Nylon Calculus: Andre Iguodala is a throwback Sixth Man of the Year candidate

Mar 10, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala (9) celebrates with forward Draymond Green (23) after dunking the ball in the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 103-102. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 10, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala (9) celebrates with forward Draymond Green (23) after dunking the ball in the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 103-102. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

After defeating his two most-competitive Western Conference rivals in back-to-back road games, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr found himself in a reflective mood, unexpectedly campaigning for Andre Iguodala to win the Sixth Man of the Year Award, via CSN Bay Area. “I don’t know if I’ve ever really pushed any of our players for awards,” Kerr demurred, “It’s not something I normally do.”

But, having just watched Iguodala average 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in two key wins over the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, while also providing his customary defensive effort to help limit MVP candidates James Harden and Kawhi Leonard to a combined 12-of-40 (30 percent) shooting — Kerr couldn’t stop himself from lobbying for his nominee. After acknowledging that the award will likely go to one of the many reserve players in the league who scores more than Iguodala, Kerr countered “But if you want to look at the best sixth man in the game, in terms of winning, there’s no way anyone is better than Andre.”

Iguodala certainly has been strengthening his resume for Sixth Man of the Year, lately. In the month of March, he increased both his scoring efficiency and volume, converting 59 percent of his shots from the field and scoring 12.0 points per game. However, even after accounting for this recent surge in production; Iguodala is still only averaging 7.6 points per game this season, which ranks him outside of the top-50 highest-scoring reserves in the league (Note: I’m considering a player eligible for 6MOY if he played in at least 50 games, but started less than half of them).

Highest-scoring reserve players in the NBA

Kerr jokingly proposed that the league change the name of the honor to: ‘the Highest Scoring Player Off the Bench’ Award and — and sadly for Iguodala — it would be a pretty accurate revision. In the last 15 years, the Sixth Man of the Year award has been claimed ten times by the highest scoring reserve in the league. The other five seasons, the award-winner was ranked no lower than fourth in point-per-game scoring. During the history of the Sixth Man of the Year Award — spanning back to the 1982-83 season — the top-scoring bench player has won the honor 50 percent of the time.

However, there is a pair of notable low-scoring outliers among the group of prior Sixth Man of the Year Awardees: Bobby Jones (1983) and Bill Walton (1986). Like Iguodala, each of these players had single-digit scoring averages during his award-winning season and each ranked outside of the top-20 in points-per-game for reserve players. These two had some other characteristics in common as well. Each was an aging former NBA All-Star: Jones had earned the recognition four times (in 1977, 1978, 1981, 1982) and Walton twice (in 1977, 1978) before being named Sixth Man of the Year. Likewise, these two men were both celebrated for their defensive acumen, with Jones named to the All-Defensive Team nine straight years (from 1976-77 thru 1984-85) and Walton earning the honor twice (in the 1976-77 and 1977-78 seasons).

Most tellingly, these two players were both critical cogs in ultra-successful win machines. Jones was part of the impressive Philadelphia 76ers championship run during the 1982-83 season, during which they won 65 of 82 regular-season games and 12 of 13 postseason games. Three years later, with Walton providing the perfect complement off the bench, the Boston Celtics won the 1986 title, tallying an even-more-impressive 67 regular-season wins along the way. These guys weren’t just talismen, either, they made meaningful contributions. In 1982-83, Jones led all reserves in Box Plus-Minus, with a BPM of +4.5 points per 100 possessions (BPM is a box score-based estimate of player’s quality and contribution to his team defined on a per-100-possession basis relative to an average player). Likewise, Walton finished tied for first among reserves with a BPM of +3.1 points per 100 possessions in 1985-86 (Walton was tied with Derek Harper, who started 49 percent of his games, barely qualifying as a reserve by my definition).

Characteristics of two past low-scoring Sixth Man of the Year Awardees and Andre Iguodala:

Iguodala’s resume looks a lot like those of Jones and Walton — seemingly ticking many of the boxes required for a low-scoring Sixth Man of the Year Award winner. He’s already earned recognition as an All Star (in 2012) and an All-Defensive team member (in 2010-11 and 2013-14). And now he’s making a huge impact on an historically-great Warriors squad, as demonstrated by his impressive Real Plus-Minus numbers, which are the best among all NBA reserves..

Top NBA reserve players by Real Plus-Minus:

Another common thread tying together Iguodala, Jones, and Walton is sacrifice. Jones and Walton each won Sixth Man of the Year while posting (what were then) career lows in per-game minutes and scoring. Likewise, Iguodala’s willingness to embrace his demotion to the bench at the start of his 2015-16 season has been repeatedly lauded by Kerr as an essential element of the Warriors championship success.

This season, with the addition of yet another preternatural scorer to the squad, Iguodala’s offense has taken a backseat again (more than a backseat, really; it’s all the way in the trunk at this point). His offensive game is now completely opportunistic: he’s scoring by spotting up (32 percent of his possessions), running out (25 percent), and making cuts (12 percent), all of which are teammate-dependent play types. Additionally, nearly 30 percent of Iguodala’s shots have come when he’s wide open (6+ feet from his closest defender), that’s among the top-25 highest rates for players who’ve featured in at least 60 games this season. Iguodala is often credited as being a secondary ball handler, but this season he’s done very little creating for himself in isolation, as a pick-and-roll ball handler, or out of the post; finishing less than one possession per game with any of those three play types, combined.

In his pitch to the voting media, though, Kerr noted that Iguodala’s approach shifted after Kevin Durant was injured on Feb 28. In Durant’s absence, Iguodala continued to come off the bench, but he played more minutes, took more shots, and scored more points each night than he did at the beginning of the season.

In the 2015 Finals, Iguodala demonstrated an ability to expand his game to fill the Warriors needs. In the three contests that decided that series, Iguodala moved to the starting lineup, averaged over 20 points per game, and played nearly 40 minutes a night to earn the Finals MVP. Isn’t this fluidity — the ability to grow and shrink one’s role as needed — the quintessential quality of a great Sixth Man? He’s a willing facilitator when surrounded by more efficient scorers and an effective scorer when it’s necessitated by an injury or an overwhelmingly favorable matchup.

Next: Warriors Playoff Preview: Golden State is even more dominant than you think

This spring, with Durant on the sideline, Iguodala’s role increased once again and the outcome for the Warriors was a 14-game winning streak and a number-one playoff seed in the West. Iguodala certainly isn’t the highest scoring bench player in the league, but perhaps Kerr is right: he should be the Sixth Man of the Year, anyways.