The announcement came down this morning, as expected: J.R. Smith has been voted the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
This is entirely appropriate. Smith was easily the most valuable bench player in the league; he scored 18.1 points per game, played effective defense, rebounded well, limited turnovers (the supposedly reckless Smith turned over the ball on just 8.8% of his possessions). He deserves it.
But it’s almost damning him with faint praise.
Smith did not start a game all season. But did you know that Smith played the most minutes of any Knick this season? More than Carmelo Anthony, or Tyson Chandler, or Raymond Felton. That’s 2,678 minutes logged for Smith. Tops on the Knicks, 32nd in the entire league, trailing only starters. The next player on the league list who wasn’t a full-time starter is J.J. Redick, way down at 60th.
Nor is it particularly typical for a sixth man to lead his team in minutes played. James Harden, last year’s winner, was third. Same with Lamar Odom in 2010-11, and Jamal Crawford was fifth on the Hawks in 2009-10. Jason Terry was third for the 2008-09 Mavs, Manu Ginobili was fourth for the 2007-08 Spurs. Again, all of these guys managed to play more than some starters; no one managed to lead their team in minutes.
The same is true for the two previous winners of the award in New York. John Starks was a true sixth man in 1996-97, finishing in that spot in minutes played. Anthony Mason, when he won the award in 1994-95, finished fourth.
Even sixth men we associate with the essential identities of the team didn’t manage Smith’s feat. Detlef Schrempf won the award for Indiana in 1990-91 (second in minutes played) and 1991-92 (fourth). Kevin McHale won the award in 1983-84 (fourth) and 1984-85 (fourth). (Side note: how amazing that McHale wasn’t a starter?!?)
Incidentally, I think we’ll say similar things about Smith if this team makes an extended playoff run. Smith will need to have vital moments if the Knicks are to make a sustained push in this year’s playoffs; that means the kind of memories we have of, for instance, Larry Johnson (who was a full-time starter), let alone stars like Patrick Ewing, Walt Frazier and Willis Reed (who famously started his iconic game).
It just shouldn’t come as any surprise when the Knicks get such a moment from a bench player. The term doesn’t do Smith’s season justice. He’s not a starter; he’s also been on the bench less this year than any other Knick.