Lou Williams and the NBA's Best Scorers off the Bench

Jeremy Gottlieb@@jmg2776Contributor IFebruary 16, 2012

Lou Williams and the NBA's Best Scorers off the Bench

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    They are glue guys, uniters. The ones most responsible for ensuring as seamless a transition from the starting unit to the reserves. They are sixth men, and even though they come off the bench, in several cases and for several teams, some of them are even more important, more valuable than some of those who play ahead of them.

    Going back to the 1982-1983 season after which the first ever Sixth Man of the Year award was given to the Sixers Bobby Jones, this role - the first, most key substitute on each team - has been recognized as premium in the NBA.

    Players like Williams, James Harden, Jason Terry and others play this role as well as anyone in the league. So with that, let's take a look at some of the best of the NBA's sixth men.

1. James Harden, Oklahoma City

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    Harden, the third overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Arizona State, has really come into his own this season for the Western Conference leading Thunder, averaging a career-highs in scoring (16.8 PPG), shooting percentage (47 percent) and minutes played (31.4 per game). And he's done pretty much all this damage coming off the pine, starting just two of 28 games this season and only seven of 186 in his career.

    Harden routinely plays the fourth quarter of OKC and despite the fact that he plays with the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, still manages to get his, with last Friday night's come-from-behind win over Memphis, in which he tallied 10 of his 24 points in the final period, as clear evidence.

    In fact, if you take a closer look at Harden, you'll find that his impact on the Thunder may be just as important, from a different perspective, as both of his All-Star teammates. Harden has the inside track on becoming this season's Sixth Man of the Year.

2. Lou Williams, Philadelphia

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    Williams, a former second-round pick now in his seventh NBA season, is as big a reason for the Sixers success (20-9, first place in the Atlantic Division) as any. He's scoring at a higher rate (15.9 PPG) than at any other point in his career and over his last five games, that number has spiked to 19.8, prompting some pretty noteworthy praise to be sent his way. 

    Williams has also done his best work of late when it matters most. In last week's 95-90 win over the Lakers, the Sixers trailed by five with four minutes to go. Williams then took over, scoring 12 of his game-high 24 points over that final stretch to lead Philly to the victory. All this without starting a single game all year and just 38 of 420 over the course of his career. Williams is the Sixers leading scorer in this role, making him the prime challenger to Harden for that Sixth Man of the Year award.

3. Jason Terry, Dallas

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    One of the league's most venerable sixth men, Terry has a championship ring on his finger now after leading the Mavericks second unit during last season's run to a title. Terry, who's been a Mav since the 2004-2005 season but has been coming off the bench since '07-'08, has seen his scoring numbers dip a bit this season (14.8 PPG, the lowest number of his career since his rookie season with the Atlanta Hawks), but is still playing over 30 minutes per night and making an average of two triples per game, his highest total in that category in four years.

    Terry is getting up there in age but proved in a game against Dallas's in-state rivals from San Antonio a couple weeks ago that he still has it. After burying a jumper to send the game into overtime in the last second, he scored the Mavs final four points in the extra session to lead Dallas to a 101-100 win.

    Terry, who is always out there in the late going provided the score is even semi-close, told the Dallas Morning News yesterday that when the clock is winding down, his team always has the advantage, "because of our experience, because of what we went through." Terry may be in his 13th season in the league, but he still ranks in the upper echelon of guards, particularly those who come off the bench.

4. Brandon Bass, Boston

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    Bass came to the Celtics from Orlando in exchange for Glen Davis and Von Wafer this past off-season and has proven himself to be a major addition to the Boston roster.

    Before suffering a knee strain that has kept him out of two of the C's past five games and will keep him on the sideline for the next couple weeks, Bass was one of Boston's more proficient and consistent performers, averaging 11.6 points per game in 29 minutes per night, both career bests by far. Bass is coach Doc Rivers first call off the bench on a nightly basis and has earned himself a handful of starts thanks to the Celts aged, fragile frontcourt. It's conceivable that his play has been the most eye-opening of any Celtic so far this season.

    Bass scored 20 points on 9-of-13 shooing against the Knicks on Opening Day and has hardly looked back since while shooting 48 percent from the floor along the way. The Celtics have had issues with depth all season, particularly up front, so it remains to be seen what Bass's absence will do to the team's overall performance, especially with a slew of tough, road games upcoming. Heretofore, however, he's been a shining light as the team's sixth man.

5. O.J. Mayo, Memphis

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    Mayo was much heralded coming out of USC four years ago, so much so that the Grizzlies traded the rights to Kevin Love to Minnesota for the shooting guard. In his first two years for Memphis, Mayo started, played 38 minutes per night, scored 18.5 and 17.5 points per game respectively and had little impact on a Grizzlies squad that finished under .500 both years. Last year, coach Lionel Hollins turned the former high school phenom into a sixth man and the Grizz took off.

    Mayo's minutes and points per game went way down (to 26.3 and 11.3, respectively) but Memphis made the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-2006 season and even upset the heavily favored Spurs in the first round. Mayo, who has been the subject of trade rumors for a couple years now since his move to the bench, hasn't said a word, though, and his success in his role as sixth man has prompted the Grizzlies to take him off the market.

    Despite his numbers being down, Mayo has still sparked the Grizzlies second unit to the tune of double digit scoring in 13 of his last 15 games. And if the season ended today, Memphis would be a post-season participant for the second straight year. Coincidence? Probably not.

6. Jamal Crawford, Portland

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    Crawford, who won the league's Sixth Man of the Year award two seasons ago as an Atlanta Hawk, is still coming off the bench and still pouring in the points in his first year as a Blazer. Prior to his no-show on Tuesday night against the Wizards, Crawford had scored 88 points in his previous four games and is averaging 14.3 per game, down from his award winning season in Atlanta but still good for second on the Portland roster.

    The Blazers have struggled some of late, dropping two in a row and six of 10. Coach Nate McMillan has toyed with the idea of replacing starting point guard Raymond Felton with Crawford and Crawford, who is finishing his fair share of games at the point, has responded with an average of nearly six assists per game over his last five outings. But Crawford is a scorer, through and through and, as evidenced by that shiny piece of hardware earned a couple of years ago, he's really good at it when coming off the bench.

    Crawford has started just one of 184 games over the past three seasons and in addition to that trophy, he has earned playoff berths in each of the last two, with another one in range this season. Sometimes it seems his points can appear somewhat empty (the Blazers lost three of those four games in which Crawford averaged 22 per night), but in looking at his body of work, particularly in recent years, it's hard to argue Crawford as anything but one of the league's top sixth men.

7. Mo Williams, L.A. Clippers

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    A newcomer to the sixth man game, Williams is a reluctant player but seems well suited to the role. Before coming to LaLa land from Cleveland in exchange for Baron Davis last season, Williams had been a starter for four-plus seasons for the Cavs and before that, the Milwaukee Bucks. And when he arrived in Los Angeles, coach Vinny Del Negro kept him in the starting lineup. But this season, thanks to the Clippers acquisitions of both Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, Williams was shifted to the bench where he was tasked with taking over the second unit.

    Williams has expressed displeasure with this role and there have been trade rumors swirling around him. But since Billups went down last week with a torn Achilles and Del Negro inserted Randy Foye into the Clips starting lineup instead of Williams, it's been made abundantly clear that as long as he's playing for the other L.A. team, he'll be a sixth man.

    Williams's minutes are down, but not much. He's only playing four fewer per night than he did in 22 games (all starts) for the Clippers last year and just one per night less than he played for the Cavs prior to last season's trade. He's averaging 13.7 points per game, the same as his career mean, and is still getting in excess of 11 shots per night, only two fewer than his high number in two and a half years in Cleveland.

    The Clippers currently reside third in the Western Conference standings and in first place in the Pacific division, putting them on course for their first playoff berth in six years and just their second in the past 15. If Williams, who Paul recently declared should be the league's Sixth Man of the Year, can't get behind that, one has to wonder where his priorities truly lie.

8. J.J. Redick, Orlando

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    It took him a little while but Redick, the former college player of the year taken 11th overall by the Magic in the 2006 draft, has carved a niche for himself as the leader of his team's second unit.

    Redick has steadily improved over his career, increasing his scoring output on a yearly basis. This season's 11.1 PPG marks a career best and his 25 minutes per night match the most he's gotten in any season. His shooting percentage is down a bit this year (42 percent as opposed to 44 percent in 2010-2011) but he's hitting from downtown at the highest rate of his career (43 percent) and has been instrumental in the Magic's winning seven of their 10 games this month to ascend to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, all while the daily Dwight Howard drama swirls around the organization. 

9. Al Harrington, Denver

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    The Nuggets and coach George Karl distribute minutes fairly evenly among their top 10 guys. But Harrington, the only player on the team to average double digit minutes yet not start a single game all year, is clearly the first option off the bench.

    Harrington, now in his second mile high season, is enjoying a nice bounce back from last year, in which he averaged his fewest amount of points (10.5 PPG) while playing his least amount of minutes (22.8) since his third season in the league, 12 years ago. This year, with Denver in a logjam in the middle of the Western Conference standings, Harrington is back up to 14.6 points per game, almost a full point above his career average.

    Harrington, 31, is the oldest player on the Nuggets, a strange fact considering his leap to the pros straight from high school all the way back in 1998. He played through a series of ailments last year, likely a reason why his numbers were down, but has managed to stay healthy this season and subsequently be Denver's third leading scorer.

    With a veteran like Harrington playing well and anchoring the bench unit, the Nuggets, who are in a bit of a swoon right now having lost six of eight, including a five-game skid, should be a tough out come playoff time.