For the past five seasons, it’s nearly been a two-horse race for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.
Lou Williams, who won his second award for the 2017-18 season for the Los Angeles Clippers, beat out the likes of Jamal Crawford, who has also won it twice in the last five seasons and is the overall leader in 6MOY awards with three (his first was in 2010).
Williams won it based on superb totals of 22.6 points, 5.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game in 79 games, just 19 of them starts and an average 32.8 minutes per game. Crawford, who last won in 2016, had 10.3 PPG and 2.3 assists in 80 games for Minnesota (zero starts, 20.7 minutes per game).
In basketball, bench depth, then, can be the difference between being great or mediocre. The line is that fine.
The NBA is full of reserve players, who, while they aren’t top shelf starting material, have no problem watching the action to start and then jumping in to help create offence or play superb defence.
Here are some of the best in the game today, in no particular order.
PF Jae Crowder – Utah Jazz
For a young guy, 28-year-old Jae Crowder sure is well-traveled. In just six seasons, he has played with four different teams, his current stop with Utah after a three-team trade involving his old team, Cleveland and Sacramento. We believe he is valued and not a locker room cancer, in that after alternating between reserve and starter his first five seasons, he became valuable as a Sixth Man in 2017-18. In 27 games with Utah after the swap, none of them starts, Crowder logged 11.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.9 steals. He was pretty good in 11 playoff starts for the Jazz (two starts), registering 10.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.4 steals. In Utah’s only win over Houston in round 2 of the playoffs, Crowder had a double-double — the only one of his whole season — scoring 15 points and adding 10 rebounds.
SF/SG Marco Belinelli – San Antonio Spurs
Swingman Marco Belinelli has seen a lot of the NBA in his 11 seasons and for the second time will be a reserve small forward/shooting guard with the San Antonio Spurs. The native of Bologna, Italy has made nine stops in the big league, including two years with the Spurs from 2013-15 and most recently a split campaign with Atlanta and Philadelphia. In his joint season with the Hawks and 76ers, Belinelli saw action in 80 games, two of them starts and averaged 24.3 minutes of floor time. He averaged a respectable 12.1 points per game and shot 37.7 percent from three point range, including career high three-point attempts (395) and shots made (149). He was a valuable contributor off the bench in 10 playoff games too, averaging 12.6 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists and shooting 34.8 percent from beyond the arc.
PG Fred VanVleet – Toronto Raptors
In terms of reserve point guards, the Raptors have an ever-improving diamond in Fred VanVleet. An unheralded and undrafted guard out of Wichita State, VanVleet has made his presence on the Raptors felt measurably. In relief of Kyle Lowry in 2017-18 he scored 8.6 points per game, dished out 3.2 assists and had 0.9 steals in 76 games (zero starts, 20.0 minutes average floor time). The first and second halves of his 2017-18 campaign were like night and day, or rather, pre-All-Star game he averaged 8.1 points and 3.1 assists (54 games) and post-All-Star he logged 10.0 points and 3.5 assists in 22 games. VanVleet was also a very efficient three-point shooter last year, hitting an impressive 108 out of 261 attempts for a 41.4 percent average. He received a few votes for 6th Man of the Year based on those results, too.
PG Terry Rozier – Boston Celtics
Just ahead of Fred VanVleet among dynamic Eastern Conference point guards is Boston’s Terry Rozier. The former first round pick out of Louisville (16th overall, 2015) has been a stalwart off the bench and did a great job when Kyrie Irving wasn’t available. In 80 games last season, 16 of them starts, Rozier averaged career highs in points (11.3), rebounds (4.7), assists (2.9), steals (1.0) and three-point shooting percentage (38.1). While he didn’t have any double-doubles off the bench — he was close several times — Rozier did have a triple-double in a start, with 17 points 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a mid-season win over the Knicks. He was fairly excellent in the playoffs, registering a double-double against Cleveland (16 points, 11 assists) and shot 34.7 from beyond the arc despite a 0-for-10 in Boston’s last game.
PG D.J. Augustin – Orlando Magic
Augustin is one of those under-the-radar types who has been around and won’t raise many antennae until he’s burning a team on the court. He has had enough game to stick around for 726 NBA games with eight different clubs, including his current one, the Magic. He’s been a solid contributor in central Florida for two seasons and in 2017-18 put up good numbers both as a starter and reserve (75 games, 36 starts, 23.5 minutes average). Augustin registered 10.2 points per game, with 3.8 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 41.9 percent efficiency from three-point territory. It was a renaissance year of sorts for the former first round (9th overall) pick of the Charlotte Hornets, as he recorded his first two double-doubles since the 2015-16 season and now has 24 career.
SF Caris LeVert – Brooklyn Nets
It has to be tough playing on a non-contending team, especially coming off the bench. By most counts, two-year pro Caris LeVert, who had to overcome serious injury to play in the NBA, has handled it well. Playing behind Allen Crabbe, the former Michigan Wolverines star and 20th overall pick in the 2016 draft spelled him more than adequately in 2017-18. In addition to shooting 34.7 percent from three-point range, LeVert averaged 12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals in 71 games (10 starts, 26.3 minutes). He raised his stock from his rookie season, too, by registering his first three double-doubles last season, the last being a superb 19-point, 12-rebound, 8-assist performance in a win over Miami in late March.
PF Nikola Mirotic – New Orleans Pelicans
Originally, former Bulls sixth man Mirotic was thought to be the starter in ‘Nawlins ahead of fellow newcomer Julius Randle. However, it looks like the talented Montenegran is more well suited to coming off the bench to work his magic. He saw action in 55 games last season and established career best in points per game (15.6) and rebounds (7.4). Mirotic was very good after a mid-season trade that saw him come over from the Bulls after 25 contests, especially in the team’s short playoff run. In nine post-season contests, Mirotic scored 15.0 points and had 9.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals and an outstanding 43.1 percent success rate from beyond the arc. After registering 12 double-doubles between New Orleans and Chicago, Mirotic had three in the playoffs (and just missed a fourth). His signature effort came in game 1 against Portland in the first round when he recorded 16 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two steals and four blocks.
PF Frank Kaminsky – Charlotte Hornets
It’s put up, or shut up time for former University of Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky. Slotted in behind veteran power forward Marvin Williams, Kaminsky will be playing for a contract as he will be a restricted free agent next year (Charlotte can qualify him with a contract any time). The former ninth overall pick has been good in three seasons with Charlotte, but not great, yet. He has averaged 10.0 points in 235 games (23 starts), which is good, but only 4.1 rebounds, which isn’t so good for a 7-footer who can play center too. His shooting percentages have fluctuated, though he did have a career high 42.9 percent average last season, as well as 38 percent from three-point territory. Being as it’s a contract year, we’re going to bet Kaminsky is going to be even better in a depth role.
PG/SG Jamal Crawford – Free Agent
For a guy who has won the most 6MOY awards (3) in his career, it doesn’t compute that Jamal Crawford is still without a contract heading into the 2018-19 season. At 38 he may have slowed down a touch, but is still one of the best back-up guards in the game. He was durable enough to play 80 games with Minnesota last season and average 20.7 minutes floor time. He made the most of it, scoring 10.3 points, 2.3 assists and shooting 33.1 from three-point range. He was even better in five playoff games (even outplaying Jimmy Butler), dropping 11.8 points and adding 2.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 41.2 percent effectiveness from three-point territory. Crawford, who was top sixth man in 2010, 2014 and 2016, had been linked to a few teams, including San Antonio, the Lakers, Golden State, Philadelphia and even Boston.
PF Bobby Portis – Chicago Bulls
Opportunity knocks for fourth-year man Portis this season, in more ways than one. Entering his contract year before becoming RFA, Portis will have the chance to start every day in place of injured super sophomore Lauri Markkanen, who will miss up to six-seven weeks with an elbow injury. Portis, a first rounder (22nd overall) out of Arkansas, kicked things up a notch in 2017-18, nearly doubling his points per game from 2016-17 (13.2 to 6.8), while also recording 6.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals and 47.1 percent field goal shooting in 73 games (four starts). All those numbers were career bests, too and as well he had a three-season high 12 double-doubles. Portis most complete double-double occurred during a loss to Philadelphia in January, when he had 22 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and three steals.
PG/SG Malcolm Brogdon – Milwaukee Bucks
As a point producer, Malcolm Brogdon has been one of the better sixth men in the NBA in his two seasons, averaging 11.3 points and shooting 46.9 percent from the field in 123 games (48 starts). Where he needs to improve — and where he was so good at the University of Virginia — is at overall defence. Heading into his third campaign after an injury-plagued 2017-18 season, Brogdon has to get his defensive win shares back to collegiate levels. He was just 0.7 in DWS last season, after being anywhere from 2.1 to 3.0 in his last three seasons with the NCAA’s Cavaliers. Brogdon wasn’t all bad in his 48 games last year, registering 13.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals and 38.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. In 13 playoff games over two seasons, Brogdon has put up 8.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 37.5 percent three-point effectiveness.
PG/SG Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics
Newly signed to a big four-year deal, Celtics point guard Smart has got right down to business in the meaningless pre-season. He got the heave-ho after defending teammate Aron Baynes, who was the victim of a hard foul from Cleveland Cavaliers super-pest J.R. Smith. There were some choice post-game words, too, which should make the first Cavs-Celts match in November a good one. Other than being able to smack talk a good game, Smart smart has been very efficient, especially after spending most of his time at the two in his last couple of seasons. In those two campaigns, the former sixth overall pick out of Oklahoma State has beefed up his scoring average nearly two points from his first two season in Boston, from 8.5 to 10.4. Last season, he registered 10.2 points in 54 games (11 starts), with a career high 4.8 assists and 1.3 steals. Smart shared the ball very well in the 2017-18 post-season, dishing out 5.3 assists per game in 15 contests, along with 9.8 points, 1.7 steals and 3.7 rebounds.
PF/C Kelly Olynyk – Miami Heat
Olynyk, a Gonzaga grad and native of Toronto, is like having a Swiss Army knife around. The former 13th overall pick of the Dallas Mavericks is a 7-footer who can play power forward and center, shoot threes with a better-than-average accuracy (37.9 percent efficient in 354 NBA games) and defend the rim very well in limited floor time (4.9 rebounds per game, career, in 21.3 minutes floor time). Last year, his first with Miami and fifth in the NBA, Olynyk broke out, establishing career marks in games (76, including 22 starts), points (11.5), rebounds (5.7) and assists (2.7). In the Heat’s limited five-game run in the playoffs against Philadelphia, Olynyk played very well in a reserve role, especially in a 130-103 game 1 loss. He led all Heat scorers with 26 points off the bench and chipped in seven rebounds, two assists and a block.
SG/SF Kyle Korver – Cleveland Cavaliers
There are few true swing men out there that can rival Kyle Korver as a shooter off the bench. Formerly a started in Atlanta (and a reserve with three other teams before that), the 37-year-old veteran of 15 NBA seasons has settle in nicely as Cleveland’s jack-of-all-trades reserve shooting guard/power forward/small forward. The 51st overall selection from the 2003 draft (New Jersey Nets) has led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage four times in his career and last season he finished tied for sixth. Korver hit 164 of 376 three-point attempts for a sterling 43.6 percent average. He followed that up by going 45-for-109 (41.3 percent) in Cleveland’s 22 post-season games. He slots in behind Rodney Hood at small forward this season and will have a hand in any success the LeBron-less Cavs have in 2018-19.
PG/SG Lou Williams – Los Angeles Clippers
In our opinion, Lou Williams is “Mr. Sixth Man.” The reigning 6MOY winner, who also won in 2014-15, was the NBA’s most prolific scorer off the bench last season, establishing a career best 22.6 points per game in 79 contests, 19 of them in a starting role. Not only did he enjoy establish that career mark, but he also tied the departed Blake Griffin for the team lead in PPG. Add to that the fact Williams also set a personal best in assists with 5.3 per game for the Clippers (which was second to Griffin). Not done there, Williams posted seven double-doubles in 2017-18, which was also a personal high. Williams had a whale of a game in win over Memphis in late January, pouring in 40 points, with 10 assists, four steals and a block. It is a tribute to the former 45th overall pick (2005, Philadelphia) that he has been able to remain consistent throughout most of his 13-year career while wearing the jersey of six different teams.
PG J.J. Barea – Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs liked Puerto Rican guard J.J. Barea so much, they brought him back for a second go around. The 34-year-old 1/2 guard has been very resilient in the last four seasons with Dallas and has not shown any signs of a decline in his game. In fact, last year Barea came off the bench to score career highs in points with 11.6 per game (69 games, 10 starts) and assists with 6.3 (which was good enough to finish 12th overall in the NBA). The undrafted former Northeastern University standout also fired his most three-point attempts in 12 campaigns with 313, dropping 115 for an admirable efficiency rate of 36.7 percent. Playing behind Dennis Smith Jr. and a free agent next summer, Barea does have motivation to do well if he intends on garnering interest and playing beyond the 2018-19 season — his 13th in the NBA.
C/PF Domantas Sabonis – Indiana Pacers
The surprising Pacers had a host of good young players to draw production from last season, not the least of who is 22-year-old Gonzaga product Sabonis. The Portland native had an outstanding sophomore season, playing in 74 games and starting 19, with 24.5 minutes average floor time. He easily eclipsed his modest rookie numbers with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016-17, logging 11.6 points per game, as well as 7.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 51.4 percent shooting from the floor last year. It was a watershed year, too, double-double wise, as the Portland, OR native registered 15 such performances. Sabonis was also good in the post-season, averaging 12.4 points in seven games (23.7 minutes floor time) and adding 4.6 rebounds.
PF Trey Lyles – Denver Nuggets
The Utah Jazz may have won the trade that netted them the rights to Donovan Mitchell in 2017, for now, but in the long run Denver may have a player of some stature in reserve power forward Lyles. The third-year man out of Kentucky, who was drafted 12th overall by the Jazz in 2015, made the most of his 19.1 minutes per game in 71 NBA contests last season with the Nuggets. He scored a career high 9.9 points per game and added bests in rebounds (4.8), assists (1.2), blocks (0.5) and field goal percentage (49.1 percent). The Saskatoon, SK native also posted six double-doubles, including a 15-point, 10-rebound, three-assist performance in a victory over Golden State in early February. Lyles is no. 2 to veteran power forward Paul Millsap and if he hangs around after restricted free agency next year, he will be an important part of a very good, young Denver team in the future.
PG/SG Eric Gordon – Houston Rockets
We think it’s a pretty comfortable place, playing in the shadow of MVP shooting guard James Harden. That player would be veteran guard Gordon, who enjoyed one of his best seasons since a breakout year with the Clippers in 2010-11. In 69 games with the Rockets (30 starts), Gordon logged 18 points per game and added 2.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists. He continued his torrid three-point shooting as a member of the Rockets, tossing up 608 attempts and sinking 218 of them for a 35.9 percent efficiency rate. He cranked up the three-machine again in the post-season, dropping 43 out of 130 attempts (33.1 percent) and finishing with 15.4 PPG in 17 contests. He is highly regarded, if the trade rumor sending him and P.J. Tucker to Minnesota for Jimmy Butler holds any water.
SF Andre Iguodala – Golden State Warriors
Before KD, the Warriors relied on the still formidable talents of Andre Iguodala. As it is the 14-year veteran has settled comfortably into a back-up role with the defending champion Dubs, right behind Kevin Durant. A two-time member of the NBA All-Defensive team, Iguodala was a solid contributor on a star-studded Golden State team last season. In 64 games (seven starts), Iggy averaged 6.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.8 steals while shooting 46.3 percent from the floor. He actually started 12 of his 15 post-season games with the champion Warriors (they went with a big configuration in the absence of Steph Curry early) and in those contests averaged 8.1 points on 49.4 percent shooting, as well as 4.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.4 steals. He still has two years left on a three-year, $48 million contract.