This is a strange year when it comes to the NBA’s end-of-season player awards.
Typically, there is a lot of debate over who deserves each honor. There are 129 sportswriters and broadcasters who make up the voting panel, and they receive their ballots two weeks before the regular season ends. Some years, voters will wait until the absolute final moment (after the final regular season game) to cast their ballot because the competition is that intense and they want to have as much information as possible before making up their mind.
However, this season’s award races will be relatively anti-climactic because the results seem rather obvious. Stephen Curry will be Most Valuable Player, Karl-Anthony Towns seems poised to be Rookie of the Year, C.J. McCollum will likely be Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year seems like it’ll once again come down to Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green.
There doesn’t seem to be many wide-open award races this year. That is, except for Sixth Man of the Year. The award is obviously given to the most productive reserve and, in order to be eligible, a player must come off of the bench in more games than he starts.
The top two vote-getters from last season are currently ineligible, so it’ll be interesting to see who the media turns to now. Last year, Lou Williams and Isaiah Thomas finished first and second in the voting, but both players used their successful 2014-15 campaign as a springboard to an increased role.
The veterans who are typically mentioned as possible Sixth Man candidates, such San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, Houston Rockets guard Jason Terry and Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, seem like long shots now. Each of these players have seen their production dip significantly as they’ve gotten older and all three are averaging single-digit points.
The only “usual suspect” left in the race is Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who is competing with a host of new candidates such as Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter, Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton, Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin and New Orleans Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson among others.
But while it seems there isn’t a clear-cut frontrunner, NBA players see the Sixth Man of the Year race very differently. Basketball Insiders talked to a long list of NBA players and almost every single one said that Crawford deserves the award.
Obviously Crawford’s teammates were quick to campaign for him, but players from all around the NBA voiced their support for the 36-year-old guard as well.
If Crawford is named this season’s Sixth Man of the Year, he’ll become the first player in NBA history to win the award three times. He also earned the honor in 2010 (with the Atlanta Hawks) and 2014 (with the Clippers), joining Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf as the only two-time winners.
“When you win games, those individual honors have a way of working themselves out,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “You can’t be in the conversation for any of those things if you’re not winning. To be recognized again would be a great honor! But obviously winning is the most important thing, especially this season. We revamped our team to start the season and then lost our big gun, Blake Griffin, for a while. No one thought we would be in this position now – fourth in the Western Conference – but here we are. It’s taken a collective effort from the coaches and players to get here. And we’re not satisfied with where we are because we still have a long way to go. There’s so much more work to be done.”
This season, Crawford is averaging 14 points in 26.8 minutes off the bench. He stepped up significantly once the Clippers lost Griffin due to injury. Since Dec. 25 (the last time that Griffin played), Crawford has increased his average to 15.5 points per game and he has scored 15 or more points in 27 contests, which is the most of any bench player during that span. He has scored in double figures in 54 games this season. Many players who felt Crawford deserved the award mentioned how he’s helped keep the Clippers’ offense performing at it’s usual high level in Griffin’s absence. L.A. currently has the NBA’s sixth-best offense, scoring 106 points per 100 possessions.
Crawford has also played well when his team needs him most: in the fourth quarter. This season, he leads the Clippers in total points scored in the fourth quarter with 319. He may not start games for Los Angeles, but he often finishes them and makes an impact in the final period.
The fact that Crawford is putting up these numbers on a legitimate contender helps his case for the award too. In the past 20 seasons, every Sixth Man of the Year winner came from a playoff team. Crawford is the leading reserve scorer among all postseason-bound teams.
But perhaps the biggest reason Crawford is so universally respected among opposing players is his ability to create his own shot. He ranks seventh in the league in isolation points (223) behind only stars James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Durant.
Crawford does some amazing things with the ball in his hands, and he’s excellent in one-on-one situations. Even the best defenders in the NBA admit that they hate guarding Crawford because he has so many different weapons in his offensive arsenal and he’s completely unpredictable. Fouling him is pointless too since he is ranked first in the NBA in free throw percentage this season, hitting 90.9 percent of his shots from the charity stripe.
Crawford certainly doesn’t look like a 36-year-old on the court. In fact, as SLAM recently noted, he’s the first NBA player in history to average over 13 points while playing fewer than 27 minutes per game in at least his 16th NBA season. Crawford found that stat amusing. He also laughed when he learned that he’s averaging 18.5 points per-36-minutes this year, which is actually higher than his per-36-minutes scoring average from over a decade ago when he was in his prime with the New York Knicks.
On many teams, Crawford would be starting. However, he has embraced the sixth-man role and enjoys leading the second unit. Still, if asked to start, Crawford will rise to the occasion. In his three starts this season for the Clippers, he averaged 28 points, five assists and four rebounds while shooting 45.2 percent from the field, 43.5 percent from three-point range and 94.7 percent from the free throw line.
Crawford has had a number of signature performances this season too.
He had 37 points, eight assists and six rebounds in a November win over the Detroit Pistons (numbers that only Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook have matched this season). Crawford had 32 points (including 6-9 three-pointers) and five assists to beat the Orlando Magic in December. Later that month, he led the Clippers to a win over the Washington Wizards by scoring an efficient 21 points on 9-12 shooting from the field. In January, the veteran guard contributed 26 points (on 11-15 shooting from the field) and three assists to defeat the Chicago Bulls. Last month, Crawford had 26 points in 25 minutes – hitting 10-17 shots, including 3-4 three-pointers – to beat the Brooklyn Nets.
For an example of Crawford getting hot and helping lead L.A. to a victory, look no further than last night’s 25-point performance against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Some NBA decision-makers also believe Crawford is the obvious choice for the award.
“Jamal is worthy of the award almost every year, but he has to get it this year,” said one rival Western Conference executive who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “Without Jamal, they’d have been sunk by the Blake Griffin injury. He is definitely one of the elite sixth men in the league and somehow he still remains underrated. He not only comes off the bench and scores, he does it in a way that helps them win games.”
“Jamal has been amazing; he provides the type of spark off the bench that can be the difference between a team having an early exit in the postseason and making a deep playoff run,” said an NBA assistant coach, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “His instant offense really comes up big in games where game plans are thwarted early and you simply need to get buckets. In my opinion, he deserves Sixth Man of the Year honors.”
It’s clear that there’s an overwhelming number of NBA players who are adamant that Crawford is the NBA’s best sixth man. Many players – young and old, short and tall, East and West – all have a lot of respect for Crawford. Here’s what players told Basketball Insiders:
Sacramento Kings forward Caron Butler: “He’s the greatest sixth man in NBA history. He should win the award this year, and that would solidify him as the best sixth man ever. He was a great teammate [on the Clippers] and an even better person. I’m happy to call him a friend. He has the respect of all of his peers. As athletes, that’s what we all shoot for: winning, being respected and having a solid legacy.”
Indiana Pacers point guard Ty Lawson: “[Winning three Sixth Man awards] has never been done. It would be a big honor for him to win that award three times because he’s one of the best players to have ever come off a bench. You never know what he’s going to do. He might come down and just pull up for a three, or he might give you a hesitation move (which he normally does right before he pulls up for a three) or he just blows by you. It’s so hard to guard him. Even in the lane, he knows how to throw up floaters and he always seems to make them.”
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin: “Jamal is not only a huge part of our bench, but also our team. I’ve never seen a guy be able to come off the bench and consistently score and carry a second unit the way he does while accepting his role. As good as he is on the court, he’s even better off of it. He’s a terrific locker room guy. He should win Sixth Man of the Year this season. And I think he should have won the award two more times than he already has, in my opinion.”
Five-time All-Star Chauncey Billups: “Of course Jamal should be the Sixth Man of the Year this season – again! He’s a guy who deserves a tremendous amount of credit for accepting a reserve role while knowing that he could be a top-five scorer in the league if put in that position. He’s extremely valuable to the Clippers. They depend on his production every night. He’s the best in the league at what he does.”
Two-time All-Star Baron Davis: “I love Jamal Crawford. He is one of my favorite players to watch. He has always been stellar and consistent. He is a player that every team wishes they had coming off the bench. I think he is a key to the Clippers making a run this year. He deserves Sixth Man of the Year because of the impact he has on the team.”
Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton: “He deserves to win Sixth Man of the Year. He’s so important to that team because he’s instant offense off of the bench. He’s somebody who can come in and bring energy and get the crowd into the game. Also, when it comes to closing games, he’s someone who can create his own shot, so he’s very important to the Clippers. He’s tough to guard because he is so good at making tough shots. No shot is a bad shot for him. I remember watching him when I was younger – four-point play after four-point play.”
Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas: “He’s in the conversation every year. He does for his team what other guys try to do and can’t. And it happens to be year 16 in his NBA career! It says a lot about the type of player he is. He could easily start around the league, but he’s a guy who doesn’t care about that and cares about doing what’s best for the team. It’s a blessing to play against Jamal because he is a big brother to me and I’ve known him for so long. Going against him is like playing in his pro-am in the summers; we battle and have fun at the same time. He’s very important to the Clippers. I watch all of their games when I’m not playing and it seems like if Jamal doesn’t play well, then they don’t play well. He’s a big part of their team and when he plays well, they usually win. I believe he should be high up in the conversation about another Sixth Man of the Year award. He deserves it, and his team is winning.”
Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard: “He’s a game-changer for them. They could be having a bad night and he can take over. He makes big shots, tough shots, and draws fouls if you’re too physical.”
Washington Wizards forward Jared Dudley: “Jamal Crawford is one of the most unique players in the NBA. His shot-making ability off the dribble and his uncanny way to get to the free throw line makes him dangerous. He’s the Benjamin Button of the NBA. He’s simply not aging at all.”
Seven-time All-Star Grant Hill: “Aside from his impressive shot-making ability and his vast array of illusory skills, what’s impressed me most about Jamal is his longevity and durability. To be able to dominate off the bench in now his 16th year in the league is quite remarkable.”
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert: “He is, for sure, one of the frontrunners. You know he can go off anytime, so you cannot relax against him.”
Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick: “Jamal is one of a kind – both as a player and a person. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him and playing with him the past three seasons. He’s the epitome of what a sixth man should be: someone who instantly changes the flow and dynamic of the game with his skill set. For Jamal, that is scoring the basketball. There are few players, if any, like him.”
Nine-year NBA veteran Mo Evans: “Jamal Crawford is a prolific scorer with a high basketball IQ and a knack for hitting big shots. He did this for our Atlanta Hawks team over and over again in 2010, when he won his first Sixth Man of the Year award. His game is proving to be timeless. He is still equally impactful at 36 years old as he was in his younger years. He has heavily contributed to the Clippers’ success this year, especially with Blake Griffin out of the line-up. He’s a big reason L.A. is fourth in the Western Conference. All things considered, I believe he deserves a historic third Sixth Man of the Year award.”
Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum: “Jamal is one of the toughest covers in the league. His ability to shoot off the dribble and manipulate ball screens makes him a unique guard. [He] also gives the Clippers a secondary ball handler. … Jamal could potentially win [the Sixth Man award] every year.”
Miami HEAT center Hassan Whiteside: “When he has the ball, you never know what he is going to do with it. [Until this interview], I didn’t know he was 36 years old. Wow. That’s crazy.”
Brooklyn Nets point guard Shane Larkin: “I think Jamal Crawford has a good chance at winning Sixth Man of the Year because he is crucial to the Clippers’ success. He comes into the game for J.J. [Redick] most of the time and immediately makes them more dangerous because he can do everything with the ball offensively and pretty much carries the second unit for them. Whenever you’re playing against him, you have to respect his jumper but he also keeps you on your heels because at any moment he can cross you over and make a mid-range pull-up or get all the way to the bucket. He is the one guy on their second unit who consistently gives other teams problems and produces starter-like numbers. For a team that has been without their leading scorer in Blake Griffin for a long time, he has been huge for them. He finishes a lot of ball games for the them alongside of Chris Paul and it is very difficult to guard them both in multiple pick-and-roll actions with DeAndre [Jordan] rolling to the rim. I think JC has a good chance of winning the award for the third time and it would be pretty cool to see it happen.”
New York Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn: “It would be nice for him to make history by winning his third Sixth Man award. Not only does he deserve it, that will separate him as the best sixth man ever, which he is. Every time people talk about sixth men, his name comes up and people compare themselves to him. He means a lot to the Clippers. He’s that spark that could really push the lead against teams. And honestly, he’s scouted more than a lot of starters.”
Brooklyn Nets center Willie Reed: “I definitely think Jamal deserves to be Sixth Man of the Year. What he’s done in the absence of Blake [Griffin] to help the Clippers keep rolling has been amazing. Playing against him, you definitely have to shrink your defense. He can shoot the ball and draw contact to get to the line, where he shoots over 90 percent. Also, he has the handles to get wherever he wants on the floor. He’s so difficult to defend.”
Former NBA player and current Providence assistant coach God Shammgod: “I think he should win the award every year, and there’s no doubt that he’s the best sixth man ever. He would start on most teams. As an assistant at Providence, I’ve worked with guards like Kris Dunn and Bryce Cotton and I make sure they study Jamal’s game. They study everything from how he breaks defenses down to his pull-up jumper. Every guard can learn from him.”
Portland Trail Blazers forward Ed Davis: “He is super important for that team. He’s a guy who you have to game plan for, otherwise he’ll beat you. He can produce instant offense. He’s the kind of player who can easily go for 16 points in a single quarter.”
Cleveland Cavaliers D-League affiliate player Quinn Cook: “Did Jamal influence my game growing up? Hell yes! I’ve watched every single video of his and I still watch them to this day. He should be Sixth Man of the Year. He’s the primary scorer for their second unit and he’s in the game when it matters. He’s more important to his team than any other sixth man in the league.”
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