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The Sixth Man Award Race

Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA TODAY Sports

The sixth-man role is meant to stand out and separate from the rest of the bench unit by definition. The role infers an excised importance. A sixth-man might be given the keys to run the team when the stars sit. At times they are tasked to be a sixth starter or crunch-time player. 

Over recent seasons being named the Sixth Man Award recipient has been boring. The most recent Sixth Man award winners, Tyler Herro and Jordan Clarkson have felt like foregone conclusions.  The award also struggles to rate because of the attention other awards draw. A boost this year for the eventual winner is being the first to win the award under its new name, The John Havlicek Sixth Man of the Year.

This race should be receiving quite a bit more buzz than it is getting with a new name and trophy design. The winner would join an esteemed list of winners, including Bill Walton, Detlef Schrempf, Anthony Mason, Jamal Crawford, and Montrezl Harrell(!)


The Prestige of the Sixth Man

The sixth-man lineage can be traced back to Havlicek and continued through Hall of Fame forward Bobby Jones. The first-ever player to win the award was Jones for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983. Jones was carving out his role coming off the bench with the 76ers starting in 1979 before the establishment of the award in the league.

Jones started in 73 games and was named an All-Star in the 1981-1982 season. The former Tar Hell was asked again to move to the bench after the team added reigning MVP Moses Malone to the team after the season was over. Jones could have been disgruntled and wasn’t.

 The Sixers went on to win the NBA Finals in the very same season. 

The award has taken an interesting journey since then. Many players of various shapes, sizes, and positions, including the legendary Rickey Pierce, won the honor after 1986. Pierce averaged the highest points per game for a sixth man back in 1989-90 with 23 points a game. Jason Terry somewhat tested the limits of what it means to be a sixth-man. Terry played the most of any Sixth-Man winner in 2008-2009. The Jet averaged 33.7 minutes a game.


More Than An Individual Award

The numbers reveal that the winner usually correlates with team success. The central theme told over the forty-one years of the award’s history is that the team the recipient plays for almost always made the playoffs. The only teams not to make the playoffs are Dell Curry’s 1993-1994 Charlotte Hornets and Lou Williams’s 2017-2018 Los Angeles Clippers. The team the award winner plays for wins, on average, about 49 games a year. 

The award also fits the “eye test.” It checks out that Toni Kukoc won the award on the 72-win Chicago Bulls team. Same as when Manu Ginobili won as a member of the 2008 San Antonio Spurs. Those teams had all-time great superstars at the top of their rosters, but Kukoc and Ginobili exemplified great teams’ depth. That’s what dominates.

This season Malcolm Brogdon and Norman Powell have separated themselves as the two lead contenders for the league’s best reserve player.


Sixth Man Contenders

Brogdon is averaging around 15 ppg, 4 rpg, and 4 apg in his first season with the Boston Celtics. The Georgia native has revitalized the bench unit as the leading scorer and playmaker. Brogdon’s presence has been even more important in the last month. The Boston Celtics have been without starting point guard Marcus Smart until recently.

Brogdon isn’t flashy regarding shoes and accessories on the court. The Virginia product’s physicality and aggression have captured opposing defenses’ attention all season. The Celtics have a staggering .689 winning percentage in the 58 games Brogdon has appeared in this season. 

On the opposite coast sits the Los Angeles Clippers guard Powell. Powell is averaging around 17 ppg, 3 rpg, and two apg in 54 games. The UCLA product is also placed in the top-25 shooting percentage from behind the three-point arc this season. Powell is one of the main reasons the Clippers kept their team afloat. There wasn’t much to cheer about for Clippers fans early on in the season.

A .500 record and Kawhi Leonard not playing had everyone questioning if the team would even make the play-in. Powell has remained a steadying offensive presence for the Clippers despite the roster changing around him a bit and getting healthier. Powell has missed his last four games with a shoulder injury. If he is able to return for the last stretch of the season, Powell’s resume is hard to argue against.


Immanuel Quickley Has Entered the Chat

Immanuel Quickley’s campaign arrow started pointing up when he skipped his way to a 38-point performance earlier this month. The former Kentucky Wildcat has been solid all season for the New York Knicks in his third year for the team.

Quickley has really taken off since Christmas. Quickley is averaging 16 ppg, 4 rpg, and close to 3 ppg in 36 games since then.

A massive improvement for Quickley this year is his individual defense. Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau supports Quickley’s progress. The peppery Thibodeau uses Quickley in a quartet with Josh Hart, Quentin Grimes, and RJ Barrett as on-ball hounds. Any Thibs-run team is going to have players who are willing to play until their soles wear out. Quickley is undoubtedly one of them. IQ will be considered if the Knicks can end strong to end the season. 



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