Great teams are always complimented by great benches. When combing through the league’s dynasties of the past, one constant you’d find is high-level bench production. A sixth man can be one of the most important members of a team, backing up and relieving star players by acting as a spark plug off the pine. Over the course of a grueling 82 game season, bench players become supremely important in spacing out playing time and remaining rested for the postseason.
As the game has grown, NBA talent has reached an all-time high. Naturally, the hierarchy of players is formed within each team and top-level players have been limited to reduced roles. Plenty of bench players could start on other teams but opt to sacrifice minutes for the good of their team. These are the league’s most talented bench contributors headed into the 2018-2019 season.
As talented as Will Barton may be, he misses the cut of this list on a technicality. While his contributions off the bench are crucial to the success of the budding Denver Nuggets, Barton started in 40 of his 81 games played in the 2017-2018 season and will likely take hold of the starting small forward position.
The 27-year-old swingman posted career-highs in scoring and efficiency at 15.7 points per game on 45.2 percent shooting. Additionally, Barton tied a career-best by shooting 37 percent from behind the arc. The value of two-way wings is at an all-time high in the NBA, so Barton’s upward trend should continue after securing a four-year $54 million contract this summer.
In just one season, Fred VanVleet jumped from a mediocre rookie backup to one of the league’s best sixth men. Under head coach Dwane Casey, Toronto transformed their rotation and unlocked the potential of a young and mobile bench unit. By doing so, the Raptors decreased their stars’ workloads and added new dynamics to their gameplan. VanVleet’s game management, Three-and-D potential and court vision made him an easy fan favorite in Toronto.
With point guard Kyle Lowry aging and the Kawhi Leonard resurgence underway, VanVleet should see a similar role to last season. Unfortunately, his minutes at the guard position will be limited with veteran shooting guard Danny Green joining the lineup. VanVleet should be in for another great season as a backup but will suffer from a lack of opportunity. How new head coach Nick Nurse utilizes the bench mob is yet to be determined, but it’s safe to guess that VanVleet’s role will remain the same.
In the midst of Victor Oladipo’s unprecedented Most Improved Player campaign, Domantas Sabonis quietly stepped up with an increased role in Indiana this past season. Playing an additional five minutes per night, Sabonis doubled his rebound and assist averages from his rookie year to 7.7 boards and two dimes. His length and athleticism were put on full display as he blossomed into the player fans believed he could become. Sabonis has got a ways to go defensively and has room for improvement in his offensive arsenal but has proven himself as a reliable backup big man. Don’t be surprised if his name lingers around the upcoming Sixth Man of the Year debate.
5. Carmelo Anthony
Melo is the gift that keeps on giving. No, things did not go as planned in Oklahoma City. Anthony’s fit next to Russell Westbrook never clicked and coach Billy Donovan never quite learned to properly utilize Carmelo Anthony. D’Antoni, on the other hand, has done an excellent job of implementing new and unique talents into his offensive set in Houston.
Playing alongside not one but two of the greatest floor generals of all time in Chris Paul and James Harden should help ease his workload as well. Three-point consistency will be key for Carmelo to properly integrate into Houston’s game plan. With some adjustment and sacrifice, he could be an incredible asset for one of the most dynamic offenses in the history of the game. Regardless of the negative storyline surrounding him last year, Melo still managed to put up 16.2 points per game and shot a serviceable 35.7 percent from deep in OKC. Just remember, this is a guy whose career average over 15 seasons is 24.2 points per game. Melo can get buckets, it's just a matter of reducing his role to accompany the rest of the team in Houston.
4. Kyle Kuzma
Whether or not Kyle Kuzma earns a starting position on the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018 is up in the air. With LeBron James headed to LA, head coach Luke Walton has some size and spacing issues to figure out before rolling out a Western Conference contender. The truth is that Los Angeles has three forwards worthy of filling two spots, so unless one of them opts to change their position then Kuzma will likely be the Lakers’ sixth man in the coming season.
After making strides as a shooter and passer in his third season, Brandon Ingram will likely take on a leading role on the new-look Lakers. Selected second overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, Ingram emerged as a primary option for one of the more overlooked offenses in basketball last season. Kuzma, on the other hand, took on a rookie role and ran with it.
In his first season, Kuzma put up 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest. His size and athleticism are complimented by a smooth shooting stroke and a fantastic feel for the game. By all accounts, Kyle Kuzma is the prototypical modern power forward. His quickness far exceeds that of a player of his stature, allowing him to defend multiple positions and keep up with ball handlers off of switches. His fit next to LeBron James, on paper, seems perfect. Not only can Kuzma keep up with LeBron, but he can space and floor and create his own look when necessary. If the Lakers run a traditional lineup and force James to the power forward, Kuzma will easily be in contention for the Sixth Man of the Year.
3. Eric Gordon
In just two short seasons in Houston, veteran guard Eric Gordon has transformed the league’s view of him. Throughout his career, Gordon’s been touted as an effortless scorer whose health has hindered the potential of a great career. Under coach Mike D’Antoni, the three-point champion secured his position as one of the game’s best bench scorers.
His unorthodox jump shot may off put the casual spectator, but the fact of the matter is that he is and always has been an excellent three-point shooter. At a career average of 37.6 percent from behind the arc, Gordon’s shot creation and catch-and-shoot three-ball have always been superb. Between his jump shot, playmaking ability and supreme iso-game, Gordon is the perfect bench compliment for ‘D’Antoni Ball.’
In 2017, Gordon was awarded the Sixth Man of the Year Award for his immediate impact on the Rockets’ offense. His uptempo style of play added another piece to the puzzle of Houston’s impending surge into contention. He’ll continue to make considerable contributions as the third guard in Houston’s rotation, but may find himself losing shots to his new teammate Carmelo Anthony. For the time being, Gordon is the go-to guy off the pine for one of the most alarming offenses in basketball.
2. Terry Rozier
The miraculous Danny Ainge found yet another young stud with Louisville’s Terry Rozier in the 2015 NBA Draft, selecting the 6’2 point guard just outside the lottery. At the time, the pick was mocked and berated by analysts. For whatever reason, people truly didn’t believe that Rozier was bound for a successful NBA career.
They were wrong.
Scary Terry proved his worth when stepping in for the injured Kyrie Irving midway through the 2017-2018 season. As a starter, Rozier averaged an absurd 15.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. More so than his stats can justify, Rozier proved that he can step in during the most important moments in a game. Need a big shot? Terry’s got you covered.
He’ll be headed back to the bench with Irving expected to make a full recovery from knee surgery late in the season. Boston’s depth is tremendous and it’ll be difficult for everyone to get sufficient touches, but Rozier is going to be a top priority for head coach Brad Stevens’ rotation in the coming season. His two-way potential is tremendous and he’s entering a contract year, so it’s safe to say that Scary Terry will play with a chip on his shoulder. To be fair, he’s always got a chip on his shoulder. Rozier plays each game like its his last, so there’s no doubt in my mind that Rozier will be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in 2019.
1. Lou Williams
At 31 years old, sixth man extraordinaire Lou Williams is aging like fine wine. With an increased role for the Los Angeles Clippers, Williams is coming off of one of the most impressive seasons a bench player has ever had in professional basketball. He increased his scoring average by over five points to 22.6 points per game to go with a career-high 5.3 assists per game.
Throughout his career, Lou Williams has been used as a complimentary piece to interesting teams. During his short stint in Houston, Williams struggled to find a consistent rhythm. His shot wasn’t as reliable as in seasons past and his playmaking ability was suppressed by the offensive behemoth that is James Harden. On a team split between seasoned veterans and young talent, Sweet Lou is guaranteed to take a featured role as the primary scorer again this season for the Clippers.
Williams secured 97 of the league’s 101 First Place Votes for the 2017-2018 Sixth Man of the Year Award and won by a margin of 249 points. Needless to say, Williams was the clear favorite in last season’s vote and will hold the role headed into the new year.