Jamal Crawford has won eight of the last 14 Sixth Man of the Year awards.
Let that sink in. Would you ever want Jamal Crawford on your basketball team? Could you win a championship if you gave him 25 minutes per game? Could you make the conference finals?
History says no, because in 17 seasons, it has literally never happened. There are obviously other factors that go into a team’s ultimate demise, and Crawford has never played for a juggernaut, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s never really helped make his team one either. Players who can make 41 percent of their field goals and 35 percent of their three-pointers aren’t exactly in high demand. Throw a dart at the Nuggets roster and you’ll probably find one.
Technically, Crawford hasn’t won eight Sixth Man of the Year awards. I just refuse to make the distinction between him, Lou Williams, J.R. Smith, Leandro Barbosa, Ben Gordon and Bobby Jackson. They’re the same goddamn player. I couldn’t care less how those eight awards are distributed amongst them.
Why do we continue to make this mistake? What evidence is there that having someone on your bench score a bunch of points actually matters?
It’s not like champions often have that kind of player. The Cavs didn’t last year. Their highest scorer on the bench was Mo Williams at just over eight points per game. The Warriors didn’t have that player either. Crawford averaged 14.2 points per game last season in a win we all called lackluster. Do you want to guess how many championship teams over the past three decades have had a bench player average that many points per game? The answer is two: the 2011 Mavericks (Jason Terry), and the 2007 Spurs (Manu Ginóbili). And, let’s not do Manu the disservice of lumping him in with the above group.
There is no evidence that this is a valuable archetype of player. And yet, they keep winning the award. Why?
Here’s a thought: maybe we should give Sixth Man of the Year to the best bench player in the league. We know that Andre Iguodala is that player. There is no question. He is the best defensive player in basketball to come off of the bench and leads all bench players in Win Shares. He has the sixth-highest effective field goal percentage, but took more shots than anyone above him. And, he finished 11th in total assists despite playing on a team with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green.
We don’t get that many gimmes when it comes to awards season. Let’s take the easy ones where we can. We know Andre Iguodala is the best bench player in basketball. Virtually no one will dispute that. So why should it matter that he doesn’t score that many points? The award is not “Sixth Man Who Scores the Most Points,” it’s Sixth Man of the Year. Any team in basketball would trade their sixth man for Iguodala for just this season. That’s the answer to the question. It’s really that simple.
The Rest of My Ballot…
2. James Johnson: Johnson was something of an Iguodala-lite for Miami this season. He played the majority of games and served as a gap-filler, protecting the rim when Hassan Whiteside sat and defending the perimeter when he didn’t, providing a measure of secondary playmaking on a team that sorely needed it, rebounding more than he ever has and developing into enough of a three-point threat that opponents had to actually guard him on the perimeter (much as Iguodala had to once he joined the Warriors). He is going to get paid this summer as someone looks for him to fill a role somewhat similar to Iguodala’s. And if he’s not starting, there’s a good chance he competes for this award for the next few years.
3. Eric Gordon: Gordon isn’t Crawford. He’s actually a somewhat efficient scorer and offers more as a playmaker and on defense than Jamal does. Plus, he’s the catalyst behind a stat that might cost James Harden the MVP. Houston’s net rating dropped only 3.5 points per 100 possessions when Harden sat. That’s essentially because Gordon was so good that when you factor in the bench players he was playing against, there really wasn’t much of a drop off without Harden. If Harden’s backup were worse, that stat would be much more egregious and he might be an MVP lock right now. He has been exactly what Houston needed out of their third guard, capable of playing both with and without Harden while stabilizing bench units that hemorrhaged points last season.
4. Patty Mills: Mills is a starter dressed as a backup. This is a pretty common Spurs phenomenon, however. They do it for the sake of continuity and to protect the bench against teams that stagger stars. But Mills will be closing playoff games for the Spurs over Tony Parker. He is their best point guard, and he does everything you’d want out of a backup running an offense. San Antonio is the one team that might not trade Mills for Iguodala. He is too important in maintaining the Spurs’ system when Parker, and to a greater extent Kawhi Leonard, sit.
5. Greg Monroe: I really, really wanted to sneak Joe Ingles onto the ballot. But, even his improved defense is probably a year away and his role in Utah’s bench lineups is much more participatory than Monroe, who is an actual fulcrum for the nightly Hindenburg that is “Milwaukee’s offense when Giannis rests.” When both Monroe and Giannis are out, Milwaukee’s offense scores one point per possession on the dot. Put another way: lower than the Sixers and any other team in the NBA.
But Monroe’s scoring anchors those lineups and his passing inspires them. He’s not particularly dissimilar to Marc Gasol in that sense. Additionally his defense has worked its way up to league-average, if not slightly better. Monroe never turned into the franchise-altering star the Bucks had hoped for, but he fills a vital role. That’s what this award is all about.