The game is 5 against 5, but you need depth if you want to be a successful team in the NBA, as substitutes sometimes tend to be even more important than some regular starters on their way to contention, leading the team’s second unit to either keep leads or increase them, or even lead a comeback for the starters to take the reins of at the end of the matchup.
Over the course of the years, we’ve seen veteran starters move to a substitute role to lead off the bench, or fierce scorers that lead the second unit to keep the team’s offense from stalling while hiding their defensive liabilities against less talented players.
In fact, some of these guys wind up playing heavy minutes as the starters, close out games and carry their teams come crunch time, embracing their substitute role to help their team on their way to the promised land. So, let’s take a look at the top 10 sixth men in NBA history.
10. John Starks
Starks’ journey into the NBA got off to a very rough start, going undrafted and then being cut by the Golden State Warriors. Then, the Knicks signed him, and they were actually going to waive him as well, but he injured himself while trying to dunk in practice against Patrick Ewing, so they had to keep him due to a clause in his contract.
Well, that worked out pretty well for the Knicks, as Starks wound up averaging 12.5 points, 2.5 boards and 3.6 assists, not bad for a substitute point guard, winning the 6th man of the year award in 1996 due to his experience and leadership off the bench.
9. Ricky Pierce
Over the course of a 16-year professional career both in the NBA and overseas, Ricky Pierce was never able to establish himself +as a starter, but that didn’t stop him from making a huge impact for his teams, especially for the Milwaukee Bucks, where he won the award a couple of times.
14.9 points, 2.4 boards and 1.9 assists off the bench is great news for any team, so that’s what made the tweener guard so important for his team, although his defense was also more than questionable.
8. Detlef Schrempf
As a member of the Indiana Pacers, the small forward out of Germany won back-to-back 6th Man of the Year awards due to his outstanding shooting from long range, an impressive feature that even got him to 3 All-Star Games.
Averaging just over 13 points on almost 50% shooting from the floor and 38.9% from downtown, Schrempf even earned the starting spot on a Seattle Supersonics team that also featured great talents such as Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton.
7. Vinnie Johnson
Vinnie Johnson actually didn’t win the award, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t one of the most impressive and important players off the bench through more than 980 games in the NBA, especially for the first Detroit Pistons Bad Boys and their two championships.
Averaging 12.3 points, 3 boards and 3.3 helpers per night, Johnson was the perfect backup either for Isiah Thomas or Joe Dumars, with his great ability to play either guard position and score in bunches, getting hot real quick.
6. Michael Cooper
Cooper was the ultimate defender off the bench for the Lakers, often getting the most difficult defensive assignments and even playing the same amount of minutes as the starters, winning the Defensive Player of the Year award despite being a substitute for most of his career.
Averaging 1.2 steals and 0.8 swats per game off the bench, Cooper was a key piece for the 5-time NBA champions Los Angeles Lakers, filling the stat lines with his hard work despite not putting up many points for his team.
5. Toni Kukoc
Of course, we all remember the Bulls for Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and even Steve Kerr, but truth to be told, Kukoc was a key factor off the bench for Phil Jackson’s squad and their second three-peat.
Averaging 11.6 points, 4.2 boards and 3.7 assists per game, the Croatian forward was a great player off the bench that really helped the Bulls maintain and increase their leads while giving Pippen a breather to keep him fresh for the clutch time.
4. Manu Ginobili
Through most of his career, Ginobili has been a substitute in Gregg Popovich's squad despite being one of the most talented foreign players in NBA history, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t played a lot of minutes and even closed out the most important passages of games for the Spurs.
Scoring over 13,000 points in the NBA, Ginobili has led the Spurs to 4 NBA championships alongside Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, being one of the smartest players the league has ever seen and being a second coach on the court for the Spurs and their legacy.
3. Jamal Crawford
Jamal Crawford is the ultimate scorer off the bench, winning the Sixth Man of the Year award 3 different times and showing no signs of slowing down with his intrepidness, his change of pace, his handles, his ankle-breaking crossover and his ability to pull up from pretty much from anywhere and finish through contact.
With career averages of 15.3 points and 3.5 assists on 41% from the floor, Crawford can get hot in a heartbeat and can create his own shot against pretty much every single defender, being one of the most reliable scorers in today’s NBA.
2. Kevin McHale
McHale was one of the best two-way players in NBA history, helping the Boston Celtics win 3 championships with his ability to score, rebound and play lockdown defense either as a starter or off the bench.
Averaging 17.9 points, 7.3 boards, 1.9 assists and 1.7 blocks per game, he made it to 6 All-Defensive squads besides winning a couple of 6th Man of the Year awards, owning one of the most beautiful post footwork in NBA history.
1. John Havlicek
Havlicek was actually drafted by the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Browns of the NFL the very same year, but thank god he stuck to basketball. Spending 16 years with the Celtics, he managed to make 13 All-Star appearances, win 8 championships, be featured on 8 All-Defensive squads and even win a Finals MVP.
20.8 points, 6.3 boards and 4.8 assists per game seem like a lot for a substitute, and that’s why “Hondo” makes the top of our list, getting starter stat lines while playing off the bench. On top of that, he managed to put those numbers up while sharing the court with Bill Russell, which only makes it way more impressive.