James Harden IS the 6th man of the year

The other day the NBA announced that¬†James Harden has won the 6th man of the year (6MOY) award. Like most NBA awards, the 6MOY is determined by a panel of sportswriters and various other media. But unlike most NBA awards (for instance: this year’s Most Improved Player), this award was given to the right player.

Take a look at the voting:

Player % of Max Voting PPG Team W% Team W% Rank WP48 Wins
James Harden 98.2% 16.8 71.2% 3 0.263 10.6
Lou Williams 38.8% 14.9 53.0% 16 0.102 3.6
Jason Terry 13.6% 15.1 54.5% 13 0.099 4.1
Al Harrington 7.1% 14.2 57.6% 11 -0.015 -0.5
Manu Ginobili 4.7% 12.9 75.8% 1 0.304 5.0
Taj Gibson 4.7% 7.7 75.8% 1 0.176 4.7
O.J. Mayo 3.0% 12.6 62.1% 6 0.072 2.7
Mo Williams 2.4% 13.2 60.6% 8 0.024 0.7
Thaddeus Young 1.7% 12.8 53.0% 16 0.133 4.8
Kyle Korver 0.7% 8.1 75.8% 1 0.163 5.0
Zach Randolph 0.5% 11.6 62.1% 6 0.152 2.3
C.J. Watson 0.5% 9.7 75.8% 1 0.027 0.6
Carl Landry 0.5% 12.5 31.8% 27 0.086 1.8
Jamal Crawford 0.5% 14 42.4% 20 0.021 0.7
Gary Neal 0.3% 9.9 75.8% 1 0.069 1.7
Mike Dunleavy 0.3% 12.3 47.0% 19 0.188 5.7
Tyler Hansbrough 0.3% 9.3 63.6% 5 0.047 1.4
J.R. Smith 0.2% 12.5 54.5% 13 0.108 2.2
George Hill 0.2% 9.6 63.6% 5 0.169 4.5
Andre Miller 0.2% 9.7 57.6% 11 0.096 3.6

As you can see, Harden ran away with the award, winning an emphatic 98.2% of the maximum points. And he deserved it: Harden finished the season with 10.6 wins, tops among players eligible for the award and 7th best among all players in the entire NBA. He also posted the second best per-minute efficiency of any bench player playing significant minutes, behind only Manu Ginobili, who missed most of the season with injuries. So the voters got it right!

But why did the voters get it right? It’s not because Harden had the highest win totals or was the most productive on a per-minute basis. It’s because Harden was the highest-scoring bench player and played on one of the top teams in the league. It’s incidental that Harden was also the player who was the most productive.

We know this because of the votes given to other players. If voters were voting based on productivity alone, the player with the second-most votes would have been Mike Dunleavy, Kyle Korver, Manu Ginobili, Thaddeus Young, or Taj Gibson. Filtering out players who played on losing teams would remove Dunleavy from contention. But take a look at the players who actually finished second through fourth (Lou Williams, Jason Terry, and Al Harrington). None of these three players — especially Harrington, who is terribly unproductive — deserved their placement. But Williams, Terry, and Harrington all played on winning teams and managed to hit 14.0 points per game or higher, which means that the voters gravitate toward them.

This trend isn’t limited to just this season, this is something that has been occurring since the inception of the 6MOY award. Take a look at the past 12 winners:

Season Player % of Vote Bench PPG Rank Team W% Rank Bench Wins Rank
2011-12 James Harden 98.2% 1 3 1
2010-11 Lamar Odom 87.7% 2 4 1
2009-10 Jamal Crawford 95.1% 1 6 9
2008-09 Jason Terry 95.2% 1 9 6
2007-08 Manu Ginobili 99.2% 1 4 2
2006-07 Leandro Barbosa 91.0% 1 2 4
2005-06 Mike Miller 81.5% 2 7 1
2004-05 Ben Gordon 82.1% 3 10 13
2003-04 Antawn Jamison 56.3% 1 7 1
2002-03 Bobby Jackson 61.4% 1 3 6
2001-02 Corliss Williamson 44.8% 1 6 8
2000-01 Aaron McKie 46.0% 8 2 2

The leading scorer off the bench has won this award eight times, and only once in the past 12 years has the award gone to a player who didn’t rank in the top three in terms of PPG. The leading win producer off the bench has won it four times; whenever the leading win producer wins the award, they’ve been either first or second in terms of bench PPG. Every player who won in the last 12 years has played on a team that finished with a top ten win-loss record; interestingly enough, the winner has never been on the team with the best record during these twelve years.

Harden’s award as sixth man of the year is well earned. Unfortunately, when we examine it and how the voters acted on other candidates, we can see not much has changed. To win this award is not about scoring efficiently or helping your team win. It’s about scoring lots of points on a team that is good but not the best. On the plus side, this arbitrary algorithm happened to pick the right player this year.

- Devin

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