by Brett Klein
American musician John Fogerty once sang, “Put me in, Coach—I’m ready to play today,” and even though he was referring to baseball, this should be the motto for this NBA season’s outstanding crop of sixth men who are always ready to come in and contribute.
The striking success of Knicks guard JR Smith, Clippers guard Jamal Crawford and Spurs guard Manu Ginobili as sixth men, is prime evidence of the vital role a sixth man plays on an NBA roster.
James Harden turned his former role as stellar sixth man extraordinaire for the Oklahoma City Thunder into a max contract and superstar status with the Houston Rockets when he was traded just prior to this season.
But wouldn’t you want your best players starting the game?
What could possibly be the rationale to keep one of your team’s most potent weapons buried on the pine at the start of the game while the other side has the chance to gain an early lead and invaluable momentum?
Maybe you should ask the coaches of the Knicks, Clippers, Spurs and Thunder, each of whose teams sit at or near the top of their respective conferences.
Having a spark off the bench—someone to provide relief when the starters’ shots just aren’t falling—is absolutely necessary to the success of a title contender.
Smith, Crawford and Ginobili are each devastating offensive weapons and become even greater threats when used correctly, namely bringing them off the bench to maximize their effectiveness.
Certainly, Smith, who is averaging a career high 16.2 points per game while starting zero games this season, is more valuable to the Knicks than Ronnie “Please Don’t Shoot That” Brewer.
Brewer is putting up just 3.7 points per game on 36.8 percent shooting despite starting 34 games for New York. So how can coach Mike Woodson justify such a seemingly ridiculous coaching decision?
Well, for one thing, it’s not ridiculous at all.
Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony, pouring in nearly 30 points each night, is more than capable of shouldering the scoring load to open up a ball game.
In fact, he is leading the NBA in first quarter scoring, and with Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler running their swift pick and rolls, there is no need for JR’s suspect shot selection in the opening minutes.
What Brewer brought to the Knicks starting lineup, at least early in the season before he was relegated to bench-warming duties, was tough defense, to compliment the Knicks’ sizzling offense, and a willingness to move the ball to open shooters.
What often happens in the beginning of games is that a team will exploit their opponent’s defensive weakness until they make adjustments.
The ability to insert a new weapon into the game once the defense takes away your first option is essential to keeping the offense dangerous and in attack mode. And trust me, Smith and Crawford never shy away from shooting the ball.
Smith has evolved from last year’s version of himself, a player that would instill fear and disgust in his own fans with each ill-advised shot.
He is now one of the Knicks’ most prolific scorers. Also, he represents yet another problem for defenses when they surround Anthony with double teams. When this occurs Anthony finds Smith and others for uncontested threes.
Smith’s success this season has prompted fans to shower him with nicknames such as “JR, Just Ridiculous” after two fall-away game winners, and “JR Swish.”
His role as a proficient scoring machine off the bench is a major reason why the Knicks now sit in second place in the Eastern Conference, behind the Miami Heat. Last year, the Knicks finsihed seventh in the Eastern standings.
Quick aside: I would be remiss, as a harshly critical and devoted Knicks fan, if I did not mention that Smith does, at times, revert back to his old ways of chucking up irrational confidence shots that leave me asking, “How could you possibly think that was going in?”
Luckily for all, this happens significantly less frequently than last season, which has triggered fewer death stares from Mike Woodson.
Over in Los Angeles, where the Clippers and their fans have ear to ear grins regarding their own success and the Lakers hysterical, dysfunctional train wreck of a team, Crawford bides his time on the bench in the first quarter while Willie Green takes the floor at his position.
Yes, Willie Green, the one who’s averaging 6.1 points per game this season playing for his third team in three seasons.
Crawford’s lightning-quick crossover and silky smooth jumper make him one of the league’s most overachieving NBA journeyman to ever be undervalued, even after scoring 50 points in a game with three different teams.
Like Smith, Crawford’s huge contributions off the bench, nearly 17 points per game in just fewer than 30 minutes, have helped to propel the Clippers to third place in the Western Conference, even with recent injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
What teams are they trailing, you ask?
Well, the Spurs sit in first with Ginobili providing scoring relief and veteran leadership in his sixth man role, and the Thunder occupy second with guard Kevin Martin scoring 15.3 points per game in Harden’s former role as sixth man.
I am by no means trying to impart that the play of these players off the bench is the sole reason for their teams’ successes, and that having a forceful scorer as a sixth man will automatically boost any team to contention.
However, the evidence is there for consumption that a capable sixth man is a key component of a contender.
Watch a Knicks game, or a Clippers game, or a Spurs game from the beginning, until its climactic end.
Watch Carmelo easily take his defender one on one for a while, or Chris Paul dish out assists to Lob City, or even Tony Parker and Tim Duncan run the pick and roll, but then wait for the moment when their offenses become stagnant.
Wait for the moment when it looks like the opposing defense has figured out their offensive schemes. Then, glance over to the scorer’s table.
That’s when you’ll see Smith, or Crawford, or Ginobili in the phone booth changing into their makeshift Superman costumes, waiting to come to the rescue.
And in most cases, opposing teams never seem to have enough Kryptonite to keep them at bay.