When everybody else is floating on a raft sipping from an umbrella drink in the dog days of the offseason, they’re the ones you can usually find sweating it out in the confines of a hot gym.
They are those role players with the rough edges, sharp teeth that can come off the bench to leave a mark on a game. So our next stop in the Summer Dreaming series looking ahead at award winners for the 2014-15 season is our top five choices for Sixth Man of the Year.
Send us your picks.
Taj Gibson, Bulls — The big man coming off the Bulls bench felt snubbed when he finished as runner-up to two-time winner Jamal Crawford last season and that’s likely to drive him even harder this time around. All good news for coach Tom Thibodeau, who’ll have a stuffed starting lineup with the return of Derrick Rose and the addition of Pau Gasol. Gibson has always been a defensive force and now he’s coming out of his offensive shell, averaging 13 points per game last season to go along with 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. Seems he’s had a change in mindset or an upgrade in confidence and is willing and able to take his game straight at opponents. He’s never going to be a big scorer, but that’s not what Chicago needs him from. Gibson brings a blue-collar attitude, a nose for the ball and the kind of toughness that only becomes more valuable in the playoffs. Joakim Noah gets all the attention for his physicality, but Gibson backs down from nobody.
Vince Carter, Grizzlies — Back in those turn-of-the-millennium days when the high flier was placing his elbow on the rim in jaw-dropping fashion to win the slam dunk contest at the 2000 All-Star Weekend, how many thought Carter would still be relevant, let alone still excelling nearly a decade and half later? But at 37, he can still attack the basket and finish when necessary and can fill it up from behind the 3-point line in his transition from starter to sixth man. Now he’s in Memphis, where it seems the Grizzlies have been searching in the woods for eons to find the right perimeter shooter to balance an inside-oriented attack that depends too heavily on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Carter steps into the role filled by Mike Miller last season and will likely do it better. In a summer when the change of addresses by the high profile likes of LeBron James, Pau Gasol and Kevin Love are getting all the attention, this is a below-the-radar move that could vault the Grizzlies back into the thick of the fight in the rugged Western Conference.
Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — In what was supposed to be a bounce-back attempt, things did not start out well for Evans last season. But as injuries took their toll on the Pelicans roster, he slowly became comfortable and grew into their most potent weapon not named Anthony Davis. He stuffed the stat sheet, averaging 14 points, 5.0 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, and had plenty of nights when he stepped up to carry the full load while playing a variety of positions. Assuming that a healthy Jrue Holiday returns to be the starter at the point and needs the ball in his hands, Evans is best suited to coming off the bench again and leading the charge with the second unit. Last season New Orleans’ best five lineups all had Evans on the court, playing either at shooting guard or small forward. When he gets it going, he can be unstoppable doing a lot of different things and, if he can add a dash of defense and consistency to his game, could become a younger version of San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili.
Manu Ginobili, Spurs — The man himself, who has probably only won this award once in his 12 NBA seasons because he’s established such a high bar and delivered with such consistency that we — and the voters — tend to take him for granted. Frankly, he should already have retired the trophy. After having his body break down and force him to ponder retirement in 2013, Ginobili bounced back last season to remain fit and delivered his most inspired play during the Spurs’ run to the championship. Yes, his numbers are down significantly from 2007-08, the only time he was recognized as Sixth Man of the Year. But that’s only because coach Gregg Popovich has cut down significantly on his minutes to preserve his health, prolong his career and keep the window open for more years of title contending by his veteran team. At 37, Ginobili is always just one misstep away from an injury that could sit him down and take away his explosiveness. But as long as that body holds up, he’ll be the straw that stirs the margarita in San Antonio and the stick by which all current sixth men in the league are measured.
Dion Waiters, Cavaliers — It’s been a rocky start to the third-year guard’s NBA career. The questions about his relationship with Kyrie Irving. The questions about whether he could be moving on to another team. With a touch that runs hot and cold like the water in a cheap apartment building, he’s hardly a high-percentage shooter. But Waiters has the talent and the explosiveness to take his career to the next level, and now that LeBron James is returning to Cleveland it looks like he’s going to get the chance. The presence of James as mentor could have a calming effect and get Waiters to focus on the big picture rather than find reasons to be upset. With a starting lineup that includes James, Irving and Love, there will certainly be plenty of opportunities to come off the bench and show that he gets it. He’s shown that he can make clutch plays with the ball in his hands. If Waiters understands and plays the team game, everybody wins.