James Harden was named the NBA’s best sixth man yesterday to the surprise of no one. Harden was winning this award from the first game of the season this year and had little competition for it all season.
Harden averaged basically a 17-4-4 shooting 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from three. He did everything for Oklahoma City’s second unit and showed in Game 4 that he can be relied on to close out games for them as well.
Is Harden one of the best sixth men ever? Is he the best one ever?
The award wasn’t given out until the 1982-83 season. Bobby Jones of Philadelphia won it that year then Kevin McHale won it the next two. The Sixth Man of the Year award winner was on the NBA championship team in three of the first four seasons.
Sixth men have always been a crucial piece to championship teams. And it makes sense too. Being a sixth man often means sacrificing being a starter and hearing your name called out every night before the game. Winning a championship is about sacrificing for the team and for the greater good.
Before we determine if Harden is the best sixth man ever we need to figure out what are the best qualities for a sixth man to have.
Scoring off the bench is probably the most important. It is so valuable to have someone who can come in off the bench and score at a high level. And when you get to do this against a second unit it can sometimes become a deadly weapon like in the case of Harden.
Harden is really one of the premiere one-on-one scorers in the league and when he gets to play the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters against bench units he is really able to take advantage of this strength.
Like I mentioned before being a player who is willing to sacrifice is also an important ingredient in a sixth man. Harden is easily able to do this because he plays with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. So it makes a ton of sense for him to play a lot of minutes without either of them so that the Thunder can maximize their three best players’ potential.
A great sixth man must also be able to close out games. We saw Jason Terry as a perfect example of this last year for Dallas and Harden is now showing signs of becoming that guy for Oklahoma City. Manu Ginobili was also the offensive closer in a lot of cases during his championship days for San Antonio.
What really makes Harden so special is that he not only can carry a scoring load for the second unit but also essentially is the point guard for the Thunder’s bench squad. When Eric Maynor was lost for the year with an injury earlier this season, Harden’s role increased. He had to create everything for himself and others on the bench.
I think this is where Harden separates himself from past Sixth Man of the Year winners is his ability to thrive in two crucial bench roles. He can do this because he has superstar talent and an incredible understanding of how to play the game and what’s important.
Harden is no right up there with ’08 Ginobili who played a similar role that Harden did this year and with slightly better numbers.
Other than Ginobili you have to go back to the 1980’s to find a better sixth man than Harden. In 1985, Kevin McHale averaged a 20-9 for the Celtics and he also shot .570 percent from the field. The year before McHale averaged 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and they won the title.
Harden’s not on that level yet and may never be at least as a sixth man. Harden has a chance in the rest of these playoffs to get there though. If he becomes the closer for the Thunder handling the ball down the stretch of games then this Thunder team really has a chance to go all the way, cementing Harden as possibly the best bench player of all-time.