This is the sixth and final installment of our 2011 NBA Awards coverage. You can also read about the MVP, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Coach of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
The NBA sixth man is one of the more vexing positions in sports. Putting aside ego for the betterment of the team is tough for many players, especially when they might view themselves as better than one of the starting five. But any great sixth man will tell you: It’s not about who starts, but who finishes. An elite sixth man will change the tenor of the game, provide a spark off the bench and, often times, quarterback the second unit. Guys like Jason Terry and James Posey have made a living of it. Posey was a key cog in the Celtic’s defeat of the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals and Terry has helped deflect attention away from Dirk Nowitzki for years. Nobody this season however, has shined brighter in the sixth-man role than Lamar Odom, who has relished it in a way no one saw coming.
1). Lamar Odom (Los Angeles Lakers) – The criticism against Lamar Odom all these years has been about what he hasn’t done instead of what he has done. But how about we take off the insane expectations and take LO for what he is: a really effective sixth man/starter on a championship caliber team.
In his 12th season, Odom has enjoyed a banner year at both ends of the floor. He is shooting a career best 53 percent and defending multiple positions, cementing his status as perhaps the most versatile player in the NBA.
Case in point: During the 34 games center Andrew Bynum missed this year, Odom emerged as one of the Lakers most consistent weapons, averaging a healthy 16.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. When Bynum returned to the starting lineup, Odom merely went about his business and continued to be a defensive stalwart and reliable offensive tool.
Odom’s adjusted plus-minus is one of the best in the league. His unique ability to guard all five positions -- and consistently wall off bigs in the paint -- makes him an invaluable component of the NBA’s 8th best defense. On offense, his ball handling skills allow him to initiate LA’s vaunted transition game, which allows Kobe to fill the lane and score and allows Gasol and Bynum to enjoy more room to operate in the lane. Traditional power forwards simply don’t offer that luxury. And, while Odom has been a capable long-range shooter throughout his career, he has never shown a consistent enough stroke to validate defenders guarding him tightly on the line -- until now. Odom is shooting a career best 39.3 percent from three, up over 8 percent from last season and one of the better numbers in the league. Simply put, without Odom’s no frills stability and relentless efforts, the Lakers would not be sitting at 56-26 and in ripe contention for a three-peat.
2). Thaddeus Young (Philadelphia) – Young has an oddly similar skill set to Odom: The 6-foot-8-inches left handed three-four man has an abundance of talent and can impact a game in a variety of different ways.
While Doug Collins deserves the bulk of the credit for Philly’s dramatic turnaround from cellar dweller to playoff team, Young has been a key part of that reversal as well. In his first three seasons, Young was a mindless defender who couldn’t care less about keeping his man out of the lane. Now, armed with the confidence and leadership of Collins, the 22-year-old and Andre Iguodala have become a two-man defensive wrecking crew. A multi-dimensional threat with his ability to guard both inside and out, Young is so athletic and quick that he often guards twos, threes and even fours. His dedication to that side of the floor is a big reason why the 76ers went from giving up 101.6 points a game last season to 97.4 this year.
But, let’s not forget that Young is first and foremost a very gifted scorer. Despite playing six minutes less per game this season, he has hovered around the 13-point, 5 rebound mark, virtually the same numbers from a year ago when he was starting. In essence, Young has become a hyper-efficient tool in Doug Collins’ repertoire while shooting a career best 54.1 percent from the floor.
Perhaps most impressive is what Young hasn’t done. Akin to Atlanta’s Josh Smith last season, Young finally stopped shooting three-pointers this year. His 34.8 percent was a fine rate, but by focusing on the high post game and rebounding, Young has facilitated a far more balanced Philly offense and made room for traditional outside shooters Jodie Meeks and Louis Williams (another dynamic sixth man not out for the playoffs) to maximize their perimeter abilities.
3). Glen Davis (Boston) – I think San Antonio’s George Hill is excellent, but Davis gets the slight nod here because he filled the interior need so well this year in Boston.
“Big Baby” was an afterthought when he entered the league four years ago. But a vastly improved jumper and beastly work on the glass has made him one of Boston’s most valuable players outside its Big Four. He isn’t a good leaper or long, but Davis has become a fierce rebounder (5.4 rebounds in 29.5 minutes), using his remarkable lower body strength and good positioning to work the boards.
Davis has also played a vital role in Boston’s offense. Early on in his career, he lacked the shooting touch and skill away from the basket. Instead, he scored primarily off of stick-backs and dirty work. Davis still gets his share of those buckets today, but he has now added a real post up presence to his game, making him a far more useful and effective option.
Because he is so undersized, he relies on a heavy dose of excellent footwork and deception, allowing him to turn and shoot fade away jump shots. With that threat, he occasionally powers his way to the basket when crowded on the high post and, in turn, bullies defenders to the cup. Furthermore, given the attention that both Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo draw around the basket, Davis has also become a reliable kick out option out to 15’. Time and time again, he hits end of the shot clock daggers for Boston. As a whole, his soft touch and consistent stroke has helped Boston remain balanced offensively even since the departure of Kendrick Perkins. His 73.8 percent clip from the line is super for a big -- as is his positive assists-to-turnover ratio.
As we know with the Celtics though, it all comes back to defense. While Davis isn’t the physically imposing shot blocker like Garnett or Perkins, he possesses a terrific understanding of Boston’s defensive rotations and knows how to anticipate and close driving lanes. This has helped him become one of the best in the league -- guard or big -- at drawing charges, vastly contributing to the Celtics’ No.1 ranked defense in the NBA.