The All-Fifth Man Team
So, last night I suggested that the NBA needs a Fifth Man of the Year award, designed to recognize players who complete their team’s starting lineups. There was some confusion about what that meant, so let’s clear it up. It’s not just “the worst player in the starting lineup.” It’s the guy whose presence in the lineup locks everything into place and makes things work the way they should.
Because the award doesn’t actually exist, we’re instead going to bring back an idea I used to do annually until about five or six years ago: The All-Fifth Man Team. Like the All-Rookie Teams, this team is position-less. I shouldn’t have to take a center if I don’t want to. (And I still might!)
Bruce Brown, Nets: Essentially the reason this award should exist, and not just because he went to the best school in the country. Brown just does everything the other guys on the Nets don’t/can’t/won’t. His work in the Biggie Small position is unparalleled at the moment, and he also takes on the most challenging defensive assignment pretty much every night, almost regardless of position.
Royce O’Neale, Jazz: Nobody talks about Royce O’Neale. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are the stars on either side of the court. Mike Conley took the team’s point guard play to another level. Joe Ingles was the best Sixth Man in the league last year and Jordan Clarkson won Sixth Man of the Year. Bojan Bogdanovic does more scoring and is a better shooter. But O’Neale is an All-Defense-caliber stopper and his shooting and off-the-dribble work have improved.
Nic Batum, Clippers: He’s like a taller version of Brown, except he does it with shooting instead of rim-rolling. He’s a versatile defender, nifty passer. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands but can make stuff happen when it is.
Alex Caruso, Bulls: He’s only started a couple games so far, but they can’t go back to Javonte Green in that spot. It’s got to be Caruso. It just makes way too much sense. The way he and Lonzo Ball wreak havoc defensively locks things into place for the starting lineup. And when Nikola Vucevic comes back, everybody will be operating in more space offensively, so it’ll be somewhat less damaging to be playing Caruso and DeMar DeRozan together. (They’re both shooting well but don’t necessarily get treated by defenses as shooters.)
P.J. Tucker and Duncan Robinson, Heat: Yes, I’m cheating. Tyler Herro is basically a starter for this team, playing 33 minutes a night. So I’m using Tucker because he locks in the defense and Robinson because the way he flies all over the court makes things happen offensively. It’s my fake team and I get to do what I want.
Honorable Mention: Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr., Raptors (Because I couldn’t figure out which one of them was the fifth man); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wizards; Justin Holiday, Pacers; Dorian Finney-Smith, Mavericks