Amongst the members of the NBA culture, one of the most common misconceptions is that a player delegated to the role of sixth man is not talented enough to make the starting lineup. Although reasonable in an uneducated theory, the claim simply holds no water upon an evaluation of the NBA's illustrious history.
Former Sixth Man of the Year award winners include Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Eddie Johnson, Manu Ginobili and John Starks. In the 30-year history of the award, only one winner, Dell Curry of the 1993-94 New Orleans Hornets, failed to make the postseason.
To be the sixth man is to be the heart and energy of a championship contender's rotation.
Per a report via Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, it appears as if New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson could delegate said role to eight-year veteran J.R. Smith. Smith re-signed with the Knicks this offseason for $2.8 million per year over two seasons.
As for how he'll fair as sixth man, Woodson expects the 27-year-old to fill the role at an award-winning level.
“Absolutely,” Woodson said on Tuesday. “Everybody can’t start. I’ve got a nice mixture of guys in that starting unit from an offensive standpoint and I have to have some offense coming off the bench as well.
Like I told J.R. [Smith], if he comes off (the bench), ‘Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, he can be the best player coming off the bench in the league and perhaps win the Sixth Man Award. Hopefully, that parlays into a lot of wins and getting us to a championship round because at the end of the day that’s what we’re in it for.”
It goes without saying that Smith would rather be in the starting lineup. He has been playing the role of sixth man for virtually the entirety of his eight-year career and never seems to have received consistency as a starter.
On October 10, Smith went as far as saying that "disappointed is an understatement" in pertinence to his role as sixth man. Just one day later, however, it appears as if Smith has come to terms with his position in the Knicks' rotation.
After all, we've all learned that it's not about how you start. It's about how you finish.
“I would rather be a starter, but it that’s not in my cards. I understand that,” [J.R.] Smith says. “I’ll let it play out. It’s been going on six, seven years coming off the bench. Whether it stays or goes I’m going to be the same person I am and just keep playing.
Finishing the game is way more important than starting the game,” Smith says. “When you’re in there with the final ticks of the clock you know the coach has trust in you, believes in you, understands what it takes to win and who is going to make it happen.”
With Iman Shumpert set to miss roughly two months of the regular season, Smith will have the opportunity to fulfill those late game aspirations. Although the starting job will be filled by the defensive-minded Ronnie Brewer, it is clear who will be turned to for what Woodson refers to as "instant offense."
While playing the role of sixth man with both the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks, Smith has become one of the most feared scorers in the game. Although he has always lacked consistency with his shot selection, thus limiting his production, Smith is a top-10 NBA scorer when he finds his stroke.
That will be on full display as the mercurial shooting guard contends for the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2012-13.
Too Many Scorers in the Starting Lineup
Smith proved in 2011-12 that he could play elite-level defense. His energy and overwhelming athleticism smothered opponents on the perimeter, thus leading to forced turnovers and transition scoring opportunities.
What Smith was unable to do, however, was carve out a role in the flow of the offense.
With Carmelo Anthony, Jeremy Lin and Amar'e Stoudemire all demanding a significant number of touches, Smith was often left with complementary scoring opportunities. With a full training camp to define his role as sixth man, however, head coach Mike Woodson can place Smith in position to lead the second unit as a scorer.
More importantly, plays can be designed to fit Smith's skills and tendencies. In turn, his shooting percentages will improve and his production will become more consistent.
When on his game, Smith is a lethal shooter who is just as dangerous when attacking the basket. The issue has always been that Smith feels entitles to touches, when truly, an offense just needs to work him into the game plan.
With that knowledge being established, expect the 6'6" scorer to thrive in his recently defined role.
In Need of a Spark
As it stands, the Knicks' second unit will consist of Jason Kidd, Steve Novak, Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby. Although Kidd, Novak and Wallace are all capable of shooting the three ball, no player listed is a true threat to score off of the dribble.
For that reason, Smith becomes the most important player in the Knicks' rotation.
We know that there will be defense, and we can imagine Novak will rediscover his league-best three-point stroke. Without Smith's ability to penetrate off of the dribble and create his own shot, however, the Knicks become a one-dimensional offense that will stall until the likes of 'Melo and STAT return to the floor.
When all you can do is kick it out to Novak for the three, someone is bound to catch on.
That is a risk that the Knicks cannot afford to take come the postseason when the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are firing on all cylinders. If such were to transpire, it would be yet another early exit for the hometown team of the Mecca of Basketball.
If Smith is able to lead the second unit in scoring and continue his impressive defensive effort while with on the floor with the starters, there is no reason for a drop-off in team production. There is also no reason he cannot take home his first career NBA award.
Who Else Would It Be?
The term "sixth man" is loosely defined as a player who comes off of the bench and provides instant production. The true definition, however, is that a sixth man's No. 1 role for a team is to score the basketball and maintain or improve upon the pace set by the starters.
If Smith is not the one to fill that role, who would be?
Kidd can facilitate, but his days as a scorer are well behind him. Iman Shumpert and Ronnie Brewer can score, but neither is a true threat for anything more than eight to 12 points on a great night.
Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby are also capable of dropping in a few buckets, but none will consistently reach double-figure scoring.
Unless Novak has learned to do more than catch-and-shoot, the second unit will never flow without the presence of one of the Knicks' elite starters. In turn, it becomes imperative that Smith fills this role and provides the starters with their necessary rest.
For multiple stretches of three to seven minutes at a time, Smith will dazzle Madison Square Garden. In turn, he will complete the Knicks' rotation and take home the Sixth Man of the Year award.
Swallow your pride, fasten your seat-belt and prepare yourself for what will be a memorable season in New York City.