Is Taj Gibson the Favorite for the NBA's 2014 Sixth Man of the Year Award?

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Is Taj Gibson the Favorite for the NBA's 2014 Sixth Man of the Year Award?
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If the NBA's award voters fully embraced the advanced statistical movement, Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson would be a shoe-in for the 2013-14 Sixth Man of the Year award.

Judging by the recent voting trends, though, a fixation on the traditional numbers (namely scoring) might leave the bruising forward watching someone else claim the hardware that should belong to him.

If Taj's trophy collection remains barren at season's end, he'll have his lack of sexy stats to blame. Even though his Bulls (40-31, fourth in the Eastern Conference standings) have survived another lost season from Derrick Rose by embracing all things ugly.

Gibson embodies the Bulls' way. A rugged defender who maximizes his offensive impact through a potent mix of elbow grease and mid-range proficiency, he follows the same path as the starting five and adds his own twist to the second team.

That's what sixth men are supposed to do. Unfortunately, that's not enough to meet this archaic voting criteria.

Unless Gibson stumbles into a pile of points that aren't available in this offense, he'll go down as the most valuable sixth man—but not the Sixth Man of the Year.

 

Making Gibson's Case

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau couldn't think much less of individual recognition.

So, when the cantankerous coach is out campaigning on Gibson's behalf, that lends the super-sub's candidacy some validation.

"The things that he does for us are all team-oriented," Thibodeau said, via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. "He plays great defense, challenges shots, guards everybody, runs the floor hard, sets great screens, does his job, gets deep post position."

In other words, Gibson doesn't always show well in the box scores. Not the traditional ones, at least.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

There is no way to calculate hustle, heart or intensity—all staples of Gibson's game.

What we can measure, though, is impact. And that's where the big man's grades are off the charts.

His floor presence brings this team nearly four extra points per 100 possessions (105.1) compared to when he sits (101.4), via 82games.com. Chicago sees almost a two-point jump in both effective field-goal (47.5) and offensive rebounding (32.2) percentages when he's on the floor than when he's not (45.8 and 30.3, respectively).

For those who don't like digging so deep, the USC product has even posted some of those traditionally stacked stat lines that they can appreciate:

If the fifth-year forward can't get a sniff from the S.M.O.Y. voters, he might get a look from those responsible for selecting the league's Most Improved Player. Gibson has been good before, but never quite like this.

He's added nearly five points to his previous career high in scoring percentage: 13.4, up from 9.0. His free-throw percentage has climbed more than six points over his previous personal best: 74.3, up from 67.9. His presence on the glass (6.8 RPG) is as strong as it's been since his rookie campaign (7.5). His shot-blocking has matched a career high (1.4) and his assists have set a new one (1.1).

Still, it's the sixth man award that he's after.

"It would mean a lot," he said of winning the award, via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "I've been a part of the Bench Mob my entire career since we got Carlos (Boozer)...Coming off the bench on this team is just tough. You come in, play defense, go from a guy who is just focused on defense and now my team is looking for me on offense."

And he's supplied that offense. Even when the Bulls haven't looked for him.

Will that be enough to get some love outside of the Windy City? Let's just say Gibson faces a steep, uphill climb and he's running out of time to make up that distance.

 

Surveying the Field

If there's one thing working in Gibson's favor, it's the fact that team success often plays a large part in individual awards.

While the Bulls don't have the best record in the league, their .563 winning percentage looks awfully impressive when you consider this team has effectively lost two of its top-three players: Rose (torn meniscus) and Luol Deng (traded in early January for draft picks and salary relief). That probably helps Thibodeau's campaign for Coach of the Year more than anything, but it can't hurt Gibson either.

What should trim this field, though, are the team struggles of several top candidates like Nick Young's Los Angeles Lakers (23-46), Rodney Stuckey's Detroit Pistons (26-44) and Tyreke Evans' New Orleans Pelicans (30-40). All three play for teams with a losing record, something an SMOY winner hasn't done since Detlef Schrempf's Indiana Pacers went 40-42 in 1991-92.

Harry How/Getty Images

While that narrows the field, it leaves Gibson with some worthy competitors.

That aforementioned scoring obsession is real. The numbers suggest as much. Six of the past seven winners have averaged at least 16.8 points—the lone exception was Lamar Odom, who put up 14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists for the Lakers in 2010-11—and five of those six have posted at least 18 points a night.

If that trend holds, then there's no reason for anyone to enter the voting booth. Los Angeles Clippers reserve guard Jamal Crawford, who took home the hardware with the Atlanta Hawks in 2009-10, will walk away comfortably with the award.

There's a sizable gap in the scoring department between Crawford and the other top scoring reserves (players who've come off the bench more than they've started), especially once players from losing teams are weeded out as they are on this list.

The Sixth Man Scoring Race
Player Team GP GS PPG FG% PER
Jamal Crawford LAC 63 23 18.4 41.9 17.4
Markieff Morris PHO 70 0 13.8 48.8 18.6
Taj Gibson CHI 71 8 13.4 48.2 16.4
Reggie Jackson OKC 70 33 13.3 43.7 15.2
Manu Ginobili SAS 58 3 12.5 46.8 20.2
Jeremy Lin HOU 60 25 12.4 45.3 14.5
D.J. Augustin CHI 61 9 12.2 40.9 15.5
Vince Carter DAL 70 0 11.9 40.8 16.5
Andray Blatche BRK 63 6 11.4 47.0 19.0

Basketball-Reference.com

Crawford isn't the most efficient scorer of the group, but he's easily its most explosive (26 games with 20-plus points). Factor in his work as a distributor (3.2 assists)—and the Los Angeles Clippers' 50-21 record—and he'll be hard to overlook for the voters.

Manu Ginobili, a SMOY winner in 2007-08, will draw strong support from the best-reserve-on-the-best-team crowd. A consistent scorer both inside the arc (55.2 two-point field-goal percentage) and beyond it (35.4 three-point percentage), the 36-year-old—much like his 54-16 San Antonio Spurs—has lost nothing to Father Time.

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Gibson doesn't have a bad resume by any stretch, but it lacks the "wow" factor these voters seem to value.

And that matters when it comes to this award. A lot more than it should.

 

The 2013-14 Sixth Man of the Year Will Be...

...a scoring guard and probably a repeat winner.

Crawford seems to be the clubhouse leader at this point. Nearly a five-point scoring drop between him and Morris will look Grand Canyon-esque in the eyes of the voters.

Who gets your vote for the 2013-14 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Does that mean Crawford is the best reserve in the game? Of course not.

But that's not always how this award is decided. Assuming, of course, there's an objective way to define the "best" candidate for a subjective award.

If only there was a way to attach an objective value to a player's impact on the win column.

Oh wait, there is. It's a player's win shares, defined by Basketball-Reference as "an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player." If that criteria was used, this would be a three-man race—between Morris (5.5), Gibson (5.1) and Ginobili (5.1).

I'm not saying this should be the deciding factor in the discussion, but rather a conversation starter. Something that can move these flat-earth voters out of basketball's dark ages.

Something that can capture the true of impact of a two-way force like Gibson. Something that could help the big man claim what is rightfully his but won't be given to him: the 2013-14 Sixth Man of the Year award.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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