It's all but official: according to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, the Thunder's James Harden will be named the Sixth Man of the Year in short order. In general, I have little problem with such an excellent player receiving recognition on virtually any grounds; Harden has had a fantastic year, and that the league has chosen to give him some mantle filler is just fine by me.
Yet beyond Harden's selection, the continued existence of this particular award does a disservice to the work that bench players do. From an incredibly young age, basketball players are taught -- through attention-seeking gratification, if nothing else -- to value starting. They want to run through the tunnel of their teammates' outstretched arms, hear their name boomed through the P.A. system, and bounce along to a chorus of cheering fans. They largely take pride in the fact that starting is indicative of their importance, as if every team begins each game with its five best players on the court.
In an age of Manu Ginobili, pre-Dallas Lamar Odom, Jason Terry, and now James Harden, we know better. The league's brightest coaches pull and stretch their roster however they can to ensure more consistent production, erasing the arbitrary line between starters and reserves. The decision of inserting a particular player into a starting lineup often has less to do with overall talent, and more to do with specific skill; lineup construction is governed by balance, and thus the work of head coaches is a bit more difficult than throwing the team's top five players out at the same time.
The configuration of talent on the court has to work together to meet specific needs and goals (playmaking, defense, etc.), and often the team's best interests are met by spacing out its most productive and versatile players as a way of meeting those goals.
Yet this award -- and the token nod we give to productive bench players in general -- only serves to accentuate the unnecessary divide between starter and sub. Harden isn't the Sixth Man of the Year, he's a legitimate All-NBA player. He'd excel in almost any role and when given any number of minutes. That he happens to come off the bench is worth noting from a strategic and rotational standpoint, but once we begin to introduce a value judgment into this discussion (as we do in anointing the best "sixth man,"), it takes on an entirely different tone.
Harden deserves every bit of praise and recognition he can get, but that this award still stands as coaches preach and teach the value of elite subs is a bit backward. In order to more fully remove the stigma associated with coming off the bench, it's important that we look at the game as a universal field, with "starter," and "reserve," functioning as strictly descriptive terms. There would be no lines of differentiation, save those governed by the league's rules ; five players take the court to begin the game, but from that point on, a coach's rotation is a fluid organism that shifts seamlessly from lineup to lineup.
Harden is a wonderful example of player-coach cooperation and, at worst, a third man. Yet because the notion persists that the starters sit on one side of the line and the rest on the other, he's been made into a symbol of stigmatized exclusion. Harden can't simply be one of the best in the business; because he was willing to subscribe to Scott Brooks' lineup ideals, he's the best of the rest -- an accomplishment that, while impressive, reeks of an odor that only serves to reinforce the idea that bench players are of a different set.