The Denver Nuggets did something Monday night against the Houston Rockets that caught my attention. Facing injuries to three of his five starters (Arron Afflalo, Timofey Mozgov and Nene), coach George Karl didn't just promote his next-best guys into the starting lineup. Instead, he started benchwarmers Kenneth Faried and Julyan Stone, who had played a combined 84 minutes all season.
Why would Karl do such a strange thing? Here's your answer:
No lie - to keep his bench rotation in tact, Karl will likely start Julyan Stone and Faried (along w Ty, Gallo and Koufy)— Benjamin Hochman (@nuggetsnews) February 6, 2012
The Nuggets lost, but that's not really the point. It's more the mindset Karl brought into the situation. "To keep his bench rotation" meant that Karl deemed it more important that his bench players, specifically Al Harrington, Rudy Fernandez and Andre Miller, remain bench players than providing his starting lineup with enough talent to keep up.
It all speaks to a theory I've been developing all year about there being more elite bench players this year than ever before. But just to be sure, I asked someone who would know for confirmation.
"Oh yeah," said Leandro Barbosa, the NBA's Sixth Man Award winner five years ago while with the Phoenix Suns. That seals it, then. This year is officially known as the Revenge Of the Sixth Man.
Some of the best teams in the NBA are winning games thanks to the contributions of bench players. You know about Jason Terry for the Dallas Mavericks, but he's not the only one. In Oklahoma City, James Harden is producing at an all-star level despite not starting over Thabo Sefolosha. In Philadelphia, three guys -- Thaddeus Young, Louis Williams and Evan Turner -- make up what Philly faithful call "The Night Shift," a devastating talent infusion that dominates the late-first and early-second quarter. In Los Angeles, Mo Williams, a former all-star, has accepted his role as the bench sparkplug and is having easily his most efficient scoring season as a pro. Those cases, plus the Nuggets' unique scenario, are the most striking, but they're hardly the only ones. The Sixth Man is back, with an all-new infusion of talent.
"Take the case of Mo Williams," Barbosa said to me. "He's been playing at a very high level of basketball. He was a starter, he was an All-Star player. That helps him to know how to get comfortable when he comes in from the bench."
The idea of bringing in a bench player to change the game is hardly new. The original concept dates all the way back to the 1960s, when legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach used to bring one of his best players off the bench to allow them to play with reckless abandon. Frank Ramsey was the NBA's first sixth man, and eventually John Havlicek grew into the role. Those players allowed the Celtics to continue playing at a breathneck pace when all other teams got tired.
The sixth man has always been valued since then, but never like this. Consider: when Barbosa won his Sixth Man of the Year award in 2006-07 while with the Phoenix Suns, there were 12 players who started less than 20 games (out of a minimum of 50) and averaged at least 10 points a game. Last year, that number ballooned to 22. This year, it's at 20. That's just with scorers too. A player like Turner, who touches a game in so many different ways, isn't on this year's list.
"The guy that comes from the bench is going to help the team bring energy and score some points. [But] it's not only offense, but also the defensive end too," Barbosa said. "A little bit of everything makes a good sixth man."
There are all sorts of possible reasons for why the sixth man concept is back, but to me, it speaks to two growing trends. First, coaches are starting to understand the need for spontaneity. The beginning of games has become so regimented. Coaches need to get certain players going, and certain players need to develop the right kind of rhythm. Teams are so concerned with not letting the game get out of hand early that they maintain the same rituals to ensure it doesn't happen. That means that, early on, games tend to be played to a draw. The true competitive advantage therefore comes when the substitutes enter the game. Good coaches understand the need to find players who can change the pace of the game during those moments.
But there's also a larger sea change at play. Last summer, Young was a restricted free agent. The 76ers could have let him find his market and match any offer. They could have noted that he only averaged 12 points and five rebounds last year and made him an afterthought in their plans. Instead, they moved quickly to lock him up to a five-year, $42 million contract extension that pays him like a starter. Young had become a sixth man in 2010/11 after several years as a starter during his contract year, a major risk given how per-game statistics have traditionally been used to determine new deals. The 76ers, though, recognized how many games he changed coming off the bench and rewarded Young's sacrifice with a new deal.
It's that kind of two-pronged support that hasn't always existed. In the past, the coach might talk up a player's value, but management would not see things the same way. Now, there are more organizations that seem to be on the same page when it comes to a sixth man's value. That's huge for these players, who often times take an ego hit because they are not seen as "starters." Barbosa shrugged aside the ego angle when I pitched it to him on Monday.
"No, no. Whatever it takes for the team to win, it's the best. I definitely don't really care about that."
Call it a cliche quote if you want, but when coaches and management are backing it up, there's real meaning in it. Being a sixth man no longer means not being good enough to be a starter. Now, it means being good enough to change games.