6th Man of the Year
Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles. Photo: Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

2021 NBA 6th Man of the year: The Contenders

As the NBA season begins to wind down it’s time to turn our eye towards the end of season awards. We’ve already taken a look at the contenders for Coach of the Year. As always, the NBA 6th Man of the Year contest that takes in a host of different types of player. Should the winner be a high end scorer? A defensive ace? Is it a play maker acting as a tide to lift all ships? In many ways it depends on your taste as a basketball fan.

The 6th man has taken on an unusual importance this season, given the myriad of COVID related absences and the enforced rest that the NBA’s packed schedule has forced upon teams. Many players that are in consideration for the 6th man award are, in fact, awfully close to not qualifying for the award due to their starting to many games.

Who are the front runners for the 2020/21 NBA 6th Man of the Year award? Let’s take a look.

Jordan Clarkson

Utah Jazz

Practically a professional 6th man at this point in his career – and certainly the spiritual heir to Lou Williams throne – Clarkson is the favourite to win the NBA 6th Man of the Year award this season, with good reason. The 28 year old guard is averaging 17.7 points 4 rebounds, three made treys per game whilst shooting 88.9% from the foul line, all career highs.

Clarkson’s role with the Jazz is largely in the Williams role; carrying the 2nd unit scoring, giving a boost to the starters should the Jazz start slowly, and leaning on his stellar free throw shooting to close games.

Clarkson, Utah’s 2nd leading scorer behind Donovan Mitchell epitomises the Jazz’s transition from total defensive wall to the more balanced outfit that continues to sport the best record in the NBA. As much as Utah has profited from Clarkson’s ‘all attack, all the time’ outlook, he has also benefited from his time inside Utah’s whirring, egalitarian offense and stifling defense.

For so long a remorseless gunner with little care for trivial matters like efficiency or winning, Clarkson is playing the best defense of his career, which isn’t to say he’s become the 2nd coming of Tony Allen, but Clarkson now at least offers more resistance than a cloud of smoke. Offensively he is taking more three pointers than at any point in his career and is also earning a career high in win shares – his 2.3 defensive win shares dwarfs his previous career high of 1.2.

Joe Ingles

Utah Jazz

Clarkson isn’t the only Jazz man in contention for the 6th Man award.

Aussie folk-hero-cum-substitute-science-teacher-cum-greatest-shooter-on-the-planet Joe Ingles is posting multiple career highs, including 12.8 points, 50% overall shooting and 84.5% from the charity stripe. It’s a testament to how hot Ingles shooting from the arc has been this season that he’s recent shooting slump has seen his marksmanship drop to 46.3%.

Ingles is, in a way, the calming yin to Clarkson’s raging yang. Whereas Clarkson is all quick-twitch action, Ingles plays the game at his own leisurely pace, combining outstanding basketball IQ, delightful footwork and a never ending series of feints and fakes to get to his spots on the floor damn near every time, despite the fact that he almost never goes right.

Ingles acts as the de facto point guard for Utah’s 2nd unit, dishing out 4.7 assists in his 27 minutes per night. The Jazz have suffered their fair share of injuries this season. When they have, Ingles has moved back into his old starting role, where he has performed even better.

That may be the main factor holding Ingles back from winning this award: is his success as a starter – he’s started 26 of 63 games at the time of writing – inflating his statistical impact as a reserve. There’s also the small matter of he and Clarkson potentially cannibalising each others support amongst the voters.

Jalen Brunson

Dallas Mavericks

Like the Jazz, Dallas have a pair of players that can lay a reasonable claim to the 6th Man of the Year trophy. With apologies to Tim Hardaway Jr, Jalen Brunson is the man that is most important to Dallas’ 2nd unit.

On the season, the 3rd year guard out of Villanova is experiencing somewhat of a breakout year: 12.5 points, 3.5 boards, 3.5 assists, 52/40/80 shooting splits – all career highs. As solid as his statistical case is, the eye test is Brunson’s best friend.

He is clearly the emotional and cerebral leader of the Mavericks 2nd unit – and sometimes their 1st team. Brunson rarely makes errors with the ball, always putting his teammates in a position to make a positive impact. Frankly, much of Hardaway’s success can be attributed to his combination with Brunson.

The analytical numbers love Brunson, too. Despite being 6’1” and very much not in danger of putting anyone on a poster, he shoots a remarkable 77.9% in the restricted area. Brunson leverages his strength with a knowledge of angles that would make Pythagoras blush to finish against much bigger and more athletic men. He comes in 2nd on the Mavericks in win shares.

Brunson’s maturity at the age of 24 also shines through on a Mavericks team that can get a bit emotional at times. Much like his father Rick – himself a pro baller – he’s the proverbial old head on young shoulders. He’s a perfect opposite to the highly strung Luka Doncic and you will often see Brunson pulling Luka or Kristaps Porzingis aside to have a quiet word.

His traditional point guard game also allows coach Rick Carlisle to mix and match his lineups, playing Luka off the ball to keep a defense on its toes – the five man unit of Brunson/Doncic/Hardaway/Finney-Smith/Cauley-Stein is an astonishing +34.2 points per 100 possessions.

Brunson’s old fashioned game extends to the defensive end of the floor, where he thrives on playing the chest-to-chest defense that doesn’t create SportsCentre highlights, but annoys the hell out of his opponent.

Dario Saric

Phoenix Suns

The 5th year big man might not be the most high profile name in contention for the 6th Man of the Year award, but his impact for the surprising Phoenix Suns cannot be understated.

Saric only plays about 17 minutes per game, by far a career low. In those minutes he averages 8.5 points and 3.7 boards – again, not numbers that jump off the page. When examining Saric’s case for this award, you have to take into account his impact on the players around him rather than any individual stat.

Saric is the bedrock upon which the Suns’ excellent bench units are built upon. For all the talk of Chris Paul’s impact, Devin Booker’s ascent into stardom and the development of Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton’s, it’s Phoenix’s bench units that have propelled them towards the top of the league. The Suns’ starters come in at a +5 rating, whilst the bench unit comes in at just under +12. With Saric on the floor, the Suns are over 9 points better off no matter the lineup around him.

Saric’s play making from the big man positions makes up for the relative lack of creativity coming from the likes of Cam Johnson, Torrey Craig and Frank Kaminsky. His two man game with the resurgent Cameron Payne is a deep cut delight. His shooting stretches the floor. Defensively, he doesn’t protect the rim (like, at all) but his heady play on the back line keeps his teammates rotations tight.

Montrezl Harrell

Los Angeles Lakers

The reigning 6th man of the year made a high profile move down the corridor at the Staples Centre. His 2021 season, despite playing for the leagues most high profile franchise, has been somewhat lower in profile.

As a Laker, Harrell has taken an offensive backseat compared to his role with the cross-town Clippers, his scoring dropping by five points per game down to 13.7 per contest. That can partly be attributed to his drop in minutes this season (again, down by about five per game) as both his per 36 minutes and per 100 possession numbers have stayed reasonably consistent.

Without doubt, the loss of pick and roll partner Williams has hurt Harrell (though he has formed a nice chemistry with Alex Caruso). Despite lining up alongside a generational play maker in LeBron James, and sometimes sharing the floor with a gifted play maker in Marc Gasol, he just hasn’t rediscovered that magic that he enjoyed with Sweet Lou.

That said, Harrell is still one of the finest reserves in the NBA. In his 23 minutes Harrell gives the Lakers 13.7 points on 62.4% shooting, 6.3 rebounds and close to a steal and block per night. Whilst he’s shooting marginally less free throws than in years past, he’s draining them at 70.5%, a career high by a wide margin.

Harrell gives the Lakers something different at the centre position. Gasol is a cerebral as they come, but he’s as old as the hills; his movements can be times with a sundial. Drummond is a mountain of a man with remarkable agility. He’s a dominant rebounder, but he’s not a natural finisher. His effort levels wax and wane – something Harrell will never be accused of. Even when compared to Anthony Davis, a player that barely has a weakness, Harrell offers a ferocity that dovetails with the smooth stylings of Davis.

His defensive shortcomings will likely mean he gets somewhat marginalised in the playoffs, but as a regular season player he remains highly valuable.

Who is your NBA 6th Man of the Year of the Year? Let us know in the socials.