The focus of the NBA offseason is largely devoted to teams upgrading their starting lineups, but the reality is that it is often bench players who swing playoff games and even championships.
After all, where would the Miami Heat be without sixth-man extraordinaire Ray Allen?
Now that the free-agent frenzy is dying down and rosters are taking shape, it is a perfect time to predict who will be the league’s top sixth men in the 2013-14 season.
While some of these players have spent the brunt of their careers coming off the bench, others will be thrust into the role for the first time, making for one of the most potentially fascinating races for Sixth Man of the Year in recent memory.
Let’s take a moment to rank the 15 players most likely to take home the NBA’s award for top reserve.
15. C.J. McCollum
At 6’3” and with the ability to handle the ball and blow past opposing guards, C.J. McCollum has all of the traits necessary to be an impact sixth man as a rookie. McCollum played well in the Vegas Summer League, averaging 21 points, four rebounds and 3.4 assists despite shooting just 36.6 percent from the floor.
Unfortunately, McCollum will be playing behind another up-and-coming guard in Damian Lillard who figures to take most of the minutes at the point. With Wesley Matthews starting at the 2, there simply won’t be enough minutes available for McCollum to be a serious contender for the award.
14. Patrick Beverley
A breakout player for the Houston Rockets in the playoffs, Patrick Beverley may actually end up as their starting point guard by the end of the 2013-14 campaign.
He averaged 11.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists in the postseason, showcasing a level of intensity on the defensive end that incumbent starter Jeremy Lin simply lacked.
Beverley should start the season on the bench, but if he plays well and works on his shot selection, he may wind up supplanting Lin and starting alongside James Harden.
13. Chris Copeland
Chris Copeland is about as one-dimensional as a basketball player can be, but fortunately his one skill is exactly what the Indiana Pacers need: perimeter scoring.
Copeland averaged 8.7 points and shot 47.9 percent overall and 42.1 percent from three-point range in just 15.4 minutes per game.
The 29-year-old will be battling with Paul George and Lance Stephenson for minutes, but he could become a serious contributor if Indiana deals Danny Granger.
12. Andrei Kirilenko
Andrei Kirilenko’s deal with the Brooklyn Nets has drawn some suspicion around the league, but there is no denying he can be an impact player off the Brooklyn bench.
After spending a year in Russia, Kirilenko did not miss a beat in 2012-13, averaging 12.4 points, 5.7 boards and 2.8 assists while shooting 50.7 percent from the floor for the Minnesota Timberwolves
Though he won’t be playing 30-plus minutes per night, Kirilenko is the Nets’ best wing defender and will be asked to spell Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for stretches.
He doesn’t fit the typical profile of a scoring sixth man, but Kirilenko is the kind of multifaceted player who could be a serious dark-horse contender for the award.
11. Vince Carter
While he is now certainly more man than amazing, Vince Carter’s emergence as a quality role player for the Dallas Mavericks has been one of the NBA’s unexpected storylines over the past few seasons.
In 2012-13, Carter averaged 13.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. Though he is churning out fewer above-the-rim highlights, Carter remains an effective offensive player, posting a PER of 17.87.
He has also made significant strides defensively. Though he will compete with Monta Ellis for minutes at the 2-guard position, Carter should be a key piece for a Dallas team looking to return to the postseason.
2012-13 stats: 16.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.2 APG, 42.3 FG%, 38.2 3P%, 18.17 PER
2013-14 predictions: 15.6 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.4 APG, 44.5 FG%, 41.2 3P%, 18.28 PER
Ryan Anderson finished fifth in Sixth Man of the Year voting in 2012-13. He should once again make a run at the award thanks to his unorthodox game and outside shooting ability.
There is a chance the New Orleans Pelicans could look to start Anderson in the frontcourt alongside Anthony Davis to provide more scoring. But Monty Williams told Grantland’s Zach Lowe he sees Jason Smith as the team’s best frontcourt defender, making it likely he is the starter when the season begins.
Though the Pelicans should have plenty of offense with the additions of Tyreke Evans (whom we’ll discuss later) and Jrue Holiday, they are still in desperate need of floor-spacing, since Holiday, Evans and Eric Gordon all work best when attacking the rim.
Their ability to break down defenses should result in plenty of open looks for Anderson, one of the game’s premier stretch 4's. He shot 38.1 percent from three in spot-up situations, which are the kinds of looks he should be getting primarily.
Anderson will not be getting 15 shots per night, but thanks to his shooting and offensive rebounding, he should see plenty of minutes as the Pelicans attempt to earn a playoff berth.
2012-13 stats: 11.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4.6 APG, 42.5 FG%, 35.3 3P%, 19.05 PER
2013-14 predictions: 12.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.4 APG, 44.2 FG%, 37.2 3P%, 17.54 PER
With the exception of Game 5 in San Antonio, Manu Ginobili had a disheartening playoff run with the Spurs. Despite that, the team decided to bring him back on a two-year, $14 million deal.
Though Ginobili is no longer a $7 million-per-year player, he is still a versatile guard, a crafty ball-handler and the kind of creative offensive player for whom the Sixth Man of the Year award was made.
Staying healthy is going to be a key issue for Ginobili, who missed 22 games in the 2012-13 season, but he is still a capable outside shooter who can play both off the ball and as the primary facilitator for San Antonio.
While not as explosive as he was in prime, Ginobili still shot 66.9 percent at the rim last season, per HoopData.
The emergence of Danny Green means that Ginobili should be working with the ball in his hands more, acting as a creator as he did in the playoffs with Tony Parker slowed by injuries.
Though he can be turnover-prone and make some questionable decisions, Ginobili sees angles better than almost anyone in the league. Even at 35 years old (36 on July 28), he can heat up and carry the Spurs offense.
Gregg Popovich’s desire to keep his veterans fresh will hurt Ginobili’s case to win Sixth Man of the Year—he has averaged more than 30 minutes per game just once in the past five seasons—but the 2008 award winner should once again be a serious contender.
2012-13 stats: 11.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 44.2 FG%, 42.2 3P%, 13.89 PER
2013-14 predictions: 13.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 45.6 FG%, 43.1 3P%, 15.10 PER
In his first season with the Washington Wizards, Martell Webster was a revelation. He averaged career highs in points, minutes, assists and three-point percentage while also improving as a defender and a leader on the floor.
Clearly Washington was enamored with Webster, as it gave him a four-year, $22 million contract in free agency. Otto Porter’s defensive potential may relegate Webster to a bench role, but he will certainly play heavy minutes as the Wizards look to make a playoff push.
Always a good outside shooter, Webster took his game to new levels in 2012-13, shooting 44.3 percent on spot-ups and 52.5 percent in transition from three.
The 6’7” Webster is capable of playing both shooting guard and small forward, and though he is not a lockdown wing defender like Porter or Trevor Ariza, he can guard both positions effectively.
Playing on a young Washington team that will look to get out and run suits Webster perfectly. He is an athletic perimeter player who runs the floor well and can finish in transition.
Webster may begin the season as a starter as the team eases Porter into the NBA. But ultimately with John Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, the team should use Webster as an instant-offense piece off the bench.
2012-13 stats: 13.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 4.4 APG, 43.3 FG%, 40.5 3P%, 17.43 PER
2013-14 predictions: 11.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, 44.7 FG%, 39.2 3P%, 16.56 PER
Nate Robinson, the newest Denver Nugget, is a true shoot-first, shoot-second combo guard. That mentality has made him a dynamite sixth man for the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, among others, in the past.
With Denver, he is going to be battling for minutes with Ty Lawson and Andre Miller and will certainly be asked to work less with the ball in his hands than he did with the injury-plagued Bulls in Chicago. Still, if Brian Shaw preaches uptempo offense the way George Karl did, Robinson should be able to mesh instantly with his new squad.
Now that Andre Iguodala is a Golden State Warrior, the Nuggets could use another guard who can create shots, stretch the floor and play in transition. Robinson should fill that role well. He shot 49.4 percent coming off screens and 48.6 percent in transition with the Bulls.
As usual, the streaky Robinson will see his minutes fluctuate throughout the regular season. He will have a shorter leash playing on a Denver team with four other quality guards in Miller, Lawson, Evan Fournier and Randy Foye, but he should still consistently put up double-figure points.
The team’s depth in the backcourt will hurt his case, but Robinson should be an integral piece of the bench, particularly if the Nuggets part ways with Miller, as Fox Sports’ Chris Tomasson reported they were considering.
2012-13 stats: 13.9 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, 44.0 FG%, 35.8 3P%, 17.58 PER
2013-14 predictions: 12.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 3.8 APG, 45.2 FG%, 37.3 3P%, 16.92 PER
Isaiah Thomas is a more natural scorer than Greivis Vasquez, but the Sacramento Kings could desperately use a pure point guard as a starter, meaning that Vasquez should be the starter when the 2013-14 season tips off.
Though that will hurt Thomas on a purely statistical level, the 5’9” guard has the chance to excel in a Jason Terry role for the Kings, whose bench is looking stronger with the addition of Carl Landry.
Thomas is extremely explosive off the dribble and has the ability to attack the rim and finish in the paint despite his diminutive size. Thomas shot 70 percent at the rim last season, per HoopData.
He is also a threat from three-point range, where he shot 39.9 percent on spot-ups.
Because Vasquez is 6’6”, the Kings will likely use the two point guards together, pairing Vasquez’s court vision and unselfishness with Thomas’ ability to shoot the ball and score in bunches.
Though he is more of a scorer than a facilitator, Thomas has proven to be a willing passer who can react to defenses and find his teammates open for shots.
Even without Tyreke Evans, Sacramento has a crowded backcourt. But Thomas is a lock for 25 minutes per game and should put up averages roughly consistent with his career line.
2012-13 stats: 16.5 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 2.5 APG, 43.8 FG%, 37.6 3P%, 16.89 PER
2013-14 predictions: 15.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 2.2 APG, 42.9 FG%, 38.8 3P%, 16.54 PER
Another perennial contender, Jamal Crawford finished second in voting behind J.R. Smith and figures to be one of the league’s elite bench players once again.
However, Crawford should see a reduction in his minutes, touches and overall responsibilities now that J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley have entered the fold with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Redick figures to be the starter at 2-guard. He has proven to be a capable ball-handler and a significantly better defender than Crawford, whose entire defensive strategy consists of gambling for steals and letting his man blow past him off the dribble.
Crawford will absorb some of the playmaking duties of Eric Bledsoe now that he’s in Phoenix, but he should see a reduced role in the Clippers offense with the team bolstering both its starting unit and bench.
Make no mistake, though: Crawford will play a significant role as Los Angeles attempts to make a title run.
He has the size at 6'5'' to play alongside Chris Paul and is also capable of running the offense. He often ran the pick-and-roll for the Clippers and shot a decent 44.5 percent in those situations.
Crawford won’t be Los Angeles’ clear-cut third option offensively like he was in 2012-13, but he will once again be asked to use his killer crossover and superb handle to anchor the Clippers’ second unit.
2012-13 stats: 18.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 42.2 FG%, 35.6 3P%, 17.67 PER
2013-14 predictions: 16.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.0 APG, 43.4 FG%, 36.3 3P%, 17.42 PER
The league’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year, J.R. Smith caught fire after the All-Star break last season, averaging 21.3 points and 5.9 boards per game while shooting 45.5 percent from the floor.
However, he fell apart in the playoffs, shooting just 33.1 percent from the floor and missing nearly 10 of his 14.8 shots per game. Smith kept bombing away but couldn’t get anything to drop like he did in the regular season.
Smith re-signed with the New York Knicks for four years and nearly $25 million. He then immediately had to undergo knee surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear that will sideline him for up to four months.
Though Smith should miss little-to-no time at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, he will still need to find his rhythm after missing training camp.
Factor in the addition of Andrea Bargnani as a stretch 4 alongside Carmelo Anthony, and the possibility that Amar’e Stoudemire comes off the bench as he did last season, and Smith may not have as much freedom offensively as he did during his award-winning campaign.
History is also against Smith, as only Kevin McHale and Detlef Schrempf have won the award in back-to-back seasons.
Still, Smith’s show-stopping athleticism and ability to heat up in an instant makes him perfectly suited for a role off the New York bench. Although he takes more than his share of tough, contested shots, Smith is capable of scoring 30-plus points on any given night.
Smith can’t be considered the favorite heading into the 2013-14 season, but he does have a legitimate chance to repeat, especially if he stays away from the rosé.
2012-13 stats: 9.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, 43.9 FG%, 35.9 3P%, 11.08 PER
2013-14 predictions: 12.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 APG, 45.6 FG%, 37.2 3P%, 15.68 PER
Perhaps the most fascinating consequence of Andre Iguodala’s decision to sign with Golden State is that it will move Harrison Barnes, who had an up-and-down rookie season but excelled in the playoffs, to a sixth-man role.
The Warriors reserves lost some firepower when Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack departed in free agency, but if Barnes can pick up where he left off in the postseason, he could easily be among the league’s elite bench players.
In the playoffs, Barnes averaged 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds in 38.4 minutes per night. While he won’t be playing that much with Iguodala starting and David Lee healthy, Barnes proved that he was a nightmare to guard as a small-ball 4, using his quickness to blow past slower forwards.
Golden State pushes the pace as much as any team in the NBA. That frenetic style of play suits Barnes perfectly. He was electrifying on the break and shot 56.6 percent in transition.
He was also a force around the basket, converting shots at the rim 71.4 percent of the time, according to HoopData.
The addition of Iguodala might hurt Barnes’ growth long term since he likely will not be playing 30-plus minutes per game regularly, but his ability to play both forward spots and score inside and out should make him a dependable option off the bench.
When factoring in his solid defense, Barnes’ case becomes even stronger. Most sixth men are content to play on one end of the floor.
2012-13 stats: 15.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, 47.8 FG%, 33.8 3P%, 18.16 PER
2013-14 predictions: 14.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 4.1 APG, 48.2 FG%, 35.9 3P%, 19.21 PER
Tyreke Evans, New Orleans’ shiny new free-agent acquisition, may start at the small forward spot, but given the presence of Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon in the backcourt, it would make more sense for Monty Williams to bring the former Rookie of the Year off the bench.
Evans told the Huffington Post’s Jordan Schultz that he would be willing to play the sixth-man role if asked, and it is a role that would perfectly suit his offensive skill set.
A big (6'6'', 240 lbs), athletic wing capable of attacking the rim and creating shots for teammates, Evans was miscast as a point guard with Sacramento. His ability to knife his way into the lane would be a perfect complement to Ryan Anderson’s three-point shooting in the second unit.
Evans still needs to work on his outside shot, but he has made strides, converting on 36.8 percent of his spot-up threes in 2012-13. Developing that shot will be the key to him playing heavy minutes alongside Holiday and Gordon, who both like to have the ball in their hands.
He is also capable of carrying a team’s offense for stretches and can get to the basket as well as any guard in the league. For his career, he has never averaged fewer than six shots at the rim per game, per HoopData.
Despite his athleticism, Evans has had difficulty on the defensive end of the floor. He shows flashes of potential, but too often he is caught ball-watching or gambling for steals.
As a sixth man, that issue will be less significant than it was in Sacramento. His role will be to provide instant offense off the bench, not to be the Pelicans’ best player for an entire game, as he had to be with the Kings.
At $11 million per season, Evans would be one of the most expensive sixth men in NBA history. But his ability to play multiple positions and score in a variety of ways makes him perfectly suited for the role, if a little overqualified.
Saying you’re willing to be a sixth man and actually coming off the bench are two very different things, particularly for a 23-year-old earning an eight-figure salary, but if Evans stays true to his word, the Pelicans might have a shot at doing something special.
2012-13 stats: 12.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 5.6 APG, 45.2 FG%, 40.4 3P%, 15.93 PER
2013-14 predictions: 13.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 6.1 APG, 46.6 FG%, 41.2 3P%, 17.16 PER
Prior to the 2012-13 season, Jarrett Jack had carved out a niche as a quality reserve point guard and spot starter. But he truly turned heads as the leader of Golden State’s bench unit during his one season in the Bay Area.
Now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jack will again be the third guard in the rotation. He should see a spike in minutes as the Cavs look to preserve the injury-prone Kyrie Irving and continue to develop Dion Waiters.
Jack, one of the craftier point guards in the NBA, is as capable of scoring as he is at setting up his teammates. He runs the pick-and-roll beautifully and should dominate with Cleveland’s group of talented young big men.
He also sees the floor extremely well in transition and should fit with this Cleveland team that will look to run and get easy buckets on the break.
Though he is not a great athlete and has difficulty getting to the rim at times, Jack has become a superb shooter from anywhere on the court. He shot 48.6 percent from 10-15 feet and 48 percent from 16-23 feet, per HoopData, proving to be one of the best mid-range shooters in the game.
Jack showed by thriving alongside Stephen Curry that he can also work off the ball, and his improved three-point shot should certainly be of use in that area. Jack shot 46 percent on spot-up threes and should get plenty of looks with the attention defenses give to Irving, Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Andrew Bynum.
As one of the few veterans on this up-and-coming Cleveland team, Jack will spend plenty of time with the ball in his hands. He will be called upon to help lead the same sort of franchise rejuvenation he did with Golden State.
In the process, he just might improve on that third-place finish in Sixth Man of the Year voting last year.
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