We've known it was coming for more than a week, but the NBA made it official on Thursday — Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford has won the league's 2013-14 Sixth Man of the Year award, besting Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson in the closest finish since the league went to a multi-vote, points-based system for the 2002-03 season.
Crawford, who also took home Sixth Man honors as a member of the Atlanta Hawks following the 2009-10 season, becomes the fourth player to win multiple top-reserve awards, joining Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics (1983-84, 1984-85), Ricky Pierce of the Milwaukee Bucks (1986-87, 1989-90) and Detlef Schrempf of the Indiana Pacers (1990-91, 1991-92). He's the first to win it with two different teams and, at age 34, the oldest player ever voted the league's top reserve. It's the fourth top-five finish in Sixth Man of the Year voting of Crawford's 14-year NBA career — he finished fifth for his work in Atlanta in 2010-11, when Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom took home the trophy, and was the runner-up to J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks last season.
Crawford received 57 of a possible 125 first-place nods from a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters to go with 41 second-place votes and 13 third-place votes, finishing with a total of 421 points. (You get five points for a first-place vote, three for second-place and one for third.) Forty-nine voters had Gibson atop their ballots, while 45 placed him second and 15 slotted him third, giving him a total of 395 points. That 26-point margin between No. 1 and No. 2 is the thinnest in the dozen years since the "first, second, third" system was instituted; the only other time the finish came within 100 points was in the spring of 2004, when Dallas Mavericks forward Antawn Jamison earned 63 more points than runner-up Al Harrington of the Indiana Pacers and 94 more points than third-place finisher Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs. (In "the more things change ..." news, Ginobili finished third again this season.)
When news trickled out last week that Crawford would be receiving this year's Sixth Man award, Gibson offered a single tweet of frustration:
Politics!!!— Taj Gibson (@TajGibson22) April 30, 2014
I'm not sure "politics" have as much to do with this as the electorate's love of gunners — Odom in '10-'11 is the only forward/non-instant-offense scorer to win the award in the last 10 years — but I do think Taj has a legitimate gripe here. (For what it's worth, all three of us here at BDL cast our theoretical ballots for Gibson, while Yahoo Sports NBA columnists Marc J. Spears and Adrian Wojnarowski chose Crawford and Ginobili, respectively.)
It's worth noting that, for a pretty significant chunk of the season, Crawford wasn't actually a reserve. Midseason injuries to Chris Paul and J.J. Redick forced Clippers head coach Doc Rivers to juggle his rotations and insert Crawford into the starting lineup 24 times. Just under 42 percent of Crawford's total minutes, 40 percent of the points he scored and 38 percent of the assists he dished this season came as a starter; while the NBA's announcement trumpets Crawford as leading all NBA reserves in scoring, averaging 18.6 points per game this season, he finished 11th in the league in points actually scored while coming off the bench. That doesn't mean that he didn't do work off the pine — three of his six 30-point performances this season came as a reserve, including two games of at least 31 points and 11 assists, which no backup had done before — but it does call into question Crawford's status as a "sixth man," even if award eligibility is determined solely by a player having come off the bench in more games than he started. (Now, if there was a 5-1/2th Man of the Year trophy, I'd be all about giving it to Jamal.)
Gibson, on the other hand, came off the bench 74 times this season — he also played in all 82 games, compared to 69 for Crawford, and logged 257 more minutes — and ranked in the top six in the NBA in points, rebounds, field-goals made and attempted, free-throws made and attempted, and blocked shots off the bench. And whereas the Clippers were nearly three points per 100 possessions better with Crawford off the floor than on it — their league-best offense kept humming apace, while their defense dropped from top-five-caliber (100.6-per-100 allowed) to a middling mark (103.4-per-100) that would've ranked 13th in the league — the Bulls were just over four points-per-100 better with Gibson on the floor than off it, with his board-crashing and interior shot-making helping nudge their offense from almost-as-bad-as-Philadelphia to merely putrid (would've ranked 24th among 30 teams) and his multipositional versatility and activity helping make the league's second-best defense even stingier.
Another player I'd forgiven if he felt a bit salty about Crawford's win: Markieff Morris of the Phoenix Suns, who led all NBA players in minutes, points, rebounds, field-goals made and attempted, and free-throws made and attempted off the bench; whose interior scoring and muscle helped balance the attack of a perimeter-oriented Suns team; and in whose minutes the just-outside-the-playoffs Suns outscored their opposition by 4.2 points-per-100, twice the margin of non-Markieff minutes.
But while defense is half the game, great defenders will always warm the cockles of coaches' hearts and interior bruisers help in all sorts of interesting ways, voters tend most often to be swayed by buckets, long balls and highlights. Few players in the league provide those as consistently as Crawford. Add in his stellar fourth-quarter scoring — he averaged 6.8 points per final frame, fourth-most in the league this season behind only Kevin Durant, James Harden and Stephen Curry — and his pre-existing reputation, and you've got the makings of another award win.
Ginobili received nine first-place votes en route to a third-place finish after averaging 12.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and three assists per game on 47/35/85 shooting splits and placing among the league's best players by several advanced measurements, as noted by Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News. Morris' career year earned him five first-place nods and a fourth-place finish. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson (four first-place votes) rounded out the top five. You can check out a full voting breakdown here.
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