When Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins moved O.J. Mayo to the bench early this season, the intent was to give his team something it hadn't had since Hollins took over a year-and-a-half earlier: A bona fide sixth-man. Someone who could be counted on to play significant minutes off the bench and provide consistent production.
Well, the Grizzlies have, indeed, had a strong sixth man this season, but it hasn't been Mayo, who missed 10 games to league suspension and has been an erratic performer all season. Instead, it's been third-year forward Darrell Arthur.
When Zach Randolph was out early on, Arthur stepped up, opening the season with six straight double-figure scoring games. When Rudy Gay was injured in mid-February, Arthur again stepped in to fill part of the scoring void. And he's provided strong play at both ends behind Randolph and Marc Gasol all season.
Offensively, Arthur has emerged this season as a deadly pick-and-pop threat, increasingly his shooting percentage on jumpers from 35% last season to 43% this season and helping provide floor spacing on a team that doesn't shoot many threes. He's also been better on the block and off the dribble, showing a developing jump hook and a penchant for quick face-up moves against bigger players, resulting in a bump in his shooting percentage on interior shots from 54% last season to 66% this season.
Defensively, Arthur has been underrated. His on court/off court defensive rating is the best on the team among players who play significant minutes. He's been very strong on the perimeter and has emerged over the course of the season into a surprisingly effective shot-blocker, with as many multi-block games in March (7) as he had in November-February combined.
Arthur has been one of the best two-way bench players in the league this season. Rudy Gay insisted on this fact to me after a game early this season. I was skeptical then. I'm not anymore.
But how does Arthur measure up to other sixth-man candidates? It's a somewhat peculiar award in that it requires a judgment call regarding exactly what constitutes a "sixth man," with two of the best candidates embodying two potential problems: The Lakers' Lamar Odom because his 34 starts equals nearly half a season and the Mavs' Jason Terry because he may be his team's second-best player and only comes off the bench as a strategic ploy, not because he's a true reserve player.
But, accepting both of those players into the mix and looking at other likely candidates, I found 11 players who match or exceed Arthur in terms of both playing time (20.5 minutes per) and Player Efficiency Rating (15.9 — having fallen half a point over a three-game mini-slump): Arthur, Odom, Terry, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams, J.R. Smith, James Harden, Marcin Gortat, Corey Maggette, Ryan Anderson, and Marcus Thornton.
Other viable candidates who don't quite meet these criteria: Jamal Crawford, Glen Davis, Toney Douglas, George Hill, and Taj Gibson.
The strength of Arthur's candidacy relative to some of these players: He's made a strong impact on both ends of the floor (sorry Jamal, sorry Taj, sorry Ryan, sorry J.R.). He's been a force in this role for an entire season (sorry Marcin, sorry Marcus). He's done it in the midst of a playoff race (sorry Corey). He's been the best reserve on his own team. (Sorry Lou).
My Sixth-Man Rankings:
1. Lamar Odom
2. Thaddeus Young
3. Jason Terry
4. James Harden
5. Darrell Arthur
Honorable Mentions: George Hill, Lou Williams, Taj Gibson, J.R. Smith, Marcin Gortat.