The NBA Sixth Man Race

In an NBA awards race tilted toward the league’s young guns, there’s still one wily veteran making a case, and that would be Jamal Crawford.

Most Valuable Player? That’s going to Golden State’s Stephen Curry. Defensive Player of the Year? San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard is a frontrunner. Rookie of the Year? Look no further than Karl-Anthony Towns of Minnesota. Heck, Curry may just win the league’s Most Improved Player honor for his otherworldly performance this season.

Besides the youthful age group of the aforementioned players—Curry is 28, Leonard 24 and Towns 20—they also share common ground in that their award pursuits are relatively closed cases with just two weeks left in the 2015-16 regular season. When 129 sportswriters and broadcasters turn in their ballots, don’t expect many surprises.

The lone race that has yet to be decided, and could swing several ways, is the Sixth Man of the Year voting, though a recent report suggests it could go to 36-year-old Los Angeles Clipper Jamal Crawford.

According to a March 25 report by Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders, the guard from Michigan, in his 16th season, is the best choice in the eyes of fellow players, past and present. If he wins, it will be the third time he has done so (2010, 2014).

“Jamal is one of a kind—both as a player and a person. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him and playing with him the past three seasons,” teammate J.J. Redick said in Kennedy’s report. “He’s the epitome of what a sixth man should be: someone who instantly changes the flow and dynamic of the game with his skill set. For Jamal, that is scoring the basketball. There are few players, if any, like him.”

It would be hard to argue with Redick. Crawford has helped the Clippers (45-27) weather a long stretch of games without all-star power forward Blake Griffin, who has missed 41 games with a quadriceps and hand injuries, and will miss four more while serving a suspension. This season, he has averaged 13.7 points and 2.2 assists, while posting a True-shooting percentage of 51.7. He has continued to anchor the team’s second unit in 72 appearances, playing 26.8 minutes per game.

The veteran, who is playing for his sixth team, could be the frontrunner for the league’s top bench player, but there are others who will garner attention from voters. If Crawford occupies the first tier, consider those directly below him.

Heading up Tier 2 of NBA sixth men are Will Barton of the Denver Nuggets , Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic and Jeremy Lin of the Charlotte Hornets.

Barton, a third-year guard out of Memphis, currently plays for a rebuilding team with a 31-43 record, but he has been impactful while playing in all of the Nuggets’ 74 games. In 28.6 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists with a true-shooting mark of 54 percent, all career-highs. He has made just one start this season.

Oladipo, a full-time starter the last two years, has remained one of the best young two-way guards in the league, averaging 16 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals in just over 32 minutes for the 30-43 Magic.

Lin, a point guard for the playoff-bound Charlotte Hornets (42-31), is averaging 11.7 points and 2.9 assists in 25.9 minutes of action, and has played in 70 of the team’s 73 games, including 11 starts. He has shined alongside starting guard Kemba Walker, and proven to be more than capable as his backup. At times, he has taken over stretches of games.

In Tier 3, consider New Orleans’ Ryan Anderson and Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter.

The Pelicans are 26-46 in what can only be described as a disappointing step back for a team that made the playoffs a year ago, but Anderson, a 6-foot-10 stretch power forward, has been a reliable contributor in 66 games played. In 30.4 minutes per game (the fourth-highest total of his eight-year career), he has averaged 17.0 points and six rebounds, and is shooting 42 percent from the field. When he has been on the court this year, the Pelicans are a better offensive team, as well as a better offensive rebounding team.

While serving as the Thunder’s backup center, Kanter has been an integral part of the team’s 51-22 record, which is good for first place in the Western Conference’s Northwest Division, and the current third playoff seed. Much like Anderson, Kanter is an offensive-minded player on the league’s second-ranked scoring team (110.2 points per game), and has averaged 12.5 points and 7.9 rebounds in 20.4 minutes. He has played in 73 games this season without starting a single one, and his 57 percent shooting mark from the field is a career-high. Per 100 possessions, Kanter has been the center in the team’s most effective offensive lineup, along with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Dion Waiters and Serge Ibaka. In just under 129 minutes of court time, the unit is plus-18.4 in points.

In Tier Four, behold the long shots. Players such as Golden State’s Andre Iguodala, Toronto’s Bismack Biyombo, Cleveland’s Matthew Dellavedova, Boston’s Evan Turner, Minnesota’s Zach LaVine and Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder could all be considered part of the pack.

At the point guard position, Schroder is playing just over 20 minutes per game over 72 games for the Hawks, and is averaging 11.3 points and 4.5 assists, all career-highs. Dellavedova has quietly turned in a big year for the Eastern Conference-leading Cavaliers, posting career-highs in minutes (25.3), shooting percentage (.414), points (7.9), rebounds (2.1) and assists (4.4). When in the lineup, the Cavs have been more effective in nearly every way on both ends of the court.

Iguodala, Turner and LaVine are the most versatile players on this group, able to play and defend multiple positions. Though Iguodala’s only played in 60 games, and his scoring has dipped slightly from 7.9 points a year ago to 7.3 this year, the two-way forward has been a key cog on a Warriors team that will challenge for an unprecedented 73-win season and deserves a nod. Turner has been a solid reserve guard-forward for the Celtics, scoring 10.3 points to go with five rebounds and 4.5 assists. His 27.7 minutes per contest are the most he’s played in four seasons. Known primarily for his prodigious dunking, LaVine has become a quality combo-guard for the Timberwolves, averaging 14.2 points in 27.6 minutes.

In the post, Biyombo has been a major factor in the Raptors’ rise to an Eastern Conference power. His 5.6 points and 8.3 rebounds are both career-highs, though his 22.7 minutes are the third-lowest of his career.