As has been supposed for the final month of the season or so, J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks will win this year's NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award. Howard Beck tweeted this morning that it will be officially announced later today. Which clearly means that Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers will not win the award. Crawford, who won the award while with Atlanta in 2010, will inevitably finish second in voting this season.
That Smith will win the vote is not particularly surprising, but perhaps it should be. When All Star reserves were announced, Smith and Crawford were each frequently mentioned as prominent snubs in their respective conferences. I wrote at the time that while Jamal had played great, he nonetheless had little case to be on the All Star team given all the fine guards in the West. But while in Crawford's case there simply wasn't room for him, the idea of Smith making the team, even in the much less deep Eastern Conference, was laughable at that time.
That's because Smith went through a massive slump in the middle of the season. After a red-hot start during which he shot 44% from the field and almost 48% from deep in November, those numbers dropped below 40% and 30% respectively for December and January.
Two factors contributed most to his win: voters have short memories, and they really, really like points, especially in a sixth man. Smith opened the season strong and closed strong as well. So while he wouldn't have made an All Sixth Man team (first or second) in December and January, which is after all a significant portion of the NBA season, that has now been forgotten, or at least forgiven.
I'm not a fanatic about scoring efficiency, and I understand that someone on a team has to take tough shots, but even so it's tough, when looking at other Sixth Man candidates, not to notice Smith's shooting percentages for the season. His field goal percentage is .422 -- not good. Then again, he does take a lot of three pointers, as do all the Knicks, so field goal percentage is not the best measure of efficiency for him. Adding in his three pointers, his effective field goal percentage is .484, which is certainly better -- but still well below the league average of .496. That's the average; the fact that he scored 18 points per game this year is almost entirely a function of the number of minutes he played and the number of shots he took. There's always value in points -- it is after all how the winner of each game is determined -- but calling J.R. Smith the best sixth man in the league this year seems to be taking the fascination with points while ignoring how those points were scored to a new level.
Here's what is especially strange. Not only was Crawford a much more effective scorer, he flat out scored more on a per minute basis. I don't find it particularly difficult to see the significance of efficiency in a scorer, but assuming that some voters do, surely anyone can recognize that points per minute is a better measure of scoring than points per game? We are, after all, discussing the Sixth Man Award here -- by definition, the pool of candidates is comprised of players who begin the game on the bench; surely we can take the time to notice exactly how many minutes they actually play.
(This of course raises a validity question concerning the award itself. When Jason Terry won the Sixth Man Award in 2009 playing 33.7 minutes per game it seemed more than a little silly. Terry was third on the Mavericks in minutes per game that year and was only technically a 'Sixth Man' -- he was a starter who happened to enter the game with eight minutes left in the first quarter. Terry's 33.7 minutes per game remains a record for NBA Sixth Man Award winners -- Smith played 33.5 minutes per game for the Knicks this season and actually led the team in total minutes played.)
I won't belabor this point, but I will present a table of what I believe to be pertinent stats regarding three of the leading Sixth Man candidates this season, Smith, Crawford and Kevin Martin of the Thunder. You can compare all of their season data side by side at basketball-reference if you like. Suffice it to say, unless you are voting for Smith for his rebounding (and he did rebound very well this season) then he seems like a flawed choice.
In the end, Crawford may have wound up being the candidate that was neither fish nor fowl. A large number of voters got no further than Smith's league-leading per game scoring among reserves, his great start and his great finish. Voters that dug deeper might have migrated to the hyper-efficient Martin. Crawford, a blend of high scoring and efficiency, first in the league in per 36 minute scoring among reserves and tenth in the league overall (Smith was 18th) might have missed both the pure points constituency and the efficiency lobby.
So Crawford misses out on becoming the third player in NBA history to win the award twice (after Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf) and the first to win it with two different teams. The good news is that he gets to make a run at it again next season.