The formula for winning Sixth Man of the Year is usually simple. Since the early 2000s, most recipients of the award have been volume shooting guards who change games with their scoring. Even though the likes of Manu Ginobili, Lamar Odom and James Harden are more than just scorers — they each developed into some of the best facilitators at their respective positions — the Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith type has become synonymous with the award.
This season is slightly different. The leading candidates are all guards, although some of them aren’t traditional gunners. The front-runner has made a career out of being a shoot-first player off the bench, but he’s evolved as a playmaker this season. Becoming a more complete offensive player has helped him carry a team that many believed would fall apart following the injuries they dealt with and the trades they made into the Western Conference playoff race.
There are three others who make their impact in more subtle ways, two with their all-around play on both ends of the court and the other with his 3-point shooting. Their statistics don’t scream Sixth Man of the Year candidates, but they’ve each made tremendous contributions to their team’s success in the regular season, setting them up to be difference-makers in the postseason. Then there’s the final two candidates, both of whom have more in common with the players who have dominated the award for nearly two decades.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the most likely vote-getters for Sixth Man of the Year this season, starting with player who is the favorite to win it all.
At age 31, Lou Williams is having the best season of his career. He’s averaging 22.7 points, 5.3 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game off the bench for the Clippers on 43.7 percent shooting from the field, 35.9 percent shooting from the perimeter and 88.1 percent shooting from the free throw line. Williams leads all bench players in scoring and he’s second to only J.J. Barea in assists with a usage rating comparable to Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge.
The combination makes Williams the best playmaker on the Clippers roster. The Clippers have been 8.7 points per 100 possessions better offensively with him in the lineup this season, basically the difference between the Rockets and Pistons in offensive efficiency. It might not be enough for them to surpass the likes of Pelicans, Timberwolves and Jazz in the Western Conference standings, but Williams’ play has made a Clippers team that no longer has Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on its roster far more competitive than anyone could’ve ever expected coming into the season. According to NBA.com, they’ve been a positive in his 2,500 minutes on the court (+144) compared to a negative in his 1,200 minutes on the bench (-72).
Those numbers are a big reason why Williams, who has started in only 19 games for the Clippers, was considered a snub for the 2017 All-Star Game. He’s always been a volume scorer, but he’s taken his game to another level this season by putting a Clippers team with a 42-36 record on his back as the No. 1 option. It makes him the favorite to win this award even if the Clippers fail to make the playoffs.
Fred VanVleet doesn’t have the counting stats of a typical Sixth Man of the Year candidate, but there’s no denying the impact he’s had on the No. 1 seeded team in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors have outscored opponents by an average of 12.7 points per 100 possessions with VanVleet on the court this season, giving him the third highest net rating — the difference between a team’s offensive rating and defensive rating — in the entire league.
The only players with a higher net rating than VanVleet? Chris Paul and Eric Gordon.
A large part of that has to do with VanVleet being a part of the best bench unit in the league, as the combination of him, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl have smoked opponents by a margin of 18.9 points per 100 possessions. He has, however, also had success playing alongside Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas as the fifth starter. Being a capable playmaker who has converted 44.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts makes it difficult for Dwane Casey to keep him off the floor down the stretch of games, the reason VanVleet has logged the fourth most clutch minutes on the Raptors this season.
As cliche as it might sound, VanVleet makes winning plays. He’s not afraid to mix it up with players a foot taller than him and he’s an aggressive defender who makes even the best point guards in the league uncomfortable. He makes the Raptors a much better team when he’s on the court, which is why he deserves to be on this ballot despite his modest numbers.
Last season’s Sixth Man of the Year is back again.
After averaging 16.2 points per game on 40.6 percent shooting from the field and 37.2 percent shooting from the perimeter last season, Eric Gordon is averaging 18.2 points per game on 43.0 percent shooting from the field and 36.1 percent shooting from the perimeter in the same amount of minutes this season. It should come as no surprise that putting someone who has attempted the second most 3-pointers in the league and makes 38.9 percent of their catch-and-shoot perimeter opportunities — many of which come from several feet behind the 3-point line — next to James Harden and Chris Paul makes the Rockets almost unstoppable offensively.
The question is whether or not it’s enough for Gordon to become only the third player in NBA history to be named Sixth Man of the Year in back-to-back seasons. He might not have the same counting stats as Lou Williams on the season, but he’s the third best scorer on the No. 1 seeded team in the Western Conference who has been integral to their success during the regular season. Gordon isn’t the most efficient scorer in the league, either, but he ranks second in net rating behind only Paul.
If anything, the only knocks on Gordon is he’s started in almost as many games (30) as he’s come off the bench (38) this season and his numbers as a starter have been slightly better than as a sixth man. Still, when it comes to making an impact off the bench, he’s as good as anyone in the league.
For a team that ranks in the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency, Wayne Ellington’s breakout season has been a breath of fresh air for the Heat.
Now in his ninth season in the NBA, Ellington has developed into one of the game’s premiere outside shooters. He lives at the 3-point line — his 3-point attempt rate is 83.0 percent — which has helped him make more perimeter shots than any other bench player in the league. (Eric Gordon has technically made more, but there’s almost a 50-50 split between how many 3-pointers he’d knocked down as a starter and bench player this season). Most of those have come off of screens and handoffs, and Ellington ranks near the top of the league in efficiency in both of those plays.
Take Ellington’s 3-point shooting off the court, and the Heat go from averaging a competitive 106.6 points per 100 possessions to a miserable 102.6 points per 100 possessions. Their defense remains the same with Ellington in the lineup, resulting in the Heat going from being outscored by an average of 0.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench to outscoring opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
It might not be enough for him to actually win the award, but Ellington deserves some recognition for the season he has had coming off of the bench for a Heat team that is making its return to the playoffs.
What the Celtics have accomplished this season is nothing short of remarkable. Despite losing Gordon Hayward for the season and Kyrie Irving, who has performed at an All-NBA level when he’s been on the court, for 18 games and counting, they’ve won over 50 games for the second season in a row, giving them the second best record in the Eastern Conference.
It’s taken a team effort to make up for the losses of Hayward and Irving, but Terry Rozier has been a stabilizing presence off their bench all season long. Whereas he averaged 5.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game last season, Rozier has been good for 11.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game this season. He’s shooting only 39.8 percent from the field, but he’s knocked down 38.7 percent of his 3-point attempts on 5.0 attempts per game. It gives him the tools to run the show as the leader of the second unit and play alongside Irving when needed, making him an important piece of their present and future.
It is possible that Rozier’s future won’t be in Boston, though. He’s proven to be a game-changer off the bench, and yet he’s shined as a starter this season. He made history by recording a triple-double in his first career start and followed it up with 31 points on 11-for-18 shooting in a victory against the Hawks. Rozier has also helped the Celtics win seven of their last 10 games as Irving’s replacement in the starting lineup with 16.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.3 steals per game.
Rozier will have to become a more efficient scorer to be a starting point guard — he’s shooting only 37.5 percent from the field in his latest stretch — but he’s quickly moving up the ranks in the NBA. It gives him an equally strong case for Most Improved Player this season.
Having finished fourth in Sixth Man of the Year voting in the 2015-16 season, Will Barton is no stranger to the Sixth Man of the Year conversation. He didn’t get enough votes to make his way onto last season’s ballot, but he’s been one of the best sixth men in the NBA this season.
In the final year of his contract, Barton is averaging 15.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.0 steals per game this season on 44.8 percent from the field, 36.4 percent from the perimeter and 80.8 percent from the free throw line. His ability to create his own shot and space the floor at a high rate — Barton has made 39.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts this season, putting him at the same level as some of the best outside shooters in the league — explains why he leads the Nuggets in clutch minutes on the season.
Barton hasn’t shot the ball particularly well in those situations, but it hasn’t stopped him from making a number of big baskets:
Similar to Gordon, hurting Barton’s case is he’s started in 36 games and his numbers have been better as a starter. The Nuggets have also been more efficient on both ends of the floor with him on the bench this season, although they’ve been outscored by a total of five points with him off the court compared to outscoring opponents by a total of 103 points with him on the court. It should help him sneak his way back onto the Sixth Man of the Year ballot following last season’s hiatus.
Honorable mention: T.J. McConnell, Montrezl Harrell, Pascal Siakam, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dwyane Wade, Luc Mbah a Moute.