches they need on the offensive end. If he can do that, the Louis should have another profitable year. He may even close the gap in the Six Man voting.
5. KEVIN MARTIN, OKLAHOMA CITY
Following Sunday’s blockbuster Harden-to-Houston trade, there is every expectation that the key roster player moving the other direction, Kevin Martin, will fill shoes left by Okalahoma City’s former top reserve. Let’s get to know him a little better.
Martin’s 2011-12 was effectively a wash owing to a shoulder injury that kept him out of 22 games, but the relevant metrics suggest that he is a strong offensive player when healthy. He owns career per 36 averages of 21.2 points, 2.4 assists, 1.1 steals, and 4.0 rebounds. His true shooting percentage (59.5 percent for his career) is consistently one of the highest in the NBA, given his accuracy from the three-point (37.7 percent) and foul (86.5 percent) lines. Probably Martin’s best statistical season was in 2010-11, in which he put up 25.9 points per 36, 2.7 assists per 36, 1.1 steals per 36, shot a TS percentage of 60 percent, and was well above replacement level (21.4 PER, 9.5 WS, 9.8 WARP). Martin, however, has struggled on defense, and is not as good a ballhandler as Harden.
Still, it’s hard to know exactly how the new rotations will work in OKC (how will head coach Scott Brooks manage time between Martin and Thabo Sefolosha? Will Martin see crunch-time minutes? Will Brooks be forced to keep either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook on the floor with Martin?) or ultimately how effective Martin will be in the six hole until we see the Thunder in action. On paper, he feels like a low-rent version of Harden, but it’s possible that the overwhelming talent of KD and Russ elevate Martin to another level. As a hedge, I’ve slotted him at the midway point of the list.
4. DERRICK FAVORS, UTAH
The Utah Jazz have one of the deepest front lines in all of the NBA with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors (plus an emerging Enes Kanter). Given the plethora of talent at the four and five in the SLC, the only question becomes: who’s the odd man out? At this point, it looks like it might be the latter of the bunch, Mr. Favors.
The 6-10 Favors is a remarkably gifted big man. In limited time last season (21 minutes per game), Favors averaged a solid 14.6 points per 36 minutes, 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes, and 11.1 total rebounds per 36. Less noticeable, though, was his team defense, which when Favors was on the floor allowed 6.4 fewer points per 100 possessions, as reported by Basketball Prospectus. It’s also interesting to note that, according to John Schuhmann, the Jazz allowed even fewer points per possessions (10) when the third-year man played alongside Millsap.
Favors’ defensive presence alone should wedge him into the Jazz’s top-six rotation, and as he matures in his third season in the league, he should also become more comfortable on the offensive end. This could be a gigantic year for him.
3. RAY ALLEN, MIAMI
Despite all of the poison flung Ray Allen‘s way this offseason (most of it emanating from Boston), little can change that Allen is one of â€” if not the â€” the purest shooters in NBA history. For 16 seasons, Allen has rained down threes on the league, culminating, of course, in breaking the league record for the most three-point field goals made all time (currently standing at 2,720).
Amazingly, barring injury, Allen has an opportunity to add to his legacy this season in Miami. The Heat plan to play him approximately 20-25 minutes off the bench as a proverbial “hired gun” in the team’s new position-less offense. It’s scary to think how Allen might integrate into this already super-stacked offense. Consider the following hypotheticals: LeBron James or Dwyane Wade barrelling down the lane on a Chris Bosh screen-roll finding a rested Allen wide-open for three in the corner; or teams attempting to double-down on James in the post only for him to instantly skip the ball cross-court to Allen on the perimeter; or Wade blazing down the court on a fast break with Allen setting up at the three-point line. The possibilities are endless…
The only reason for doubt would be how Allen well is able to adjust to the Heat’s seemingly unstructured offense. At times during the Boston Big Three era, the team felt stagnant as players stood around setting a maze of off-ball screens in order to get Allen touches (per Basketball Prospectus, Allen got more than 1/3 of his shots off screens in 2011-12). It’s unlikely he’ll receive the same treatment as a fourth or fifth scoring option in Miami, but we’ll see how Erik Spoelstra works things out. In general, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with this team.
2. JASON TERRY, BOSTON
Since winning the 2008-09 Sixth Man of Year Award, Jason Terry has established himself as arguably the most productive bench player in the NBA. Terry posted incredible numbers with Dallas over the past four seasons, averaging 18.6 points per 36 (55.3 percent true shooting percentage), 4.1 assists per 36, 1.3 steals per 36, and an average 16.9 PER and 22.8 Win Share total. He also played an integral role in the Mavericks’ 2011 NBA championship, with both off-court leadership and on-court poise, particularly in the Game 6 clincher of the Finals.
During the offseason, JET signed with the Boston Celtics ostensibly to replace No. 3 on our list, Allen. Terry should become a productive bench scorer for the Celtics at either SG or PG. With regard to the former, Terry replicates the three-point shooting accurate qualities of Allen from three (career 38.8 percent from long distance) already integrated into Boston’s offense; but his playmaking abilities off the dribble make him a little more unpredictable to guard. Moreover, the latter skills provide Doc Rivers greater flexibility with his rotations as Terry can substitute at point guard in relief of Rajon Rondo. Either way, Terry will have plenty of opportunities to contribute, particularly as projected starting SG Avery Bradley rehabs his shoulders in the early part of the season.
Terry is a perennial Sixth Man candidate, and in addition to his 2008-09 award, he has placed in the top three in voting for the last three seasons. Joining a contending team of veterans with a defined sixth Man role already carved out for him might just be the conditions necessary to yield Terry’s second trophy.
1. MANU GINOBILI, SAN ANTONIO
Absent James Harden in a reserve role with the Thunder, Manu Ginobili seems like a logical pick to become the 2012-13 Sixth Man. Like Harden, it’s almost unfair to call the Argentinian a sixth man, given his productivity and importance to the San Antonio Spurs over the last decade.
At an old 34, Ginobili was hampered by injuries last season for the majority of last season, but in the 34 regular-season games he did play, he was effective nonetheless. He averaged 20 points per 36 minutes with an impressive 61.8 percent true shooting percentage (impressive given that his inside shots decreased relative to previous years), racked up a career-high assist rate (6.9 per 36), and even improved his rebounding stats. By most omnibus metrics, Ginobili was the most efficient player on the Spurs, and behind Dwyane Wade, was second among shooting guards in the entire NBA: 24.1 PER (Hollinger), 10.3 Simple Rating (82games.com), 6.0 WARP (Basketball Prospectus). And had injuries not limited his run, he would certainly have contended with Harden for last year’s trophy for best reserve.
This season, Ginobili appears to have healed all wounds, averaging 9.3 points in only 13 minutes per game in the preseason. His unrestricted status next season (contract year!) is also an extra dose of motivation for the guard, and may push him past the career marks he achieved in 2011-12. If he can, he’ll become just the fourth player in NBA history to take home the Sixth Man of the Year Award trophy twice.
Who will win this award?
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