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Checking in on the Sixth Man of the Year Race

The race for the MVP award has been open for the first time in years, leading to heated discussions about who deserves it and who will ultimately get it. With the most important of awards up for the taking, the rest of the distinctions have received less attention than in years past, with Sixth Man of the Year in particular flying completely under the radar.

While it might be considered a minor award, depth has become increasingly important to having a contending team, and a good bench often starts with a super sub, someone who would start on most teams sacrificing minutes and glory for the good of the squad. The following players fit that profile and should be the main candidates to gets some hardware once the season ends.

The dark horse

Andre Iguodala (8.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals per game in 27 minutes a game)

Iguodala’s per game stats won’t blow anyone away, and even his per minute numbers have decreased. There have been stretches this season in which he has been downright mediocre, gliding through games without making much of an impact. He didn’t push himself to the best of his abilities consistently, but at least some of that can be attributed to the Warriors’ dominance. It’s the same reason why Stephen Curry doesn’t have the numbers others have: his team didn’t need him to so he didn’t force the issue.

What the nine-year veterans lacks in flashy stats, however, he makes up for in defensive versatility. Iguodala is a key cog in the Warriors switch-everything second unit, which stifles opponents by taking away their first option. He ranks seventh among shooting guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, which backs up the eye test on how good he is on that end. The Warriors are over three points per 100 possessions better with him on the court on defense, per NBA.com, which is saying something since they’re the best defensive team in the league, and opponents shoot over three percentage points worse from beyond the arc with him playing.

Iguodala wasn’t happy about being relegated to the bench at first, but he has become a vital part of the second unit of the best team in the league. He might get rewarded for it.

The reigning champ

Jamal Crawford (16.4 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists in 26.9 minutes a game)

Crawford is a huge defensive liability who doesn’t do much other than score at a relatively efficient rate, going by the numbers. Yet his ability to create shots makes him extremely valuable for the Clippers. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year can play off the ball, hitting almost 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot three pointers, per SportVU, but he really does his damage with the ball in his hands. He’s great at scoring out of the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 84th percentile in the league with the same points per possession as Tony Parker and Mike Conley, and is one of the league’s best isolation scorers, ranking only behind Kyrie Irving — and directly above James Harden — in points per possession scored in those situations, per Synergy. (min. 150 possessions)

There’s a compelling case to be made that Crawford takes away on defense more than he adds on offense. After all, his team is significantly better on both ends when he sits, shaving off almost four points per 100 possessions allowed when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. At the same time, he can’t be expected to thrive with the terrible teammates he has off the bench in Los Angeles. He’s often the only thing holding bad units together and has been good with the starters, especially in small lineups. Crawford isn’t as good as his raw numbers suggest, but he’s not as bad as some of the advanced stats reflect. Whether that’s enough to retain his crown remains to be seen, and his recent injury that has kept him out for a month won’t help him.

The heir apparent

Lou Williams (15.4 points, 1.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals in 25 minutes a game)

Williams is cut from the same cloth as Crawford: He creates shots for himself and can score at an acceptable level but doesn’t do much else for his team. He has, however, excelled at his role this season while Crawford has regressed a bit. He has only been slightly worse than Crawford as an isolation scorer, but much more prolific and leads the league in points per possession scored as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. (min. 300 possessions) His ability to get to the line is also a huge advantage over other candidates, as is his ability to avoid committing turnovers — which to be fair stems from the fact that if he has the ball, he’ll probably shoot it.

As a result of his strengths, the Raptors’ offense is seven points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, per NBA.com, a huge swing that has them going from a middling scoring team when he sits to a juggernaut when he plays. His weaknesses are many, but they don’t manage to undo all the good he does on offense, even if his shot selection makes Dion Waiters seem conservative. Williams is decidedly just a one-way player, but he’s very good at what he does. Because voters often reward scoring off the bench above all else, Williams is the front-runner to take the crown from Crawford.

The wild card

Isaiah Thomas (16.2 points, 2.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists in 35.8 minutes a game)

Thomas has the numbers to run away with the award, but there are two things working against him. First, the Suns traded him mid-season amid rumors of a dysfunctional locker room after he expressed he wanted to start earlier in the year. His exit from Sacramento was also a little controversial, as DeMarcus Cousins apparently believed he dominated the ball too much. And second, his size makes it painfully obvious that he’s not and will not ever be a plus defender. Being perceived as selfish and playing for a below .500 team (that might still make the playoffs, because the East) could hurt his chances.

That being said, his stats are stellar, as he does all that Crawford and Williams do on offense similarly well as a scorer while remaining a decent playmaker, especially in his short stretch with the Celtics so far. As mentioned, his defense is a drain on any team he plays and Boston has been better overall with him sitting, but he’ll still have a shot to pull off the upset. Thomas wants to start, but he seems destined to being a super-sub for most if not all of his career, so even if he doesn’t get the award this time, he surely will sometime in the future.

Also worthy of consideration: Manu Ginobili, Dennis Schröder, Taj Gibson, Josh Smith.

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