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NBA AM: 2016’s Sixth Man of the Year Race

Joakim Noah is taking a reserve role in Chicago. Will he win Sixth Man of the Year in that role, or will someone else?

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While starters on NBA rosters get the overwhelming majority of the positive attention from fans, media and advertisers, everybody understands that a strong bench is what makes a good team great. The following is an examination of the league’s best reserves in an attempt to nail down reasonable candidates for this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award. It will be seven or eight months before the winner is actually named, but that shouldn’t slow early analysis for the accolade.

Here’s a look at the most likely candidates of this year’s Sixth Man of the Year:

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics – One of the favorites for this award a year ago, Thomas remains one of the most criminally underrated players in the league despite his reputation as one of the more adept backcourt scorers. In 21 games with the Celtics last year, Thomas poured in 19 PPG off the bench while also knocking down 2.3 three-pointers per contest and dishing out 5.4 assists. Yes, Marcus Smart should be improved and Thomas himself is battling a knee injury, but over the course of an entire season in Boston he should easily be one of the league’s most valuable reserves.

Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls – Last season, Nikola Mirotic played his way into more minutes in the Bulls frontcourt while an aging, battered Joakim Noah had one of his worst seasons as a pro. That has translated to a bench role for Noah this season, which he will not like but will respectfully accept, and there’s a good chance he’ll use the demotion as fuel for a much more efficient season. Fewer minutes probably are better for him anyway, but he can be extremely effective even playing only 20-25 MPG. Depending on how effective (and how healthy) he is, Noah absolutely could be in the mix for this award.

Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers – Now that Thompson is signed, it’s more than fair to put him in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year following a playoff run that showed the talented young forward at his best. With Kevin Love out for most of last year’s postseason, Thompson averaged 9.6 PPG and 10.8 RPG (including 4.4 offensive rebounds per game) while playing big minutes for an NBA Finals team. He obviously won’t have quite as big a role playing behind Love this season, but for $82 million the Cavs clearly want to get him more minutes this season, and more minutes plus big talent typically equals good things in this league.

Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors – While it would be irresponsible to leave off the NBA Finals MVP from a list discussing which sixth men will be the king of the reserves, Iguodala probably won’t get as much support for Sixth Man of the Year as he did for his Finals MVP. Last season he averaged only 7.8 PPG and 3.3 RPG over the course of the season, and while he also was good for shutdown defense and the occasional three-pointer, that probably won’t be enough to place him among some of the other eligible players for this award.

Jamal Crawford, L.A. Clippers – A lot has been said over the course of the last few months about Crawford’s new role on a Clippers team that is, all of a sudden, a whole lot deeper than it was a year ago. But it was 2004 since he last scored fewer than 14 PPG and he was the league’s Sixth Man of the Year just two seasons ago (as well as in 2009 while playing for Atlanta), so let’s not completely write him off just yet. Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson were nice summer additions who could eat into Crawford’s productivity, but perhaps not. He won’t see a huge uptick in minutes this season, obviously, but he’s still likely to score 15+ points a night for one of the league’s best teams. It’s entirely too early to count him out, even though at age 35 he is inching toward the end of his career.

Lou Williams, L.A. Lakers – Last year’s winner of the award has found himself a new team in the Lakers, but he still should have a relatively similar role there as he did when he played for the Toronto Raptors in 2014-15. Everything will depend on just how many minutes rookie D’Angelo Russell ends up playing this season, but if it’s a 50/50 split at point guard between those two, Williams still could put up some impressive numbers. Winning this accolade in back-to-back years is not unprecedented, as both Kevin McHale and Detlef Schrempf have done it, but it’s been 23 years since it last happened. Williams would be an unlikely candidate to be the third person in league history to take home that hardware in consecutive seasons.

Gerald Green, Miami HEAT – As one of the league’s more inconsistent talents, Green has proven over the years that he can be just as electrifying as he can be disappointing, but he’s off to a great start in Miami, providing loads of energy and scoring off the bench for a team that undoubtedly will be good, if not a little over the hill. Green recently dropped 28 points off the bench in a preseason game and has the chops to do big things this year, particularly if the HEAT conserve Dwyane Wade by limiting his minutes. He’s a dark horse candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, but one that needs to be taken seriously.

John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks – With Jabari Parker starting off the season on the tail end of his ACL rehab, there’s no telling how long Henson will be a starter in the sophomore’s place. But assuming Parker returns relatively quickly and Henson plays the bulk of the season as a reserve, he could be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, if not Defensive Player of the Year. That’s probably overselling Henson, but he was fifth in the league last year in blocks per game despite playing only 18.3 minutes per night. If he sees 25-30 minutes a game, he could be in the running for the league lead in blocks and could easily flirt with averaging a double-double. If he makes as big a leap as some expect and Parker comes back relatively quickly, Henson will be one of the scariest reserves in the NBA this season.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves – Only Ben Gordon has ever won the Sixth Man of the Year award as a rookie, but Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns sure is going to try to duplicate that accomplishment playing directly behind T-Wolves legend Kevin Garnett. Obviously KG is not going to eat up a ton of minutes in Minnesota and probably is only the starter there out of respect to the man’s legacy, so that means the No. 1 overall draft pick Towns should see huge minutes (if he can stay out of foul trouble) on a promising young Wolves team that wants to see him succeed as quickly as possible. Blocks and rebounds are sure to be plentiful.

Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Pelicans – Last season wasn’t a good one for Anderson, who hasn’t really been fully healthy since 2013. Now back to 100 percent health and working under fast-paced, offensive-minded head coach Alvin Gentry, Anderson could be a fantastic comeback player candidate as he has proven in the past that he’s capable of helping a team and filling up a stat sheet. He’s going to score some points and knock down some threes in this offense, and if the Pelicans make a leap as a team this season, Anderson could earn some love as a potential Sixth Man of the Year winner.

C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers – After losing almost everybody of value minus Damian Lillard this past offseason, the Blazers have been left with tons of reserve backcourt minutes to be gobbled up by C.J. McCollum. He dropped 18 points in the fourth quarter on October 18 and looks as though he’ll be every bit as good as the Blazers thought he’d be when they drafted him. Injuries have been an issue for him early in his career, but this looks like the season he finally turns the corner. Both Sixth Man and Most Improved are possibilities for Portland’s promising third-year guard.

David West, San Antonio Spurs – On the one hand, it’s absolutely conceivable that West doesn’t see a lot of time in the frontcourt playing behind LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan, but on the other hand it would be easy to see Duncan playing fewer minutes than usual this season in an attempt to conserve his health for one last postseason run. In that case, West could get more minutes than expected, and any time a starting-quality player is coming off the bench for an elite team, there’s potential for a Sixth Man of the Year Award lurking nearby. He’s not the most likely candidate, but he can’t be ruled out either.

Which of these players seem most likely to win this year’s Sixth Man of the Year award? Are there other candidates you like who didn’t make the list? Like with every NBA award, only time will determine the actual winner, but don’t be surprised if it’s one of the talented players mentioned above.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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