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NBA Sixth Man Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition

A familiar name headlines the likely contenders to be named the NBA’s best bench player, but Lou Williams may have stiffer challenges than usual in the race to be the Sixth Man of the Year.

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Of the NBA’s annual awards, the Sixth Man of the Year fills a unique niche. The winner is seen as a second-tier player by many, but his skill set is needed across the league. The humility needed to come off the bench is not entirely common, and the players who are good at it must lead a second-unit, both literally and figuratively, so as to give the stars some rest.

Projecting the award also requires projecting starting lineups, the winner sometimes a result of circumstance as much as anything else, but that opportunity comes from, again, the willingness to take a secondary role for the team’s betterment.

Who might win it in 2019-20? So glad you asked!

JJ Redick — New Orleans Pelicans

Redick will need to show that humility for this to become a reality; not that there is any reason to think the 14-year veteran lacks such. Well, not that there is any reason in recent history – he did not exactly exude modesty way back when at Duke. While a role player throughout his career, Redick has started the last six seasons, all for contenders.

Now he joins an organization balancing a rebuild with playoff contention, risking his career-long playoff streak, as he apparently explicitly told Pelicans rookie forward Zion Williamson.

Unless New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry wants to bench either Jrue Holiday or Lonzo Ball, Redick will come off the bench, headlining a unit without much inherent scoring. It could be dependent on him and Josh Hart, more the former than the latter.

In other words, professional approach plus team success plus chances to score – that may as well be the ideal formula to win the Sixth Man of the Year.

Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

It would be foolish to leave Harrell off this listing one season after he finished third in voting, but his candidacy hinges on Ivica Zubac starting over him. Presuming that happens, Harrell should still build on his numbers from a year ago, when he averaged 16.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in 26.3 minutes per game.

While the Clippers roster overall improved from last season — adding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will do that — their frontcourt depth was diminished, primarily by the departures of Danilo Gallinari and Marcin Gortat and last year’s trade of Tobias Harris. Neither Gallinari nor Harris directly affected Harrell’s minutes, but they were sizable options on the roster, and Gortat was a feasible center in most regards. Now, Harrell and Zubac are joined by only small-ball fours.

Thus, Harrell should get plenty of time and snare even more rebounds. His chemistry with point guard Lou Williams will be only bettered, and this will all occur on a team rising up the Western Conference standings.

In fact, if Harrell fits with Leonard and George, yet does not start, he could be the rare Sixth Man candidate to star in the pivotal moments of nationally-broadcasted games, possibly part of finishing lineups instead of Zubac. That would only strengthen his chances at this honor.

Gordon Hayward — Boston Celtics

Hayward’s buzz in this category will be contingent upon two things: his health and effectiveness, and his spot in Boston’s rotation.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens will have many egos to placate this season, even if fewer than last year. The glut of his work will come on the wing, where Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Hayward all undoubtedly feel they are worthy of starting. Based on how they played last year, Hayward should be the one to come off the bench.

That could work in his favor, beyond the possibilities of hardware. Hayward still needs to show he has returned to form after his nasty ankle injury in the 2017-18 opener. Taking the reins of a second unit would give him the chance to shine. Boston, a once-deep team now held together by the set of wings and little else, will need that.

Eric Gordon — Houston Rockets

Injuries to Chris Paul prevented Gordon from being considered here last season. Of the myriad of benefits Houston is set to reap from trading Paul for Russell Westbrook, the latter’s durability is an underrated aspect, and it will return Gordon to his more familiar bench role.

There was not all that much difference between the bench and starting for Gordon, though. In 2017-18, he came off the bench in 39 of his 69 games and averaged 31.2 minutes per game. The year before that, Gordon played 31.0 minutes per game while starting only 15 games. Then last season, he logged 31.7 minutes per game while starting 53 times.

His abilities from deep remained unquestioned — ranging between 35.9 percent and 37.2 percent while averaging 8.8 three-point attempts in all three of his seasons in Houston — and he averaged at least 16.2 points per game in each year.

Gordon won the Sixth Man of the Year award his first season with the Rockets, when he started just those 15 times. With workhorses Westbrook and James Harden entrenched in the starting lineup, Gordon should return to that familiar duty, one in which he gets a starter’s workload without hearing his name announced before the opening tip.

Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Death, taxes and Sweet Lou leading the way in any Sixth Man thinkpiece. It is inevitable not only because of Williams’ microwave scoring abilities, which have seemingly reached a new high in Los Angeles, but also because Williams will not become a mainstay starter. He simply never has been. Aside from 38 games in 2009-10 and 35 games in 2016-17, Williams has never started more than 19 games in a season.

Yet, he has averaged 22.6 and 20.0 points per game the last two seasons, winning this award each year, as well as in 2014-15. His 5.3 and 5.4 assists per game in those recent campaigns certainly did not hurt, either, numbers inflated by the ease of lobs to Harrell at the rim.

Of all the hardware discussions, this seems to be the one least prone to narrative fatigue. Williams simply scores when needed and otherwise quietly goes about his business. Voters have little to hold against him, if anything. As he undoubtedly continues to do that in his 15th season, contributing to a title contender for the first time in his career, more love should come Williams’ way, not less.

Thus, Williams is once again the odds-on favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year. He’d become the first player to three-peat, breaking his tie with Jamal Crawford for most wins.

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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