The end of the 2020-21 NBA regular season is rapidly approaching, which means that award season will soon be upon us. We've already looked at the contenders for Coach of the Year, so this time around we'll look at the top candidates for Sixth Man of the Year. The Sixth Man of the Year is one of the more intriguing award races this season, as there are several deserving candidates.
Given all of the time that players, specifically starters, have missed this season due to injury issues and health and safety protocols, the argument could be made that bench play has never been more important than it has been this season. All of the players on this list have stepped up for their respective squads and contributed to their overall success in a major way. With that said, here's a look at the five top candidates for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award for the 2020-21 season.
Any list of top Sixth Man of the Year candidates this season has to include Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson, who is the odds-on favorite to win the award, and for good reason. Clarkson is a huge part of the reason that the Jazz have held the league's top record for virtually the entire season, as he provides them with a major scoring spark off of the bench. With a career-high average of 17.5 points per performance, Clarkson is Utah's second-leading scorer, despite the fact that he only plays 26 minutes per game. Only Donovan Mitchell (26.4 points per game) scores more than Clarkson for Utah.
It's not often that a team's second-leading scorer is a bench player, but that just goes to show how important Clarkson is to what the Jazz do. He's asked to carry the offense for stretches when Mitchell is on the bench and to provide the team with instant offense if the first five is struggling to score. In addition to his point production, Clarkson is also pulling in a career-high four rebounds and dishing out 2.1 assists per game. Clarkson is also shooting a career-high 92 percent from the foul line this season, so he's a guy that the Jazz are comfortable having the ball in his hands down the stretch of games. In terms of impact off of the bench, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more impactful player than Clarkson this season.
Montrezl Harrell is the NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year, and he has a chance to win the award in consecutive seasons, albeit in a different uniform. Harrell won the award last season for the scoring, rebounding and energy he brought to the Clippers off of the bench, and this season he's providing those same skills for L.A.'s other team. On the year, Harrell is fourth on the Lakers in scoring (13.9 points per game) and fourth in rebounding (6.6) and he's also adding an assist per performance. Harrell is playing almost four minutes fewer per game with the Lakers this season than he did with the Clippers last season but, for him, it's all about maximizing his minutes. It doesn't take him long to make an impact once he checks in, and the energy that he provides to L.A. has been a big part of their success this season.
Clarkson isn't the only Jazz player that makes an enormous impact off of the bench. Joe Ingles is also a major part of Utah's overall attack. The Jazz are a team that shoots a whole lot of 3-pointers, and Ingles, who is shooting 48 percent from long range on the season, is their most accurate marksman. As a result, he's averaging 12.3 points per game, which is sixth on the team. In addition to shooting and scoring, Ingles also provides playmaking off of the bench for the Jazz, evidenced by the 4.4 assists he dishes out each night. He paces Utah's second unit by consistently making plays for himself and his teammates. Together, he and Clarkson form the league's most dangerous bench duo. But, Sixth Man of the Year is an individual award, and it's fair to wonder if Utah having a pair of players vying for the award will diminish the individual campaigns of Clarkson and Ingles at all.
Doc Rivers has a history of having Sixth Man of the Year winners on his teams. In fact, five Clippers players won the award under Rivers during his seven seasons in L.A.: Jamal Crawford in 2014 and 2016, Lou Williams in 2018 and 2019, and Montrezl Harrell last season. This shows that Rivers values having a productive, go-to guy off of the bench, and Shake Milton has been that guy for the Sixers this season.
Milton is fourth on the 76ers in scoring with an average of 13.4 points per game, and he's also fourth on the team in assists (3.0). Milton has hit some big shots for the Sixers over the course of the campaign, and like Crawford and Williams were with the Clippers, he's a guy that Rivers can just give the ball to and say 'hey, go get us a bucket' when Philadelphia's offense is struggling to get going. Milton's consistent production off of the bench is definitely a part of the reason that the Sixers are in contention for the top seed in the East.
Dario Saric's numbers don't jump off of the page. On the season he's averaging 9.1 points, 4 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game. However, Saric is a bit of a Swiss Army knife for a Suns team that is in contention for the top seed in an ultra-competitive Western Conference, meaning that he does a little bit of everything for the team. Saric provides some scoring, floor spacing, and playmaking for the Suns' second unit, and he also has some versatility on the defensive end, as he is able to guard a couple of different positions. Saric only plays 17.5 minutes per game for Phoenix, which could hurt his case, but he has been able to maximize his minutes by embracing his role and providing the Suns with energy and production off of the pine. Plus, the Suns are better when he's out on the floor. From The Step Back:
When [Saric] is on the bench Phoenix has a plus-5 rating, which is Denver/Philadelphia territory; when he plays that number skyrockets to plus-14, which is Babe Ruth/Wilt Chamberlain/Wayne Gretzky-level absurd. All that good stuff and he costs the Suns less than Ingles, Clarkson and Harrell cost their teams.
Saric may not be the sexy pick to win the award, but when his contributions are considered in context along with how solid the Suns have been this season, he has a case. He will certainly be central to Phoenix's success moving forward.