The 5 Greatest NBA Sixth Men Of All Time

The center is the 5, the power forward the 4, the small forward the 3, the shooting guard the 2, the point guard the 1.

The sixth man can be any of those five positions, but the defining number for this position remains “6.”

Yet, we’re going to choose only five of these super-subs, not six, as we continue our “Summer Best Tour” here at Crossover Chronicles.

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JOE MANGANIELLO (@thatjoemags)

5 – JOHN STARKS

Starks came in and out of the starting lineup throughout his entire New York tenure — out of 605 games played with the Knicks, Starks started 275 (45.7 percent). Over 93 playoff games with New York, Starks broke into the starting lineup 55 times (59.1 percent). He started 18 of 25 playoff games during the Knicks’ run to the Finals in 1994 (Starks was not a part of the 1999 Finals run).

Most sixth-men roles function this way. While their skill set is particularly effective as a change-of-pace option, these players are talented enough to be starters. Thus they inevitably find huge minutes besides the starting lineup — or back into the starting lineup altogether — during team-wide dry spells.

In 1996-’97, when Starks won Sixth Man of the Year, Chris Childs and Charlie Ward combined to start all 82 games for the Knicks. Starks scored 13.8 points off the bench (third on the team) and hit nearly two 3s per game on 36.9 percent shooting. The Knicks won 57 games and were the No. 2 seed in the East behind the Bulls.

New York breezed through Charlotte in round one, and the Knicks were up 3-2 over the Miami Heat heading into Game 6 of their second-round series in New York, but Starks and Larry Johnson were set to be suspended for Game 7. With all the marbles essentially riding on Game 6, the Knicks inserted Starks back into the starting lineup and the fiery guard played 45 minutes.

The Heat outscored the Knicks 31-24 in the fourth and took Game 6, 95-90. Then Miami ran off with Game 7, 101-90. Perhaps the Knicks would have given the Bulls a run for their money in ‘97, maybe not, but circumstance disrupted their working rotation. Losing Starks’ production off the pine leveled their chances.

4 – ANTAWN JAMISON

The former North Carolina Tar Heel started 84.5 percent of his NBA games (864 of 1083). Jamison, who played for six teams — including three teams for just one season — left the NBA without a signature moment on a signature team. He had a pair of 20-plus-point seasons with Golden State, and two All-Star appearances in Washington. However, Jamison only saw the second round of the playoffs twice, and one of those runs was as an underwhelming starter on the 2009-’10 Cleveland Cavaliers.

Jamison, in my opinion, was insulted by his true calling in the NBA: He should have been a sixth man. He accepted the role only once, and ironically he made the playoffs for the first time because of it. In his lone season in Dallas, Jamison was spectacular in the role: He played all 82 games (a rarity for Jamison!) and averaged 14.8 points on 53.5 percent shooting in 29 minutes. What a season! He and Josh Howard were better players than Antoine Walker and Marquis Daniels, and so when Don Nelson brought them into the game, it gave Dallas an additional gear most teams couldn’t keep up with.

The Mavericks won 52 games and earned the No. 5 seed, where they had the misfortune of drawing the overqualified No. 4 seed Sacramento Kings. Walker bricked his 3-point shots in the series, going 1 for 10, and yet played significantly more minutes than Jamison. Dallas was dropped in five games. The Mavericks traded Jamison to the Wizards that summer, and dumped Walker in favor of Jason Terry, thus beginning a brand new chapter for the franchise (keep reading). Alas, one more year in Dallas could have changed Jamison’s career for the better, but it wasn’t to be.

3 — JASON TERRY

Terry started 341 of 403 games with the Hawks. He started the majority of his games in Dallas for the first three years before Rick Carlisle began experimenting with him coming off the bench in 2007-’08, and Terry was a full-blown sixth man by the following year. He won Sixth Man of the Year in 2009.

Dallas won the NBA Finals in 2011 with Terry as its second-leading scorer. In 21 games that postseason, all coming off the bench, Terry averaged 17.5 points on nearly 48 percent shooting and 2.0 3s per game (44.2 percent). Considering how critical his scoring was to balancing the floor, it’s not a stretch to say that he was the second best player on that team.

2 — KEVIN MCHALE

We don’t really consider McHale a sixth man because he was so clearly the second best player on those legendary Celtics teams. Yet, it was McHale’s rookie season that Larry Bird and Boston won its first title of the 1980s; McHale played 1,645 minutes and started just one game.

In 1984, McHale was an All-Star; he averaged 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds; and he shot 54.5 percent from the floor. He started just 10 games.

It wasn’t until the 1985-’86 run that McHale was fixed to the starting lineup, and even that came under the caveat that he was battling injuries — the power forward started just 62 games during the regular season. McHale is unquestionably the most accomplished player on this list, but because he lacks the necessary identity characteristics of a sixth man, I’ll drop him to No. 2 in favor of the quintessential sixth man.

1 – MANU GINOBILI

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MATT ZEMEK (@mzemek)

5 – AN AUERBACH-ERA BOSTON CELTIC

As Joe already alluded to above, particularly in his well-made case for Kevin McHale as the second-best sixth man of all time, the art of selecting the best sixth men is not so much about measuring basketball skills at a certain point; it’s about feeling comfortable enough to say that a given player spent enough of his career as a sixth man (and not a starter) to warrant the honor of being a great sixth man.

In some cases — as Joe has already said — the identity of a sixth man is easier to recognize than in others. With the Boston Celtic players Red Auerbach cultivated, it’s not as easy.

John Havlicek spent a number of seasons as a reserve, playing minutes not that different from what Andre Iguodala — the 2015 season’s most important sixth man — played for the Golden State Warriors. However, in the 1970s — the second half of his illustrious career — Havlicek was a starter. His career was split into sixth-man and starter halves, for the most part, so he wasn’t a sixth man all the way through. His stats clearly exceed those of Don Nelson — no one would dare say Nelson was the better player — but Nelson was more regularly given a reserve role, so one could make the case that based on pure assignation of responsibilities, Nelson was the truer (and therefore “better”) sixth man. To be more precise, Nelson might represent the idea (and ideal) of the sixth man more than Havlicek did.

If you wanted to move a few years earlier in the Auerbach era, Frank Ramsey could serve as a compromise candidate for this honor. There are too many Celtics to choose from.

I would, however, put these Celtics over two great Philadelphia 76er candidates, Billy Cunningham and Bobby Jones, for the simple reason that those Sixer teams of both the late 1960s and early 1980s (with Cunningham coaching the early-1980s version after playing for the late 1960s version) won only one title. Boston’s sixth men provided more and better answers — that reality is hard to argue against.

4 – VINNIE JOHNSON

The essential insight to be made about Johnson as a sixth man is a breakdown of minutes on the Detroit Piston team which finally won a world title, breaking the Celtic-and-Laker stranglehold on the NBA. No one on the 1989 Pistons played more than 36.6 minutes per game. That’s a significant part of what made that team great. Chuck Daly could constantly rotate players in and out of the lineup. Dennis Rodman — who contributed to three Chicago Bull titles as a starter, but powered Detroit to two titles primarily as a reserve — was a big reason the Pistons could wear down opponents. John Salley and Mark Aguirre gave Daly defensive and offensive options. Yet, Johnson mattered more, if only because the Pistons had so many choices in their frontcourt. Johnson had to spell Isiah Thomas or Joe Dumars; if he didn’t, no one else would have — certainly not with the same degree of efficiency.

Johnson wasn’t just about the instant offense and the 16-foot jumpers he’d stick after curling around a screen near the elbow; he kept his starting guards fresh for the long haul.

Here’s to “The Microwave.”

In honor of him, here’s an awful infomercial — the Vinnie Johnson salute comes just after the 30-second mark of the video:

3 – MICHAEL COOPER

One of the prime exemplars of the “three-and-D” player from the 1980s, Cooper’s combination of lockdown defense and clutch jump shooting gave the great Los Angeles Laker teams of the decade exactly what they needed. Byron Scott was a mid-range monster, and Magic Johnson took several years to polish his jump shot. Cooper filled in gaps for the Lakers with both his shot and his defense. His quickness on the court offered a counterbalance for Kareem in the old man’s advancing age.

Those Lakers were so loaded with stars that it’s easy to forget the enormity of Cooper’s impact on those clubs. They couldn’t have done what they did without COOOOOOOOOOOOOP.

2 – KEVIN MCHALE

Joe eloquently makes the case for McHale, above, so I’ll just offer this: McHale — like Detlef Schrempf and Jamal Crawford — has won the NBA Sixth Man Of The Year Award twice.

McHale, unlike Schrempf and especially Crawford, is a Hall of Famer. (Schrempf would be in Bloguin’s Hall Of Very Good. Crawford? Meh.) He is like Dennis Rodman, in that some of the championships he contributed to came as a reserve, while at least one other championship was produced as a starter. McHale’s split, though, leans more to his sixth-man contributions (2 titles) than his starter period (1 title). For Rodman, the split was 3-2 in favor of starter-year titles.

By the way: The only Hall of Fame player other than McHale to win the Sixth Man Of The Year Award was Bill Walton, in 1986. Yet, no one would hold up Walton as primarily a sixth man; he was certainly more of a starter.

Unlike Walton, though, this next man has indeed spent almost the entirety of his career as a sixth man, and will surely join McHale as a Hall of Famer in due time:

1 – MANU GINOBILI

The YouTube video provided above by Joe says pretty much all there is to say.

There have been better players than Emanuel Ginobili. There have been elite players who logged more minutes, and thereby represent more enduring testaments to basketball greatness.

Yet, in 33 years of watching basketball live (1981-’82 was my first NBA season), I have not seen many players redefine the dimensions of the court — and the game — the way Ginobili has.

Only Magic Johnson and LeBron James — whose shared combination of size and athleticism make so many more passes possible for them — have distributed the ball with the same flair and artistry of Ginobili. John Stockton (not blessed with great size) represents the classical ideal of what a point guard should be, making the crisp pass into a narrow window look mind-blowingly easy. Those four players are on my Mount Rushmore of the best passers of all time.

Ginobili, though, did so as a lefty, and he did so while frequently sharing the court with Tony Parker. He also was the one player who spiced up the San Antonio Spurs in their not-very-aesthetically-pleasing “commitment to defense” Bruce Bowen years. In a world of grays and blacks, Ginobili was an uncut ribbon of fresh colors, continuing to twirl around the court and make everything more beautiful to look at. That his artistry has produced championships for one of the foremost representations of blended team basketball in NBA history lends more than enough substance to his career, accompanying the dazzling style he’s given to the game.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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