All year in Boston, there have been several major races to monitor. For a while, Jayson Tatum was right in the thick of the MVP conversation. Jaylen Brown is putting together a strong case for All-NBA, which would give him the option to sign a supermax extension. The team as a whole, up until recently, was chasing the top spot in the conference before settling into the 2nd seed behind the Milwaukee Bucks.
Another big race, though slightly less publicized, has proven to be nearly as intense: NBA Sixth Man Of The Year.
Full Interview: https://t.co/78HAMxZgwa
— Celtics on CLNS (@CelticsCLNS) April 6, 2023
Since the turn of the new year, the 6MOTY competition has been a fierce battle between two Atlantic Division foes: Malcolm Brogdon and the Knicks Immanuel Quickley. Both provide similar two-way prowess and complete offensive bags with slight variations in their roles.
Brogdon is a highly-efficient machine, giving the Celtics a steady hand on the floor while the team’s big guns rest. Quickley is the young, energetic Knicks PG who’s racked up career highs in practically every offensive stat and fit like a glove in the starting lineup when called upon.
Only as of late has Quickley started to pull away as the favorite. Last Monday, FanDuel had Quickley and Brogdon dead even, with Bobby Portis and Malik Monk as distant challengers. Today,Quickley sits at -310 while Brogdon lags behind at +230. according to the sportsbook FanDuel.com With the Knicks back in the playoffs and Quickley putting together his best season, the narrative is picking up steam that he will come away with the John Havlicek Trophy.
Immanuel Quickley's post-All-Star Break averages:
SPARK PLUG ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/ndojITIB8n
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) April 5, 2023
But does this track with voting history?
Analyzing the results of the past ten 6MOTY races, there are three key takeaways we can make about how sportswriters vote on the award, and it becomes easier to accurately forecast who will win. Read on to see how the data lines up to predict this year’s winner.
Last 10 winners (1st place votes & Runner up)
(also note that the total number of votes cast can fluctuate from year to year, and more than two people have received first place votes each year):
2022: Tyler Herro (MIA) 96 votes
Kevin Love (CLE) 3 votes
2021: Jordan Clarkson (UTA) 64 votes
Joe Ingles (UTA) 34 votes
2020: Montrezl Harrell (LAC) 58 votes
Dennis Schröder (OKC) 35 votes
2019: Lou Williams (LAC) 96 votes
Domantas Sabonis (IND) 1 vote
2018: Lou Williams (LAC) 97 votes
Eric Gordon (HOU) 3 votes
2017: Eric Gordon (HOU) 46 votes
Andre Iguodala (GSW) 43 votes
2016: Jamal Crawford (LAC) 51 votes
Andre Iguodala (GSW) 43 votes
2015: Lou Williams (TOR) 78 votes
Isaiah Thomas (PHX/BOS) 33 votes
2014: Jamal Crawford (LAC) 57 votes
Taj Gibson (CHI) 49 votes
2013: JR Smith (NYK) 72 votes
Jamal Crawford (LAC) 31 votes
Now, let’s dive into some voting criteria.
Does Team Success Matter?
At the very least, your team has to be good if you want to take home sixth man of the year. Every single team with a sixth man winner on this list, except the 2018 Clippers, has made the playoffs, and eight of the remaining nine finished in the top four of their respective conference. Overall bench productivity also helps show who typically wins the award. In terms of net rating, every bench unit except two, the 2014 and 2016 LA Clippers, have placed in the top seven (you’ll start to notice a trend with how the Clippers and their bench mob occasionally defy statistical reasoning). When a bench is key to a good team’s success, writers like to reward that.
However, more than team success, writers like to reward one individual stat more than anything else.
Points, Points, Points
Who doesn’t love scoring?
Year in and year out, the players coming in first are putting up big scoring numbers. Each year, you’ll either see them pacing all bench scorers around the league, upping their career highs, or both. Here’s how each winner placed in total points off the bench for their sixth-man seasons:
- Tyler Herro: 1,162 points (2nd)
- Jordan Clarkson: 1,224 points (1st)
- Montrezl Harrell: 1,121 points (2nd)
- Lou Williams: 1,485 points (1st)
- Lou Williams: 1,311 points (1st)
- Eric Gordon: 1,408 points (5th)
- Jamal Crawford: 974 points (3rd)
- Lou Williams: 1,242 points (1st)
- Jamal Crawford: 775 points (11th)
There’s a pattern emerging. Practically every player here finished in the top five in points off the bench. The only one who didn’t, Jamal Crawford in 2014, only is outside the top 10 because his workload from the bench wasn’t equal. In total, he only played 45 of 69 games with the second unit. Along with that, every player except one, Montrezl Harrell, outscored all of his main competitors (Schröder actually beat him in both PPG and total points).
Their abilities to score (paired with solid team defense) also run up their plus minus ratings, something else voters love to see. Solely looking at every contested race — which, for the sake of this, is defined as a year where second place got 30 or more first-place votes — six of seven players posted a rating of +271 or more. Only Crawford in 2016 finished with a lower plus minus (a very good +168).
On top of that, voters will also take into account a pseudo-most-improved metric. In those same seven seasons, all but one player (Crawford in 2016) improved their PPG from the previous year. Not all of them improved more than the runner up, Taj Gibson in 2014 and Dennis Schröder in 2020 upped their numbers more than Crawford and Montrezl Harrell respectively. Still, the increase in scoring typically demonstrates an increased role in the offense. This helps build the narrative that these players have become more valuable to their team and should be rewarded for it.
Typical efficiency stats like FG% and 3PT% aren’t the greatest indicators of who will win 6MOTY, mainly because the list of past winners consists of so many microwave scorers. What is a better indicator, however, is Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Not just confined to shooting, PER is a minute-by-minute stat that factors in other contributions a player makes, such as assists or steals, condenses it into one number with 15.0 being the league average. Here are the PER numbers of each winner:
- Herro: 16.2
- Clarkson: 17.1
- Harrell: 23.2
- Williams: 21.2
- Williams: 20.2
- Gordon: 13.2
- Crawford: 14.0
- Williams: 19.9
- Crawford: 17.3
- Smith: 17.6
There are some issues with PER, mainly that its dependence on statistical output leaves important defensive metrics out of its algorithm. As a whole though, it’s a good way to get a fuller picture of how productive a player is to his team on the offensive end. Only twice have players dipped below the league average and won the award. Plus, there have only been three times (Love 2022, Sabonis 2019, and Thomas 2015) where the runner up beat the winner in PER.
There’s one more category that voters heavily take into account, the one that does the most “narrative building” for the eventual winner.
This is pretty much self explanatory. It probably comes as no surprise, but if you finish the season on a high note, you’re likely to win Sixth Man Of The Year.
In the three closest Sixth Man races — 2017, 2016, and 2014 — all three winners finished stronger offensively than the runner up in their last 20 games, likely giving them the late push to surge ahead of the pack.
Who Will Win?
As you’ll see, it should be a tight race between Brogdon and Quickley, but there’s one player who checks more boxes while not giving up too much in other categories. Here’s how they compare:
Honestly, it would be splitting hairs to try and determine who has a distinct advantage here. The Celtics are obviously better and should probably finish with around 8-10 more wins than the Knicks, but the Knicks have a slight edge in bench net rating. Theirs is at 2.3 while Boston is at 2.1. Both the Knicks and Celtics are winning teams in a tough conference with a mostly productive bench. If the team component would’ve factored in at all, the Knicks and Quickley would’ve had to catastrophically fall off to end the season. You can argue the slight team edge goes to Brogdon, but it’s unlikely this category does much of anything to move the needle.
Starting with totals, Brogdon is third in bench points while Quickley is seventh. However, just like in that Jamal Crawford year, Quickley’s lack of bench scoring is due to starting a sizable chunk of games. On the year, he has 19 starts, and leads Brogdon in total points (stats in games started vs. games off the bench do not impact award eligibility).
The slight edge goes to the Knicks’ PG there, but what about plus/minus? On one hand, there’s Quickley, whose PPG has jumped up 3.3 from 2022 to 2023, and +/- currently sits at +310. On the other, there’s Brogdon, whose PPG is down 4.2 due to a smaller role with Boston compared to Indiana and +/- is +182. Even though the actual PPG numbers for both players are nearly identical (14.9 for Brogdon and 14.6 for Quickley), if the voting trends hold, Brogdon’s year-to-year drop off would be highly uncharacteristic for a winner.
The one caveat will be how voters perceive Quickley’s numbers due to his amount of starts. He projects to end the season with 21 starts, and while that’s not the highest number for a Sixth Man winner, it would be the second-highest in the last 10 years, falling just short of Jamal Crawford’s 22 in 2014. A player’s stats in games started vs. games off the bench do not impact award eligibility, but there is a sizable difference in his minutes and points per game depending on his role that day.
Brogdon, on the other hand, has zero starts, and has produced entirely from the bench. There’s no clear correlation between games started and 6MOTY: there have been winners to start zero games and winners to start 30+. Still, some voters may lean toward Brogdon as the “purer” candidate with numbers that are similar to Quickley’s.
The scoring edge ultimately goes to Quickley, but there’s a path for Brogdon to win some support here.
Both players aren’t terribly far off from each other, but this is a clear win for Brogdon, plain and simple. Brogdon’s PER is currently 18.2, while Quickley’s is 16.2. Given his remarkable efficiency from all areas of the floor, it’s not surprising that this works in Brogdon’s favor.
With the candidates tied 1-1, it comes down to perhaps the most important category.
With two games to go for the Celtics and the Knicks, we can look at each player’s last 18 games to see who’s presenting the strongest case. First, let’s look at Malcolm Brogdon:
- 16.1 points
- 4.2 rebounds
- 3.8 assists
Brogdon is really coming on strong to end the season, and is continuing to help the Celtics play winning basketball. However, Immanuel Quickley has something to say about that:
- 21.1 points
- 4.2 rebounds
- 4.4 assists
In around four minutes more per game than Brogdon, Quickley has been putting together the best stretch of his career to end the regular season, securing the Knicks a playoff berth and building the narrative in the eyes of voters. If you focus in on the timeframe where Quickley started appearing as the favorite in most sports books, around seven games ago, the discrepancies in stats between the two becomes slightly more apparent, with Quickley averaging 24.1 PPG to Brogdon’s 16.7.
We Have A Winner?
6MOTY is a huge notch in a player’s belt, something that commends great seasons that occasionally go under the radar. The Immanuel Quickley campaign has been gaining traction, and the voting history backs it up. In line with the shifting odds, it’s looking like he may best Brogdon for the award.
Truth be told, though, this is a weird year for Sixth Man Of The Year. Neither Quickley nor Brogdon really fits the mold of who this award typically goes to. If the leading candidates are two-way, complete point guards instead of volume scorers, maybe the voting criteria will adjust as well. Immanuel Quickley may be in the lead, but this race should come down to the wire, and there’s still a good chance Malcolm Brogdon defies type and, fittingly, brings the John Havlicek Trophy to Boston.