The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award is experiencing perhaps its least-clear race this century.
Last year’s winner, Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers, is all but disqualified from missed time due to injury. And the 2014 runner-up, Taj Gibson of the Chicago Bulls, has also missed a lot of games in a strange season for him.
So, who are the candidates to supersede those two in 2015?
Rodney Stuckey, G, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers, unbeknownst to many, had the NBA’s best record in February. Their success has slowed a bit since, but they’re still in the hunt for an Eastern Conference playoff spot after being counted out months ago. Stuckey has been a big part of that. He shot 53.8 percent from the field in February, including 48.0 percent on 3-pointers. Often, he took the team’s offense on his shoulders during the fourth quarter. He’s been the quintessential microwave man the Pacers have needed to stay relevant.
Marreese Speights, C, and Andre Iguodala, F, Golden State Warriors
Iguodala is likely the league’s most talented player not in a starting lineup. A former All-Star and Olympian, Iguodala would start just about anywhere else, and it’s only some unique concerns that have Harrison Barnes ahead of him at small forward. Barnes struggled with his confidence through a terrible 2013-14 season, and coach Steve Kerr has helped solve that problem by giving him the starting nod. Iguodala plays roughly the minutes of a starter at 27.0 per game, though, and is an essential Warriors defender.
Speights, meanwhile, has been arguably the league’s best reserve big man. His renaissance season is one of the NBA’s best stories this year, regardless of whether it will get him votes for this award. However, like many of the Warriors in awards races, Iguodala and Speights may both suffer from the embarrassment of riches on their roster. When every piece performs so well, voters have a hard time isolating just one.
Lou Williams, G, Toronto Raptors
Williams stands out among the pack for a few reasons. First is his resurgence: After a rough two-year stint with the Atlanta Hawks, mostly because of injuries, many believed his career was trending in the wrong direction. With Toronto, though, Williams often has been the most important scorer, and he was an integral part of the Raptors’ scorching start to the season. In a Sixth Man race defined by player movement and inconsistency, Williams’ relative steadiness over the course of the season is key.
Isaiah Thomas, G, Boston Celtics
Thomas is going to lose a lot of votes simply because of confusion. Even close followers of the league have had a hard time keeping track of him. A deadline day deal to Boston put Thomas on his third team in two seasons. Furthermore, many don’t realize that he’s still a reserve in his new digs, with Marcus Smart getting the starting nod in front of him for the Celtics. Thomas has continued his furious fourth-quarter excellence everywhere he’s been, though, and this award would be his if the race were a true, pure meritocracy.
Josh Smith, F, and Corey Brewer, F, Houston Rockets
Like the Warriors’ terrific bench twosome, Brewer and Smith cancel each other out a bit. And, like Thomas, both ended up with their team midseason.
Neither is likely to get serious attention in the race, but both deserve to be mentioned among the best reserves of the season. The length, athleticism and relentless full-court hustle of the duo has combined with the wing play of Trevor Ariza to pave the way for James Harden’s MVP path. Harden’s defense has improved noticeably, but Houston’s improvement on defense overall has been more about the work these guys have done.