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Sixth Man Of The Year Watch

Spencer Davies takes a look at six early candidates for Sixth Man of the Year.

Spencer Davies

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Every team needs a guy that provides a spark off the bench. When the starting five comes out, that player has two different responsibilities depending on the flow of a game—sustain the lead or get it back.

As a three-time winner of the Sixth Man of the Year award, Jamal Crawford is the epitome of what one should be. This year, there have been a number of players that have brought a boost already. Whether it’s been Jeff Green’s resurgence with the Cavaliers, Lou Williams cooking from deep as usual for the Clippers or Will Barton providing energy and hustle for Denver, the bench players across the league have done a solid job.

Staying on the subject, let’s take a look at six early candidates for the prestigious Sixth Man of the Year award.

6) Kyle O’Quinn

Just because he’s playing less than 17 minutes per game doesn’t mean we should downplay O’Quinn’s impact. When he’s on the floor, the New York Knicks averaging their highest offensive rating by far (112.6) as a team. With his current playing time, he is averaging 7.1 points per game with a 62.2 true shooting percentage. He’s also pulling down six boards.

On a 36-minute scale, these averages significantly boost up to 15.1 points and 12.8 rebounds. Among players with 30 minutes of playing time or less per game, the 6-foot-10 big man ranks fourth in Box Plus-Minus and fourth in DBPM. Whenever the Knicks need somebody to step in because of injury or simply need a physical body, O’Quinn gets the job done almost every time.

5) Julius Randle

Due to recent rumors of him being shopped around by the Los Angeles Lakers this likely won’t continue, but as a bench player, Randle has absolutely flourished. Similar to O’Quinn, he’s been battling for rebounds game-in and game-out and is tied for the most total rebounds on the team (78) with Kyle Kuzma. But it’s been his influence on both ends of the court that’s been the most deadly for Luke Walton thus far.

Offensively, Randle’s been efficient. He’s letting the game come to him by getting better looks and not forcing things, and it’s paid off. In 12 games, he has a true shooting percentage of 63.7, which is second highest on Los Angeles behind the sidelined Larry Nance Jr. Per 36 minutes, he is averaging 21.4 points and 12.2 rebounds. Now that the production has been there this season, it’s up to the Lakers to decide what to do.

4) Jonathon Simmons

From a D-League tryout to making a roster spot on the San Antonio Spurs and earning a major payday from the Orlando Magic this past summer, it’s been easy to root for a guy like Simmons. Some questioned how he would fare without Gregg Popovich making the transition over to his new home, but the 28-year-old has proven he not only belongs in this league, but he’s a real threat with the basketball in his hands.

Nicknamed “The Juice” from his time in Texas, Simmons has established himself as an all-around talent for his new head coach Frank Vogel. As the top facilitator of the Magic’s second unit, he attacks the basket and makes the right plays to get his teammates involved. In 25 minutes per game, he’s averaging 14.5 points on 52.3 percent from the field. He’s also knocked down 40 percent of his three attempts, most of which have come from above the break. His offensive burst off the bench is a huge reason why Orlando has a 7-4 record to start off the year.

3) Jordan Clarkson

As the second Laker on this list, Clarkson’s really made strides in the first 12 games of the season. Just like his teammate Randle, his efficiency has improved while his aggressiveness has remained the same. Compared to last year, his true shooting percentage is seven points higher (59.6) and he’s taken smarter looks.

Coming in to give Lonzo Ball a spell, Clarkson has been the go-to guy. With a 29.6 usage percentage, it’s the highest on the team and second highest among bench players. The most notable change in his game so far has been his willingness to drive as opposed to settling for threes. He’ll still pull up from mid-range, but most of the time it’s because that’s where he’s comfortable.

Scoring 15.3 points per game, he has an Offensive Box Plus-Minus rating of 3.5, which compared to other bench players is the sixth highest. Multiple times he’s shown how he can take over a game when necessary, and it’s given the Los Angeles second unit a true leader.

2) Rudy Gay

Could there have been a better mutual fit for Gay and the Spurs? It’d be hard to argue otherwise. Sometimes R.C. Buford acquires players that need a little bit of coaching or a fresh start. Popovich then usually turns those guys into a perfect addition to his system and gets the most out of them. This isn’t the case with this particular situation.

Gay is already a well-known and highly-talented basketball player. Speaking from an individual standpoint, he’s been fairly consistent wherever he’s gone. Gifted as a volume scorer, it was expected that he would fit right into Pop’s system—and those predictions have been proven to be true.

His transition to the Spurs has been a seamless one. Coming off a ruptured Achilles that ended his season in Sacramento last year, Gay looks like he still has plenty of bounce and hasn’t taken a step back with his offensive game. With the team-style ball in San Antonio, he hasn’t gotten off as many shots as he’s used to, but he is shooting the highest field goal percentage (48.7) and three-point percentage (44) of his career thus far.

With Gay on the floor, the Spurs are scoring 107.8 points per 100 possessions, which is good for the team’s best. They’re also a net -6.7 on the same scale with him on the sidelines in regards to defensive rating. He was my pre-season selection for the Sixth Man of the Year award, and though it’s early, he’s making a real case to win it.

1) Tyreke Evans

Evans could be in the conversation for multiple awards this season. Between what he’s done off the bench for the Memphis Grizzlies as a leader and the numbers that have come with it, it’s been a spectacular breakout for the former Rookie of the Year. Just take a look at what he’s doing. Both the eye test and statistics tell the story here.

Averaging 17.5 points per game with a 60.6 true shooting percentage, Evans has been the anchor of the second unit for David Fizdale. Along with Chandler Parsons, Jarell Martin, Dillon Brooks Mario Chalmers, and others, he’s helped steer the Grizzlies bench to the second-best net rating in the NBA. Defensively, the group is tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s for the top defensive rating, allowing just 94.6 points per 100 possessions.

Among those playing at least 20 minutes coming off the bench, Evans leads the way in BPM with a 5.1. Taking it a step further, he’s 17th in the entire league in that category and the only second-unit player in the top 20. He’s doing it all on both ends of the floor and has been a vital factor for Memphis being a 7-4 ball club.

Perhaps the most deadly element about Evans’ game this season has been his willingness to take the high-pressure shots when the Grizzlies need it. That is the definition of a true competitor and somebody who is unafraid of the moment. If he and the bench bunch continue to play the way they have, Memphis will keep itself in contention for the playoffs in a crowded Western Conference.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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