Yesterday J.R. Smith was selected and elected, beginning a twelve-month reign as the NBA’s Sixth Man Of The Year. Smith had one of the best seasons of his career scoring oodles of points for the Knicks, forgoing his trademark one-on-three jumpshots for large stretches of the season, getting extremely flirtatious with hid old nemesis, consistency, and even taking the time to play passable defense. But this tweet from the NBA.com stats department really sums up his case:
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) April 22, 2013
Yay Points! #KiaSixth!
The NBA’s post-season awards have become an incredibly flat affair with all the intrigue of a Sesame Street episode. Each award is voted on by a huge slate of media members, but still each has developed a predictable path for being won. The cobblestone route to winning the Sixth Man Award is simply coming off the bench and scoring points. But what frustrates and confuses me isn’t that Smith is this year’s winner. I’m long past the point where these arbitrary, whack-a-mole celebrations of the regular season can rise much ire. I’m also not going to waste time arguing that these awards are stupid and don’t reflect the reality of what happened all season long. You can read those articles at fifteen different blogs today. What bothers me is the incredibly narrow idea of what a sixth man is, and that this particularly narrow viewpoint extends well beyond the NBA post-season awards, pervading the actual construction of actual basketball teams.
Over the past half-decade offensive complexity seems to have grown by leaps and bounds. More versatile players fill more versatile systems. Analytics and critical thinking have bred both creativity and a focus on efficiency. Teams have by-and-large abandoned the pound-the-ball, isolations strategies that carried offenses in the late 90s and early 00s. But these last vestiges of go-it-alone, chest-thumping offensive bravado still seem to hang on in two places – close games and bench rotations. The perceived value of inefficient volume scorers has depreciated incredibly but a disturbing number of front offices still seem drawn to them when there is an uneven balance of offensive ability on the roster.
That the first player off the bench needs to be someone with individual scoring chops strikes me as ridiculous on several levels. First of all, if that need for individual offense was great enough to make it first priority for a substitution, it would seem to indicate some serious problems with both the talent and arrangement of the starting lineup. Second, there are a handful of notable exceptions, but bench units rarely exist as a distinct and separate entity. They are almost always an interweaving of starters and backups. If a team’s offensive system is built on the symphonic melodies of various talents and skill sets, why abandon that system completely when the parts are scattered or arranged differently? Shouldn’t bench units be a reflection of the starting lineup, covering holes when possible, but ultimately shaped by the team’s over-arching offensive and defensive goals? Obviously the Spurs offense can’t run quite the same without Tony Parker in the game, but you’ll notice that they’ve had quite a bit of success the past few seasons without employing Earl Boykins to go out and hoist shots whenever Parker needs a breather.
I’m a process guy. I like systems. I like thoughtful and all-encompassing structures. And I find it almost offensive that a team would carefully construct a plan of attack with the knowledge that it only works in certain situations, and will be largely abandoned whenever one of their five chosen starters needs to catch his breath. This is not entirely the case with the Knicks and J.R. Smith this season. But it is largely the case with teams that have retained the services of Corey Maggette over the past few years. Or Nate Robinson. Or Jamal Crawford. Or Marcus Thornton. Or Aaron Brooks. Or Ben Gordon. Or Von Wafer. Or Leandro Barbosa. I’m not arguing against a change-of-pace. I’m arguing against a compromise of values.
Setting aside the issue of actual skill sets, even enumerating and identifying a sixth man seems oddly anachronistic. The group of players that begins each game is the starting five, and should they ever be separated and numerically labelled it is by position not talent. But when we stretch to 5 + 1, the additional number becomes a label of talent, grouping that player with the starting five and at the same time separating them from their off-the-bench peers. At it’s core, it seems like the whole idea of sixth man is carving out something separate; separate from a system, separate from teammates, separate from everything that we know about successful basketball. Looking at someone as a sixth man inherently depresses the importance of the five who come before and and the six who come after.
This is not the first time I’ve waged a written battle against straw soldiers I construct myself, stand-ins for conventional wisdom. Sixth men may not actually exist in the way I’m describing them. Perhaps League Pass has fed me too much commentary from local broadcast teams, opinions that I’m carrying from the broadcast and ascribing to NBA front offices. But then I look again at the career of Corey Maggette and am left without a satisfying explanation, other than the one I’ve laid out here. The fact is that we keep using the phrase sixth man and attaching it to basketball players. Language shapes reality. Giving a name to this idea and using it repeatedly, perpetuates it’s existence. Awards are awards and I won’t begrudge anyone from receiving recognition that solid play deserves. But I would love more attention on basketball as a communal artform. When it comes to recognizing off-the-bench contributions, I’d prefer to celebrate the complimentary and collaborative affairs, the interplay of talent and skill among multiple players.