What makes a good 6th Man? It’s a tricky category to gauge, more so than most others, because a good 6th Man is invariably good enough to crack the starting line-up at least from time to time (and often more regularly than that), which by definition no longer makes him a 6th Man. I wrestled with this dilemma for awhile, then finally decided not to penalize the top 6th Men of my lifetime for this. After all, a bench player who is good enough to crack the starting line-up is better than one who isn’t.
A good 6th Man can come in many forms: as a scoring specialist, as a defensive specialist, or as an all-around player. The two things that good 6th Men have in common, though, are (i) an ability to turn a game’s momentum in their team’s favor through their skills and energy and (ii) an ability and willingness to take a leadership role on a team’s reserve unit. A 6th Man is a team’s first player off the bench and, as such, is called upon to set a tone for the others on the bench, and by extension for his team as a whole. The 6th Men featured on this list did so better than any others in my lifetime.
As with my previous ranking of the most dominant NBA teams, I am limiting the ranking of top 6th Men to those that I have actually seen play. However, doing so makes for one big omission: John Havlicek, who pretty much invented the role of 6th Man when he joined the Celtics in 1962 and who was good enough to not only become a starter but to become the all-time leading scorer in the franchise’s glorious history. Not only that, but this year marks the 35th anniversary of the epic Game 5 of the 1976 Finals between the Celtics and Suns (considered by many to be the greatest game in league history), and Havlicek’s role in that game, especially his running jumper in traffic in the final seconds of double-overtime to save the Celtics from a series-turning defeat, deserves greater historical mention than it has received (since his shot was largely overshadowed by Garfield Heard’s buzzer-beater to force a third overtime).
So, in his honor and without further adieu, I hereby present the John Havlicek Best Sixth Men of the Past 35 Years:
Ultimately I couldn’t figure out a way to decide between two out of the three players in NBA history (along with the guy ranked #1 on this list) to win 6th Man of the Year twice, esp. since deciding would have meant leaving one of them off the list entirely.
I didn’t remember much of Pierce’s career before he joined the Sonics in the early-‘90s, and thus needed to look up historical data to realize how potent he was as a 6th Man with the Bucks. He was the second player to win 6th Man of the Year twice, in 1986-87 (when he averaged 19.5 ppg) and in 1989-90 (when he averaged a career-high 23 ppg). He wasn’t too shabby as a starter with the Sonics either, averaging nearly 22 ppg in 1991-92 and over 18 ppg in 1992-93. Surprisingly for me, given my image of him as a long-distance sharpshooter, his 3-point shooting percentage cracked the 35% mark only 3 times. He made his living from an underrated floor game and one of the best free-throw shooting touches that the league has ever seen (87.5% for his career).
As for Schrempf, he was considered by many to be the best NBA player to come not just from Germany, but from Europe as a whole, until Dirk Nowitzki came along. He won back-to-back 6th Man of the Year awards in 1990-91 and again in 1991-92. He was inserted into the Pacers’ starting line-up during the 1992-93 season, and responded with over 19 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. After that season, he was traded to the Sonics for Derrick McKey, and was a key contributor to the Sonics’ run of success over the next five seasons (4 division titles, 3 seasons of 60+ wins and a Finals appearance in 1996). In 1994-95 he averaged a career-high 19.2 ppg on over 52% shooting from the field.
“The Microwave” earned his nickname for his uncanny ability to provide instant offense off the Pistons’ bench with one of the deadliest outside shots in the league in the ‘80s and early-‘90s. Celtics fans from the Bird era may still remember Johnson single-handedly outscoring the Celtics 17-12 in Game 4 of the 1985 East semi-finals. Blazers fans from the Drexler era surely have not forgotten Johnson hitting the title-clinching jumper in the final seconds of Game 5 of the 1990 Finals. While
making his name primarily as a 6th Man, Johnson was also periodically inserted as a starter as part of a 3-guard line-up with Isiah and Dumars. For a team that thrived on an aura of beastliness, Johnson’s outside shooting and clutch heroics were things of beauty (except for Pistons’ opponents, of course).
A personal favorite of mine growing up, Cooper carved out a niche as the defensive stopper on the Showtime Lakers and was the closest thing to kryptonite for Larry Bird. Despite never starting more than 20 games in any season, Cooper was good enough to make the All-Defensive First or Second Team 8 times in his 12-year career, and was named Defensive Player of the Year for the 1986-87 season. While his offensive numbers didn’t dazzle (he cracked double figures in ppg only twice in his career), he had a knack for hitting clutch 3-pointers, especially in the 1988 playoffs (Game 5 of the West semi-finals against Utah, as well as several big shots in the do-or-die Finals Game 6 against Detroit). He was one of only 3 Lakers (along with Magic and Kareem) to play on all 5 championship teams of the Showtime era.
3. Bobby Jones
Bobby Jones was one of the great “glue guys” of the past 35 years. His trade from Denver to Philadelphia following the 1977-78 season (for George McGinnis) helped turn the 76ers into a steadier and more cohesive unit, resulting in 3 Finals appearances in the next five seasons (culminating with the “Fo, Fo, Fo” title in ’83). As a starter, he had enough game to average as many as 15.1 ppg (in 1976-77). But whether as a starter or as a 6th Man, it was on defense where Jones really made his mark. He made the All-Defensive First Team in the ABA and NBA for 10 straight seasons from 1974-75 to 1983-84, thus establishing himself as one of the greatest defensive players that the league has ever seen. Jones was named 6th Man of the Year for the 1982-83 season.
Ginobili has shuttled between the Spurs’ starting line-up and their 6th Man throughout his career, and when healthy, has contributed consistently in both roles. His career stands as a prime example of the notion that “It doesn’t matter who starts, but rather who finishes.” Whether as a starter or as a 6th Man, Ginobili has established himself as one of the best clutch players in the league, and his ability to seamlessly integrate his skills with those of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker goes a long way towards explaining the Spurs’ success over the past 9 seasons. Ginobili was named 6th Man of the Year for the 2007-08 season while averaging a career-high 19.5 ppg that season; Spurs fans (and probably the players and coaches themselves) probably still wonder what might have been in the 2008 playoffs had Ginobili not had to play in a clearly hobbled state from a late-season injury.
1. Kevin McHale
Believe me, I had to hold my nose in picking McHale for the top spot. As someone who, in a sports fan sense, was raised on the Showtime Lakers and grew up hating the Celtics, I hated McHale most of all after the Kurt Rambis clothesline in the ’84 Finals. But in the end, there is no denying his versatility or his greatness. As a charter member of the original “Big 3” with Larry Bird and Robert Parish, it may seem a little strange at first to realize that McHale mainly came off the bench at the beginning of his career. As a 6th Man, he was good enough to become the first player to win the 6th Man of the Year award twice (in 1983-84 and again in 1984-85). When the Celtics traded Cedric Maxwell to the Clippers following the 1984-85 season for Bill Walton (who himself was named 6th Man of the Year in 1985-86), McHale was inserted into the starting line-up and stayed there for the next 4 seasons. In 1986-87, McHale had an MVP-caliber season, making the All-NBA First Team while averaging 26 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game. He played the 1987 playoffs and Finals on a broken foot, and Celtics fans of that era still wonder what might have been that year if McHale had been healthy. (Yes, as a Lakers fan, I admit that I’m glad we didn’t have to find out; in my book, it was karmic payback for ’84.)
All of that would have been impressive enough on its own, but then consider that McHale went back to the 6th Man role for the last 4 seasons of his career and, even on the downside, was still good enough as a 6th Man to average over 20 ppg in 1989-90 and 18.4 ppg in 1990-91. If that weren’t enough, McHale was also one of the better defensive players in league history, making the All-Defensive First or Second Team 6 times. Add it all up, and there’s no doubt that Kevin McHale is the best 6th Man since the great Havlicek.