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If the NBA Season Is Over, Who Deserves Sixth Man of the Year?

Lou Williams put up big numbers off the Clippers’ bench once again as he chased his fourth 6MOY title, but his pick-and-roll partner might be the one to take home the hardware this season

Scott Laven/Getty Images

We don’t know yet whether the 2019-20 NBA season is over. But if this is it, I thought it might be nice to take a minute to acknowledge the best of what we watched. I don’t have a ballot for the NBA’s year-end awards. If I did, though—and if we had to vote based on the roughly 80 percent of the season that we actually got to see—here’s how I’d have filled it out. We’ll run through all of the awards, one post at a time, because we all must do our part right now, and the least I can do is give all of you the opportunity to roast me for my choices.

So, without further ado, let’s hand out some hypothetical hardware. We’ve covered Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and Most Improved Player. Next up: the bench mobbers.

Let’s get it out of the way: I didn’t vote for Lou Williams.

The three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner, and the reigning champion, had another great season off the pine for a Clippers team that sits second in the West and looked poised to make a push for the NBA Finals before the suspension of the season. But as impressive as it was for LouWill to put up 18.7 points and 5.7 assists in 29.3 minutes per game off the bench in his 15th pro season, I had a tough time shaking the feeling that, this time around, he wasn’t even the most impactful reserve on his own team, and that another similarly styled player effectively copied his blueprint—high-usage, high-scoring, playmaking combo guard who closes games and unlocks his playoff team’s best lineups—while also not ranking as a glaring minus on the defensive end. So, with all due respect to Lou’s quest for a record-setting fourth Sixth Man trophy, we’re going another way.

Before we do, though, some apologies/shout-outs to those who didn’t make the cut:

  • Christian Wood, Pistons: The big man ranked in the top five among primary reserves in value over replacement player, box plus-minus, player efficiency rating, and win shares, and 24th among everybody in player impact plus-minus. He was incredibly productive in his breakout season—so much so that Pistons coach Dwane Casey put him in the starting lineup near year’s end!—but he also kind of wasn’t the sixth man on his own team (that was Derrick Rose), and clocked several hundred fewer minutes than the dudes who wound up topping my ballot.
  • Derrick Rose, Pistons: He finished third in scoring and first in assists among players who spent most of their season coming off the bench, and was (before Wood’s emergence) frequently the only source of offense for an injury-decimated team. An already bad Pistons defense was even worse in his minutes, though, and if I want to break the cycle of Sixth Man just going to A Guy Who Gets Buckets, I need to be the change I want to see in the world. (Most of this description also applies to Goran Dragic in Miami, who transitioned nicely this season to life running the second unit, and Jordan Clarkson, who was dynamite off the bench in both Cleveland and Utah.)
  • Nerlens Noel, Thunder; Dwight Howard, Lakers; DeAndre Jordan, Nets; and Mitchell Robinson, Knicks: The other end of the spectrum. Low-usage, high-efficiency, defense-first big men almost always fare really well in the various all-in-one advanced stats; all four rank in the top six in win shares per 48 minutes, for example. They also almost always finish plays rather than create them—Jordan’s an exception here, assisting on a career-high 12.8 percent of his teammates’ baskets and often delightfully celebrating by picking up the dime he just dropped—and tend to be dependent on the context around them rather than individually determining successes or failures, which makes it hard to go with them for this award.
  • Brandon Clarke, Grizzlies; and Terence Davis, Raptors: My second- and third-place finishers in Rookie of the Year balloting were major net positives and two-way contributors for playoff teams in their first seasons. Their relatively narrow roles, though, kept them out of my top three.

With all that said, here we go:

Sixth Man of the Year

1. Montrezl Harrell, Clippers
2. Dennis Schröder, Thunder
3. (tie) George Hill and Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks

I had a tough time choosing one representative from Milwaukee’s second unit, a dynamite reserve corps that led the league in bench plus-minus and net rating, ensuring that the Bucks stayed afloat even when Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton stole a breather. (They maybe shouldn’t have done that together as much as they did—Milwaukee played nearly 1,200 non-garbage-time possessions with both All-Stars on the bench, according to Cleaning the Glass, a little more than 18 percent of the team’s total possessions on the year—but they got outscored by only 0.8 points per 100 possessions in that floor time, and it kept the stars fresh enough to kick maximum ass upon their return, so maybe I shouldn’t be questioning Mike Budenholzer’s substitution patterns that much.)

DiVincenzo was a ton of fun to watch in his second season, taking full advantage of the opportunity afforded by the exit of Malcolm Brogdon to seize a larger role in the Bucks’ backcourt rotation. He showed tremendous feel for the game—slicing into the lane to hunt an offensive rebound, leading a cutter into open space, and rotating from the weak side to break up a play and kick-start a fast break.

DiVincenzo has a real knack for defensive disruption, too. Among players to log at least 500 minutes, he ranked seventh in steals per 36 minutes (tied with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ben Simmons) and 24th in deflections-per-36 (tied with Jimmy Butler). The Bucks’ league-leading defense gave up 2.3 fewer points-per-100 with DiVincenzo on the floor, and the former Villanova standout also took steps forward on the other end, nearing league-average accuracy from 3-point range while using his size, athleticism, and craft to shoot 63 percent at the rim. Back in December, a reader suggested Marcus Smart as a worthy statistical/stylistic comparable, and I haven’t been able to shake it; DiVincenzo just reliably makes good things happen.

The same applies to DiVincenzo’s teammate and fellow third-place finisher, George Hill. After coming over to the Bucks midway through 2018-19 and serving as Eric Bledsoe insurance during the 2019 playoffs, Hill cemented himself as one of the most useful reserves in the league this season—a smart and rangy defender, a rock-solid facilitator (10th in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio among players who spent more than 30 games coming off the bench), and an elite marksman. The 33-year-old led all qualified players in overall 3-point shooting (48 percent), all catch-and-shoot targets with at least 50 attempts from deep (50.6 percent), and all pull-up shooters with at least 50 tries (48.3 percent). Hill’s versatility, consistency, ability to contribute off the ball, and steadying presence made him a perfect fit in Milwaukee’s confederacy of combo guards, and one of the most dependable bench pieces in the game.

I thought hard about slotting Schröder in first. As I mentioned before, I tend to bristle at the notion that Sixth Man should go to the player who piles up the most points without starting; I’ve always felt like that presents an incomplete picture of what makes a player valuable, eliding stuff like defensive versatility, efficiency, or any of the other ways you can help your team. Good thing, then, that Schröder not only led bench players in points per game, but did so on very strong 47/38/84 shooting splits.

Only 10 players this season used more than 27 percent of their teams’ offensive possessions and posted an effective field goal percentage north of .530. Eight were All-Stars. The ninth was Buddy Hield, who was fantastic as Sacramento’s sixth man after he was sent to the bench in late January, but who started 44 of his 64 appearances, taking him out of the running here. The 10th was Schröder, who spent more than half of his floor time as a shooting guard, and flourished while sharing ballhandling duties with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Perhaps even more important: Schröder made a big step defensively. After grading out as a net negative in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus in each of his first six seasons, often ranking among the worst individual defenders in the league during that stretch, Schröder finished eighth among all point guards in DRPM this season, effectively doing whatever was necessary—picking up ball handlers full court, chasing off-ball threats around screens, knifing into passing lanes—to help make Oklahoma City’s lethal three-guard lineups viable on the defensive end.

Units featuring Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Schröder ranked among the league’s most effective this season, hammering opponents by an astounding 28.6 points-per-100, the highest mark of any three-man grouping to log at least 200 minutes. As formidable as they were offensively, they also more than held up on the other end, limiting opponents to just 98.6 points-per-100. CP3’s tenacity, strength, and instincts played a large role in that. So did SGA’s length and shape-shifting ability. But OKC also needed the best, most sustained defensive effort of Schröder’s career to make it work. He provided it, turning in the best season of his career, and one that will likely land him atop of many Sixth Man ballots.

Not this one, though. Because man, was Montrezl Harrell awesome this season.

The fifth-year big man out of Louisville led all primary reserves in value over replacement player and total win shares, and ranked in the top 10 in box plus-minus and win shares per 48 minutes of playing time. Harrell remained one of the most effective offensive reserves in the league despite taking on a larger role than ever, averaging career highs in minutes, field goal attempts, and free throw attempts per game. He was one of just nine players to finish more than 25 percent of his team’s possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover, while posting a true shooting percentage higher than .600.

Granted, Harrell’s offensive game isn’t as well-rounded as the other eight, and his shooting range doesn’t extend nearly as far on the court. Even so: that’s rarefied air for a scorer, and proof of his prowess as a source of buckets whether facing up from the wing, attacking the offensive glass, running the floor in transition, or making something out of nothing on a broken play. And even as his scoring responsibilities increased, Harrell stayed committed to his hustle-and-dirty-work roots, tying Kyle Lowry for the league lead in charges taken, ranking fifth in total shots contested, and finishing 16th in both screen assists and points created via screen assist. While the 6-foot-7 Harrell isn’t a menacing shot-blocker, he held opponents to 51.4 percent shooting at the rim, 16th out of 126 players to contest at least 100 such shots this season.

As was the case last season, disentangling Harrell’s effectiveness from that of his pick-and-roll partner isn’t easy; more than 80 percent of Harrell’s possessions came with Lou Williams on the court, and nearly 79 percent of Williams’s featured Harrell in the game. When they were separated, though, Williams scored fewer points and dished fewer assists per 36 minutes without Harrell, while Harrell’s per-minute production largely stayed steady. It’s also notable that the Clippers fared significantly better in Harrell/no-Lou minutes (plus-9.5 points-per-100 in nearly 700 possessions) than vice versa (plus-1.9 points-per-100 in nearly 800 possessions), with Harrell sliding seamlessly into havoc-wreaking two-way partnerships with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley.

Heading into the season, one of the biggest questions facing the Clippers was how Harrell, coming off a breakout campaign and heading into a contract year, would find his level in a revamped rotation headed by two All-NBA talents. The answer, as it turns out: by keeping his motor revving into the red, playing better than ever, and doing enough to dethrone his running buddy, earn the first Sixth Man trophy of his career, and become the first non-guard to win the award since Lamar Odom way back in 2010-11.