A sixth man – a player in a reserve role who is not part of a team's starting five – has an impact by increasing the pace of a game, scoring, rebounding or making hustle plays. Starting the game on the bench, a sixth man must observe how he can best help his team when he hits the court.
Sixth men and bench players have to stay in the game mentally, as they never know when their name will be called to enter a matchup. They have to spark their team in the second or fourth quarter when the starters begin to fatigue. Being fresh, they should be able to fill in the gaps for their team both offensively (by passing, shooting and penetrating) and defensively (by double-teaming, providing help defense and playing tough on-the-ball defense).
Most sixth men will tell you it's not important who starts the game, but rather who is "on" when the game is on the line. 2003 NBA Sixth Man Award winner Bobby Jackson usually is found on the court when the fate of the game hangs in the balance. His smart decision-making, sure ball-handling and tough perimeter defense are valuable assets for the Sacramento Kings in close games.
To quote former NBA player John Starks, the 1997 NBA Sixth Man Award winner, "It's not how much time you're in the game, it's what you do with that time."
There are a number of different types of sixth men:
Many teams want their sixth man to be an effective scorer who is able to get his team back into a game with instant offence. These scorers fall into two categories.
Shooters: These are players, such as Denver's Jon Barry, who enter the game looking to drain a bucket from long range and off screens. Like Barry, Vinnie Johnson once played for the Pistons, and used to "heat up" so fast he was dubbed "The Microwave." Johnson, who would have been a starter on most teams, played behind the All-Star backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. In the 1990 NBA Finals, Johnson made the series-clinching shot, as Detroit won the second of back-to-back championships. Like "The Microwave," the Clippers' Quentin Richardson is a compact guard with strength and the ability to score from inside and out.
Matchup Nightmares: Players such as New Jersey's Rodney Rogers are versatile scorers who can hit the shot in the post, on the perimeter or driving to the basket. These players are blessed with size, quickness and athleticism.
As a sixth man, a player's minutes may be down, but he must be productive and efficient when in the game. Some former All-Stars are willing to sacrifice a starter's minutes to come off the bench. Bill Walton, the 1978 NBA MVP, was traded from the Los Angeles Clippers in order to contribute to Boston's championship hopes in 1985-86. Walton was rewarded by winning the 1985-86 NBA Sixth Man Award and helping Boston to its 16th NBA Championship.
The NBA's best sixth men are among the league's most versatile players. Philadelphia's Aaron McKie, who won the NBA Sixth Man Award in 2001, had back-to-back triple doubles in 2002 and can play both guard spots as well as small forward.
Another versatile player, Tracy McGrady, came off the bench for most of his three years in Toronto before securing a starter's position with the Raptors. McGrady went on to start for Orlando, and was then traded to Houston where he gained All-Star status and has made a number of All-Star Game appearances.
Young Stars and Rookies
Many young stars begin their NBA careers by coming off the bench. These players may not have mastered all of the nuances of the game, but their talent is so impressive that they are too good to keep off the court. Kobe Bryant was one of the NBA's most prolific sixth men who needed to develop his all-around skills before becoming a starter. Bryant was voted an All-Star starter at 19 years of age, despite not starting for his own team.
Former NBA player Dennis Rodman popularized the idea of bringing a rebounder and defender off the bench. Today, Portland's Ruben Patterson and Memphis' Stromile Swift "clean the boards" for their teams when they check into a game, as they are relentless rebounders who create havoc on the offensive glass and intimidate with their shot-blocking skills on the defensive end.
These players enter the game looking to increase the tempo, create fast breaks on offense and force turnovers on defense. Such players make things happen as soon as they hit the court. Usually, they are the fastest players on their teams.
Many energizers understand that they must provide a lift for their team. Energizers such as former NBA stars Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues are able to energize a team with their play and captivate the crowd with their diminutive size.
The hometown crowd often acts as a "sixth man," as players feed off the crowd's support and the cheers from fans, resulting in restored confidence and energy.