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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/20/19

Montrezl Harrell has long been known primarily as a roll threat, driving to the rim for thunderous dunks. This season, though, it is his post-up game that is making him such a threat off the LA Clippers’ bench. Doug Farmer revisits his Sixth Man Watch.

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It would be premature to award the Sixth Man of the Year award to anyone only a third of the way into the season, but as long as the top two names on the list are from the same team, it would seem logical to think that solitary bench should produce the eventual winner.

There is, however, an increasing sample size from a sharpshooter that may make this a three-name race sooner rather than later.

Derrick Rose — Detroit Pistons

After missing five of six games in early November, it took a while for Rose to find his early-season groove — he opened the season averaging 20.8 points in the first six games. He is finally back to that, averaging 19.6 points across the last five games, while also averaging 6 assists per game, including 12 in a win at the Houston Rockets last week.

With the Pistons currently a game out of the playoff standings, Rose will not have many chances to shine on the national landscape, dampening his hopes of hardware, but there is no longer ground to stand on if debating his on-court abilities when healthy.

Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder

Averaging 22.1 points in the last 10 games, Schröder has played a key role in the Thunder going 7-3 in that stretch, adding a plus-66 on-court rating in the stretch. Most of the NBA expected Oklahoma City to sell off its pieces this season, but sitting in the No. 7 spot out West complicates that thinking a bit. What better way to keep a long-loyal, small-market fanbase invested than hanging around the playoffs even during a rebuild?

If (arguably when) the Thunder starts taking trade calls, Schröder’s $15.5 million for one more year is not an albatross of a contract given his recent play. It may not be the carrot of a deal, but it could make the numbers work in a tolerable way for the franchise on the other end, especially if he keeps shooting a career-high 34.1 percent from deep (minimum two attempts per game).

Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards

A quick glance at Bertāns’ season stats does not impress all that much, his 15.8 points per game seeming middling given his 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. Through Nov. 15, he had more games in single digits (6) than in double digits (4). Despite his strong shooting, the Wizards were not getting him enough looks.

That has all shifted the last few weeks, scoring 21.6 points across Washington’s last nine games, and hitting 49 percent of his threes. What stands out is not just that Bertāns is making his threes at an absurd rate, but that he is taking 10.7 per game while doing so. There was reason Jack Winter put Bertāns’ name alongside the game’s best shooters.

“But the jump Bertans has made to join the exclusive shooting club reserved for the likes of J.J. Redick and Joe Harris is stunning nonetheless. After mostly serving as a weak-side floor-spacer and pet play shooter, Bertans is hunting threes this season while exuding the confidence and conviction of a true marksman with every step he takes on the floor.”

Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Discussing the Clippers’ threats, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders arguably paid Williams more of a compliment than he did their two MVP-caliber forwards.

“You talk about two MVP candidates in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard,” Saunders said last week. “And then you talk about maybe one of the best closers of this generation, and I don’t say that — I don’t think I’m off-base on that, in terms of Lou Williams.”

There are, at any given time, 3-5 players worthy of that “MVP candidate” description. Across an entire decade, there might be that many players total fitting “one of the best closers of this generation.”

Saunders was not exaggerating, despite Williams’ fourth-quarter ejection Thursday night in a Los Angeles loss to the Rockets. The rare dud from Williams still included three assists, part of his career-high 6.2 per game. It has been said before in this space, and it will be said again: The thought of one of the best closers of the generation, a true bucket-getter in every sense of the word, adding veritable distribution skills to his game should send shivers up the spine of any title contenders in the Clippers’ path this spring.

Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

Harrell will never be the high-end scorer Williams sometimes is, but Harrell has added to his game this season such that he can score in nearly as many ways as Williams does. In jumping his average from 16.6 points per game last year to 19.0 this season, Harrell has become a more dynamic offensive weapon. Specifically, Los Angeles head coach Doc Rivers pointed to the intentional use of Harrell on the block, rather than just on cuts to the rim.

“We didn’t post him as much last year,” Rivers said. “We’re doing it a lot this year, and he’s scoring. He’s one of the more efficient guys in the post in the league.”

Those post-up opportunities originate in many forms, but their viability cannot be denied.

While Harrell’s work at the rim has hardly changed, taking 77 percent of his shots there last season and 74 percent thus far in 2019, he has been assisted on only 58 percent of those this year, compared to 73 percent last season, per CleaningTheGlass.com. The rolls to the rim are still a distinct part of Harrell and the Clippers’ game, but it is no longer the sole part or even the vast majority.

Of course, he also continues to affect the game on the other end of the court, as well, blocking a shot or stealing the ball on three percent of plays, again per CleaningTheGlass.com.

As long as Harrell remains this complete a player for a title contender, there should be no question that he will be the Sixth Man of the Year.

Contributing writer to Basketball Insiders, based in Minneapolis since 2017 with previous stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. Went 32-of-40 at the backyard free throw line this past Christmas. Twitter: @D_Farmer

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