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Waiting Game

March 26, 2007
March 26, 2007

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March 26, 2007

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Waiting Game

Every player wants to be a starter--no one really wants to be known as a great sixth man. But with a super sixth, like Dallas's Jerry Stackhouse, sparking each of the league's top three teams, the role of top sub has been revitalized

Once a prime-timeplayer, a slashing swingman who averaged 29.8 points for the Detroit Pistonssix seasons ago, Jerry Stackhouse is now a bystander when the Dallas Mavericksannounce their lineup to pyrotechnics and ear-splitting noise at AmericanAirlines Center. His sweats on, he rolls his shoulders and jogs in place as thestarters' names are called, knowing he won't be needed until midway through thefirst quarter, at the earliest. "Sometimes over on the bench you stiffen upa little bit when you don't get in right away," says Stackhouse. "Butit's just something to deal with." ¶ And he is dealing with it well.Stackhouse is among the favorites to win the Sixth Man Award, an honor withwhich, like most sixth men, he would rather not be favored. "I can't speakfor everyone," says Stackhouse, who was averaging 11.5 points at week's endand erupted for a team-high 33 in the Mavs' 129--127 double-overtime loss tothe Phoenix Suns on March 14, "but I'd rather be starting."

This is an article from the March 26, 2007 issue Original Layout

Stackhouse findshimself sitting out the intros because the value of the sixth man, which hadbottomed out in recent years, is on the rise again. For the last seven weeksSpurs coach Gregg Popovich has been bringing Manu Ginóbili, arguably SanAntonio's best player after Tim Duncan, off the bench. (Ginóbili was averaging18.1 points in that span, compared with 16.9 overall.) "A lot of guys whohave won the award have been [de facto] starters," says Ginóbili's teammateBrent Barry, one of two players (along with Michael Finley) who filled thesupersub role when Ginóbili was in the opening lineup. "They're playingstarter minutes, 36 or 37, and the starting guy is playing 14."

To be eligiblefor the Sixth Man Award, a player simply must "come off the bench in moregames than he starts." By the end of the season that standard may apply toGinóbili. For now, Stackhouse's main competition is Leandro Barbosa, perhapsthe quickest player in the league. The Suns' fourth-year combo guard fromBrazil was averaging 17.4 points and 4.2 assists at week's end, and he ledPhoenix in scoring in three straight wins earlier this month. In other words,the three best teams in the West--and in the league--have superior sixthmen.

So do two of thetop clubs in the East. Anderson Varej√£o, a 6'10" forward, causes a sort ofconstructive chaos when he enters the fray for the Cleveland Cavaliers. And thesurprising Toronto Raptors have been bolstered by 7-foot sharpshooter AndreaBargnani, the top pick in the 2006 draft, who was averaging 11.5 points. But awinning atmosphere is not necessary for a productive sixth man; even on teamsjust scrapping to make the playoffs, there can be found ready, willing and ablefiremen. "I have only one thought when I go in there, and that's to playharder than anybody else," says the New York Knicks' 6'9" forward DavidLee, who is averaging a double double--11.2 points and 10.7 rebounds--on theseason (12 starts) but has not played since developing a stress reaction in hisright leg on Feb. 23. "I have to. They've been going at it for a while, andI'm trying to catch up."

When healthy,Lee, an overcaffeinated version of Varej√£o, will grab rebounds, follow missedshots, dive for loose balls and play ferocious interior defense. (Merely in hiskinetic energy he's a contrast to Knicks center Eddy Curry, whose D runs thegamut from indolent to indifferent.) Lee fulfills the classic role of a sixthman: to turn up the heat on the court and in the building. The Madison SquareGarden fans begin cheering for him as soon as he rises from the bench, and bythe time he reaches the scorer's table they're going nuts. "I don't evenhave to look up from my computer," says Howard Beck, who covers the teamfor The New York Times, "because I know it's for David."

In alllikelihood, and for a variety of reasons (as we'll see), none of these playersare on a course to become a long-term sixth man in the tradition established bythe Boston Celtics. The most famous Shamrock of the pine is 6'5" swingmanJohn Havlicek, who was a sixth man at the start of his 16-year Hall of Famecareer, which began in 1962. But he was not the Celtics' first. That honorbelonged to Frank Ramsey, a 6'3" swingman whom coach Red Auerbach used inthe role from the mid-1950s until Havlicek's arrival. "It just kind ofevolved," says Ramsey, 75, from his home in Madisonville, Ky. "I don'teven remember anyone talking about it until maybe my third year. 'Hey, you're agreat sixth man,' I'd hear. 'O.K.,' I'd say, 'I'm a sixth man.'"

Ramsey was aterrific offensive player--he averaged 13.4 points over his nine-year careerand was elected to the Hall of Fame--but he couldn't beat out Bob Cousy or BillSharman at guard, or Tommy Heinsohn at forward. He might have been a betterall-around player than Boston's other starting forward, Jim Loscutoff, butAuerbach liked Loscy's size, not to mention his willingness to inflict pain andsuffering on opponents.

Because Heinsohngot gassed easily--he was a heavy smoker--Ramsey usually made his entrance inthe first quarter. And since he came in for a player known as Tommy Gun, Ramseyknew he had to put points on the board. "Maybe it was because I was playingagainst other reserves, but it did seem like I was open a lot," saysRamsey. "Of course, the way we ran and Bill [Russell] rebounded, most of uswere open a lot."

Havlicek,Boston's alltime leading scorer, was the NBA's top reserve through the 1960s,but the role remained fairly uncommon for another decade. The league presentedits first Sixth Man Award in '83, to Philadelphia 76ers forward Bobby Jones.Marc Iavaroni, now a Suns assistant coach, had a serviceable seven-year careeras a power forward, but he is remembered only for being a ceremonial starter ona championship team. "Nobody ever had to tell me that Bobby was better thanme," says Iavaroni. "I knew it myself."

The list ofAll-Star-caliber players who won the Sixth Man Award continued: Boston big menKevin McHale and Bill Walton, Milwaukee Bucks swingman Ricky Pierce (the onlywinner to lead a team in scoring, with 23.0 points per game in 1989--90),Phoenix forward Eddie Johnson, Indiana Pacers forward Detlef Schrempf andChicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc. The position was so capably filled that anynumber of outstanding subs never won the award: Vinnie Johnson, nicknamed theMicrowave because he heated up so fast for the championship Detroit Pistonsteams of '89 and '90; Michael Cooper, a three-point specialist and defensiveace on three Los Angeles Lakers title teams; and Thurl Bailey, an outstandingall-around forward who came off the bench for the Utah Jazz for six seasonsbeginning in 1985--86.

Some of thosenames belie a common perception about the role: that it is the province ofout-on-the-floor players who handle the ball and can get their own shotsquickly and often. That's what Ramsey and Havlicek did, though Havlicek wasalso a good defender. And both Vinnie and Eddie Johnson as well as Pierce fitthat mold, as do Stackhouse, Barbosa and Ginóbili. But McHale was an insidescorer and Walton (by the 1985--86 season) was mostly an inside distributor.Jones was an all-arounder, as were Schrempf and Kukoc.

"What youhave to provide in the role," says Cooper, "is something unique. Thethings that Havlicek did were the things that I tried to do, whether it wasdiving for a loose ball, rebounding, making an assist or scoring--somethingthat wasn't happening before I got on the floor."

If today's teamsdo discover a catalyst off the bench, it's usually by accident. There has beenno repeat Sixth Man Award winner since Schrempf earned his second in 1992, andover the last six years only two names--guards Bobby Jackson and EarlBoykins--have appeared more than twice in the top 10 of the voting. When theKnicks' season began, for example, coach Isiah Thomas was almost certain thatguard Jamal Crawford would be his top reserve. "Heck, it's hard enoughfiguring out what your starting lineup is going to be," says Suns coachMike D'Antoni. "I wasn't nearly smart enough to know that LB [Barbosa]would be a good sixth man. It just happened."

Streak-shootingBulls guard Ben Gordon won the Sixth Man Award as a rookie in 2005 and got offto a quick start as Chicago's off-the-bench spark at the beginning of thisseason, leading the team in scoring. But coach Scott Skiles, needing moreproduction early in games, inserted Gordon into the starting lineup in January.While the move has helped the Bulls surge in the standings, Skiles would havepreferred to keep Gordon on ice. "[Coach] Don Nelson, my rookie year [withthe Bucks], often said he felt naked without Ricky Pierce on the bench,"says Skiles. "I understand that feeling."

Indeed, there arereasons that a good sixth man is hard to find. "Too many guys think they'rebetter than the role," says Minnesota Timberwolves vice president ofbasketball operations McHale, who won the next two awards after Jones's."All their agents are saying, 'Hey, my guy should start,' and their guybelieves it." Players also tend not to be as versatile as some of theold-timers, and so it's not as easy to "mix and match combinations," asMiami Heat assistant Bob McAdoo, a sometime sixth man with the Lakers in theearly '80s, puts it.

Then, too,expansion has diluted the talent pool. Most teams are structured to pay (oroverpay) two superstars and slot in everyone else behind them. Coaches tend tobuild around those two players, maybe three, and not think so much about astarting five and a hot-handed sub. When Ramsey first came off the bench forthe Celtics, there were eight teams in the league. He eyed the court and sawfive guys whose numbers would eventually be hanging from the Boston Gardenrafters. "I believed I was good enough to start," says Ramsey, "butwhen I looked who was in front of me, how could I complain?"

By contrast, whenMemphis Grizzlies swingman Mike Miller, last season's Sixth Man winner, took alook from the bench he saw Pau Gasol and, well, Lorenzen Wright, Shane Battier,Eddie Jones and Chucky Atkins. Former coach Mike Fratello talked Miller intothe role--and Miller, an offensive-minded type, performed it well--but he neverthought for a minute that he wasn't the second-best player on the team, behindGasol. "Mike told me from the beginning that I'd be finishing most gameseven if I wouldn't be starting them," says Miller, who has started all butone game this year, "and that helped me accept the role." (Virtuallyevery sixth man, by the way, will find a way to mention that he finishesgames.)

Even Stackhouse,coming off the pine for the league's best team, does not see himself as areserve. "I still have goals I want to achieve, and that's why it'simperative to try to win [a title] right now," says Stackhouse, who isaveraging--whaddya know?--the sixth-most minutes on the team. "Then I canreally assess where I want to go forward. There's no doubt in my mind I couldstill play starter's minutes and help the team."

In truth, thedesire of sixth men to be main men is consistent throughout the NBA's history.Even Cooper admits, "Being a sixth man made my career, but I would'vepreferred to start." This may be the season, however, in which thatperception changes, particularly if a team with a strong one (like Dallas orPhoenix) wins the championship. And Ginóbili is really enhancing the idea of asuper fireman. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 21 he scored 24 straightpoints, and two weeks ago the southpaw known for his corkscrew shots and hiswillingness to give up his body was named Western Conference player of theweek. Ginóbili believes, in fact, that his minutes are more consistent as asixth man.

Lee, though, isnot at that point. He enjoys the idea that he can turn on a crowd and turn on ateam just by rising from his seat--for now. "The other day a guy said tome, 'So, you must be ready to do this for your whole career,'" says Lee,"and I said, 'Whoa, dude, let's hold up on that.'"

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Full-Court Press

Read more on the NBA from senior writer Jack McCallumevery Tuesday and Thursday.

ONLY AT SI.COM.

Six-Shooters

Here's a breakdown of the race for this season's SixthMan Award.

1. MANU GINÓBILI, G, Spurs
There hasn't been a better candidate in a long time--assuming he meets theeligibilty requirements.

2. LEANDRO BARBOSA, G, Suns
The Brazilian Blur feasts on Steve Nash's dishes or, when Nash sits, sets thetable himself.

3. JERRY STACKHOUSE, G-F, Mavericks
His competitive drive and fear-no-shot mentality have boosted the league's topteam.

4. DAVID LEE, F, Knicks
With his boundless energy, the 6'9" sophomore puts on one of the best showsthe Garden has seen in years.

5. KYLE KORVER, F, 76ers
The long-range bomber has embraced the role, and that's half the battle.

The MOST FAMOUS sixth man is Havlicek (right), but hewas not the first. That honor belonged to his teammate Ramsey (left), whofilled the role in the '50s.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Greg NelsonSITTING PRETTY Even though he doesn't start, Stackhouse (42) can still fill it up, as the Suns found out.PHOTOERIC GAY/AP (GINOBILI)HARD DRIVE Since he was taken out of the starting lineup 21 games ago, Ginóbili has scored more than 30 points four times.PHOTONBAE/GETTY IMAGES (RAMSEY)PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR. (HAVLICEK)PHOTOLUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS (BARBOSA)