The NBA Sixth Man of the Year award recognizes the importance of
a key player who contributes like a starter despite coming off the
bench. Over the last decade, with only one exception (Lou Williams
in 2018), nine of the 10 award-winners were a part of a playoff
It's fair to say that the Sixth Man of the Year must contribute
to a high level of winning.
There is another commonality between the winners of the award
over the last 10 seasons: All but one of them have been high-volume
guards — Tyler Herro, Jordan Clarkson, Williams (3x), Jamal
Crawford (2x), Eric Gordon and JR Smith (with the one anamoly being
Zooming out more, over the last 20 seasons, 17 of the winners
were listed as a "shooting guard." Harrell, Lamar Odom and Antawn
Jamison were the other three award-winners in that span.
Each of these guards had one job when they came into the game:
Get buckets. Every award-winner averaged at least 14 points per
game on 40% from the field or better, and 70% of the winners scored
more than 18 points per contest. This is often good enough for a
top-three scoring season on an individual's team, thus highlighting
the important impact they have off the bench.
But what is the Sixth Man of the Year award
really about? Is it about a player's total impact off
the bench? Is it the contribution to winning? Or is it merely the
ability to score a lot of points while not being in the starting
The only legitimate qualification for the award is playing with
the second unit more than being in the actual starting five. In
2016-17, while Gordon only started 15 games, he was third on the
team in minutes played. Herro was also third in minutes for the
Miami Heat this past season.
Volume. Volume. Volume.
However, the Sixth Man of the Year award should look beyond the
volume scorers by default and focus on those bench players who have
a high-level impact on winning teams.
Take, for instance, Tyus Jones. The Memphis Grizzlies finished
with the second-best record in the NBA last season (56-26). Yes,
Memphis has a budding superstar in Ja Morant, but the Grizzlies are
not where they are today without Jones.
Jones led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (7.04) by almost 2
assists over the next closest player — his brother, San Antonio
Spurs guard Tre Jones (5.07). Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins
has been able to entrust his offense to Tyus with the second unit
to the point where Memphis finished with the second-highest scoring
average in the NBA last season at 115.6 points per game.
Last season's Sixth Man award-winner was Herro, who had a net
rating of plus-5.3. While net rating is more of a team stat, it
does indicate that his team was better by more than 5 points per
100 possessions when he was on the floor. In comparison, the
Grizzlies were 7.6 points per 100 possessions better than their
opponent when Jones was on the floor.
“He’s just a great connector out there. I love the spirit [and]
leadership he plays with, the way he moves the ball,” Jenkins said
after the playoff-opening loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves
last season. “Obviously when he’s played a bigger role, he’s filled
those shoes brilliantly. He plays so well, plays great team
The Grizzlies were also 17-6 in the games in which Jones had to
step in, replacing an All-NBA player in Morant due to injury. Herro
only started 10 games in Miami last season, and the Heat were 5-5
in those contests. Further, Herro was playing a less crucial
position than Jones and replacing a less depended-upon player.
In those 23 contests in which Jones started, he averaged 12.7
points and 6.6 assists per game. Memphis had an improved Offensive
Rating and Defensive Rating compared to his time off the bench,
good for plus-14.1 per 100 possessions with Tyus starting. In
Herro's 10 starts, his scoring average decreased slightly. (His
assists did bump to 4.4 helpers a night, though.)
However, in essence, when Jones was called upon to start, he
elevated his play with his increased minutes. Herro's starts were
essentially on par with his production off the bench, and Miami saw
a significant decrease in both ORTG and DRTG with him as a starter;
now, this is partly due to who may have been absent from the
lineup. Nonetheless, Herro's impact fell well short of Jones when
you look beyond pure scoring.
A prime example of the "impact winning" argument comes from the
Utah Jazz in 2020-21, in which both Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles
were up for Sixth Man of the Year. (One of them clearly had to be
the seventh man, right?)
Clarkson was top-three in just two categories for the Jazz,
points per game and steals per game; meanwhile, Ingles was
top-three in assists, Offensive Rating, three-point percentage,
Offensive Plus-Minus and Win Shares. So while Clarkson outscored
Ingles by an average of 6 points per game, it certainly seems that
Ingles had a bigger impact on winning each game.
The NBA is full of nuance. The MVP has always been a nuanced
conversation, where statistics and impact beyond basic scoring are
weighed and valued. The MVP off the bench should also be deeper
than just being a "bucket-getter."
Guys like Joe Ingles in 2020 and Tyus Jones over the last couple
of years are an example of some of the most important players off
the bench in the entire Association, and it could lead the latter
to some golden hardware this season.