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The Problem With Today's Sixth Men

Dernière mise à jour : 24 oct. 2022

Everyone knows it, to win a title, you must have a deep and strong bench. That starts with your sixth man, the one who will get your stalling offense rolling or the one who’ll stop the opponent’s points avalanche. The NBA has been granted with numerous talented and historic sixth man, but recently, we’re starting to see a pattern where today’s glorified bench players are not fully fulfilling the needs like they used to. So, is there a problem with how teams or fans perceive and approach the sixth man role?

When you look at some of the last Sixth man of the year or their runners-up, you see a resemblance: they’re gifted and effortless scorer who can heat up at any moment and relieve a team with timely shot-making and energy. But for the majority of them, the season ended in a poor fashion when they were part of a team with contending hope, for both them and their respective teams.

The offensive fallacy

Kevin McHale, Toni Kukoc, Manu Ginobili, Jamal Crawford or more recently Lou Williams have all built the image the Sixth man role has today. Some of them made history multiple times and were part of real legacy, others failed to win anything, but all have been incredibly fascinating players to watch on offense. That said, it possible that our inconscient has led us to, today, wrongfully attach and idealise this role with score-first guards without thinking about their efficiency or their real impact?

What seems to be often forgotten is that gifted scoring is not useful if it doesn’t come along with passing, efficiency and off-ball qualities. In the regular season, incorporating such players into an offense is quite easy and instantly productive: they can score off simple sets, naturally take pressure off your stars’ shoulders and simplify the role of the other bench players.

Take for example the simplest and most common play to design, a pick-and-roll, and look at how some of the major bench players of this past decade stand in terms of efficiency and frequency during the regular season.

Except for Eric Gordon, Pick and Rolls are a pro-eminent part of their whole game. Efficiency-wise, they’re all above-average and some of them peak at a really good efficiency. Most of them improve their team’s offensive rating when they’re on the floor during the regular season.

For contenders, delegating such a big part of the offense to those bench contributors should only apply in the regular season. In the playoffs, you want your best shot-creators and most efficient shot-makers to handle the ball. If a part of your offense relies on a sixth man coming in and just doing his scoring-solo, you’ll hardly be great, considering that these players are often inefficient, uni-dimensional scorers. Look at how those same players fared judged by the same criteria, in the same PNRs situations but in the playoffs this time:

They all have upped their frequency and efficiency compared to the regular season, but their impact on the team’s offense is surprisingly worse. That’s the case for all of them, except for Schroder who jointly reduced his frequency by 17.6% and the PNR possessions minus 3.

It shows one thing, despite their pick-and-rolls being more efficient, those players don’t improve their teams’ offense because their playstyle requires handling the ball a lot, without necessarily making anyone around them better. Those redundant pick-and-rolls also make schemes and game-plans easier to prepare for opposing teams in the playoffs.

But surely, that doesn’t mean those players shouldn’t handle the ball or run any pick-and-roll at all. It just means that there’s a more important factor and condition for them to be decisive pieces offensively: the ability and willingness to play off-ball, via catch and shoot. For example, in the 2021 playoffs, Jordan Clarkson finished with awful numbers despite his PNR splits being extremely good. A year later, he had great playoffs just because of one thing: his catch and shoot prowess.

Furthermore, Joe Ingles and more recently Jordan Poole could also be players who classify as ball-handler/pick-and-roll scorer coming off the bench, but their catch & shoot aptitudes and their great playmaking still make them positive players.

What’s even more dangerous, for teams that rely too much on those players, is that despite them being less productive offensively and often awful defensively (we’ll come to that later), they can’t truly exclude them from the rotation in the postseason. Why? Well, because all year, they’ve given those guy 28 minutes per night and responsibilities in the offense. The 18-19’ Clippers couldn’t bench Lou Williams, even if they probably should have, because replacing his 13.8 possessions would be really hard to do.

The defensive meltdowns

I’ve already explained how their feared offense aren’t really that impactful come post-season, but that’s nothing compared to the worst part of their game: the defense. All year, those microwave scorers will primarily (and uniquely) focus on the offensive side of the ball, resulting in them being a negative factor defensively that’s as contained as it possibly can by the rest of the team. In the playoffs, where abusing and targeting bad defenders through switches and pick-and-rolls has become merely adopted by all teams, these bad defensive aptitudes and efforts will simply be deadly for any team.

It’s clear that except for the only positive defender on that list, Dennis Schroder, their defensive struggles have constantly worsened during the playoffs. To the point where they aren’t positive players at all, when you look at the evolution of their On/Off net rating between the regular season and the playoffs :

Those numbers are truly astonishing and once again, they’re proof of how solid defensively you got to be in the playoffs to survive. No matter how good you are at hitting tough shots or at beating your man, if defensively you can’t keep up, your place is not on the floor.

If not them, then who?

As stated earlier, taking the ball off your best creators’ hands is useless in the playoffs unless it is to give it to another efficient facilitator or creator. Those two archetypes are hard to find, so what should really matter is only the complementarity and the diversity your bench players give you.

If you want to find a guard who can contribute to scoring, there isn’t any recent example better than Fred VanVleet in 2019, because he could handle the rock and score efficiently, but his biggest strength was his off-ball qualities and he was also a terrific defender.

Then, there are plenty of players who’ll contribute in their own constant and indispensable way with a more precise task/role that will entirely remodel the ceiling and face of a team. That's the type of players who make a difference when it really matters, but their playing style and numbers often aren’t flashy enough to get them clicks for the 6MOTY award.

To sum it up, when thinking about what makes a sixth man a great contributor, we should look at the off-ball qualities, the role on the team, the defensive impact and how his presence translates to playoffs success as much as the scoring and ball-handling masteries.

NBA basketball is a totally different sport in the postseason, what makes a player good in the regular season does not necessarily make him a positive one in the playoffs. This is why I hope that, in the future, we will show more love and recognition, also through the 6MOY voting, to all bench contributors, not only the ones that can effortlessly score but don't give much effort on the defensive end.

All stats used here come from,, .

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