This year’s 6th Man of the Year race seems like a no-brainer, with Clippers guard Lou Williams becoming the only player in NBA history to average 20 points and five assists off the bench, according to the L.A. Times. Williams also led the league in fourth quarter points with nearly eight per game and posted the highest bench scoring average in the last 25 seasons.
In addition to Williams, strong arguments can be made for players such as Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets, Will Barton of the Denver Nuggets and Jordan Clarkson of the Celveland Cavaliers. But here we’ll make the argument for Toronto Raptors reserve point guard Fred VanVleet, who may not have the counting stats of a player like Williams, but whose overall impact for the strongest team in the Eastern Conference can still be quantified.
VanVleet, who went through shoot-around today and will be a gametime decision for tonight’s Game 2 against the Wizards, averaged just 8.6 points, 3.2 assists and 2.4 rebounds for the Raptors this season. He led the team with just over 41 percent shooting from three-point range, and Toronto coach Dwane Casey said that’s a major component of how he makes the team better.
“It’s been huge for us because it gives you another shooter, plus another ball handler … and another tough guy, another smart guy,” said Casey after a Monday practice. “But mostly he opens the floor up with his three-point shooting. I think that’s the biggest impact he’ll have for us.”
Even with his hot shooting, VanVleet failed to crack double-digit scoring. So how can you possibly argue that he’s more deserving than Williams? To answer that question, it’s necessary to dig into the advanced stats (courtesy of NBA.com).
Last season, the Raptors outscored opponents by less than a point per 100 possessions with Kyle Lowry out of the game, a team-worst off court net rating. Whereas a player’s on-court net is influenced by the play of the other nine players on the court, off court net rating is isolated to the individual player. This year, the Raptors outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 with Lowry on the bench, an improvement of a full seven points from the previous season.
In contrast, the Raptors outscored opponents by just 4.9 points per 100 with VanVleet on the bench this season, a team-low. With VanVleet on court this season, Toronto blew opponents out by over 12 points per 100, nearly two points better than the second player with at least 1000 minutes (OG Anunoby, +10.2).
Casey talked about how the things VanVleet brings to the table don’t necessarily show up in the box score.
“He has a calming effect on everybody with his maturity, the way he plays,” said Casey. “He adds a lot to the formula when he comes back in.”
Lowry talked about how VanVleet’s emergence this season has allowed the Raptors to change up the offense when the two point guards share the floor.
“It gives me a chance to play decoy a little bit,” said Lowry. “Teams don’t really help off me as much. It gives him a chance to be aggressive, go downhill. It gives teams a different look with me not handling the ball and coming off screens and running around a little bit.”
In addition to how the game changes with VanVleet and Lowry together, Lowry emphasized what a luxury it is to have a reliable leader for the second unit.
“I don’t have to play through the whole fourth quarter,” said Lowry. “I love it. Fred’s really good at being a point guard.”
With the gaudy numbers he put up this season, Lou Williams is likely to take home another 6th Man of the Year despite his Clippers failing to reach the postseason. Meanwhile, VanVleet has an opportunity to impact games that matter. It’s a perfect test case for box score numbers versus a deeper look at a players’ true impact. Unfortunately, those who vote on NBA postseason awards may not be able to look past Williams’ record-breaking season. To be fair, the Clippers were outscored by 1.4 per 100 possessions with Williams on the bench this season, which placed him among the team’s top three in off-court net.
In the meantime, the Raptors will continue to focus on the task at hand. After Lowry said his team would approach Game 1 like a Game 7, Casey said Toronto is all too familiar with how the Wizards feel being down 0-1 in the series.
“We knew how we felt after Game 1, how desperate we come out after Game 1,” said Casey. “They’re going to be no different. They’re not your typical eight seed, and they’re going to come out breathing fire and we’ve got to do the same.”
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