Essay: A Coastal Sixth Man Debate
During last year’s NBA Finals several match-ups were heavily anticipated, but a hushed clash between Boston’s Glen Davis and Los Angeles’ Lamar Odom remains the most peculiar. Fast forward eight months and the two are leading candidates for, what some believe to be, the greatest backhanded compliment in professional sports: Sixth Man of the Year. Comparing the two purely on statistics doesn’t do either of them any justice; looking at each in terms of value and importance—contrasting their length and girth, their finesse and power—to their respective team’s championship chances in 2011 is more what this argument is about. With that being said let’s kick this off with a few random numerical comparisons that are either important, or interest me for whatever reason.
|Age||MPG||Starts||Usg%||FTA||Reb%||% Shots From Inside||% Shots Are Jumpers|
Last year’s Sixth Man of the Year, Jamal Crawford, didn’t start a single game making him the rare, and supremely deserved, recipient to do so. Here are the award’s last 10 winners and their number of starts listed in reverse chronological order: Jason Terry (11), Manu Ginobili (23), Leandro Barbosa (18), Mike Miller (9), Ben Gordon (3), Antawn Jamison (2), Bobby Jackson (26), Corliss Williamson (7), Aaron McKie (33), and Rodney Rogers (7). Of those 10 winners only Aaron McKie ventured into the 30s, dangerously close to treading full-time starter status waters. As of April 7th Odom had started 34 games in 78 appearances which opens the door for some naysayers to argue that he isn’t a true bench player, just placed there as a result of his being on such a grossly talented team. Odom plays five more minutes per game than Andrew Bynum, the player who’s various ailments forced Odom into the starting lineup throughout the season. (Glen Davis plays two minutes less than Kevin Garnett, the player who starts above him.) It’s the main reason why Odom’s name hasn’t been mentioned as a serious Sixth Man of the Year candidate until the past month or so: He’s too good. Guarding Lamar Odom, when he’s fully focused, is very, very difficult. He’s able to pull up off the dribble for threes in transition—Davis, clearly, is not—and beat slower big men to the basket at will. He can snatch an errant misfire off the defensive glass, take it to mid-court in three dribbles, cross up your point guard, enter your defense’s intestines, and either set the table or score two before fans can raise their hands to clap or take a deep breath to boo. The people who today say he’s a point forward were once projecting him as a point guard. He’s infinitely versatile and athletic (Odom’s logged minutes at center, power forward, and even small forward this season) and was born with a prototypically elite NBA body that’s able to comfortably handle the ball almost anywhere on the court, and produce the type of passes normally seen from the league’s under 6’2″ crowd.
Coming into the league Odom was projected as a transcendental talent a la Magic Johnson, but after struggling mightily with the pressures of becoming a perennial All-Star and team leader, he ultimately nestled into, and accepted, the role of fourth wheel on a championship contender. It’s a position he’s thriving in and has lead to the most success he’s had in his 11-year career. A constant knock on Odom before the Lakers won their two championships was his subdued toughness and lack of desire. Odom has what I like to call “The Manny Ramirez Syndrome”; athletically related things throughout his life came so effortlessly that at times, publicly, it seems hard work was overlooked. This isn’t me calling him lazy by any means because I haven’t seen how many thousands upon thousands upon thousands of hours of basketball rehearsal I’m positive he’s put himself through, but his mental deference at points throughout his career lends itself to create this perception of someone who doesn’t preoccupy himself with diving for loose balls or correctly positioning himself to make critical boxouts.
Davis, as opposed to Odom, has an interior motor that doesn’t stop running because if it did, he’d lose his roster spot. He’s always hustling and rarely finds himself out of position on all the little plays incapable of finding their way onto a box score. Davis has had much more to make up for since entering the league as a second round draft pick, and, as previously mentioned, isn’t the type of player who can solely be judged on the numbers. At times he’s been grossly undersized at the five (and even in some cases at his regular position of power forward), but his superb ability to perform as both a system and effective one on one defender allows the Celtics to give him significant playing time. (He defends Dwight Howard with no help, and says it’s easy.) He’s without question the greatest charge taker in the league, possessing impeccable timing as to when it’s appropriate to step in front of a careening ball handler (sacrificing his body in the process) and leave his man wide open.
Offensively, this season has been a coming out party for Glen Davis; his minutes, shots per game, and usage rate have all been career highs. He’s also earned Doc Rivers’ trust as the second unit’s main offensive option and in a continuation from last season, often finds himself on the floor in the final four or five minutes of a tight game—alongside Rondo, Allen, Pierce, and Garnett. Davis has a steady mid-range jump shot, a long list of effective low post moves, and with the departure of Perkins he’s adopted position as the team’s primary pick setter for Ray Allen. In short, he’s as critical as anyone if Boston wants to win an 18th banner, and has complete comprehension of how to make smart plays within the team’s offensive system.
Both Odom and Big Baby play for teams with championship aspirations, and as first men off the bench, both are especially vital in having those desires come true. They’re undisputedly candidates for Sixth Man of the Year, but aren’t the only ones. Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, and my two future dark horse picks, Thaddeus Young and Jared Dudley, are all deserving bench players who have made significant contributions to their respective basketball teams. But just the thought of Odom and Davis as the lone two battling it out on the mountain top should make any Laker/Celtic/Basketball fan salivate. In a way, they’re both microcosms for the teams they play for and the cities they reside in. One is talented, known for finesse, able to waltz his way around the court making everything look easy. The other is a nose to the grindstone type whose career has been one constant shove of a squared peg in a circular hole. Both can change the pace of an entire game—Lamar speeding it up and Davis screeching it to a halt—and for whatever reason, both players have an extremely difficult time guarding one another, like two equally matched tennis players who can’t break each other. They’re such polar opposites—yin and yang—yet would be thrown in the same batch in terms of the function they serve their teams. Both have made it work and both are more than deserving to win the 2011 Sixth Man of the Year award.