The NBA sixth man is an important part of any team, but it’s not a demotion, as some (cough cough Allen Iverson cough) would think it to be. It seems weird to me that they keep track of starts when finishes are much more important.
After all, unless you really love hearing your name and college boomed over the loudspeaker more than winning (cough cough cough Allen Iverson, does anyone have any cough drops?), the main goal is to help your team, you don’t care about your minutes if the W’s are piling up.
And make no mistake, a well-used sixth man is absolutely essential for success in basketball. Your starters (and superstars) can’t play 48 minutes, 82 games. And if the drop-off is too great without your superstar, you just aren’t going to win much.
Ask LeBron James, who has suffered through weaker supporting casts than Johnny Depp in “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” During their Finals run, they were depending on people like Eric Snow and Sasha Pavlovic to pick up the slack.
Take a look at the last few NBA Sixth Man of the Year awards. Starting in 2000-01, Aaron McKie (76ers), Corliss Williamson (Pistons), Bobby Jackson (Kings), Antawn Jamison (Mavericks), Ben Gordon (Bulls), Mike Miller (Grizzlies), Leandro Barbosa (Suns), Manu Ginobili (Spurs) and Jason Terry (Mavericks).
Every team on that list made the playoffs that year, and most teams advanced past the first round. Gordon and Jamison are now legit starters in the league, and Mike Miller, Jason Terry and Manu Ginobili could all be starters.
Take a look at the last few champions. The Lakers had Lamar Odom, who could be a starter almost anywhere in the league, coming off the bench, and he has the offensive skill set to provide the Lakers with exactly the boost they needed when giving Ariza, Bynum or Gasol a rest.
The year before, the Celtics had people like Glen “Big Baby” Davis, James Posey, Leon Powe and Eddie House coming off the bench, and each of them were instrumental in getting the Celtics their championship.
Now, of course, the game is all about the stars. After all, it’s unlikely that Posey or House would have signed with the Celtics at the discount they did if they didn’t already have the troika of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen there. But solid role players are what championship teams are made of.
What’s interesting about a good sixth man is that they really are only “sixth” men because they aren’t on the floor at the start of the game. It’s interesting to me that starting seems to have all the prestige, but to be on the floor during crunch time is much more a testament to your skills than a start is.
You think Manu Ginobili or Jason Terry is riding the pine during a close game? Me neither. Rather, they come off the bench for a specific purpose, and stay on the court for an extended period of time.
That’s what a sixth man does, he comes out to provide a spark, just when the adrenaline from the tip-off is fading. Now, it can be different things, but usually the sixth man is generally there for the offensive spark, to replace a defensive starter.
Take the Spurs. Keith Bogans has started all but four games for the Spurs, yet he only averages less than four points per game. But if he can set a defensive tone for the Spurs by guarding the Kobes and Brandon Roys of the world, then the Spurs will take that.
The Spurs have enough weapons on the floor with Duncan and Parker (especially Parker) carrying the offensive load early, and hopefully a defender like Bogans can just hit the open three, and keep the other team’s defender from getting into an early rhythm.
The Mavericks do the same with Quinton Ross when he’s healthy. He guards the other team’s shooting guard (or even small forward), and doesn’t shoot the ball; but if he’s able to jar the other shooter out of a rhythm, sometimes that can last a quarter, a half or the whole game, and that pays dividends down the road.
Jason Terry, while a hot and cold shooter, can come off the bench and start draining threes. Ginobili can come in and immediately start driving to the hole, Lamar Odom can come in and replace someone like Gasol or Bynum (if Gasol moves to center) and brings a set of ball handling skills that Gasol doesn’t have.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have a good situation coming off the bench as well, with Delonte West or Anthony Parker, who can both shoot the three, coming in to help spread the floor if LeBron isn’t getting good penetration.
The Washington Wizards are another interesting case, because they have a lot of talent and they’re still finding out ways to use it. When Randy Foye was healthy, he used to come off the bench when they would move Gilbert Arenas to the 2-guard, and that was a more natural fit for the Wizards than having Agent Zero running point alongside someone like Mike Miller (more of a spot-up shooter) or Nick Young (a straight-up gunner).
They also use their frontcourt depth in different ways with Brendan Haywood as a rebounder, Andray Blatche as an outside threat and JaVale McGee as a paint defender.
But here’s the rub. The Wizards, though they have depth, don’t have defined roles for these guys, which is why they’re currently languishing at the bottom of the Southeast division.
Personally, I would start Gilbert at the 2, Foye at the point and have Mike Miller come off the bench as a shooter. Now, that’s ideal when they’re all healthy, but it’s a blueprint.
The Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs have more of a defined hierarchy of who comes off the bench first, and barring any weird mismatch, they stick to that.
The Pistons have gotten themselves in quite a pickle the last few years at the shooting guard position. With the signing of Ben Gordon, a guy who does nothing but shoot, when they have Rip Hamilton already there, it’s going to be interesting to see who comes off the bench.
They haven’t had to deal with it of late with Hamilton out with an ankle injury, but the time will come. I would say bring Gordon off the bench, since he is a straight gunner, and Hamilton can work around the offense more, and also play defense.
But this isn’t the first time the Pistons have had a logjam at the shooting guard position. Last year, as we all remember, they traded point guard Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, who isn’t exactly a guy who runs a well-oiled offense.
They already have a good shooting guard, who is the perfect guard to catch and shoot off the pick and roll in Rip Hamilton. But when they got Iverson and lost Chauncey Billups, suddenly they had a choice to make.
Start Iverson at the point (even though he doesn’t pass) and sit Rodney Stuckey, or start Iverson at the 2, and bring Hamilton off the bench, even though Iverson’s isolation-based attack designed to beat people off the dribble isn’t the way the Pistons have traditionally played in the past few years?
Lord knows you can’t bring Iverson off the bench, even though it would have been better for the team since Iverson brings scoring off the bench.
He ran into the same thing as in Memphis, where he would have been a good change of pace from the longer, more athletic O.J. Mayo. But alas, we never got to see it.
The term “sixth man” is somewhat of a misnomer, because good “bench” players often play starter’s minutes. As I said before, they’re on the floor with the starters during crunch time, so often times they’re more of a factor than the people who actually start.
For players who care about winning, they don’t care about who actually starts the game. They want to be out there when the game is on the line, as the clock is winding down.
Actually, scratch that. A player that cares about winning doesn’t care about being on the court at a specific time, as long as there are wins. Which is why it’s refreshing to see a career starter like Odom, Ginobili and Terry willingly take a backseat (if you can call it that) to help the team better.
It shows a trust in teammates, a trust in your coach, and as we’ve seen from the results, it shows us that it’s truly the winning attitude.