The Case for Eric Gordon: Sixth Man of the Year

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The Houston Rockets are going to win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award. There’s no point in trying to bury the lede, here. There’s no intrigue to this award, at least not this year. Any volatility the race may have had was undermined when Lou Williams was traded to the Rockets. The only contender other than Eric Gordon got shipped to Houston, and now the question is simply which one is seen as the sixth man. With just a few games left in the season, the answer is that Eric Gordon probably has his this locked down. Let’s look at why.

The first, and easiest answer is points. The Sixth Man of the Year award typically goes to the bench player who scores the most per game, possibly because that’s a very easy stat to understand. You just look at the list of top scorers per game, remove everyone who’s a starter and see who comes up first. The answer, of course, is Lou Williams (17.8). Immediately after are the only other two bench players in the top fifty: Eric Gordon (16.4) and Tobias Harris (16.2).

How, then, does this essentially hand the award to Gordon? His own teammate averages more points and Harris is nearly identical in scoring production. Harris has a leg up by starting forty-seven of his seventy-seven games played while Gordon started in fourteen of seventy-one. He’s started more than half his games, which effectively removes him from the running. The difference between him and Lou Williams is that Williams has not been averaging more points per game since coming to Houston. He’s down to 15.4 since joining the Rockets, which makes sense when you look at the difference in scoring options and opportunities between the two teams.

More importantly, Lou Williams isn’t a sixth man any more. It seems self-evident, but let’s go over it anyway. You can only have one sixth man on a team. One of them must be a seventh man if you have two of them. On the Rockets, Eric Gordon remains the sixth man. In the end, the only other bench players scoring near his level are disqualified from the competition to begin with.

His other competition comes in for form of notable players like Enes Kanter, players who may not pack quite the scoring punch, but have other stats and accolades. Kanter, for instance, certainly serves as the fulcrum of that second unit, but is hurt by a few factors. His offensive prowess does indeed line up with the four-point upswing in offensive efficiency of the Oklahoma City Thunder when he’s on the court, but is neatly countered by an almost exactly equal downturn on the defensive end. Secondly, his MVP-hopeful teammate Russell Westbrook is subtly damaging his credibility. The ongoing claim that Westbrook has a lack of talent surrounding him would clash with the idea of a Thunder player winning this or any award.

Andre Iguodala is likely a very good candidate, being that he anchors a top-flight bench squad on the unstoppable Golden State Warriors, but his stats just aren’t where they need to be. He averages under eight points a game and does most of his work on the defensive end. A vote for him would be a vote for all the parts of basketball which don’t get into a box score, which is a reasonable stance, but it would be a first for this award.

No, the field, in the end, is Eric Gordon and Lou WIlliams. Lou scores a little bit more, but at a slightly lower efficiency, and he also runs an offense a little better. Williams is also slightly more favored by all-in-one metrics like PER and Win Shares, but hasn’t scored as much as Eric Gordon since being traded. Gordon and Williams have both hit slumps at the same time, but Eric Gordon typically comes off the bench first.

So in the end, the Sixth Man of the Year voting is going to come down to one question. It’s not “Who is the best sixth man in the league,” but “Who is the sixth man of the Houston Rockets.” While there may be disagreement on this point, the answer is hard to deny. Eric Gordon has been the Rockets’ sixth man all season, and he still is. Lou and Eric will be sharing a bottle of champagne either way. The only question is who will get the first glass.

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