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Fred VanVleet won’t win Sixth Man of the Year, but he’s still the best bench player around

Winning Sixth Man of the Year is all about points-per-game, but Fred VanVleet’s versatile skill-set puts him above one dimensional scorers.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Brooklyn Nets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

This will be the first time in three years that Andre Iguodala isn’t snubbed for Sixth Man of the Year. For years now Iguodala has been the best bench player in the NBA, possessing a versatile skill-set that allowed him to fit in and improve any lineup.

Iguodala was a high level ball-handler and passer, who always posted elite assist to turnover ratios, he was a good floor spacer, shooting roughly 35 percent from 3-point range, he was one of the best cutters in the league and he’d always run the floor in transition or push the ball himself if needed. On defense he was a lockdown one-on-one defender and he also provided excellent team defense if shifted off-ball. Iguodala could fill in the gaps in any lineup, if he was playing alongside other ball-handlers he was a high level cutter and spot-up shooter, in lineups with limited creation he took on point forward duties.

And yet, for three consecutive years, Iguodala was snubbed for the Sixth Man award, losing to a different low-calories scorer every time. Don’t get me wrong, low-calories scorers like Lou Williams, Eric Gordon and Jamal Crawford have a lot of value off the bench (okay, maybe not Jamal Crawford). Offense is hard to come by for most teams in all bench lineups, so guys who do nothing but score soar in value. Their defensive ineptitude is also less relevant for the same reason that their scoring is so valuable, bench players have a harder time punishing them for being among the worst defenders in the league.

But these guys are mostly just spark-plugs, play them too much and their value starts to dip dramatically. Mix them in with your starters and their ability to create shots diminishes in importance, as they’re now playing alongside other guys who can do the same. More worryingly, if you mix them in with your starters they are likely going to be forced to guard a halfway competent offensive player, leading to them being attacked relentlessly. These guys are universally some of the worst defenders in the league.

Iguodala’s value wasn’t polarized in this way. He didn’t have extreme value in some lineups and highly limited value in others, he was just always very good, game after game, lineup after lineup. And now, for the first time in four years, he’s not going to get snubbed.

Of course, the reason he’s not being snubbed is that he doesn’t deserve to win. There’s an heir to Iguodala’s throne of “best bench player in the league”, one who impacts the game in much the same way, but also one who had a very different path to bench supremacy. I am talking, as you have no doubt surmised, about the Raptors’ own Fred VanVleet.

It’s hard to believe now that back when the 2017-18 season began there was a great deal of hand-wringing about Dwane Casey’s continued use of VanVleet. But back then VanVleet was just an undrafted free agent who had proven very little in his rookie year, and he started the season ice cold from the perimeter, shooting 22 percent from beyond the arc in October. Casey wasn’t just playing VanVleet with the bench either, he was mixing him in with the starters, decisions which baffled and outraged a great many Raptors’ fan. As the season wore on however, Casey was vindicated and VanVleet established himself not just as the de facto leader of the bench, but as a truly plug-and-play player who could positively affect any lineup.

Like Iguodala, VanVleet is a sure-handed ball-handler and intelligent passer, and when he plays with the Raptors’ vaunted Bench Mob, a unit which firmly established itself as the best bench unit in the league throughout the year, he’s the main creator. Though undersized and without all that much in the way of craft at the rim, VanVleet is a fearless downhill attacker in the pick-and-roll, always willing to challenge defenders at the basket and finish through contact.

As the year wore on, he also proved himself willing to step into threes when his defender ducked under the screen.

Though he struggles in the midrange, this two level scoring makes VanVleet hard to stop in the pick-and-roll: go over and he gets downhill, go under and he sticks a three in your eye.

As much value as VanVleet provided as the main ballhandler with the bench, however, VanVleet’s most valuable trait was his ability to step into any lineup and make it better. Most notably VanVleet often joined four of the Raptors’ starters in the Raptors’ closing lineups in close games.

The Raptors’ default closing lineup of VanVleet + starters posted an absurd +24.6 net rating, making it one of the best lineups in the league

As an ancillary player VanVleet provided an elite off-ball catch and shoot threat paired with high level defense and solid secondary ball-handling. His ability to make catch-and-shoot 3s was especially notable, VanVleet was one of the top ten catch and shoot guys in the league this year, leading to his teammates trusting him to hit huge shots like this one.

Defensively VanVleet could provide value as a high level one on one defender able to fight through screens, slide his feet and use his active hands to strip his man.

Or he could provide value off ball, knowing precisely when to dig down and strip opposing players.

It’s worth noting however, that VanVleet isn’t matched up against any low-calorie scorer for the Sixth Man award. This year Lou Williams put together perhaps the all-time one dimensional bench scorer season. Williams was efficient, he was timely, and he was the clear leader of the Clippers’ offense, whether he was playing with the Clippers’ bench unit or their starters. He led not just the Clippers, not just all bench players, but the entire league in fourth quarter scoring.

He was also perhaps the most harmful defensive player in the league. I picked a Clippers game totally at random, ending up with their 109-104 road loss to the Indiana Pacers. Williams scored masterfully in the game, ending with 27 points on just 18 shots. But I scrolled ahead to crunch time, figured out who Williams was guarding, and sure enough, I was able to watch Darren Collison go to work on Williams to put the game away for the Pacers.

When he plays against starters it doesn’t really matter who Williams is guarding. With his inability to get over screens, limp contests and lack of size the other team is always going to find a way to target and punish him.

With VanVleet you don’t have to accept any trade offs. He’s not good here, bad there; good now, bad then. He’s just good, really good, always, all the dang time. And that’s why, even if he doesn’t win Sixth Man of the Year, he’s still the best bench player in the league.


The NBA Awards Show airs tonight at 9pm on TNT, with host Anthony “I was once on a Saturday afternoon show called Hangtime” Anderson.