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The Increasingly Abstract Sixth Man of the Year Award

How we measure the NBA’s best reserve player has never been more complex and without definition than it is today

Like many other sports, basketball seems to have a cycle of discussions and debates around awards season. Every year, people seem to have hotly contested conversations over the qualifications for an award as much as the deserving winner. For the last couple of seasons it has been the Most Improved Award that was the subject of ire, with winners Julius Randle (2021) and Ja Morant (2022) creating discussions about what “most improved” actually means.

This year the debate has circled around another member of the New York Knicks: Immanuel Quickley. In the Sixth Man of the Year race, Quickley came in second to Malcolm Brogdon of the Boston Celtics. Many voters had voiced concern over the fact that Quickley’s best games came when he started, whereas Brogdon did not start any games. This discourse has made me wonder about a topic I have wondered about before: what is the true definition of the sixth man?

A Variance of Numbers

An award like MVP is pretty easy to decipher. It is simply the best player you saw play the game of basketball in a season, The same goes for Coach of the Year and Rookie of the Year. But Sixth Man has shown historically that there are several different ways to win this award. We have seen players start in over 40% of their games 3 times and still win the award: Bobby Jackson started 44% of his games in 2003, Aaron McKie started 43% in 2001, and Lamar Odom started 42% of his games in 2011. Manu Ginobili, perhaps the best sixth man ever (in terms of first-place votes), started in 31% of his games for the Spurs in 2008.

On the flip side of that, there have been 7 players (including Malcolm Brogdon this year) who have won the award without starting a single game for their team. These players offered their team a potent punch off the bench that might not have fit with the starting unit. No player in this group exemplified this more than Jamal Crawford for the Atlanta Hawks in 2010. Crawford was the definition of a spark plug off the bench for that team. When he came into the game there was instant offense and he could lead a largely mediocre bench unit with players like Zaza Pachulia and Maurice Evans. This role was perfect for Crawford and he averaged 18 points per game without starting and was the Hawks' second-leading scorer.

Crawford was a great example of someone who excelled in his role and did not need to do anything else to be impactful. Then there is someone like Darrell Armstrong, the Orlando Magic point guard who won the award in 1999 and started 30% of the games for his team. 1999 was famously the lockout season where only 50 games were played. The Magic used him as a starter to complement players like Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson. Armstrong rewarded this faith by being 12th in the league in assists that year. He was the example of someone who filled whatever spot he needed. Which brings up the question, what is the accepted way in the context of the sixth man? And this year we had a textbook example in Brogdon vs Quickley.

The Argument for the Pre-Defined Role

The Boston Celtics finished as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. They have two elite playmaking wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They have a former Defensive Player of the Year in point guard Marcus Smart, who was the first point guard to win the award since Gary Payton did it in 1996. The Celtics signed Malcolm Brogdon this off-season for the sole purpose of being a player that can get them crucial buckets down the stretch of games as an elite reserve player.

He was never intended to be the bench player that could start games for the Celtics. That distinction has gone to Grant Williams, who started in 23 games this season when some starters were missing time. Stylistically, Brogdon offered something that the starting backcourt tandem of Marcus Smart and Derrick White cannot: a player that is very adept at creating his shot and scoring efficiently in bunches. He brought another layer of offensive firepower that the Celtics could take advantage of when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were off the floor.

And he delivered in that capacity. Brogdon played a career-low 26 minutes per game but in those minutes averaged nearly 15 points per game, and shot a career-best 44% from three-point range. He was everything that the Celtics needed and more from a backup point guard. He simply did everything that they asked him to do as a designated bench player. Brogdon played 1,744 minutes for the Celtics this season and only 372 of those minutes (21%) were with both Tatum and Brown on the floor at the same time. This speaks to him filling a purpose on this roster, and arguably being the best fit for a defined role in all of the NBA. So from that lens, it is easy to understand why so many people voted for him as the league’s Sixth Man of the Year.

The Argument for Versatility

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the Knicks' Immanuel Quickley. Quickley has had an interesting tenure with the Knicks, providing much-needed energy off the bench with many in the fan base questioning if he was truly suited to play the point guard position. These concerns continued to manifest as the Knicks continued to bring in other players such as Elfrid Payton, Derrick Rose, and Alec Burks that dominated the point guard minutes over him.

Then this year that lack of faith seemed to be solidified when the Knicks signed Dallas Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson to a 4-year/$104 M deal. Quickley was slated to remain a backup combo guard that could fill in for Brunson or Quentin Grimes at either guard spot. And Quickley was excellent in that spot, providing timely shot-making and playmaking chops that have made many consider if he has untapped potential remaining to be unlocked.

The Knicks dealt with some injuries throughout the year and Quickley was asked to fill in for Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, and Quentin Grimes on numerous occasions. He started in 21 games and in those games, he averaged 22 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. Quickley had taken a leap in his development and these games as a starter were proof of that. He created value for his team and instantly became their best bench player because of how adaptable he was in a variety of roles. He was excellent as a spark plug off the bench, point guard of the reserve unit, stable as a starter, and capable of getting hot as a starter in the shooting guard role.

This value created an argument over whether or not starting games should be deemed a negative as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. That thought is immediately dispelled as history has shown multiple players that started games won the award. But the question that Quickley and Brogdon have posed is a more abstract one: what is the sixth man on a basketball team? And can it be defined?

Defining the Sixth Man

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about basketball is that styles and definitions are open to interpretation. What you consider the traits of an elite point guard might not line up with the traits that I look for in a player that plays the same position. Neither of us is right, while neither is wrong. We are at a moment of differentiation now with a team’s sixth man.

A team’s sixth man is defined as being the first player to come off the bench for a team, a player that has enough versatility to play multiple positions and can exceed the statistics achieved by some starters. The term versatility is an interesting one in the context of this year’s award. Both of these players played both guard positions but one was asked to take on a bigger role as an occasional starter while the other was not. Does this mean that the Celtics didn’t trust Brogdon enough to start? I don’t think so. Brogdon has a well-documented injury history and, likely, Boston did not want to over-exert him as they wanted him as healthy as possible for the playoffs.

To the Celtics, the sixth man means a player that is the team’s best bench player who is to stay in that box. To the Knicks, the sixth man means a player that can fill in when the time is needed and accept more responsibility. Both approaches can be deemed correct, but I tend to think there is more value in a player that I can trust to be a Swiss Army knife off the bench or as a starter. I view the idea of a sixth man as a more abstract concept, someone that is capable of plugging the holes in a team that will be exposed due to injury or other circumstances.

The emphasis on Quickley’s minutes as a bench player only discounts perhaps his greatest trait. Conversely, that same discussion also discounts Brogdon’s effectiveness as the ultimate bench player. If your thought was that Brogdon was the more effective player in the role asked of him, that he was a more efficient three-point shooter and a better free-throw shooter then you could not be faulted. But to base his merit solely on the fact that he was not asked to start any games discredits the greatness that he did this year.

In regards to Immanuel Quickley, disregarding what he did as a starter and how important that has been to his team going back to the playoffs is also disingenuous to his body of work this year as a player that is always ready to take on more responsibility. And that is truly the tragedy of this conversation because it has led to two excellent players being judged unfairly for an award that by its very nature is relatively undefined. And what this has led to is inconsistency in the way people vote for the award. Is there a solution to this? Probably not, and that is because the NBA thrives off of these kinds of discussions as it generates online activity and consumption of its content.

In the end, how you feel about a player starting and their merits to be considered a sixth man will always be up for debate. While I appreciate the versatility that Quickley showed this year and players like Manu Ginobili and Lamar Odom showed in the past you might value the Jamal Crawford Atlanta years more and enjoy someone that solely comes off the bench. What we should not be doing, however, is belittling the accomplishments of excellent players just to suit our agendas. We as a basketball community need to be better.

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