Digging into the NBA’s Sixth Man Race

By Steve Shea, Ph.D. (@SteveShea33)

March 7, 2017

For at least the last month, Lou Williams and Eric Gordon have seemingly been the favorites for the Sixth Man Award, but on March 5, Marc Stein of ESPN.com wrote that Tobias Harris “has quietly emerged as perhaps the most credible threat to the Houston duo’s presumed duopoly.”

We’ve recently argued that Tobias Harris should be in Detroit’s starting lineup, but if Detroit’s coach Stan Van Gundy decides to keep him as a reserve, we agree with Stein’s suggestion that Harris is a real contender for the Sixth Man Award.

Among the three candidates—Williams, Gordon and Harris—who deserves the award?  Stein only scraped the surface of any statistical argument.  So, let’s dig deeper into the numbers.

[Practical note: To be eligible for the Sixth Man Award, Harris must have more games off the bench than as a starter.  Right now, Harris has 38 games started and 25 off the bench with 19 games to go.]


The first 8 minutes are not the most important 8 minutes in a game.  To win, teams should strive to have their best players on the court for most of the game and during the most critical minutes.  A team can accomplish this by not starting its best lineup.  In fact, coaches at lower levels have chosen to not start their best lineup because some opposing coaches assume the starting lineup is the team’s go-to group and devote the majority of their prep time to playing that cast.  Hopefully, the NBA is smarter than that.

Unfortunately, starting still holds a certain status among players and fans.  So, let’s try to break that mold by introducing a more important classification, that of a “finisher.”

Harris, Gordon and Williams are all finishers.  The following chart shows a breakdown of each player’s minutes by quarter since January 23 (a span for which Tobias has come off the bench exclusively).  All three players are playing at least 72% of their team’s 4th quarter minutes.


All three players play the majority of their team’s 4th quarter minutes, but how well is their team performing with these players on the court?  When the game’s on the line, the following chart shows that Piston lineups with Tobias get the job done.  The same can’t be said in the other 2 cases.


Offensive Profiles

All three players are most noted for their scoring.  Tobias leads the Pistons with 16.2 points per game. Lou Williams led the Lakers with 18.6 PPG and is now producing 15.2 PPG in Houston. Gordon is averaging 16.9 PPG, second only to Harden’s 29.0 on the Rockets.

But how do these players score?  Breaking down their production shows how these individuals are used in their respective offenses.  The following chart shows how often each player uses each of NBA.com’s play type options.  Williams profiles as the least versatile with almost half of his possessions coming from pick and rolls.  Both Gordon and Williams are used exclusively on the perimeter.  Harris is the most versatile of the group.  No more than 29% of his production is attributed to any category and 22% of his production comes from traditionally big areas—roll man possessions, post ups and put backs.


Usage is one thing and efficiency is another.  The following chart shows each individual’s efficiency by play type (provided the player had at least 20 possessions in the category). Many might be surprised to see that Tobias Harris is more efficient than Eric Gordon in spot ups and just as efficient as Williams as the ball handler in pick and rolls.  Harris and Williams are in elite company in the pick and roll category.  They join Isaiah Thomas and Kawhi Leonard as the four individuals leading the NBA with 1.07 points per PnR ball handler possession (among players with at least 90 such possessions).

In addition, Harris is the most efficient among the trio in transition and on cuts.


The Final Stretch

How will this race to the Sixth Man Award play out over these last remaining weeks of the season? Harris is in a decidedly different position than Williams and Gordon, and that difference is James Harden.  Williams and Gordon will be playing critical minutes alongside a superstar and elite offensive weapon in Harden.  This could be an advantage for Harris.  We’ve argued that Harris is Detroit’s best offensive weapon, and he should be featured in the offense.  If that occurs, Harris should produce better counting stats, which can sway award voters. Right now, Harris is not seeing that kind of usage.

In all likelihood, Williams and Gordon will have the advantage. Great offensive players like Harden draw help defense and open up efficient shots for their teammates. 86% of Eric Gordon’s jumpers have been open (i.e. no defender is within 4 feet). That’s a trend among role players in Houston. 93% of Ryan Anderson’s jumpers have been open. Tobias doesn’t have that luxury. Only 70% of his jumpers have been open. Without the advantage of playing alongside a star, Harris will have to work harder for quality looks.

Marc Stein of ESPN.com wrote that Tobias Harris “has quietly emerged as perhaps the most credible threat to the Houston duo’s presumed duopoly.”  If Tobias Harris continues to show his level of efficiency and versatility and his team continues to thrive at the end of games in spite of not having an NBA superstar to rely on, then Tobias Harris is more than a threat. He is the league’s best sixth man.

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