The Miami Heat has never had a player win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award or even seriously contend for the trophy.
But Tyler Johnson, whom the Heat spent $50 million on this summer to keep from going to Brooklyn, could end becoming a serious candidate this season if he keeps performing the way he has through the first week of the regular season.
Third on the Heat in scoring at 15.3 points per game behind only Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, the 6-4, 190-pound Johnson leads all qualified NBA bench players (the rule is you must play more games off the bench than start to qualify) in points per game and is shooting an impressive 53 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range.
Yes, it’s extremely early. But even after Josh Richardson finally returns from his knee injury it’s hard to see coach Erik Spoelstra removing him from his role. Johnson’s been very effective as Miami’s first weapon off the bench, whether it’s been running the point or playing off the ball when Justise Winslow is has the ballhandling duties. He’s also been on the court to finish all four games.
And although Johnson’s plus/minus rating is a team-worst minus-27, he’s actually defending well, holding players he’s guarded to 41.2 percent (0.6% below their regular season average).
Tuesday night, Johnson scored seven of his 22 points in overtime. He entered Tuesday’s game second on the team in points in clutch situations behind Dragic (13) with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting. With the Heat still looking for someone to emerge and replace Dwyane Wade as it’s go-to-guy in the fourth quarter, Johnson is as strong a candidate as anyone on the team.
“Tyler really stepped up and made some big shots and made a couple big plays when it was something out of nothing,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Johnson’s season-high 22-point effort in the win over the Kings. “A lot of times, that's what you need going down the stretch. The defense steps up and you just have to make plays. He found a couple open gaps and stepped into a big three to really help us going down the stretch.”
Being a winner is obviously more important than putting up gaudy stats when it comes to earning the sixth man award. So, the Heat can’t miss the playoffs and expect for Johnson to seriously contend.
Ryan Anderson was the leading scorer in the league off the bench last season with 16.5 points per game, but finished sixth in last year's voting because the Pelicans were 23-36 in the games he played in.
Denver's Will Barton, who was second in the league in bench scoring (14.3 points per game) finished fourth in the voting behind three players who were all on playoff teams. The top three were the Clippers' Jamal Crawford, who won the award for a record third time, Golden State's Andre Iguodala and Oklahoma City's Enes Kanter.
The Heat has had five players receive votes for the league’s sixth man award in the past: Udonis Haslem finished ninth in 2010 (9.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg); Alonzo Mourning was sixth in 2006 (7.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.7 bpg); Rafer Alston was seventh in 2004 (10.2 ppg, 4.5 apg); Terry Porter was fifth in 1999 (10.5 ppg, 2.9 apg) and Isaac Austin was seventh in 1997 (9.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg).