Why the Denver Nuggets' Will Barton Deserved 6th Man Award

Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers won the NBA's 2015-16 Sixth Man of the Year award for a record third time after the regular season ended. It's a great story and achievement for a universally liked player who brings maximum effort off the bench with consistency.

It's also wrong.

Crawford was the lazy choice, akin to arbitrarily voting for the incumbent County Clerk as you rush to finish your Presidential Primary ballot so you can leave that stuffy middle school gym already.

First of all, what exactly does the Sixth Man award aim to reward? It was surprisingly difficult, in researching for this column, to find an official winner's criteria. Sportingcharts.com defines the Sixth Man thusly: "This is the player who is regularly used as a team's first substitute and/or the best non-starter in a team. In order to be eligible, the player has to come off the bench in more games than he starts."

OK, that's suitable, yet still ambiguously worded. Voters are left to their own judgment and biases to figure out which first-off-the-bench player is the "best." There is always much online debate about the merits of this award among the basketball cognoscenti due to this ambiguity. At its most basic, it should be given to the most effective (read: helpful to his team's chances) first man off the bench for that given year. Instead it tends to reflexively go to "the highest-scoring non-starter" or "Jamal Crawford by default."

This is not meant to be an attack on Crawford, a nice veteran player that can catch fire on some nights. But other more deserving players get overlooked due to Crawford's profile - he plays in LA with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (visibility); he's been primarily an off-the-bench player his whole career (Sixth Man rep); he tends to light the world on fire a couple times a season (hype); he makes tough shots that most players wouldn't attempt (highlight reels). But, quietly, this was Crawford's worse season in a Clippers uniform. Per BasketballReference.com, he shot 40% from the field and 34% from three, while his .466 effective field goal percentage and 14.2 points per game were the lowest in his four L.A. seasons. Though he has a high usage rate (24.9) his assist rate is a paltry 14%. At 35 years of age, Crawford is a one-trick pony, whose lone trick (gunning) has been demystified. If he's not hot, he hurts the team by bricking contested shots and adding no value defensively. This is confirmed in his On/Off numbers, which show the Clippers fare better in Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating when Crawford is on the bench.

Crawford is still a useful player in spots for a very good Clippers team. He's just not the best Sixth Man in the league anymore.


So the question must be begged: who should have won? There were a number of potentially deserving candidates, but no one shined brighter off the bench in 2015-16 than the Nuggets' Will Barton. Barton finished fourth in the balloting for the award, one of only two players in the top-10 representing non-playoff teams.

 

 

Player

Team

1st Place

2nd Place

3rd Place

Total Points

1

Jamal Crawford

Clippers

51

23

17

341

2

Andre Iguodala

Warriors

33

35

18

288

3

Enes Kanter

Thunder

19

20

27

182

4

Will Barton

Nuggets

15

21

20

158

5

Evan Turner

Celtics

3

7

10

46

6

Ryan Anderson

Pelicans

4

6

5

43

7

Jeremy Lin

Hornets

1

6

7

30

8

Ed Davis

Trail Blazers

1

5

1

21

9

Dennis Schroder

Hawks

1

2

6

17

10

Tristan Thompson

Cavaliers

2

0

6

16

Voters clearly placed an emphasis on rewarding guys from winning teams that made the playoffs. I understand that logic, after all, shouldn't the award go to a player who helps his team win off the bench? But I don't like the idea of drawing a line in the sand that automatically hurts the case of players that are on losing teams. Not for the Sixth Man award. For MVP, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and 1st Team All-NBA? Fine, go nuts, limit those player/coach voting pools to winning teams only. I'd argue it's actually less impressive to perform at a high level off the bench on a good team full of stars. Bad teams generally have bad bench units and below average starting fives. So when Barton enters the game, all eyes are on him and he has to either carry a shoddy second unit or provide a jolt for the tiring starters. A Sixth Man like Enes Kanter gets to share the floor much of the time with either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, or both. Thus, he's never the primary focus of the opposing team's defense. The sheer amount of production the Nuggets needed from a Sixth Man is what makes Barton's season so impressive.

Let's quickly rewind to last summer. Barton was coming off a forgettable 2014-15 campaign that saw him get traded from Portland to Denver at the deadline. He was staring at a crowded shooting guard position, with second-year man Gary Harris and veteran Randy Foye as competition for playing time. After playing just 10 minutes a game in Portland, Barton's minutes more than doubled with Denver where he scored 11 points per game. But his long-range shooting was holding him back, as he shot just 28% from three in a Nuggets uniform. Barton knew that had to change if he was going to distinguish himself in 2015-16. So he and trainer Dan Connelly (Nuggets GM Tim Connelly's brother) reworked his shooting form in the offseason with the aim of making him a consistent 3-point threat to complement his ferocious attacking ability.

The plan paid off, with interest. By the end of 2015, Barton was the Nuggets' most reliable player - starter or bench - after a rash of injuries hit the team. He quickly found his role and embraced it, coming off the bench for 81 of 82 games. He played in every game this season; compare that to Ryan Anderson's 66 or Andre Iguodala's 65, and also note that he played 29 minutes per game, more than any other top-5 vote-getter. His 14.4 points per game also set the pace for that top-5 group.

Barton doesn't waste those 29 minutes - he's an injection of high-octane fuel for any sputtering offensive engine. He attacks the rim relentlessly, frightens transition defenses on the fast break and routinely shifts the energy in the building with rim-rattling dunks.

 

The big dunks get the headlines, but Barton's improvement in efficiency and consistent production was the real story. He's slightly raised his field goal percentage to 43% and his free throw efficiency improved, while his 3-point percentage jumped from 27% in 2014-15 to 35% on 240 more threes this season. Barton had 24 games this season shooting over 40% from three in 25 minutes or more. Though not known as a distributor, he had four games with five assists and one turnover or fewer. Twenty times he attempted six or more free throws in a game. His usage rate was third-highest on the team at 23%, behind just Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic. He's a killer on the fast break; Barton finished the season 16th in points in transition, ahead of Kemba Walker, Andrew Wiggins and Chris Paul, to name a few. His stats indicate starter-level value; having him as a Sixth Man locked up on a team-friendly contract gives the Nuggets a luxury most teams don't have. Indeed, not too many NBA teams have a bench player that can go off for 31 points/5 rebounds/4 assists/1 steal, as Barton did in his return to Portland on Dec. 30. 

So many times the Sixth Man award tends to be narrative-based, especially in a year like 2016 with no runaway favorite. I'd argue Barton's tale is the best yarn of the bunch. This is a guy that couldn't get off the bench for the Trail Blazers a season ago, despite wowing his teammates in practice. Listen below to Damian Lillard describe Barton as a "baller" who, along with CJ McCollum, was a must-see at Blazers practices a year ago.

A change of scenery and a reworked jump shot has rejuvenated the 25-year old's career. There is a certainty to his game that you can't help but notice; a confidence reserved usually for All Stars and NBA champions. His teammates feed off that. The one-time benchwarmer now plays the leading man most nights upon entering the game. Barton's unique among his fellow award candidates in that respect - he's not only the first guy off the bench for Denver, he's entrusted with anchoring reserve lineups as the main scorer and shot-creator. Just a year ago, he was collecting DNP-Coaches Decision's. As a consolation, can we at least name him Most Improved Player? 

/remembers McCollum won Most Improved, with Barton finishing fifth in that race.

Dammit. 

Hey, more fuel to the fire for Barton to make another leap next season.


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