Top seven NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidates so far
Andre Iguodala’s numbers are down across the board, Lou Williams will presumably be starting for the rest of the season with Patrick Beverley out of commission, and Jamal Crawford has probably run out of legacy votes. As such, we should be getting a lot of new blood in the race to win Sixth Man of the Year this season. Here are some challengers to float your banana boat.
*Stats courtesy of NBA.com and ESPN*
Willie Cauley-Stein, PF/C, Sacramento Kings
The Kings’ bench is incinerating opponents with a league-leading 49.1 points per game this season. The effort is being spearheaded by Cauley-Stein, who has been a whirling speed demon on both ends of the court. Trillie, as he is better known colloquially, offers double-double upside nearly every night and has the speed, length, and bounce to pester both backcourt and frontcourt players on defense as well. Now that Sacramento appears to have settled on starting Zach Randolph and Skal Labissiere down low, we should be in for many more months of Cauley-Stein raising the roof as first man off the bench.
Jordan Clarkson, PG/SG, Los Angeles Lakers
Clarkson may have bestowed upon us the quote of the young season when he articulated something to the effect of balling out for the ladies. Whatever his motivation though, it’s working.
The former second-rounder has put up 15.2 points per game (fifth among reserves), and he is doing it in just 22 minutes a night, giving the Lakers a scoring punch that could probably knock down even Floyd Mayweather. Not to sip on too much of the Lonzo Ball Haterade, but Clarkson looks like the best guard on the team right now. He also chips in about three rebounds and assists apiece every game and seems to be well on his way to vindicating president of basketball operations Magic Johnson.
James Johnson, PF, Miami Heat
Johnson pilfered away enough votes for a fifth-place finish in Sixth Man of the Year voting last year, and he’s having an even better season this time around. The bruising forward is up in every major statistical category except for a tiny dip in points per game, and even that has been completely offset by a boost in field goal percentage to 50.6 and a career-high 37.3 three-point percentage. Johnson functions as Miami’s wackadoo point-center for entire stretches when first-unit playmakers Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters sit. He is probably their most versatile and effective defender as well, so make way on your ballots for the definitively greatest James in Miami Heat franchise history.
Marcus Smart, PG/SG, Boston Celtics
The bad with Smart: he struggles to hit double-digit scoring, he flails like a fish out of water at even the slightest hint of contact, and his 43.2 true shooting percentage on nearly five three-point tries a night makes for a stench so foul that mold and mildew now populate every last corner of TD Garden. The good: his 4.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game are a lovely contribution, his defense is killer, and you have a better chance of prying a loose ball from the jaws of a crocodile than from Smart’s grasp. The Oklahoma State product is a true glue guy on the team with the best record in basketball, and he does everything both inside and outside of the box score to help get the W. That’s more than enough to get us to look the other way on his constant efforts to build the brick house that Lionel Richie and the Commodores sang about.
Dwyane Wade, PG/SG, Cleveland Cavaliers
D-Wade’s graceful transition from antiquated starting 2-guard to born-again sixth man probably deserves to be adapted into its own Broadway musical. The 12-time All-Star has really begun to find his rhythm lately, averaging 14.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game over his last eight contests. Whereas the Cavs’ offense would be dead on arrival whenever LeBron James would come out of the game last season, Wade has kept them afloat as the main second-unit creator. Miraculously, Cleveland’s bench actually has a significantly better net rating this season (+7.4) than the starters do (-1.3). Not too bad for a washed-up 35-year-old with bad knees, junkbag defense, and no three-point shot to save his life (well, at least that’s what Twitter told me).
Tyreke Evans, SG/SF, Memphis Grizzlies
Just when we thought that China might be his next basketball stop, Evans has been Tyreke’ing havoc for the Grizzlies this season. His numbers (17.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game) are a totally staggering aberration from his career arc after so many consecutive seasons on the downward slope following his breakout rookie year with Sacramento in 2009-10. Evans has also mutated into a 40-percent three-point shooter overnight, and he proved indispensible to Memphis during their fiery 6-3 start to the season. Times have changed though — the Grizz have now lost nine straight, leaving Marc Gasol with one foot out the door and David Fizdale with both. But don’t worry, Evans and his hocus-pocus dribble-drives are here to get them through this.
Eric Gordon, SG, Houston Rockets
[cups hands over mouth and roars to moon] “REPEAT! REPEAT! REPEAT!”
Chris Paul is healthy again for Houston, which means that Gordon, the winner of last year’s award, can get back to doing what he does best and sixth man all over this thing. Lou Williams isn’t around any more to compete with him for second-unit shot attempts, and that much is evidenced by his 19.7 points per game (his highest such mark since the 2011-12 season when he was playing for the New Orleans *ahem* Hornets). While Gordon has come down from his usual effiency thanks to a brutal shooting slump over the last few weeks, the full-time move back to the bench should benefit both him and the Rockets as the former No. 7 pick channels his inner Drake and tries to go back-to-back.