Athletes grow up with an acute awareness of depth charts. Whether it’s the first line of a hockey team or the starting lineup of a basketball team, young athletes learn to value and covet these positions, as the “best” players on a given team tend to occupy them. However, teams are only as good as their weakest man, and depth cannot be disregarded if a team desires to win. The world of professional sports is no stranger to this maxim. In the NBA, depth is eternally important, as strong play from a respective team’s sixth man can make the difference between success and failure.
Since the 1980s, the sixth man has been a valuable piece in NBA lineups. The Boston Celtics were one of the first teams to effectively utilize the sixth man, as two players from the team—Kevin McHale and Bill Walton—won the award three years in a row from the early to mid-eighties. Since then, deft shooters like Detlef Shrempf, Dell Curry, and Toni Kukoc have won the award. Players like Ben Gordon and Jamal Crawford—who won the award in 2005 and 2010, respectively—have been their teams’ most explosive scorers, coming off the bench to light up unsuspecting defenses that have been lulled to sleep by their teams’ starters. Manu Ginobili, an eminent sixth man in the league, routinely challenges for the award by virtue of his scoring ability and overall importance to the San Antonio Spurs’ success. It would be hard to discuss the Spurs’ success in the last decade without calling attention to Ginobli.
This list thus looks at the top 10 highest-paid sixth men in the NBA this season. The rankings are based on player salaries for the 2013-2014 season and they do not take into account the overall worth of a given contract. For some of these players, the role of sixth man probably feels like banishment from their respective team’s starting lineup. But for other players, the role of sixth man is a familiar one—a position wherein they are best equipped to help their respective team win.
10. J.R. Smith – New York Knicks – $5,565,000 in 2014
Over the years, J.R. Smith has developed into one of the league’s premier sixth men, offering his teams a potent offensive boost off the bench. He is a notoriously streaky shooter though, but when he plays well he can take over games, combining a deft shooting touch with dominant athleticism. This season has been rocky for Smith, as he is averaging 12.8 points per game on less than 40% shooting. However, the New York Knicks are dreadful, so J.R. Smith’s play cannot be singled out.
9. Jarrett Jack – Cleveland Cavaliers – $6,300,000 in 2014
Over his career, Jarrett Jack has been a valued role player on a number of squads. Last season, playing with the Golden State Warriors, Jack did an admirable job coming off the bench for a team that had a very strong starting backcourt. However, this season Jack’s play has been underwhelming. In 57 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jack has averaged 8.7 points per game on less than 40% shooting. With C.J. Miles out though, Jack will see more playing time.
8. Manu Ginobili – San Antonio Spurs – $7,500,000 in 2014
Reflecting the undeniable truth that the Spurs are old, Manu Ginobili turned 36 in the offseason. Although he is in the twilight of his career, Ginobili remains extremely valuable to the Spurs, and he is having another solid season. This campaign, Ginobli is averaging 12 points and 4.5 assists per game, shooting over 45% from the floor. The Spurs will need him to maintain his strong play if the team wants to make another deep run in the playoffs.
7. Taj Gibson – Chicago Bulls – $7,550,000 in 2014
When he played for the Bulls, Nate Robinson said that Taj Gibson was one of the team’s hardest workers. Indeed, at 6’9″, Taj Gibson gets the most out of his body. If Derrick Rose was not injured again, Gibson would be even more valuable to the Chicago Bulls. That said, Gibson is having a great season, averaging 13.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. The Bulls however, do not look strong enough to challenge the Eastern Conference’s elite teams come playoff time.
6. John Salmons – Toronto Raptors – $7,583,000 in 2014
The Toronto Raptors are one of the NBA’s biggest surprises this season, as the team leads the anemic Atlantic Division. John Salmons comes off the bench for the Raptors, and he averages 5.6 points, 2.1 assists, and 2.2 rebounds per game. He is shooting under 40% from the floor, so his contribution to the team’s success is rather paltry, but the team will need him come playoff time, as strong depth can help teams win tight games.
5. O.J. Mayo – Milwaukee Bucks – $8,000,000 in 2014
When he came out of college, O.J. Mayo looked very promising, and experts extolled his scoring ability. His play, though, has declined over the past several years, and he reported to Milwaukee’s training camp overweight and out of shape. Perhaps Mayo doesn’t have the requisite drive to succeed; his stats this season seem to reflect that assumption, as he is averaging 12.4 points per game on just over 40% shooting. Those stats do not look that bad, but fans and experts alike know that Mayo can be a devastating scorer. He gets some starts, too—but the Bucks would rather use him solely as a sixth man. The Bucks are horrendous, though.
4. Omar Asik – Houston Rockets – $8,374,646
At this stage in the season, the sky is the limit for the Houston Rockets. With the offseason acquisition of Dwight Howard, the team looks, well, scary. As such, Omar Asik’s value to Houston is unquantifiable, as he can spell Howard, giving the elite center the rest he needs. Alternately, Asik can vex other teams by playing alongside Dwight. Thus far in 2013-2014, Asik is averaging 4.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
3. Rodney Stuckey – Detroit Pistons – $8,500,000 in 2014
Rodney Stuckey is perhaps overpaid, though he gives the Pistons a good scoring lift off the bench. He is averaging 13.6 points but only 2.0 assists per game, which suggests that Stuckey is one-dimensional. In any case, the Pistons are bad, so discussions of Stuckey’s effectiveness are moot. He will never see the kind of money he currently makes again, but he would probably benefit from a change of location. Stuckey’s days in Detroit, in fact, look numbered.
2. Gerald Wallace – Boston Celtics – $10,105,855 in 2014
Formerly a stud, Gerald Wallace’s play has unsurprisingly declined with age. Although he is shooting over 50% from the floor, he is averaging only 5.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game this season for the Boston Celtics. Since trading away their elder statesmen in the offseason—namely, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—the Celtics have not been good, which magnifies Wallace’s lack of production. Perhaps a change of scenery will galvanize Gerald Wallace and rejuvenate his career. For now, he is an average bench player on a sup-par team.
1. Tyreke Evans – New Orleans Pelicans – $11,796,247 in 2014
Since coming to New Orleans, Tyreke Evans has been relegated to coming off the bench. In theory, Evans’ new role gives a young squad great depth, as he can shift from small-forward to one of the backcourt positions. However, Evans has not played well this season. Although he averages 12 points, 4.4 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game off the bench, he is shooting under 40% from the field, as he continues to have his worst year as a pro.