HANG TIME, Texas — Nothing says it’s summer like an ice cream cone (mint chocolate chip, if you’re buying) on one of those blazing afternoons where it’s so hot that your tongue has to lick into overdrive to keep the tasty treat from running all the way down your arm.
That’s kind of the role of the sixth man in basketball, to pop off the bench and get right to work cleaning up the mess. As the dog days of August continue, we’ll leap ahead once more in our summer fantasy with my five picks for the 2013-14 Sixth Man of Year.
Andrei Kirilenko, Nets — He’s 32 years old and it’s been a while since he was the Jazz’s do-it-all player known as “AK-47.” Durability issues dot his past couple of NBA seasons — he spent 2011-12 with CSKA Moscow — but with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in Brooklyn now, Kirilenko won’t be expected to rack up big minutes. That will leave him free to pass, cut and get plenty of easy baskets from Deron Williams on offense and to cut off the angles, hit the boards and block a couple of shots per game on defense. He’ll accept his role and make the most of it. He left $10 million on the table in Minnesota for a chance to win big in Brooklyn and could be a key ingredient if the Nets’ big offseason gamble is going to pay off.
Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — The career path is not supposed to go from winning Rookie of the Year to having your scoring average decline in each of the next three seasons. But after languishing in Sacramento, much of it his own fault, Evans is getting a chance to shine in New Orleans. Yes, the backcourt is crowded with ball handling scorers. All-Star Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon are likely to start, which could work to Evans’ benefit by making him the main offensive option off the bench. At 6-foot-6, he didn’t like playing small forward with the Kings, even though it could be required in a pinch for the undersized Pelicans. Evans says he’s ready and willing to embrace the sixth man role and with his dynamic talent, he could really shine.
Lance Stephenson, Pacers — With a healthy Danny Granger returning to the lineup, it’s quite possible that the Pacers could ask Stephenson to accept a bench role. Depending how the mercurial one accepts it, Indiana could take a big step toward closing the gap with the Heat by having a rotation of wing players that can match up with anybody. There are so many different specific parts of Stephenson’s game that you can pick apart, but his overall energy and attitude played a big part in the Pacers getting to the Eastern Conference finals and pushing Miami to a seventh game. He and Granger will both be free agents in 2014, so this gives Stephenson a chance to show that he’s the one the Pacers should keep.
Jarrett Jack, Cavaliers — He makes the move from a young Warriors team that was trying to break into the Western Conference power structure to the same kind of young, hungry and talented bunch in the Eastern Conference. This is certainly Kyrie Irving’s team, — at least until LeBron comes back — but the future MVP candidate needs a backup and Jack is not just capable, but explosive. He was third in voting for the award last season (behind J.R. Smith and Jamal Crawford) and is likely to pick right up in Cleveland from where he left off in Golden State. Remember, last season he became the first bench player to score 30 and deal 10 assists in a game since Magic Johnson in 1996. Fast company.
Jeremy Lamb, Thunder — The deck is cleared and the stage is set. The ball will come to him for open shots and Lamb has to knock them down. Simple, huh? Well, the game is always going to be easier when a couple of your teammates are named Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The second-year man who saw little playing time outside of Tulsa in the NBA D-League last season is no James Harden coming off the bench at this point. But he should step into the void left by Kevin Martin’s departure and get plenty of opportunities to make defenses pay. He’s a long shot in his first year with significant playing time, but is worth keeping an eye on for the future and will likely have played a big role if OKC makes a run for best record in the league.