On a yearly basis, one of the most hotly contested debates in the NBA is who will bring home the league’s Sixth Man of the Year honors. Once viewed through the prism of having been the league’s best player not able to crack a starting rotation, recent seasons have shown that there’s immense value in keeping a strong second unit. Just because they don’t primarily hear their names announced during introductions doesn’t mean that they don’t close out games; in fact, it’s often quite the opposite.
Over the years, the league has seen Hall of Famers, All-Stars, All-NBA performers, role players and defensive savants claim the award, with Kevin McHale, James Harden, Manu Ginobili and Dell Curry dotting the list, just to name a few.
All of the players listed on our current top-five list to take home Sixth Man honors have been starters at some point during their career, but 2018-19 has seen them make the move to the bench and excel.
5. Dennis Schroder
After two seasons as a full-time starter with the Atlanta Hawks, Schroder has embraced his role as not only the backup to Russell Westbrook, but also the primary scorer for the team’s second unit. After averaging 19.4 points and 6.2 assists per game last season as a starter in Atlanta, Schroder has seen those averages dip to 15.4 points and 4.2 assists this season, but has become one of the most lethal bench scorers in the NBA.
He faces some stiff competition in his first year back on the bench, but remains a likely name to remain in the mix for the award in 2019-20 should the Thunder choose to continue bringing him off the pine.
4. Spencer Dinwiddie
Brooklyn’s newest bench weapon has been so stellar in his first season with the second unit full-time that he received a three-year, $34 million extension to remain with the franchise in the middle of the year.
Dinwiddie’s surgery to fix torn ligaments in his right thumb may ultimately wind up derailing his push for the award, as he averaged 20.0 points and 6.0 assists per game in December alone. For the season, he has averaged 17.5 points and 4.9 assists per contest, getting ample shot and ball-handling opportunities leading the second unit, as opposed to sharing the starting backcourt with All-Star D’Angelo Russell.
3. Derrick Rose
It would be quite the career revival should Rose be named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2018-19, after having averaged just 8.4 points per game in an injury-marred campaign last year. But as has unfortunately been the case for the majority of his career, injuries have once again played a role; Rose has suited up for 51 of Minnesota’s 69 games this year. In that span, Rose is averaging 18.0 points per game and shooting 48.2 percent from the floor overall. Even his 3-point shot, which has never been a staple of his game, has gradually emerged, knocking down a career-best 37.0 percent of his attempts to this point.
He has drawn 13 starts, but that’s primarily due to the fact that teammate Jeff Teague has sustained numerous injuries throughout the year as well. Rose boasts a 50-point performance against the Utah Jazz from Halloween night on his resume, something that no other candidate is likely to have. His odds come down to health and whether voters feel that Rose’s ascent back up the basketball mountain is worth the award.
2. Domantas Sabonis
The 2018-19 campaign has been a breakout one for Sabonis. After getting his feet under him with Indiana last year, the third-year big man has been a force for the Pacers’ second unit, having averaged 14.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Of the 62 games he has appeared in, Sabonis has accrued 24 double-doubles. If that were not enough of a case, he also ranks seventh in the league in field goal percentage (59.8).
After having entered the league as a starter with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016-17, Sabonis has embraced his role as the leader of Indiana’s second unit, helping lead the team to near the top of the Eastern Conference standings. He holds the unique distinction of being up for not only Sixth Man of the Year, but also Most Improved Player.
1. Lou Williams
The two-time winner of the NBA’s Sixth Man honor is the favorite to claim the award for a third time in 2019. Williams would tie Jamal Crawford for the all-time mark with three such honors, becoming the third player to ever win the trophy in back-to-back years and first since Detlef Schrempf did so for the Indiana Pacers in the early 1990s.
With Williams averaging 20.3 points per game without a single start to his name, the team has the market cornered on Sixth Man honors. He didn’t make our top-five list, but Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell also has a legitimate case for the award.
Still, Williams is the team’s leading scorer and could potentially help punch his team’s ticket to the postseason over the next few weeks. It will take a strong final month for someone to overthrow Lou Will.