Starting is still an honor for NBA players, but a reserve role doesn't carry the same stigma it used to.
Closing a contest is more important than opening it, and the league's 15 best Sixth Man of the Year candidates will have no shortage of save opportunities.
Some of them are seasoned subs, players who bring consistent energy off the pine on a nightly basis. Others are new to the role, forced to adjust thanks to offseason movement or lingering question marks.
With the regular-season opener moving closer by the second, it's never too early to start looking ahead at potential award winners for the 2013-14 season. And few awards will have as many deserving candidates as this one.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
15. Vince Carter, SG, Dallas Mavericks
The artist formerly known as "Air Canada" has become old reliable, but he served as Dallas' stabilizing force during O.J. Mayo's fits of inconsistency and Dirk Nowitzki's rehab last season. Behind another streaky scorer in Monta Ellis, Carter will have as many minutes as his 36-year-old body can handle.
14. Ryan Anderson, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
The first of two Pelicans to crack this list, Anderson's candidacy will be hurt by the arrival of a supersub to be named later. Still, the big man's shooting ability (38.4 career three-point percentage) and glass work (6.4 rebounds per game in 2012-13) will garner some support from the award voters.
13. Taj Gibson, PF, Chicago Bulls
You could argue that Gibson is a better fit than Carlos Boozer for Tom Thibodeau's opening lineup, but Boozer's $15.3 million salary would suggest otherwise. But don't expect Gibson's two-way contributions to go unnoticed, even on this championship-pedigree roster.
12. Lou Williams, SG, Atlanta Hawks
Two things keep Williams out of this top 10. For starters, the Hawks still aren't sure when he can come back from the torn ACL that ended his 2012-13 campaign. Secondly, the career reserve has a legitimate chance to crack Mike Budenholzer's starting lineup. Unless John Jenkins runs away with that role, Williams will attempt to carry his microwave scoring into the opening group.
11. Reggie Jackson, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
An electric scorer (13.6 points per 36 minutes on 45.8 percent shooting last year) and serviceable decision-maker (career 4.7 assists against 2.1 turnovers per 36 minutes), Jackson has the tools to be James Harden-lite for the Thunder.
But with questions surrounding Westbrook and a challenge for the sixth man spot from Jeremy Lamb, Jackson's 2013-14 forecast is as hard to predict as that of the Thunder.
This award used to be Manu Ginobili's for the taking, but Father Time has started tightening his grip around the 36-year-old.
His woeful NBA Finals showing notwithstanding (11.6 points on 43.3/25.0 percent shooting), he's still a valuable piece of the San Antonio Spurs' championship puzzle.
With a player efficiency rating still well above average (19.0 last season), Ginobili's offensive gifts will keep him in the Sixth Man conversation. He can handle the playmaking duties in spurts (4.6 assists against 2.2 turnovers in 2012-13), and he's only one year removed from a scorching .526/.413/.871 slash line.
But his relatively low standing here has less to do with declining talent and more to do with the improvements around him. Newcomer Marco Belinelli is a capable decision-maker in his own right, and youngsters Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard look poised for even more responsibilities this season.
There will be no loyalty from the voters if Ginobili makes a respectable run at the award, but nothing short of a nostalgic showing will be needed to re-crown the 2007-08 Sixth Man of the Year.
With the Chicago Bulls back at full strength, Nate Robinson would have been facing a major minutes crunch had he re-signed in the Windy City.
But the Denver Nuggets backcourt is a bit crowded itself.
With Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Jordan Hamilton, Evan Fournier and Randy Foye all pining for playing time, Robinson's path to significant minutes is more than a bit hazy.
If new coach Brian Shaw keeps the Nuggets in an uptempo attack (95.1 pace in 2012-13, second-fastest in the league), then Robinson could find something similar to the 25.4 minutes he logged last season.
His decision-making leaves plenty to be desired, but that problem seems to decrease as the speed of the game increases. The former Slam Dunk Contest champion has incredible athleticism, and he's coming off the best three-point shooting season of his career (40.5 percent).
Less is often more when it comes to Robinson, which says everything you need to know about his chances for hardware in 2013-14.
Isaiah Thomas might be the most talented point guard in Michael Malone's rotation, but that may not be enough for him to hold on to his starting gig.
The arrival of pass-first floor general Greivis Vasquez (9.0 assists per game in 2012-13) should move Thomas to the bench. With touches needed for (max) man in the middle DeMarcus Cousins and scoring guards Marcus Thornton and Ben McLemore, Vasquez's distributing touch solves a bigger need than Thomas' shot creation.
Not to mention that Vasquez's 6'6" frame puts a more intimidating presence at the front of Malone's defensive attack than the 5'9" Thomas.
But the move should work wonders for the 60th overall pick of the 2011 draft.
An instant-offense role puts Thomas in a position where he's built for success. A competent perimeter shooter (36.7 percent for his career) and incredible finisher at the rim, he's at his best when he can use his passing skills to complement his scoring ability.
As long as Thomas views this move as a job change as opposed to a demotion, he'll be a constant presence in the Sixth Man award race. But it will be an uphill battle for him to crack the top five without a miraculous turnaround by the Sacramento Kings.
When Mo Williams said he envisioned a "sixth starter" role with the Portland Trail Blazers, via Sean Meagher of the Oregonian, I started searching for the panic button.
After all, Portland had just invested the No. 10 pick in another combo guard C.J. McCollum. With reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard already on the roster, it was hard to envision where Williams would find those sixth starter minutes.
But that problem has since been alleviated, albeit in an unfortunate way. McCollum suffered a fractured metatarsal bone in his left foot during practice and has yet to find either a surgery date or return timetable.
Obviously no one was hoping to see an injury. But this development has cleared the way to major minutes for Williams, and the 10-year veteran has the skills to keep McCollum out of the equation even when the rookie is healthy enough to return.
Williams is a savvy enough setup man to move Lillard off the ball (career 5.0 assists against 2.3 turnovers) and a strong enough scorer (career 13.8 points per game) to thrive in a complementary scoring role.
If Portland finally cashes in on its postseason potential, Williams will get some love from the award voters. But he won't have a high enough place on Portland's totem pole to emerge as a serious threat.
Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel kept Lance Stephenson in his starting group for Indiana's preseason opener, but he admitted that his opening lineup is not set in stone, via Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star.
Danny Granger has the talent to grab that spot, but there are so many reasons for him to slide into a sixth man spot.
With his 2012-13 campaign effectively lost to a knee injury, the 30-year-old could gain a lot from a diminished role. Indiana has the luxury of limiting Granger's playing time to keep him fresh for the postseason and, ideally, extend his career.
Beyond that, the Pacers found a winning strategy with Stephenson as a starter. Stephenson's tough-nosed defense helped propel Indiana to the top of the defensive ranks (league-best 99.8 defensive rating in 2012-13). Paul George made his All-Star ascent at the small forward spot, a position where Granger enjoyed his All-Star days.
Granger's too versatile to be called a specialist, but his scoring is clearly his best attribute. If he's sharing shots with Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland as opposed to George, Roy Hibbert and David West, he can remain the No. 1 option he's used to being.
Besides, he'll have his chances to close out games. Vogel can go the offense-defense rout by subbing Granger and Stephenson late in games, or he can play the pair together against small-ball lineups.
Jamal Crawford was built for an instant offense role.
With yo-yo handles and matador defense, he's the kind of player coaches have a hard time keeping both off the bench and on the floor.
He made a valiant run at the award last season with 16.5 points and 2.5 assists per game, but a revamped Los Angeles Clippers perimeter attack could derail his candidacy this time around. With Darren Collison, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley and Reggie Bullock added to the fold, Crawford won't have as many opportunities to sway the voters.
But he'll definitely play his way into consideration.
At 6'5", he can share the floor with Chris Paul or handle the playmaking duties in Paul's absence. He's a good enough shooter to pull defenders out to the perimeter and never more than a slick dribble move away from getting to the basket.
He has a leg up in L.A.'s sixth man race, but don't be surprised if Doc Rivers opts to ride the hot reserve hand. He won't have a shortage of options, and he'll use that depth to keep defenses off-balance.
Harrison Barnes' rookie season provided more questions than answers.
He followed an underwhelming regular-season effort (9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds) with a near-breakthrough playoff performance (16.1 points and 6.4 boards). He seemed to find new life as an undersized 4, but the Golden State Warriors have more traditional options at the power forward spot with David Lee's return and Marreese Speights' arrival.
Golden State's active offseason delivered boat loads of talent to the Bay, but even more question marks for Barnes.
The Warriors didn't give Andre Iguodala a $44 million contract to come off the pine, meaning either Barnes or sharpshooter Klay Thompson is now bench-bound.
Despite Thompson opening the preseason as Mark Jackson's sixth man, that's still a role I envision Barnes filling when the games actually matter.
He looked lost in the shuffle as a rookie and never seemed entirely comfortable with his role. With Andrew Bogut back at full strength, there will be even more mouths to feed among the Warriors' starters.
Rather than searching for his place with the starters, Barnes might benefit from serving as the focal point of the reserves. A
gain, that won't keep him from closing games.
But it won't be quite enough for Barnes to need to clear any mantle space. He won't have as many offensive responsibilities as the three players in front of him here.
J.R. Smith is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and his New York Knicks failed to find anyone better suited to handle secondary scoring duties behind Carmelo Anthony.
So why is he sitting in the third spot on this list?
For starters, few players had a worse offseason than Smith. He underwent surgery on his left knee—after securing a three-year, $18 million contract with New York—then picked up a five-game suspension for violating the terms of the league's anti-drug program.
There's also the possibility, albeit a remote one, that Smith sneaks into Mike Woodson's starting lineup. The coach admitted he hasn't settled on his opening five just yet, via ESPN New York's Ian Begley.
Even if he's back with the reserves, though, Smith needs to clean up his production to reclaim the award.
He's still a volume scorer (18.1 points on 42.2 percent shooting last season) and has yet to consistently harness his aggression. With his size, strength and athleticism, he should be taking more than the 2.6 free throws per game he's averaged over the course of his career.
Not to mention, this is an incredibly difficult award to win twice. Of the 28 players who have won the award, only three are two-time winners. The last repeat Sixth Man of the Year was Detlef Schrempf in 1990-92.
Despite changing franchises over the summer, Jarrett Jack enters the 2013-14 season the same way he did one year ago—behind a rising star at the point guard position.
And he'll be looking to work the same kind of magic in the Midwest that he did in the Bay.
The third-place finisher in the 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year voting, Jack brings playoff experience and veteran toughness to an intriguing Cavaliers team in dire need of both. He's an effective scorer (12.9 points on .452/.404/.843 shooting last season), but he will shine brightest when he takes over the distributing duties for Irving.
The ninth-year man out of Georgia Tech won't need long to figure out where and when Irving likes his touches. He'll need even less time to discover that looking for Irving (career 20.6 points per game) is almost always the right decision.
While Jack will come even closer to the first Sixth Man nod of his career, his campaign will fall just short for two reasons.
One, he'll have to convince defensive-minded head coach Mike Brown that he's willing and able to positively impact the game on both ends of the floor. Two, he'll need the Cavs to believe that his floor time is more important than the continued development of sophomore Dion Waiters.
Those are two steep hurdles to leap, and one or both will ultimately trip him up in this race.
Despite our excitement to see the brilliance (or disaster) of a Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans three-guard attack for the New Orleans Pelicans, coach Monty Williams is not going to go that route.
Williams said at media day, via John Reid of the Times-Picayune, that he plans to bring the 2009-10 Rookie of the Year off the bench, leaving the former Sacramento Kings star primed to add to his hardware collection.
Absent a three-point shot—although that may be on its way judging by his 33.8 percent showing last season—Evans can do it all on the basketball court. He's active on the glass, knows how to set the table, scores points in bunches and defends anywhere along the perimeter.
With good size and explosiveness, he's one of the rare reserves who can change the game at both ends of the floor.
He's young, he's athletic and he's only scratching the surface of his potential. He's not a star the way Sacramento wanted him to be, but he's the perfect piece to aid in New Orleans' climb up the Western Conference standings.
For the first time in his career, he'll be surrounded by talent whenever he takes the floor.
His NBA introduction was historically special. His reintroduction to the hoops world could be just as sweet.