On Monday afternoon, the NBA announced that New York Knicks "bench" player J.R. Smith had been named the Sixth Man of the Year (presented by a Korean car company). Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford finished second.
The award is "Presented by Kia Motors," and it's too bad that Blake Griffin couldn't pull some strings to help out his teammate. But Smith actually bested Crawford by a wide margin in the voting, receiving 484 points and 72 first-place votes, while Crawford got 352 points with 31 first-place votes (per NBA.com).
There's no shame in finishing second, as long as you know that you've given full effort and your team makes the playoffs. But Crawford does have some basis for being upset.
It's not just that he missed out on the postseason awards; it's that his excellent season received no props whatsoever. He couldn't even crack the list of All-Star reserves.
Crawford had a great season but he couldn't capture his second Sixth Man of the Year trophy. If he's upset at all, he can take comfort that Smith won the award on a technicality: He's not really a sixth man; he's a starting shooting guard who never starts.
Does "Sixth Man" Just Mean You Prefer Watching the Tipoff from the Bench?
Crawford shouldn't be angry about finishing second to Smith, especially considering that the Knicks use their sixth man much more like a starter. It's partly Mike Woodson's psychological tactic and partly good old fashioned superstition that keeps J.R. coming off the bench.
Crawford, on the other hand, is a true sixth man. While he did average more minutes than the Clippers' primary starting 2-guard, Willie Green, Crawford served as an offensive spark off the bench more so than a front-line weapon.
This is in stark contract to J.R. Smith, who was the Knicks' secondary scorer for most of the season and was the No. 1 option in the 15 games Carmelo Anthony missed. Smith is a sixth man only in the technical sense of the term, whereas Crawford embodies the concept.
But the Clippers still called on their silky smooth sixth man in crunch time almost as often as the Knicks looked to J.R. Crawford's killer crossover and explosive first step give him the ability to create his own shot whenever necessary.
According to NBA.com/stats, in situations with their team ahead or behind by no more than three points in the final three minutes of a game, Crawford shot 12-of-29 (41.4 percent) while Smith was 15-of-28 (39.5 percent). Crawford actually scored one more point than J.R. in the clutch, but Smith grabbed 12 more rebounds.
Perhaps if Crawford had practiced his shooting at some point over the previous dozen offseasons, that would've put him over the top (via Helene Elliott, Los Angeles Times). Somehow, this year was a first.
Short Attention Spans
In tandem with Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith got red hot over the final month of the season, boosting his standing with the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately voters. Smith began attacking the rim relentlessly, resulting in better shot selection, more free throws and more efficient scoring.
Crawford knew Smith's sensational final month (22 points per game over the final seven weeks) dinged his own chances, stating (Peter Yoon of ESPNLosAngeles.com): "I can’t say I was shocked, honestly, because I had seen where it started going over the last couple of weeks. I look at the whole season from start to finish, but I’d seen where people started kind of going with it toward the end."
Crawford started the season very well, averaging 16-plus points per game over the first three months, but he shot just 42.1 percent from the field. After the All-Star break, Crawford sank his shots at a 46 percent clip, quite a feat for a 41.1 percent shooter. He finished the season averaging 43.8 percent from the field, better than Smith's 42.2 percent mark.
It's true that Smith averaged more points, rebounds, assists and steals than Crawford, and the latter coughed up more turnovers. Smith also played an average of four more minutes per night.
But the bottom line is that Smith essentially served as a starter for the Knicks. They started James White at times, just so they could sub in J.R. after four minutes.
Better to be an All-Star?
Crawford gave props to the winner, but it seems like he's still stinging about not being named to the All-Star game: "That’s twice in the season, but congrats to J.R....I learned with the All-Star Game that you can only control what you can control. Whenever it’s up to the coaches or media or whatever, you expect the unexpected" (per Yoon).
Crawford appears resigned to getting snubbed annually for the All-Star game, but he sounds a bit irked about it. Some felt that Crawford should have received a nod over David Lee, but he shouldn't take too much offense as Stephen Curry and Marc Gasol didn't draw All-Star bids either.
In 13 NBA seasons, Crawford has never been an All-Star.
Back in January when Crawford was not among the list of All-Star reserves, teammate Chauncey Billups explained why L.A.'s sixth man deserved a spot with the West's best (per Broderick Turner, Los Angeles Times):
He's played an unbelievable role on this team, which is a good team. He has a lot of responsibility on this team, and his responsibility is pretty much the same as most of the other All-Stars. He comes in when the team is struggling, puts them on his back and brings them back to life. He rarely lets us down. I feel bad that he didn't make it because he really deserves it.
Coach Vinny Del Negro was the opposite of succinct regarding Crawford's All-Star snub: "With our record and the way Jamal has performed for us and being such a catalyst for us, you always want your guys that have been having a good year to have an opportunity to play in that" (per Turner).
Yes, Vinny, he deserved it.
It's funny, Grant (Hill) and I were talking after shoot around today and we were talking about the Sixth Man thing, it was on SportsCenter. Grant turned to me and said, 'You watch, Jamal is going to have a big night tonight, he's gonna come out hot,' and he was.
Crawford took the court Monday night and certainly looked motivated by getting snubbed yet again.
He dropped 15 points and snatched three steals as the Clips seized a 2-0 series advantage. Crawford finished with a plus-13 rating, second best on the team.
Asked after the game if missing out on SMOTY motivated him to play so well in Game 2, Crawford was confident and philosophical, saying all the right things: "Honestly it's more about winning than anything. I know a lot of people say go out there and prove why you should have been this or that, but you kind of feel like you've been proving it all season so it's not about that" (per Rohlin).
Regardless of the fact that Crawford gets so few daps from the league, if it makes him play even better then it's all worth it. The Larry O'Brien Trophy is the only hardware he should care about.