It’s award season in the NBA, helping pass time from now until the playoffs. Personally, I look forward to the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams more than the Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, etc. The five-man teams offer a good look at who the best players were from season to season long after they’re over and its minor details have left our memory. The rest of the awards are fine, but they can mean multiple things to multiple voters. That shows itself each year in the voting results and sometimes, well, things happen.
The Most Valuable Player is an easy example, but I actually wish the Sixth Man of the Year was like that, too. It’s an award given out to the best player who starts under half the games they’ve played in. That’s the only benchmark that needs to be met in order to be eligible for the award, but the trend for who wins has been just as simple. Sixth Man of the Year winners tend to be high-minute, high-scoring, and high-usage players. This might be fine for most fans and voters, but when I think of the Sixth Man of the Year I think of some sort of sacrifice being made, a player thriving in a limited role that could very well be the best situation for him, but also one performed well enough to deserve some sort of promotion. Looking at the voting results, this often applies to players who score a lot of points, but not for the better “gluey” or “energy” guys who find other ways to make positive contributions to their team.
That’s bugged me for a while, and especially during a season where the Jamal Crawfords of the league aren’t doing too hot yet still might get heavy consideration for the Sixth Man of the Year. I’ll admit that not starting can be a big deal on its own despite getting similar levels of minutes, shots, and crunch time appearances. There’s a human element to a player sitting on the bench during the beginning of a game and not having their name announced before it. It’s something I obviously will never grasp from the couch but also because of my comfort level with anything like that kind of attention. A few retweets on Twitter is fun, but anything more is kind of scary. The same goes for a blog post like this getting some views and some feedback, but if it reaches Reddit I become terrified.
But the Crawfords of the league will still put up a ton of shots, typically play starter-level minutes which boost their point totals, and for better or for worse they might play in crunch time. Not every professional basketball player can play a role like Crawford, but not everyone can contribute across the board either, and this year the latter deserves to finally get more recognition, but I doubt it’ll happen. Year after year, points per game seems to overpower any other statistic when it’s an unfair way to measure most reserves.
So I hope a few suggestions for the Sixth Man of the Year help. Also, it has to be said that I have an irrational love for multi-positional players who don’t shoot a ton, and some of these players expend too much energy to log 30-plus minutes. Anyway, I’m hoping the first suggestion becomes more of a benchmark for the Sixth Man of the Year…
24 Minutes Per Game or Less
Using per game stats feels gross, but minutes per game still carries value and is especially useful during award season. For this award, though, it wouldn’t hurt to go the other way around. Instead of the requirement being starting less than half of the games, what if it was changed to playing less than half of the game? It’s a very simple cutoff, one that evens the playing field for starters who don’t log a ton of playing time.
For example, below is a look at Amar’e Stoudemire and Hassan Whiteside from February 3 to April 4. Try to ignore who’s started during the last couple months and decide who really is the reserve, or sixth man:
This season is something of an outlier for situations like Stoudemire and Whiteside. 34 players have started over half their games while averaging under 24 minutes per, minimum 10 games played. That’s the highest amount in a season since 2006-07, around 10 more than any of those seasons except the lockout-shorted 2011-12. Meanwhile, 32 players who have started in less than half their games are averaging more than 24 minutes per.
If the 24 minutes per game ceiling made starters eligible for this award, they could pretty much replace the bench players who become disqualified.
So how would the Sixth Man of the Year race look if there was a 24 minutes per game ceiling? Below is a look at who the top candidates would be if this change was made, sorted by VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), via Basketball-Reference:
Not a bad group of players. When looking at VORP, the winner here is Nikola Jokic. When filtering out starters, the top player is Ed Davis. Both tables feature players who are solid but for health, age, or depth reasons have not cleared the 24-minute mark. Of course, this is only one statistic to measure by, but I’ve enjoyed fiddling around with it lately and it sounds cool, the latter reason about as good of a reason to judge a player by as points per game. Maybe. (This often seems so true for whenever Win Shares makes an appearance. It’s a darn good name for a stat.)
Going back in time, this minute benchmark would alter several Sixth Man Awards. Since 1983, only three averaged under 24 minutes per game: Bobby Jones, Bill Walton, and Corliss Williamson in 1983, 1986, and 2002. Here are links to the top players in VORP regardless of their frequency of starting games and a link filtering out players who started over half of their games.
Take Crunch Time Minutes Into Account
Just something to consider, but this could go either way in helping or hurting a player. Andre Iguodala, for example, may be penalized missing a decent chunk of games. Should he also be penalized for being a part of the Warriors’ death lineup or should that give him a boost? Is not starting as big of a deal as not being on the floor for the final minutes of a close game? Should players who neither start nor play in crunch time be given a boost or downgraded? What is life?
From the couch, it’s silly enough to decide what is sacrificing and what isn’t and it’s just as bad to decide which is more important for an NBA player between starting and finishing a game. My flaming hot take is that they both carry weight, but it seems like fans remember games and players by what happened during high-leverage moments at the end of games compared to how they started. There’s sacrifice when it comes to being fine with not starting, but it’s probably less of an issue if it means participating in crunch time. Especially in a contract year.
Dividing a player’s crunch time minutes (up or down by five or less points with five or less minutes remaining in a game) by a team’s total crunch time minutes is easy to find with players who have played in every game, but it’s kind of a hassle, at least for me, to calculate how many minutes a player like Manu Ginobili who get banged up or have frequent DNP-NAPs. So for this, I only took six eligible players who are at least something of a contender for the Sixth Man of the Year, whether it feels right or not. I also let the 24-minute filter slide because there are only so many players who have played close to 100 percent of the season so far, and only so many who happen to play less than half of the game and/or start less than half of their games. Crunch minutes are from NBA.com:
So maybe this graphic helps Enes Kanter, who does what he can without starting games or finishing them, but it hurts him because there are legitimate reasons for why he shouldn’t be on the floor against opposing closing lineups. It could go either way for him. Who knows? Just something to consider going forward.
My last thing to consider is usage rate, but it’s probably a bit much. I only threw this out there, though, because points per game seems to be the biggest component of who wins the Sixth Man of the Year. Below is a look at players eligible for Sixth Man of the Year with below-average usage rates, and then another top 10 when applying just a 24-minute-per-game filter. Again, sorted by VORP:
This all might be a collection of hot takes, and everyone is more than welcome to jump through their laptops and tell me to stahp and especially after writing the word “sacrifice” multiple times, but really I just hope for a better mix of players who make their way to the top of the Sixth Man each year. The key suggestion of 24 minutes per game or less would do just that. It might even be over the top, tilting things in favor of some players who can only be effective in so many minutes before they’re gassed, but we can fiddle with a minute ceiling. The bottom line is that it’s not just players who take a ton of shots who excel off the bench.
A player who fits well with all I’ve mentioned is Ed Davis. He doesn’t boost his stats by playing a starter’s amount of minutes, doesn’t log a whole lot of his minutes in crunch time (for better or for worse), and is a low-usage player who has found other ways to contribute while on the floor. It’s a weird year for the Sixth Man of the Year as Jamal Crawford hasn’t been his complete self, so hopefully that opens the door for Davis to get some votes that, in the past, haven’t really been there for reserves like him.
All stats are as of April 4, 2016.