Back in early February, SB Nation's Mike Prada wrote about how sixth men were again becoming an increasingly vital piece in NBA team construction. Prada talked to former Sixth Man of the Year Leandro Barbosa about the importance of reliability off the bench and delved into Denver Nuggets coach George Karl's particularly militant philosophy on reserve consistency.
Six weeks later and nothing has changed. There are no fewer than a dozen superlative "sixth men" this season. In our three-part series on NBA Backyard Treasures, we'll count down this season's top five reserves who are with the team that picked them: homegrown sixth men.
5. TIAGO SPLITTER
Quietly, the Spurs again have one of the most productive reserves in the game ... and he happens to hail from South America. Splitter, a second-year big man who disappointed as a rookie, is averaging 9.2 points and five rebounds in just 20 minutes per game behind Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair. Most importantly, he's shooting 61 percent from the field, and the Spurs' defense has been better when he's on the court. Sure enough, San Antonio is getting its next good big man. Like Manu Ginobili before him, he's been raised as a reserve.
4. O.J. MAYO
Mayo will never live down his Tony Allen black eye, his PED suspension or ... well, pretty much anything. But none of that can erase the reality that Mayo is pretty darned good as a sixth man in Memphis. Mayo is averaging 12.2 points per game as a full-time sub for the Grizzlies; he actually plays more minutes than the man in front of him, Allen, who is a defensive specialist. That's not rare in the world of modern sixth men, as we'll soon see.
3. LOUIS WILLIAMS
Lou Williams is Mayo cranked up to 11. Despite coming off of the bench in all 46 of his 2011-12 games and averaging only 26 minutes a night, Sweet Lou is the Sixers' leading scorer (15.8 per game), top shot-taker (just under 15 per game, accounting for free throws) and No. 3 assist man. Philadelphia is pretty ridiculously skewed toward a balanced attack anyway; having the No. 1 weapon coming off the bench just makes that all the more apparent. Williams' Sixers career has been some kind of blueprint for teams looking to draft and retain homegrown super subs.
2. THADDEUS YOUNG
Speaking of Philadelphia, Lou isn't even necessarily the best sub on his own team! While we usually consider the best sixth men to be microwave scorers like Williams, Manu and Jason Terry, there's a new strain of top reserves whose biggest impact comes on the defensive end. The Bulls' Omer Asik and Taj Gibson are great examples, but no one tops Thad Young, a huge reason Philadelphia has been able to maintain the league's top defensive ranking this season. Young was paid appropriately well by the Sixers in the offseason, and he should remain in Philadelphia as a reserve for a long time. Paired with Williams off the bench, the 76ers are the perfect example of the Sixth Man Renaissance.
1. JAMES HARDEN
And then there is the presumptive Sixth Man of the Year for 2011-12: James Harden, the Oklahoma City Thunder's Manu clone. Harden probably should have been an All-Star this season. His efficiency numbers are absolutely absurd: No. 7 in total Win Shares and Win Shares per minute, No. 3 in offensive rating, No. 6 in effective field goal percentage, No. 2 in True Shooting percentage. Despite coming off of the bench in 42 of OKC's 44 games this season, he is No. 6 in the league in total free throws made. Despite playing heavy minutes with Kevin Durant (the league's No. 1 scoring small forward) and Russell Westbrook (the league's No. 1 scorer point guard), Harden is averaging better than 17 points per game. His stunning improvement and ability to make such a grand impact off the bench is a huge reason Oklahoma City has the top ranked offense in the NBA.
Stay tuned for Wednesday's NBA Backyard Treasures piece on the league's top benches. Warning: more Thad Young slobbering ahead.