The Sixth Man of the Year (6MOY) award is one of the strangest NBA whimsies. A tribute to the best non-starter is both unnecessary and unusual; to the best of my knowledge, no other major sports league has anything similar (unless you count MLB’s Reliever of the Year).
And I love it! In theory, it’s fun to talk about the good-not-great players who fill up the award’s candidacies. Unfortunately, the inevitable winner of the John Havlicek Trophy is always the same. Like your college roommate’s obsession with tattooed blondes (no judgment here, Joe!), voters have a type: 17 of the last 19 winners have been high-scoring shooting guards (shoutout to exceptions Antawn Jamison and Montrezl Harrell). All but one played on a playoff team. Most waffled between bad and execrable on defense.
[It also helps if you play for the Clippers: Between 2014 and 2020, three different Clippers won the award a total of five times: Jamal Crawford (2x), Lou Williams (2x), and Harrell.]
But that archetype may be in danger. Last year’s winner, Malcolm Brogdon, was a tiny step in the right direction. His 14.9 points per game were fewer than some of his competitors for the trophy, like Norm Powell, and a rather low mark compared to historical winners; he also played functional defense. More importantly, there was a noticeable chorus of media voices arguing that the shoot-first bench guard shouldn’t be the only position in consideration (even if Brogdon does, in fact, fit that description to a large degree).
Brogdon and Powell are frontrunners for the award again… but I
hope believe the 2023-24 season will see a change. The opportunity has never been greater for a different kind of reserve to win the award. Below, I have compiled five unconventional candidates in an effort to start a grassroots movement.
To be clear, the award will probably continue down its traditional path. Guards who score a lot of points efficiently are essential to the team. It’s the most important skill in basketball! (To be fair, efficiency hasn’t always been a strong consideration when picking a winner for this award.) But as basketball conversation becomes more nuanced, analytics and sharper eye-test evaluations lead to a better understanding of what drives winning, and coaches become more creative with their use of reserves, we’ll see a broader pool of candidates emerge.
Depending on how rotations shake out, this year could see a rise in unusual Sixth Men. And if they prove capable of driving team success from that role, why not reward the best of them?
Enter Brodgon’s teammate, Robert Williams. Given coach Joe Mazzulla’s preference for shooting, the Celtics will likely start Kristaps Porziņģis and Al Horford together most nights, leaving the spring-heeled Williams to come off the bench. The oft-injured big man is a rim-rolling machine and a shot-blocking monster with surprisingly slick passing. If he can stay healthy (a massive “if”), he could easily average 10 loud points off dunks and putbacks to go with 1.5 blocks. Although he was hampered last season, Williams is still one of the best defensive free safeties in the league, with enough offensive juice to still fill up a box score. He’s my top dark-horse candidate to win 6MOY.
Chicago’s Alex Caruso wasn’t quite eligible last year, as he started 36 of the 67 games he played (to win 6MOY, a player must start fewer than half of his games played). But he made an All-Defensive team despite his relatively light workload, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s been the most destructive perimeter defender in basketball over his injury-shortened Bulls tenure. If he can goose his offense a teensy-tiny bit (he averaged fewer than six points a game last year, which is almost impossible for a guy playing 24 minutes) and Chicago makes a strong playoff push, he could become a trendy pick.
My favorite long-shot candidate: Rockets rookie Amen Thompson. There’s some precedent; rookie Ben Gordon did it for Chicago back in 2005. Bennedict Mathurin was also garnering strong consideration as a rookie 6MOY last season before his shooting (and Indiana’s record) fell off a cliff.
Assuming the loathsome Kevin Porter Jr. is done for the year, Thompson’s potential role has greatly expanded. The rookie already looks like an electric athlete, defender, passer, and slasher; only a still-developing jump shot is holding him back from future stardom. But on the Rockets, his positional versatility seems best suited to a point-forward position leading the backups and occasionally slotting in next to the Rockets’ bevy of shot-hungry starters. An optimistic outcome for Thompson: 12 points, four assists, and two combined steals and blocks in a sixth-man role. If the Rockets can make a surprising charge for the play-in tournament in a cutthroat Western Conference, he will receive a lot of praise.
Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis came in third in voting last year as the Buck’s first big off the bench. As Brook Lopez ages, he may cede a few minutes per game to Portis, who has put up some outrageous rebounding totals and efficient scoring performances while performing better than expected on defense.
Portis’ consistency and potential for box-score upside intrigue me. Two facts: Milwaukee will be good, and Portis will be essential. If the Bucks come out and steamroll the regular season, as they are wont to do, Portis could stand out to voters for his contributions. Somehow just 28, Portis still has room to grow.
Finally, I have to mention Chris Paul. Golden State reportedly plans to start Paul, but his fit as the Sixth man is so blindingly clear that it seems like an inevitable move. The Warriors have always struggled in non-Curry minutes, and Paul’s ability to create a cohesive offense out of pudding cups and pretzel sticks will be invaluable for younger players like Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. It would also allow Draymond to play more minutes with Curry and fewer attempting to stabilize the reserves. It just makes so much sense! If I could guarantee Paul comes off the bench in more contests than he starts, he might skip the “dark horse” label and become the bonafide favorite for the award.
There are other interesting candidates. Immanuel Quickley came in second in voting last year, skipping around the court and causing havoc on both ends. But a weirdly deep Knicks guard rotation means he might not have as many opportunities to shine this season. Sacramento’s Malik Monk and Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanović are more traditional candidates, but both could have explosive shooting years off the bench. Detroit’s Bogdanović, Bojan, could do the same if the Pistons decide to start rookie Ausar Thompson instead (although I doubt they will). Naz Reid has become a super-sub in Minnesota, and if they have a bounce-back year, his versatile game off the bench will be a big reason why. Will Caleb Martin ride his postseason momentum to the 6MOY ballot? Andrew Nembhard, like Martin, is a rugged two-way player with some scoring upside in Indiana.
None of those guys will likely win the award, but all it takes is for one to come roaring out of the gates and build narrative momentum from the start.
The Sixth Man of the Award might be the silliest in sports, but it’s been surprisingly predictable in the past. Here’s hoping that a new type of player emerges as worthy of the trophy this year.