End-of-season NBA awards races rely on an immense assortment of factors to split hairs between deserving candidates. MVP voters weigh a player’s statistics, availability, and team performance. Defensive Player of the Year voters balance box score figures, tracking data, and reputation. Most Improved Player voters have to define the very parameters of improvement and whether, say, second-year players should be considered. And that’s just a small sampling of the sorts of criteria voters use.
But one award seems to manifest much more simply, at least in terms of the observed results over years of voting. The Sixth Man race doesn’t care about advanced stats or teammates or anything beyond one basic question: Which bench player scores the most points?
No other end-of-season award is so beholden to one statistic. The overall points per game champion has been named MVP in only four of the past 20 seasons. The blocks per game leader hasn’t won Defensive Player of the Year since Dwight Howard in 2009-10.
Yet in the past 16 seasons, the Sixth Man winner has finished first or second in points per game, among players eligible for the award, 14 times. In the past five seasons, the only winner who didn’t lead reserves in scoring was Montrezl Harrell in 2019-20—when the then-Clippers big lost the bench scoring title by a mere 0.3 points per game.
Sixth Man Winners’ Scoring Among Reserves
|Year||Sixth Man Winner||PPG Rank|
|Year||Sixth Man Winner||PPG Rank|
But this apparent ironclad rule of the Sixth Man award might not apply this season. As of Wednesday, Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon ranks only sixth* among reserves in bench scoring with 14.8 points per game—yet he’s the odds-on Vegas favorite to take home the trophy.
(*This ranking includes Philadelphia guard Tyrese Maxey, who isn’t technically eligible for the award at the moment, as he’s played 22 games as a starter versus 19 as a reserve. However, because Maxey is now coming off the bench most games, he’s likely to qualify by the end of the season; as long as a player has more games as a reserve than as a starter, he’s eligible.)
A Brogdon victory would add a lovely bit of flavor to an otherwise staid award. Sometimes that deference to points is fine because the leading bench scorer is also the most valuable; Tyler Herro was an excellent choice to win Sixth Man last season, for instance, and thus played his way into Miami’s starting lineup for 2022-23.
Yet it often leads to more puzzling outcomes that look even worse in retrospect. The year before Herro triumphed, Jordan Clarkson was the Sixth Man winner even though teammate Joe Ingles was better at defense, passing, and shooting efficiency, all because Clarkson scored more points. Over a broader timescale, Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams share the record for most Sixth Man trophies, with three apiece, while Manu Ginóbili won only once—the one time he led bench players in scoring, naturally—and Andre Iguodala never won for the Warriors.
Ginóbili and Iguodala, incidentally, have the two highest career plus-minus figures off the bench for any players dating back to 1996-97 (the start of the play-by-play era). They both played incredibly important roles for championship teams, but voters didn’t reward them for their well-rounded contributions. Other individual honors, like MVP and All-NBA ballots, care about two-way performance. But the last Sixth Man winner who was even average at defense was … maybe Eric Gordon in 2017? Lamar Odom in 2011?
This myopic focus on points wasn’t always the norm. The 76ers’ Bobby Jones was the inaugural Sixth Man winner in 1982-83, a season in which the player nicknamed the Secretary of Defense averaged only 9.0 points per game, but played a key role for the best team in the league. A few years later, Bill Walton scored just 7.6 points per game, yet was still honored for elevating the title-winning Celtics. Throughout the ’90s, the likes of Toni Kukoc and John Starks won the award, even though they weren’t the NBA’s highest-scoring reserves, because of their contributions to dominant regular-season teams.
The profile of a prototypical winner has clearly shifted in recent decades, but a Brogdon trophy would represent a throwback. The Celtics’ sixth man is far more well-rounded than recent Sixth Man winners; this season, he’s the only bench player (other than Khris Middleton, who has played far fewer games in his slow return from injury) who’s averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per 36 minutes.
He also leads the league in 3-point accuracy, at a scorching 46 percent on 4.4 attempts per game. Thanks to his teammates, Brogdon has admittedly benefitted from fairly easy looks—but he also ranks third in 3-point shotmaking, according to Second Spectrum, or the difference between his actual and expected percentages based on factors like location and defender distance.
Best 3-Point Shooters Versus Expectation
|Player||Actual 3P%||Expected 3P%||Shotmaking|
|Player||Actual 3P%||Expected 3P%||Shotmaking|
|Michael Porter Jr.||41.0%||34.2%||+6.8%|
And Brogdon serves as an ideal connector for Boston’s third-ranked offense, boosting a possible no. 1 seed by filling in around the stars where he’s needed. He occupies the exact role the Celtics envisioned when they traded role players and a top-12-protected pick for him last July. Heck, he’s even remained healthy, playing in 53 out of 62 games this season; he’d previously missed at least 16 games every season since he was a rookie.
Looking forward to the postseason, Brogdon will be an important X factor for Boston’s title hopes. Especially with veteran big Al Horford taking a step back this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Celtics close playoff games with four perimeter players surrounding Robert Williams III, and Brogdon—along with Derrick White, who fills a similar role—belongs in that mix.
For regular-season awards, granted, Brogdon’s potential playoff role shouldn’t matter, and team performance doesn’t matter as much to modern voters as it used to. Now, MVPs can come from no. 6 seeds. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on one’s definition of “valuable.” (I’m also a baseball writer and fan; I know Mike Trout’s a deserving MVP even when his Angels miss the playoffs.)
Yet for Sixth Man candidates, overall team quality can influence a player’s responsibilities, and therefore his statistical output. Could Brogdon score more if he played for a worse team? Probably, given that he averaged 21 and 19 points per game in his last two seasons in Indiana. But now he’s playing fewer minutes, with his lowest usage rate in four years, as he shares the court with better teammates in Boston, so of course his scoring average has dropped. For contrast, a Sixth Man candidate like rookie Bennedict Mathurin, who is effectively replacing Brogdon in Indiana, can try to score as much as possible without compunction.
But Mathurin and the other leading scorers eligible for the award are unlikely to win it this season, according to FanDuel odds as of Wednesday morning. Even though Mathurin, Christian Wood, and Russell Westbrook—now starting as a Clipper, but with enough games as a reserve to qualify at the end of the season—are scoring more often than Brogdon, the deficiencies elsewhere in their games make the Celtics guard a superior all-around candidate.
Highest-Scoring Sixth Man Candidates
Maxey could be a strong contender for the award, but he’s already missed 19 games. The closest competitor, per current Vegas odds, is the Clippers’ Norman Powell, who has surged after a slow start and is his team’s third-leading scorer, with solid efficiency. Yet even there, Brogdon is a better passer, rebounder, and defender than the score-first Clipper, and a mere two-points-per-game scoring gap shouldn’t be enough to make up for those other gaps.
Beyond this season’s race, if Brogdon does triumph thanks to his more diverse array of skills, it could give voters the opportunity to rethink the Sixth Man award. To some extent, the “yay points!” mindset has been standardized by inertia, because it’s the simplest choice year after year. An overhaul might be wishful thinking—Brogdon hasn’t even won yet, and there are still nearly 20 games for Maxey or Powell to edge ahead of him—but maybe a Brogdon win would help the next Iguodala or Ginóbili mount a firmer challenge to future points merchants.