Every sport has its unsung heroes, from middle relievers in baseball to offensive linemen and special teams stalwarts in football. For the sport of basketball, the unsung hero is typically the sixth man. The starters get all of the attention, and typically, deservedly so. After all, no one watching the Cleveland Cavs this season is interested in seeing who the first guy off the bench is going to be.
But that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some truly great sixth men over the years. These are the guys who might not necessarily start, but their contributions are every bit as crucial to all but the top two or three players on any given team. Over the years, there have been some outstanding bench players, and in many cases they were guys who began their careers as starters before finding a niche as a versatile role player or a burst of energy as a reserve. In many of these cases, the sixth man is basically another starter, as you’ll see with some of the guys who made our list.
It’s not really much of a surprise that when a team has great success, they don’t just have a superstar or two, but also have guys like these filling very significant roles. In the NBA, you generally only go as far as your depth can take you, and every truly great team needs truly great role players. Look back at Jordan’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers, or Bird’s Celtics and you’ll see a bench filled with valuable role players who could step in and contribute at a moment’s notice.
15. Dell Curry
These days, the name “Curry” is associated almost solely with Golden State superstar Steph, but too many people forget just how good a player his father was back in his day. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard only started 99 games in his 16 year career, but he still managed to pump in more than 12,000 career points. That’s because, just like his son, Dell had one of the prettiest shooting strokes in NBA history.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more textbook jumper than the one Dell Curry had, and it was his tremendous ability to knock down jumpers that kept him in the league for so long. After all, we aren’t talking about a guard who grabbed many rebounds or dished out many assists, and he certainly wasn’t a defensive stopper. But Dell Curry’s ability to shoot the basketball helped earn him the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award in 1993-94, when he averaged 16.3 points despite not starting a single game that year.
14. Jason Terry
One of the things you want from a sixth man is instant offense, and it’s also nice to have a player who can play multiple positions. Jason Terry has served both of those purposes over his career, with the 6-foot-2 combo guard possessing the ability to run the point or slide over to the two and become a volume scorer. A starter for most of his career, Terry morphed into a modern day Vinnie Johnson midway through his run with the Mavericks.
At the end of the 2008-09 season, Terry was tabbed as the NBA Sixth Man of the Year after pumping in 19.6 points-per-game, while adding 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals. The “Jet” used his ability to drive and finish as well as his outside shooting ability to become a perfect running mate to Dirk Nowitzki, a role he continued to thrive in as he helped the Mavs with an NBA title in 2010-11.
13. Cliff Robinson
It’s a little sad that in recent years, Cliff Robinson has become known as “that basketball player who was on Survivor,” because “Uncle Cliffy” enjoyed an outstanding NBA career that spanned 18 seasons and left him just shy of 20,000 career points. The big, versatile forward could play in the post or on the wing, and earned Sixth Man of the Year honors following the 1992-93 season.
That year he averaged 19.1 points and 6.6 boards-per-game despite starting only 12 times, and starting the next year he finally got his due and became a full-time starter for the next decade or so. Toward the end of his career, Robinson moved back to the bench, where he continued to be a key contributor for the Warriors and Nets before retiring at the age of 40 in 2007.
12. John Starks
While John Starks may not have put up the same kind of numbers as Cliff Robinson or Jet Terry, there’s something to be said for being incredibly memorable. And during the 1990’s, other than Patrick Ewing he was probably the most memorable player on the New York Knicks. Starks was a cocky, brash scorer coming off the bench and factored heavily in some of the classic battles against Jordan’s Bulls, with most people remembering him best for one of the greatest posterization dunks in basketball history in one particular series against Chicago.
For his career, Starks averaged 12.5 points and 3.6 assists and not only made an All-Star team, but was the Sixth Man of the Year in 1996-97. That seaso,n he played in 77 games but only started one, averaging 13.8 points and shooting just under 37% from long range. At the end of the day, Knicks fans loved him, Bulls fans hated him, but most importantly, everyone remembered him.
11. Bobby Jones
Going back a little further in history, we find Bobby Jones, a 6-foot-9 forward who starred alongside Julius Erving with the Philadelphia Sixers in the early 1980’s on his way to making four NBA All-Star game appearances and earning the unique distinction of having been the very first NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award recipient. That occurred following the 1982-83 season, in which Jones played an integral role on the last Philly team to bring home an NBA title.
Jones didn’t put up gaudy numbers that year, averaging 9.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks-per-game while shooting better than 54% from the field. However, no Sixers fan would tell you that they could have won the championship without Jones, hammering home the point that sixth men are every bit as valuable as some starters. And again, there’s simply no way you can make a list of the greatest NBA sixth men without including the first award winner ever, right?
10. Michael Cooper
We finally come to a player on our list who, despite being one of the greatest bench players in NBA history, was never recognized as the league’s Sixth Man of the Year. Michael Cooper was, however, one of the most integral and exciting pieces to the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s, as the athletic 6-foot-5 wing was one of the best dunkers of his era as well as being one of its top defenders. Despite starting just 94 games in his 12 year career, Cooper was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team eight times, and was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year for 1986-87.
When it comes to the Showtime Lakers, obviously the first name that pops into mind is Magic, followed by James Worthy. But after that, Cooper has to be one of the first names people think of, a pretty amazing feat considering he never started more than 20 games in a season and only scored 7,729 career points. But Cooper was memorable, and great, for other reasons, and no list of the greatest sixth men would be complete without him.
9. Jamal Crawford
It feels hard to believe that Jamal Crawford has been around the NBA since 2000, as it feels like he was just hooping it up at Michigan a couple of years ago. Crawford has had an interesting career, looking like a borderline all-star who could never quite put it all together before finally settling in as one of the league’s best bench players. It’s in this role that he’s really thrived, and is still producing at a high level despite now being in his mid-30’s.
Crawford’s late rebirth as a valuable bench commodity started about five years ago, when he was named the Sixth Man of the Year Award for the 2009-10 season, and he won the award again last year. Crawford has pumped in more than 15,000 points in his career, and so far this season is still proving he can score off the bench with the best of them, averaging 18.5 points and making a strong case for his third Sixth Man of the Year trophy.
8. Bill Walton
One of the greatest centers of all-time, Bill Walton saw his career altered dramatically when his body started to fail him. Chronic foot injuries took him out of the starting lineup and forever changed the way he played, which is unfortunate because he could have, and probably would have, gone down as one of the three or four greatest post players in NBA history were it not for becoming ravaged by injuries.
Walton missed three full seasons during his career, and played in just 468 games overall, while finishing his career with only 6,215 points. He was able to evolve as his injuries took their toll, though, and was one of the key members of the Celtics team that won the championship in 1985-86. That season, Walton was named the Sixth Man of the Year after posting averages of 7.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks-per-game. His numbers may not have been staggering, but he was the ultimate team guy for the Celtics, and it’s kind of hard to leave a Hall of Famer off the list, particularly when he’s the only person in history to have ever won both a Sixth Man of the Year Award and been named the NBA MVP.
7. Fred Brown
Now we get to the section of the list dedicated to fantastic nicknames with “Downtown” Fred Brown along with the next guy, who we’ll get to in a minute. The 6-foot-3 combination guard for the Supersonics played all 13 of his pro seasons in Seattle, scoring more than 14,000 career points and twice averaging more than 20 points-per-game. Brown was a key member of some pretty outstanding Sonics teams, helping the franchise to the NBA championship in 1979.
Brown made the All-Star team in 1976 but was removed from the starting lineup just a couple years later, right as the Sonics geared up for their championship season. He was the team’s captain despite coming off the bench, averaging 14.0 points, 3.4 assists, and 1.5 steals-per-game that season. His best seasons came before the advent of the Sixth Man of the Year Award, or else you can be certain he would have pretty much run away with the trophy that season.
6. Vinnie Johnson
To this day, when people think of instant offense off the bench, they think of Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. After all, people don’t nickname you Microwave unless you can get hot quickly. Johnson is one of the most famous and beloved members of the Bad Boy Pistons, helping lead the team to a pair of NBA titles at the end of the 1980’s. It’s kind of amazing to think that the Microwave, a guy so many people associate with the concept of the sixth man, never won the league’s award for that role.
Still, no one will ever dispute how valuable he was for those Detroit teams. As the third guard in a rotation with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, Johnson was the guy Chuck Daly called on when he needed offense in a hurry. For his career, he averaged 12.0 points-per-game despite rarely earning a spot in the starting lineup.
5. Detlef Schrempf
One of the greatest international players in history, Detlef Schrempf was a 6-foot-9 forward who could play either the small forward or power forward position, but it was his deadly accuracy from the perimeter and his Ivan Drago-esque flat top that really made him a memorable player on some strong Seattle teams.
When the Sonics had Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Schrempf was entrenched in the starting lineup at the small forward position, and he made three all-star teams during his time as a starter. But he also won back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year Awards, first in 1990-91 and then the following season when he was playing with the Indiana Pacers. The first of his awards came after he averaged 16.1 points and .0 rebounds, while the second saw even better numbers of 17.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. Those are lights out numbers for a starter, making it even more impressive that he was doing it coming off the bench in 76 of the 80 games he played that year.
4. Toni Kukoc
Toni Kukoc may not have lived up to the absurd amount of hype he received while still playing in Europe, but the 6-foot-10, extremely versatile lefty was a dynamic and outstanding player for the Bulls throughout the 1990’s. Kukoc was a key player on three of the six championship teams that Chicago put on the floor in that decade.
One of those three championship rings came in 1995-96, when Kukoc was named the Sixth Man of the Year after starting just 20 games but still managing to average 13.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while also shooting better than 40% from three point range. Kukoc never really found a permanent place in the starting lineup at any point in his career, having never started more than 55 games in a season. That didn’t stop him from ending his career with averages of 11.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists-per-game, some truly outstanding numbers for a starter, let alone a bench player.
3. Manu Ginobili
It still feels strange to think of Manu Ginobili as a bench player. The guy is always in at crunch time for the Spurs, and he’s been making huge shots and helping San Antonio win championships for years, but the two-time all-star has started fewer than half of the 801 games he’s appeared in. He was named the Sixth Man of the Year in 2007-08, a year in which he averaged 19.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.5 steals-per-game.
Ginobili is the perfect example of why being called a “starter” or a “bench player” doesn’t always tell the whole story. After all, the season in which he was named the Sixth Man of the Year, he still played more than 31 minutes-per-game, and has long been a member of San Antonio’s core three alongside Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. At the end of the day, Manu is walking, talking proof that it’s not about who starts the game, it’s about who finishes it. And few players have ever been better at finishing games than the ever clutch Manu Ginobili.
2. Kevin McHale
The 6-foot-10 Kevin McHale is best known as Larry Bird’s frontcourt mate on the legendary Celtics teams of the 1980’s, and most people probably don’t really picture a time when he wasn’t starting alongside Larry Legend and Robert Parish. Yet for most of his career, the Hall of Famer came off the bench, and in fact only started at least half of the games in which he appeared four times in his 13 year career.
Still, McHale was named to the All-Star team seven times, including the 1983-84 season that saw him won the first of his consecutive Sixth Man of the Year Awards. That year he averaged 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds-per-game while starting just 10 games all season, and the following year his production went up, averaging 19.8 points and 9.0 boards. For his career, McHale averaged 17.9 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting better than 55% from the field, making him not only one of the greatest sixth men in history, but also one of the greatest power forwards.
1. John Havlicek
The man known as “Hondo” is also a guy many people will tell you absolutely revolutionized the role of the sixth man in professional basketball. The Hall of Famer was a 13-time all-star, and made the All-NBA teams 11 times during his long and illustrious career. John Havlicek scored more than 26,000 points and, just in case you weren’t already in awe of his athletic prowess, he was also drafted by the Cleveland Browns to play wide receiver when he was coming out of Ohio State.
And yet, he did the vast majority of that while coming off the bench. Havlicek played before the Sixth Man of the Year Award was actually created, but it’s a pretty safe bet that not only would have have won virtually every season he was eligible, but it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if the league someday renamed the award in his honor. After all, this is a guy who is not only Boston’s all-time leading scorer, but also holds the franchise records for games and minutes played – all while coming off the bench.
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