NBA Awards: Is the Sixth Man of the Year Award Wide Open?

NBA Awards: Is the Sixth Man of the Year Award Wide Open? article feature image

(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images) Pictured: Jordan Clarkson

We're almost halfway through the season, so I figure this is a good time to check in on the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

At this point last year, before the trade deadline, here was the basic situation:

  • Russell Westbrook was a big favorite (he ultimately got traded and cut, and received no votes)
  • Jordan Poole also had very strong odds to win. A few days after that point, Steve Kerr announced that Poole would basically end up starting for the rest of the season. Poole didn't end up eligible for the award.
  • Malcolm Brogdon had the third-best odds. He was averaging slightly less than most winners, but was playing for the team with the best record in the NBA.

The year before, Tyler Herro had this award locked up by this point: so is this year more like 2022 or 2023?

Before the season, I ran through the requirements to win the Sixth Man of the Year Award. We're looking for players who:

  1. Play for a team that won 47+ games. Over the past 16 years, if a player averaged 16+ points per game and his team won 47+ games, he had a 62% chance of winning the award. All but one of the past 20 winners have won 47+ games.
  2. Average over 14.5+ points per game. Simply put, 15 of the past 17 winners have reached this mark.
  3. Are between 26- and 32-years-old (70% of winners).
  4. Finish as a top-three scorer on their team (19 of past 20 winners).

The difficulty, as seen above, is that the player has to be good enough to score a lot of points, but not good enough that the team wants to start them.

Last season, there were five players who averaged 14.5 or more points off the bench. They were:
– Norman Powell (17.6 ppg)
– Bennedict Mathurin (16.9 ppg)
– Russell Westbrook (15.8 ppg)
– Christian Wood (15.4 ppg)
– Malcolm Brogdon (14.9 ppg)

The best way, therefore, to evaluate contenders is to look at who is likely to average 15+ ppg off the bench, and how likely their team is to win 47+ games. It's also important to note that to qualify for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award a player needs to play more than half of his team's games off the bench.

Now that all that context is set, let's rank the candidates to win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award:

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Almost no chance to win:

Cam Thomas (+3500)
Bogdan Bogdanovic (+650)
Norm Powell (+4000)
Austin Reaves (+5000)
Cole Anthony (+5000)

Small contender:

Bennedict Mathurin (+1200):
15+ ppg and top three in scoring: Unlikely
47+ wins: Near Even
Qualify: Likely

Mathurin has fluctuated between being a starter and having a bench role. When his team is fully healthy, it seems clear to me that he's best off the bench. However, this team will look different with Pascal Siakam, which might hurt Mathurin's scoring (he's averaging 15.4 ppg). Right now, he's third on the team in scoring, but with the addition of Siakam, he could see a drop in production. Ultimately, I think +1200 is fair for Mathurin.

Jordan Clarkson (+800):
15+ ppg and top three in scoring: Certain
47+ wins: Unlikely
Qualify: Likely

The Jazz have made an incredible turnaround. On December 11th, Clarkson started, the Jazz lost at Oklahoma City and fell to 7-16. Since then, they are 15-4. Utah moved Clarkson to the bench and Collin Sexton to the starting lineup, which has made a huge difference. Clarkson has the best narrative argument, as his move to the bench has directly translated to the team's success.

The Jazz have played like a 56-win team since the change. If they play at that level for the rest of the season, even with their terrible start, they'd finish with 47 wins. So the question is which is the real Jazz team? The one that started 7-16, or the one that's 15-4?

I'm not sure which Jazz team is real. Clarkson has won in the past, and high-scoring bench guards like Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford have won multiple times over non-consecutive seasons. If there are multiple candidates who meet all three criteria, Clarkson will likely win based on the narrative, and also likely based on averaging the most points.

Real Threat to Win:

Caris LeVert (+1200):
15+ ppg and top three in scoring: Near Even
47+ wins: Near Even
Qualify: Very Likely

Last year, on a healthy Cavaliers team, LeVert averaged 12.1 ppg off the bench. It seemed clear that for LeVert to average enough points, the Cavaliers would need a lot of injuries, but with those injuries, they wouldn't be good enough, which is exactly what happened in December.

But as LeVert has heated up, the Cavaliers have played better, and LeVert has moved into real contention. Without Darius Garland, LeVert is averaging 17.9 ppg, and with Garland, LeVert is averaging 13.6 ppg.

If LeVert plays enough games this season without Garland or Donovan Mitchell, and the Cavaliers still win enough games, he will likely meet all of the criteria. But that's where it gets difficult to predict. Garland is returning soon and Evan Mobley will be back sometime in February. LeVert is locked into the bench role, and is a decent candidate to at least get votes at the end of the season.

Malik Monk (+375):
15+ ppg and top three in scoring: Near Even
47+ wins: Near Even
Qualify: Very Likely

Monk averaged 13.5 ppg on the Kings last season as they won 48 games. He finished fifth in Sixth Man voting and was fifth on his team in scoring. Harrison Barnes and Kevin Huerter finished ahead of him last year, but both are having worse seasons this year.

This season, Monk is averaging 15.3 ppg and is fourth on the team in scoring. What changed for Monk and increased his scoring average? Well, two factors.

First, he is playing almost four minutes more per game this season than last. With Huerter and Barnes less effective, Monk has taken some of their minutes, and the Kings haven't been as healthy, which has also led to a slight increase. Second, he is shooting a little more frequently from 3 and has increased his percentage of non-corner 3s this season.

Monk is the second-most likely player to win this award and is second in the odds, but his scoring upside is diminished. His best chance is probably if some of the other candidates fall off, or if Sacramento is the only good team out of the bunch. Those are both possible, but there's not much value at +375.

The Favorite:

Tim Hardaway Jr. (+160):
15+ ppg and top three in scoring: Certain
47+ wins: Near Even
Qualify: Likely

Hardaway, at 100-1, was my favorite Sixth Man bet before the season. He's deservedly the favorite as he's averaging 17 ppg off the bench and 18.1 overall. If the season ended today, he would lead all qualified players in points per game on a team currently on a 47-win pace.

However, I have some concerns:

  1. Trade Possibility: Hardaway's name has been swirling in trade rumors since before the season. The Pascal Siakam trade likely took a main contender out of the running, but if the Mavericks are going to make a move, Hardaway is the biggest, most movable salary.
  2. Starting games: Hardaway has started only eight games, but that includes each of the past four. Wednesday night was the most concerning, as it was the first time this season he's started with both Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. Jason Kidd said he let Hardaway decide if he wanted to start or come off the bench, and the Mavericks lost to the Lakers. I don't think Dallas should be starting Hardaway with both Doncic and Irving healthy, but Kidd has to figure out his best starting lineup. Ultimately, I think Hardaway will come off the bench — it makes sense to spread out their scoring — but Kidd is unpredictable.
  3. Team Quality: The Mavericks have overachieved, haven't been that good since the start of the season and seem to always seem to be missing either Doncic or Irving. This team could win enough games, but it's just as likely that it'll fall short. Coaching matters here. A better coach could probably get Dallas to reach its potential, but I'm just not sure Kidd is that coach.
  4. Advanced Stats: The advanced numbers aren't kind to Hardaway. Dallas is about even as a team when he's on the floor, but the defense is much better when he's off. Advanced analytics folks aren't talking about Hardaway as a real contender for this award because he only scores. I don't think this will matter, but it is a real consideration. It could certainly hurt him if the award drifts too far into the narrative category.

None of these concerns are enough to warrant a full scale hedge, but they are enough to lower his overall chances. At +160, there's no longer any value.

Who to Bet for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award:

If I had no concerns about Hardaway, I'd just let our current position on him ride. But, I have some slight concerns, so I think it's worth it to at least think about the four players with value at their current odds: LeVert, Clarkson, Anthony and Reaves.

LeVert: The scoring output just seems too likely to go down, and the negative correlation between wins and his scoring makes me hold off.

Anthony: The chances he averages enough points are just too small, given that his scoring output is going the wrong way.

Reaves: It's just too unpredictable. I think the Lakers are going to stick with him as a starter, which makes him too unlikely to qualify.

Which brings us to …

Clarkson: If this was my first time betting the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award, Clarkson would be a must bet. This season is reminiscent of Lou Williams in 2018, when the Clippers won 42 games, but Williams was clearly their best or second-best player, and averaged 22.6 ppg. If the only thing holding Clarkson back from winning is the wins threshold, and it gets lowered due to his gaudy off the bench numbers, then there will be even more value.

Considering what I've already bet, I'll still sprinkle some on Clarkson to add to my portfolio.

Pick: Jordan Clarkson (.35U at +800) | I'd Bet This Down to +650

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