Ranking Manu Ginobili and the NBA's Best Sixth Men Since 2000

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBAFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 10, 2022

Ranking Manu Ginobili and the NBA's Best Sixth Men Since 2000

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    The NBA's best players aren't always the 10 who take the floor to open a contest.

    Ever since legendary Boston Celtics skipper Red Auerbach recognized a need for further firepower off the bench, sixth men have carved their own path as energizers, microwave scorers and change-of-pace players.

    Manu Ginobili, who's about to be welcomed into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, was a prime example of the modern super-sub. He was clearly talented enough to crack the first five, but he delivered the most value to the San Antonio Spurs as a destroyer of second units and crunch-time closer.

    Did he handle the role better than any of his contemporaries, though?

    To answer that inquiry, we're assessing all of the top sixth men of the modern era—defined simply for this exercise as 2000 and on—and ranking them using everything from statistical contributions (advanced and traditional), longevity and overall impact, both on their teams and the league at large.

Honorable Mention

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    Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

    James Harden

    Before Harden found his calling as a net-shredding MVP, he spent his first three seasons making his presence felt off the Oklahoma City Thunder's bench. The Sooner State's spark plug was spectacular by his third NBA go-round, averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists while posting a pristine 49.1/39.0/84.6 shooting slash.

    While that effort earned him Sixth Man of the Year honors, it also ended his run as a super-sub. The Houston Rockets snatched him up that offseason and quickly handed over the keys to the franchise. It was, obviously, a brilliant move for Space City, but it hurts him in an exercise like this since he loses the longevity argument.

    Andre Iguodala

    Iguodala spent his prime years as a heavy-minute starter and even served as the Philadelphia 76ers' first focal point of the post-Allen Iverson era. However, Iguodala's move to the second unit was one of the final keys in unlocking the Golden State Warriors dynasty.

    Of course, Golden State's roster was so stacked that Iguodala's individual numbers were held in check, and the spotlight didn't often capture his defensive dominance. The notable exception, though, was when his defensive effort against LeBron James helped Iguodala take home the 2015 Finals MVP, although he started the final three games of that series.

    Lamar Odom

    While most sixth men have been quick-strike scoring guards, Odom broke the mold as a 6'10", 220-pounder who played some point-forward and served as connective tissue for the Los Angeles Lakers. He always found a way to impact winning; you just couldn't always tell that by his numbers.

    He won two titles as L.A.'s top reserve (2009 and 2010), and his across-the-board contributions in 2010-11—14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists—earned him Sixth Man of the Year honors. However, he really only had that three-year run as a top-shelf sub, and that isn't enough to officially make the cut.

5. Leandro Barbosa

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    While the entire "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns played at warp speed, Barbosa had a top gear the others couldn't match.

    Aptly nicknamed the Brazilian Blur, he'd dart around defenders and send the scoreboard spinning before they could even react. That was if they were lucky enough to keep up with him in the first place, as he routinely torched teams in transition.

    "You constantly had to be aware of him," Shaun Livingston, who later teamed with Barbosa in Golden State, said in 2016, per Scott Cacciola of the New York Times. "Because if you didn't, he was gone: Where did this dude go?"

    While Phoenix's frenetic pace probably inflated Barbosa's numbers, the production was still incredible. Between the 2005-06 and 2008-09 seasons, he averaged 15.4 points, 3.0 assists and 2.7 rebounds along with a 47.4/41.0/83.1 shooting slash. He was crowned Sixth Man of the Year in 2006-07 and was an annual candidate throughout that run.

4. Jason Terry

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    If you retraced the biggest domino drops in Dallas Mavericks history, Terry's embrace of a sixth-man role would land impressively high up the list.

    As a combo guard who could find shots for himself and others, he was the perfect catalyst for the Mavs' second unit. In his first season as a super-sub (2007-08), he averaged 15.5 points (on 46.7 percent shooting) and 3.2 assists (against 1.1 turnovers). In his second, he captured Sixth Man of the Year honors by averaging 19.6 points, 3.4 assists and 1.3 steals while amassing a 46.3/36.6/88.0 shooting slash.

    "He's a great guy in the locker room. He's one of our emotional leaders, always firing up the crowd," Dirk Nowitzki told reporters. "He's one of the best clutch players I've ever seen."

    As if out to prove his teammate prescient, Terry saved his best for the Mavs' biggest moment. He handled the Robin role to Nowitzki's Batman turn in the 2011 Finals, averaging Dallas' second-most points (18.0 on 49.4/39.3/75.0 shooting) and delivering one of the series' signature baskets with a clutch three-pointer over LeBron James.

3. Jamal Crawford

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    Armed with yo-yo handles, the confidence to pull from anywhere and knockout-powered scoring punch, Jamal Crawford offered everything you wanted in a spark plug—and then some.

    His style electrified fans and energized teammates, but there was always substance at its root. Only 63 players have ever notched 19,000 career points in this league, and Crawford is one of them, an impressive feat considering he started fewer than one-third of his games and only averaged 20-plus points in one of his 20 seasons.

    He knew how to get buckets, though, and more specifically, he understood how to heat up in a hurry. Between 2009-10 and 2015-16, he averaged 15.9 points in just 28.9 minutes per game (19.8 per 36 minutes). During those seven seasons, he became the league's first three-time Sixth Man of the Year (a distinction now shared with the No. 2 sub on our list).

    "The award will probably be renamed the 'Jamal Crawford Award' at some point," Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters in 2016. "There's not many guys who have done it better than Jamal off the bench."

    You could make a compelling argument for Crawford to rank as high as No. 1, but he lands just a few spots back because of middling efficiency (career 41 percent shooting) and defensive struggles.

2. Lou Williams

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    No one has ever mastered the art of second-unit scoring quite like Sweet Lou.

    While many sixth men learned the role on the fly after transitioning out of a starting gig, Williams has essentially handled a reserve role from the jump. Even after his profile grew and his production increased, he never shifted into the starting lineup. He has never started more than 38 games in a season and only twice (in 17 seasons) has started in more than half of his games.

    Now, there are reasons Williams' game works best in a reserve role, as he shares Crawford's weaknesses in field-goal percentage (career 41.9) and anything related to defense. Having said that, Williams has fully embraced his spark-plug duties and aced them to the degree that he also shares the distinction of being a three-time Sixth Man of the Year.

    "I've learned to embrace my role, and I think that is what makes it special," Williams said, per NBA.com's Shaun Powell. "That is part of my legacy as well."

    Williams is the Association's all-time leader in bench points. If we followed what's often the real-life Sixth Man voting pattern of simply selecting the top-scoring reserve, Williams would be a lock for No. 1. However, since there's more to the role than buckets, he'll have to settle for runner-up to the well-rounded Hall of Famer at the top.


1. Manu Ginobili

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    You can find super-subs on this list who scored more points than Ginobili. You could perhaps find a few who could handle him in a one-on-one matchup, too.

    What you can't find, though, is another who left a bigger imprint on the game of basketball. He wasn't the first to introduce the Eurostep, but he weaponized it in such a graceful, unpredictable manner that his contemporaries had no choice but to mimic the Argentian swingman.

    "He became a style-changer, and a lot of the things he did, everybody in America started to copy," longtime San Antonio Spurs skipper Gregg Popovich told ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry.

    While often technically deployed as San Antonio's sixth man, Ginobili was functionally a critical piece of the Alamo City's Big Three, an uber-talented, wildly successfully trio co-chaired by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Ginobili helped steer the Spurs to four world titles in 11 years, operating primarily as a reserve in three of those championship runs.

    He somehow only snagged a single Sixth Man of the Year award, but he could have taken home a half-dozen. He also snagged an All-NBA third-team spot in that same season (2007-08), becoming the only player ever to ever earn both distinctions in a single campaign.

    His improbable rise from the 57th pick of the 1999 draft to Hall of Fame enshrinement is the kind of legendary tale hoop junkies will pass down from generation to generation.


    Statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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