Lee Jenkins: Victor Oladipo, Magic
Victor Oladipo does not fit the profile of a sixth man, a No. 2 overall pick who averaged close to 18 points in the starting lineup last season. Oladipo may still be Orlando’s best player, but he agreed to come off the bench for Scott Skiles, a move that unlocked Evan Fournier and boosted the Magic toward the Eastern Conference playoffs. Oladipo’s scoring has dipped this season, down to 13.5 points per game, but he is not your typical second-unit gunner. He’s grabbing 4.9 rebounds and dishing out 4.0 assists—in line with career norms—while doing something else he’s never done on a consistent basis before: winning.
Ben Golliver: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
The 2015 Finals MVP has enjoyed one heck of a carry-over season. Iguodala, long known for his defensive versatility, athleticism, transition skills and play-making ability, has added another weapon to the mix: a more-than-reliable three-point jumper. Through Thursday, Golden State’s sixth man is shooting 39.3% from deep and a remarkable 51.3% on corner threes, an individual skill development that has taken the Warriors’ attack from “unbelievably good” last season to “completely unstoppable” for long stretches of this season. So far this season, Iguodala has posted a +16.9 net rating and the Warriors have enjoyed an astonishing +33 net rating when he shares the court with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. His willingness to accept a demotion out of the starting lineup last season was a key to Golden State’s title run, and his ability to master his new role this year is critical to his team’s hopes of repeating as champions.
Rob Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
Iguodala seems to have mastered the art of leading the second unit while only scoring when absolutely necessary. Defenses that stray too far from Iguodala are punished with threes (he’s shooting 39.3% from deep) and cagey drives. His real value, though, comes as a multi-positional defender and instrumental playmaker. It’s because of players like Iguodala that the Warriors’ best lineups pivot quickly from one action to the next on either side of the ball. ‘Sixth Man’ is appropriate given how seamlessly (and interchangeably) Iguodala meshes with Golden State’s first five; they’re all part of the same devastating unit.
Matt Dollinger: Will Barton, Nuggets
The Magic have been great since bringing Victor Oladipo off the bench, but the Orlando guard isn’t driving the team’s success so much as the squad’s improved balance. The best sixth man this season is a guy who has been a 12th man for most of his career. Will Barton emerged from the depths of Portland’s bench to finish 2014-15 off strong and start 2015-16 on fire. The results: 15.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while hitting 38.9% of his three-pointers. He’s come off the bench in all but one game, yet is the Nuggets’ second-leading scorer and rebounder.
DeAntae Prince: Will Barton, Nuggets
This award has been reserved for veterans with a penchant for scoring in the past, but Barton’s inclusion here represents an influx of new talent. Denver isn’t playing for much this season, but you’d never know that from watching Barton, whose unpredictable game and relentless energy stand out. Similar to past winners, he’s capable of an offensive outburst on occasion, but it is his all-around solid play and consistency that has been impressive thus far.
Jeremy Woo: Will Barton, Nuggets
Barton also has a case for Most Improved, but pencil him in here for now in a year where we’re a little short on strong candidates. Guys like Victor Oladipo and Zach Randolph have sacrificed egos, adjusted to bench roles and helped their teams in the process, but Barton has kept the injury-stricken Nuggets (who will eventually be better than you think) hanging around and might be the team’s MVP to date. His slashing and hyper-activity lent itself to an especially impressive January (20.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 47% shooting) and has earned him this one at the halfway mark. At age 25, three-year deal he just signed looks like grand theft.