By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
There came a point this season where Jamal Crawford was starting so many games as an injury fill-in that it seemed impossible he’d be eligible to make another run at the Kia Sixth Man of the Year award.
He won it in 2010 with Atlanta and he thought he should have won it last season with the Clippers. Instead J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks — remember him? — took the prize. This season, the Clippers wouldn’t be in control of the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed and in line to nab the No. 2 seed with a bit of help (an Oklahoma City loss) before tonight’s season finale at Portland (10:30 p.m., ET, ESPN).
Whether Crawford was coming off the bench, where he’s averaged 17.2 ppg and 3.1 apg, or putting up 20.6 ppg and 3.3 apg in 23 games as a starter in place with either J.J. Redick or Chris Paul or both out, Crawford’s playmaking and shot-making have been invaluable. The lone blemish on his resume is the left calf injury that kept him out of all but eight games since the end of February.
Two games before the calf injury occurred on Feb. 26, Crawford scored 36 points in 40 minutes as a starter to help the Clippers win at Oklahoma City. It was his 11th game of 25 points or more and fourth of 30 points or more. Since, he’s made it five with 31 points in 35 minutes off the bench on March 26 at New Orleans.
“I don’t want to toot my own horn,” Crawford told NBA.com after that Thunder game. “I think I’ve been a professional, honestly. Starting, coming off the bench, being ready at all times, I pride myself on that.”
Crawford certainly faces stiff competition. Candidates include San Antonio’s resurgent Manu Ginobili, Chicago’s rugged Taj Gibson, Phoenix’s Markieff Morris, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Nick Young, Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson and even Dallas’ Vince Carter.
Yet none electrify a game and their team with scoring outbursts quite the way Crawford can. Boasting one of the game’s great handles, the 14th-year guard can still live up to his nickname and Twitter handle, @JCrossover, defying foes with tremendous moves off the bounce to get to the rim. He splashes 3-pointers with a rainbow release from virtually any distance, connecting on the 3-ball at a 36.2 percent clip.
His 18.4 scoring average, significantly higher than any of the other candidates, would rank as the third-highest by a Sixth Man of the Year Award winner in the last 20 years behind only Jason Terry (19.6 in 2009 with Dallas) and Ginobili (19.5 in 2008). Crawford would become the oldest player to win the award and he’d join Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf as two-time winners.
“Growing up, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a sixth man,” Crawford recently told Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN Los Angeles. “It only happened because I got to this point where I just wanted to win more than anything. When you bring one of your top scorers, your top players off the bench, it really gives your team balance.”
Manu Ginobili, Spurs — A year ago it seemed the Argentine might have come to the end of his rope after a glorious NBA and international run. He looked slow and out of sorts, particularly in the NBA Finals. But he came back to the Spurs, 36 years of age, and put together an inspiring bounce-back season, averaging 12.4 ppg, 4.3 apg and 3.0 mpg in 22.8 mpg.
Taj Gibson, Bulls — There should be an award for the entire Bulls team, maybe the Perseverance Award or something. Gibson continues to get better and often pushed Carlos Boozer off the floor in the fourth quarter. His larger role pushed his minutes per game up by five and he responded with 13.1 ppg, a five-point increase from last season, and 6.8 rpg, up 1.5.
Markieff Morris, Suns — Also a Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.8 ppg and 6.0 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.6 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie. Morris was vital to the Suns’ 47 wins with one game to go.
Reggie Jackson, Thunder — He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench as well as in the starting lineup during Russell Westbrook‘s absences. Jackson is averaging 13.1 ppg, fourth on the Thunder, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 5.3 ppg and 14.2 mpg last season.
Vince Carter, Mavericks — Carter has kept himself in tip-top physical condition and, at 39.5 percent, has transformed himself into a dangerous 3-pointer shooter. No player in the league has come off the bench and dropped more than Carter’s 145. He’s played in all but one game this season, averaging 12.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 2.7 apg in 24.3 mpg.
Nick Young, Lakers — Swaggy P had his swaggy moments, like celebrating a 3-pointer that didn’t drop, but the L.A.-born sixth man was mostly money for the injury-riddled Lakers. He led the team in scoring with a career-high 17.9 ppg while hitting 38.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, his highest percentage since 2010-11.