Nobody in NBA history gets buckets off the bench like LA Clippers guard Lou Williams, the recently-crowned all-time leading sixth man scorer. He’s the modern-day version of ex-Detroit Pistons great Vinnie Johnson, whose “Microwave” nickname perfectly defined his role: heat up (scoring-wise) in a hurry.
That, in a nutshell, describes Williams as well, especially lately. Some of his recent games have been sixth-man epic -- he scorched earth on the Oklahoma City Thunder with 40 points in 34 minutes, followed that up three nights later with 34 points in just 23 minutes against the Boston Celtics when he claimed the bench scoring record from Dell Curry.
He’s averaging 20.3 points in 26.5 minutes per game, with eight 30-point games – six of which have come in his last 17 games. This high efficiency comes as Williams, 32, is in his 13th NBA season.
“If you’ve done anything that ends in ‘ever’ in the NBA, that’s pretty impressive,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
How deeply does Williams identify with the sixth man? Well, Drake made Williams a legend by writing “6 Man,” which dropped five years ago when the player was with Drake’s hometown Toronto Raptors. The catchy verse goes: “Like I’m Lou Will, I just got the new deal.”
This all makes Williams perhaps the greatest sixth man ever, especially if he wins a third career award to tie Jamal Crawford, his mentor and friendly rival. If the purpose of the sixth man is to enter the game midway through the first quarter and make an instant scoring splash, who fits that more than Williams?
But what isn’t addressed the fundamental question that always get lost when debating the sixth man: If Williams is so good, why doesn’t he start?
This is what makes the sixth man the most confusing position in the sport -- because there is no position on the floor with a more ambiguous definition. Shouldn’t a “true” sixth man be someone who’s more or less be more reflective of someone on the bench?
Williams, however, backs up rookie Landry Shamut -- who arrived at the trade deadline. Before that, Williams was backing up Avery Bradley. Neither player is on Williams’ level.
There’s a rich history of Sixth Man Award winners who came off the bench out of preference by their coach, not because they were true bench players. The inaugural winner, Sixers legend Bobby Jones, was a far better option at small forward than starter Marc Iavaroni in 1982-83. The Boston Celtics’ Kevin McHale, who won the award in ’84 and ‘85, is a Hall of Famer and one of the best low-post players ever.
Wouldn’t Manu Ginobili have been just as solid a player for the San Antonio Spurs had he started instead of being a reserve? Most likely, yes.
The notion of a “sixth man” was created by legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach. He theorized Boston had enough scorers in the starting lineup, but suffered when they rested. Hall of Famer John Havlicek filled that role to great success as teams and coaches stole Auerbach’s idea.
Most sixth men are scorers only and some are poor defenders. By limiting their minutes, coaches can hide their flaws. Sixth men also usually guard opposing bench players and aren’t on the floor long enough to damage their own team.
More than anything, great sixth men are afforded a higher status than other reserves and can compete for the Kia Sixth Man Award. It compensates for the horror of being a starter, a perk that means more to players (and their families) than you think. Aside from that introduction, sixth men and starters can be hard to tell apart. They have roughly the same level of importance and are often on the floor together late in games.
I’m just a baller ... This is something I love to do and was probably born to do."
Nobody comes into the NBA craving a sixth man role, and almost all of the great ones resisted the gig at first. Williams is no exception. Once he established himself as a solid player with the Sixers a decade ago, he wanted the prestige and ego-boost that came with starting.
The No. 45 pick of the 2005 Draft, Williams was Allen Iverson’s caddy in 2005-06. Even after Iverson was traded to Denver in 2006, Williams remained a reserve until 2009-10, when he started 38 of the 64 games he played. He lost the starting role, though, once Iverson came back that season. After that, Williams spent much of his career off the bench and, initially, it rubbed him the wrong way.
"It took some time, it kind of took some resentment," Williams said. "If you think that I got to come off the bench, then I am going to put you in a position to try to prove you wrong. Then after a while, it was kind of fun, and over the years it was my makeup.”
In each of his subsequent stops -- the Clippers are his sixth team -- Williams found peace and a unique place off the bench. It became his calling card and identity while also creating a market for him. His talent and attitude about being a sixth man makes him a major asset for the Clippers. And now, he’s a part of NBA history.
Arguably, that’s better than being an ordinary starter.
“I’ve learned to embrace my role and I think that is what makes it special,” Williams said. “That is part of my legacy as well. That is part of what people will remember me for, so you might as well be the best at that."
To date, 11,172 of Williams’ 13,089 career points have come as a sixth man and he has started 12 percent of his career games (109 of 924). Last season, he led the NBA in fourth-quarter points (597) and ranks second this season (479).
Although he’s just 6-foot-1, Williams has an ability to score almost anywhere on the floor. He isn’t blessed with alien speed or quickness. But his instincts and crafty ability to create space places him in a class with few others.
“I’m just a baller,” Williams said. “This is something I love to do and was probably born to do. In the summertime you’ll find me back home in Atlanta, in the gym playing against whoever walks in that day.”
You want to make Williams laugh? Ask him if he subs in during those summer pick-up games. Even the greatest scoring sixth man in NBA history has his limits.
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