The oddest part about this season’s race for the Sixth Man of the Year Award is that there are probably a half-dozen candidates worthy of consideration.
A voter could close his eyes and take a stab anywhere on a quite worthy list of J.R. Smith, Jamal Crawford, Jarrett Jack, Ryan Anderson, Nate Robinson and Kevin Martin.
So does that mean if we put an entire team of second unit standouts onto the court, somebody would have to get bumped to a starter?
In that case, we’re elevating and giving our vote to Smith, who has ridden in the shadow of Carmelo Anthony’s season-long brilliance, but has been no less vital to the Knicks winning their first Atlantic Division title since 1994.
How does that sync with the image of the mercurial guard who had taken his ready-to-shoot game from New Orleans to Denver to China before landing in New York 15 months ago?
How strangely does it stumble off the tongue to say that from the start to the finish of this regular season, Smith has become the Knicks most dependable player night in and night out?
For while you obviously give great credit to Anthony for the performance that will likely win the scoring title and earn him a high place on some MVP ballots, Smith has been the Knicks’ second-leading scorer, averaging 18.1 ppg and the player that coach Mike Woodson has been able to rely on at both ends of the court.
There is no questioning Crawford’s credentials as a big-time scorer off the Clippers’ bench and an ability to take over a game offensively whenever he steps out on the floor. For much of the season, the Sixth Man Award hardware seemed to be his for the taking. He helped the Clippers beat the Knicks to 50 wins as L.A. earned its first division title in the history of the franchise that dates back to its infancy in Buffalo.
The difference is that Crawford is a one-trick pony galloping behind Chris Paul who makes virtually no contribution at all on the nights when the ball is not going into the basket. While the Crawford lobby will point to a higher field goal percentage, it’s only slightly better, 43.6 to 42.2. The same goes for 3-point shooting, where Crawford has 37.0 to 35.6 edge.
At the other end of the floor, Smith has hardly become a stopper, but he tries and is credible, which is all that Woodson has asked. Crawford, meanwhile, couldn’t guard a cadaver.
At 27, Smith has finally inched closer to becoming the complete player that George Karl tried to squeeze out of him during four seasons in Denver and when the Knicks are winning, his assists and steals, as well as his shooting, are up. What’s more, he is literally the only player to show up every night, having played in every game this season, helping hold up the tent when Anthony was injured.
Oh, it’s not like J.R. has traded in his initials, his off-court silliness or his penchant for me-first offense. You still have to live with the times when he tries to win by himself and the can-you-believe-that shots. But they are part of a bigger package now, one that gives the Knicks a real reason to believe in the East.
The top contenders:
Jamal Crawford — He’s bounced back from a horrendous one-year stint in Portland to play a key role in the best Clippers season ever. Not many teams can back up a Chris Paul with another scorer this dangerous. But when it comes down to splitting hairs in a very close race, defense has to matter. You can make the argument that Crawford is the worst defender on the floor any time that he plays.
Jarrett Jack — The veteran has three games of 25 points and 10 assists off the bench, making him the first reserve in NBA history to do that in a single season. He’s provided leadership, defense and helped get the Warriors into the playoffs for only the second time in 19 seasons.
Kevin Martin — It was not an enviable task to step into the role of last year’s runaway Sixth Man winner (James Harden) on a team whose only goal is a return to The Finals. He doesn’t have all the skills of Harden and contributes nothing on defense, but is a high-efficiency scorer with a knack for getting to the foul line.
Ryan Anderson — He’s having the highest-scoring season — by a tick — of his career and has had to carry the offensive load plenty in the frequent absence of Eric Gordon. But it has to count against you when your team has spent the entire season floundering near the bottom of the West.
Nate Robinson — What is he? Who is he? When will he ever figure it out? He’s come off the Bulls’ bench to have his best year since his days in New York and certainly played a big part in ending the Miami win streak.