They might not receive as much of the spotlight and might not sign as big of contracts, but the role of the sixth man is one of the most important roles on an NBA roster. The term “sixth man,” is given to those who are competing at a starter level, but because there are only five starting spots they have to be subbed in later. Each sixth man has to always be ready to be subbed in, usually when the main stars head off to the bench. They are a team’s secret weapon, and each sixth man has to make the transition from the starting 5 to the bench less drastic — so the team can put up consistent competition throughout their time on the 48 minutes on the basketball court.
It is absolutely important for an NBA team to identify their sixth man and have a strategy in place for him. Otherwise, it would be a complete waste. Some teams have absolutely capitalized on their sixth man strategies — and hence, those players have performed at a higher level than others around the league. Here is a list of my top three sixth men in the NBA:
1. Lou Williams
In the past five years, Lou Williams has received the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award three times. Despite averaging 18.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 5.7 assists a game this season, Lou Williams is still on the bench — not because he is not good enough to be a starter, but because it is a strategy. The Clippers have done a good job of evening out the transition from starters to their bench and keeping their overall consistency of competition. Sometimes, it becomes very obvious when a team has a great starting lineup, and a really terrible bench. The transition is less pretty — the starters get a nice lead up until half-way through the second quarter, and then the bench players come in and eventually blow it — forcing the starters to come back into the game and come back from a deficit. This is certainly not the case for the Clippers, and they can really thank Lou Williams for that.
2. Will Barton
Will Barton is the ultimate epitome of clutch. Contested floaters? No problem. Threes in transition? He can sink them on a consistent basis. Inbounding shots from a long distance? If he had a six-word phrase that was his middle name, that would be it. Currently, Barton is averaging 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.1 steals a game. In the 2019-2020 season, his 3-point percentage has been at a career high — making about 37.5% of the threes he takes.
Eric Gordon won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award after the 2015-2016 NBA season, when he averaged 15.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1 steal a game. But, in my opinion, Gordon’s greatest moment was in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals back in 2018, when the Rockets had to face the Warriors. In the game, Gordon racked up 27 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. He was a three-point machine! James Harden also had 27 points (and if you have numbers identical to Harden, it’s safe to say you’ve “made it” as a bench player). This incredible performance helped elevate Houston to a 127-105 victory over Golden State. The win gave their team momentum, which eventually forced a seven-game series (which they should’ve won, but that’s a story for later).
Currently, in the halted NBA season, Eric Gordon has averaged 14.5 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. Many attribute his lower numbers to the addition of Russell Westbrook to the Rockets. Regardless, if a bench player and can put up over 14 points a game on a consistent basis, they are most-likely the team’s sixth man. And if not, they will be placed in that role shortly.
It’s very important to fully understand the circumstances of any NBA player on the bench. Every night, their career is on the line. If LeBron James or Steph Curry don’t have a great night, they will still see just as much playing time in their next game. Bench players, including sixth men, aren’t quite so lucky. They are forced to play at the most-consistent competitive level possible so they can keep their job — which is why they are one of the most-important players on the whole roster.