by Brad Winter
The NBA’s annual Sixth Man of the Year award is stupid.
Who the hell gives someone a trophy for not being one of the best five players on his team? The National Basketball Association, apparently.
Though, the worst part of the prize isn’t what it represents, but merely, who receives the award each season.
In the late ‘50s, Red Auerbach essentially invented the term ‘sixth man’ when he decided to bring the free-scoring Frank Ramsey off the bench. He did so not because Ramsey wasn’t one of his squad’s best five players but because Red felt that he was best utilized as an impact substitution who could sway the momentum of each game with his fresh legs. Ramsey’s contributions off the bench were absolutely vital to Boston’s seven championships during his tenure, and it has to be said that Bill Russell’s ring count would probably be slightly smaller without him.
What Ramsey did for his teams as the NBA’s original sixth man should be what the award is given for. The Sixth Man of the Year should be given to the player who affects his team’s performance in the most positive manner—like Ramsey did. On top of that, it should go to someone who is a part of a team that is successful; having a positive impact on a game is ultimately fruitless unless your team wins.
In essence, the criteria for determining the Sixth Man of the Year should be the same as the MVP. Whoever does the most to contribute towards wins for their respective team, should take it.
However, rarely do we see a Sixth Man of the Year winner fit that description. Instead, the media votes for the guys who put up the most points and post the most glamorous stat-lines, not necessarily the guys that actually make their team better when they are inserted. If media members interviewed candidates, I’m guessing this is how the conversation would flow:
MEDIA MEMBER: “Hi there, do you come off the bench?”
MM: “Excellent! Do you score around 15 points per game?”
MM: “Great! Are you efficient in literally any aspect of your play?”
C: “No, why would I bother?””
MM: “Don’t worry ‘bout it! Final question: do you play any defen—oh, who cares.”
Basically, if you’re a ball-hog who comes off the bench on most nights, you’ve got a great chance of taking the award home.
This is exactly why Jamal Crawford won the award over the more deserving player, Andre Iguodala, last season: Crawford’s 14.2 points per game and silky smooth handles are certainly friendlier on the eyes than Iggy’s hard-nosed defense and unremarkable 7 points, 4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.
But what most voters failed to realize last season is that Crawford not only shot 40 percent from the floor and played awful defense, but the team was just plain worse with him on the floor—the Clippers were 6.2 points per 100 possessions better with Crawford off the court. Plus/minus numbers aren’t perfect by any means (they obviously don’t incorporate context), but I think that anyone who watched a Clippers game last season would tell you that the team was simply better with Crawford riding the bench. Despite his wonderful numbers, Crawford didn’t fulfil Auerbach’s vision for a sixth man.
Iguodala’s role with the Warriors, on the other hand, was paramount to their success. Their regular* starting lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Andrew Bogut outscored opponents by 13.3 points per 100, but when Iguodala replaced Barnes in that lineup, that number jumped all the way up to 30.9. Like Frank Ramsey, Iguodala and his Swiss Army Knife skill set lifted his team’s performance every game. It’s also important to note that Crawford was filling his sixth man duties on a team that went 53-29, while Iguodala’s Warriors broke the regular-season wins record.
I think it’s pretty safe to say Iguodala was the real Sixth Man of the Year. I also think it’s pretty safe to say that media voters who decided Crawford was a worthy recipient deserve to have their ballots for this year revoked. The great folks here at Pace and Space wouldn’t mind filling some of those empty spots, by the way.
This season, a quick browse through the different corners of the internet will show you that fans, analysts and ‘experts’ alike are falling into that exact same trap. Here’s 16 Wins a Ring’s Adam Joseph’s nine candidates for the award that he tweeted out a few days ago:
Those guys are all good players, but there is one notable omission from that list. That man is an underpaid, annoying little Australian (although all Australians are annoying) called Patty Mills.
Mills has taken the sixth man torch from Manu Ginobili in San Antonio this season and he is thriving in his increased role. Mills is no longer solely a towel-waving extraordinaire. With his tireless work ethic, along with Pop’s guidance, Patty has emerged as a point guard more than capable of starting on a lot of teams around the Association.
(Although he’s still the towel-waving GOAT.)
Spurs fans are insufferable sometimes. They constantly cry out and complain that their team never gets attention and continue to until every writer and their dog spiels on about the ‘Spurs way’. But this time, Spurs fans actually do have the right to be upset, as the fact that Patty isn’t getting any Sixth Man of the Year love is egregious.
Mills’ stats don’t stick out as anything much, in fact they are quite pedestrian. Mills’ 10.1 points per game would be the lowest for a Sixth Man of the Year winner since Anthony Mason received the honor in 1995. Compared to Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Enes Kanter and Zach Randolph (the four that I consider to be the main contenders to Patty’s rightful crown), Mills’ numbers are probably the least noteworthy:
His advanced stats give him a little bit more shine, but even here, Patty doesn’t stand out as the obvious choice:
But as I have stressed, the Sixth Man of the Year shouldn’t necessarily go to the player with the best stats, but the man who has the most positive effect on a winning team—it’s pretty hard to argue Mills isn’t exactly that.
Mills is the most important piece of the best bench in the NBA. In the 274 minutes Popovich has decided to trot out groupings that don’t include any of his usual five starters (Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol), San Antonio have outscored opponents by an insane 14.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBAwowy.com. Despite having a squad that is nowhere near as loaded as the likes of Cleveland and Golden State, San Antonio sit 31-9, in the thick of the title race. Kawhi, Aldridge and Pop are awesome, but the Spurs wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are right now without their unbelievable bench.
Patty is the catalyst for their second unit’s success. He blazes up and down the court like Sonic the Hedgehog, and his teammates feed off of his constant energy. Mills pushes the pace, generates turnovers, and ignites the offense with his lightning-quick rack attacks, pull-up threes that make him look like Australian Stephen Curry, and sharp decision-making.
Without Mills, the aforementioned bench units which have helped to prop San Antonio up this season fall apart. In the 168 minutes spent with Mills in the game and all five starters out, the Spurs have posted a net rating of plus-26.5. In the 106 minutes that the regular starters AND Mills have ridden the bench, San Antonio’s net rating is an awful minus-3.6. To quote Ron Burgundy, “That escalated quickly.”
No other candidate has that kind of profoundly positive effect on his team.
Mills is also plain better at basketball than the other contenders.
Kanter, Randolph (at this stage of his career), Gordon, and Williams are all lousy defenders, who are nothing more than turnstiles on that end of the floor. In contrast, Patty works hard on D, is as pesky as they come and gives opposition ball-handlers nightmares with his relentless hustle. When you combine all of that with unbelievable instincts, you get one defensive monster.
Check out how on this play, Mills is guarding Moe Harkless, who has eight inches on the guy. Patty knows that the Blazers will try to post him up, so he anticipates the timing of C.J. McCollum’s entry pass perfectly, before wreaking havoc in transition:
Not impressed? Well, how about you check out this play, where Mills somehow turns a Rodney Hood pump fake into a layup for himself, using his ninja reflexes:
Still not convinced? Hopefully this will:
Yep, that’s Mills busting his ass to get back on D after a Spurs turnover, before intercepting Rajon Rondo’s outlet pass and creating a basket out of it.
As mentioned earlier, Mills’ statistics don’t show that he has a leg up on his fellow sixth men on the offensive side of the ball. He rarely has big scoring nights, and none of his counting stats are extraordinary by any means. But if you dive a little deeper, you will find a super-efficient beast who is an ideal fit within the Spurs’ offense.
Patty only grabs 3.5 assists per contest, but he turns the ball over just 1.4 times every game; his assist-to-turnover ratio ranks 26th in the league. His ability to slice open defenses without giving the opposition extra possessions fits beautifully with San Antonio’s unselfish system.
Meanwhile, Mills drains 42.2 percent of his threes, giving him the 15th-best three-point percentage in the league. His three-point proficiency makes him incredibly important to the Spurs, who need as much spacing as they can possibly get with the bricklaying Tony Parker playing around 26 minutes every night. Without Mills, Pop’s offense could fail.
Eric Gordon, Enes Kanter, Zach Randolph, and Lou Williams are excellent basketball players, but none of them deserve this honor more than Mills.
Gordon’s 18 points per game off the pine are astounding, but Houston would survive without him—James Harden’s masterful drive-and-kick game can turn just about anyone into a sharpshooter in Mike D’Antoni’s system. Kanter, Randolph, and Williams are all important for their respective teams (especially Kanter, whom OKC relies on to keep the offense afloat when Westbrook checks out), but none of them help out on the defensive end of the court. Plus, Kanter and Randolph’s squads are only on track for 48 wins, while Lou’s Lakers are currently 15-30.
Once you realize that Mills isn’t doing all of this on just any old mediocre team but one on track for 64 wins, it becomes pretty clear that Patty Mills is the league’s best sixth man. The effect he has on his team is almost exactly what Red Auerbach wanted out of Frank Ramsey all those years ago.
So I beg of you, award voters, don’t just pick the guy who throws up the most points or Jamal Crawford because he’s Jamal Crawford. Vote for the player who best embodies Auerbach’s vision for the role when he invented it 60 years ago.
All statistics are from NBAwowy, Basketball-Reference and ESPN and are up-to-date as of January 16th, 2017.
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