There comes a point in the season when a reasonable watch list needs to whittle down from its typical five or six names to three. With less than 30 percent of the NBA season remaining, this is that time.
With all due respect to Detroit Pistons’ guard Derrick Rose, his team’s current seven-game losing streak ruins any chances of him earning hardware this year. Rose’s averages of 18 points and 5.7 assists per game are laudatory, but the reality is that he remains an inefficient scorer in the modern NBA. Shooting 29.9 percent from beyond the arc actually underscores a rate lower than his already-worrisome career mark of 30.4 percent.
Rose has started 12 of his last 13 games, but if he either comes off the bench in just one more game or misses one more game, he will guarantee he qualifies for Sixth Man of the Year honors. He just hasn’t kept up with the more competitive contributions set by the following award stalwarts.
Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers
This is only the second time this season that this space has slotted Williams lower than No. 2 in the watch. Some of that traces to the reputation of the three-time Sixth Man winner, Some of it is an acknowledgment of the Clippers’ success — currently just one game out of second in the Western Conference — and some of it is the simple fact that Williams is still a reliable player in his 14th season.
In the 30 games in which he has broken 20 points this season, part of averaging 19.1 points per game, Los Angeles has gone 19-11. Compared to its 20-8 record otherwise, that may seem like a disappointing correlation, but when realizing he was usually pouring in points without either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, the still-consistent winning rate makes more sense.
Without Leonard, but with George, and Williams scoring 20 or more, the Clippers have gone 4-3. Without George, but with Leonard, and Williams scoring 20 or more, the Clippers have gone 8-5. (Los Angeles has also gone 0-2 when Williams scored 20 or more with both star wings sidelined.)
Without Williams reliably playing 55 of 58 dates, through Thursday, then Los Angeles would assuredly be further back in the conference, perhaps skirmishing with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks to avoid falling to the seventh seed. The difference between reality and that hypothetical is a mere three games, so it isn’t hard to envision Williams’ buckets being the difference in that many games. Considering he scored 32 points during crucial wins against the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans over a two-week January span without Leonard in the former and George in the latter, Williams is just as good as ever.
Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers
Of course, Williams has not been alone supporting the Clippers’ bench, just as he has not been alone atop this watch all season. Harrell has been the frontrunner the entire season — taking over from Williams in the preseason — but that is shifting. Harrell is still averaging 18.6 points and 7 rebounds per game, both career highs, but he has cracked 20 in just three of his last 13 games, putting up just 16.1 points in that span.
Harrell has not stopped scoring efficiently, shooting 61.1 percent across those 13 games, but he is taking a full two field-goal attempts fewer per game. Just like Williams, Harrell steadied Los Angeles through the season, but his role has been diminished as the season reaches its stretch run.
If that continues, Harrell’s hopes of winning the Sixth Man of the Year will diminish as well.
Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder
In a similar stretch, Schröder has taken on an increased role. Across the last 15 games, the Thunder point guard is averaging 21.4 points, raising his season mark to 19.1 points per game. It is no coincidence that Oklahoma City has gone 12-3 during this run, charging into the fifth-seed out West with reason to dream about home-court advantage in the first round.
Never known as an efficient scorer in his five seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, Schröder is shooting career highs of 47.3 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from deep. They better be efficient, considering the German has taken the second-most shots on the Thunder. The team leader in field-goal attempts is not Chris Paul or Danilo Gallinari, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (871 to Schröder’s 854). Schröder’s eFG percentage of 53.9 outpaces Gilgeous-Alexander’s respectable 50.5 percent, but both trail Paul (55) and Gallinari (55.1) among Oklahoma City players attempting more than eight field goals per game.
Schröder may have started only one game this year, but he is closing most games alongside those other three and center Steven Adams. That lineup has a net rating of plus-31.5 on 350 possessions, as absurd as that sounds. It is that kind of advantage that has turned the Thunder into the surprise of the season and should result in Schröder finishing the year with some hardware.
Still, there’s plenty of time for this annual race to the finish line to shift once more.
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