Some of the NBA’s most vaunted teams have had equally celebrated sixth men, players who didn’t necessarily open games but were as impactful as any starter. From Manu Ginobili and Shane Battier to Allie Quigley and Candice Wiggins, the history of basketball is full of examples of a player coming off the bench making a difference at the highest level.
As the 21-22 Boston Celtics continue to pick up steam, a starting core is beginning to take shape. The double bigs are getting it done, the Jays are the Jays, and Marcus Smart is an increasingly effective starting point guard. Boston’s core unit looks just about finalized, and the returns have been spectacular.
The Celtics bench, however, is still a little lackluster. Part of why head coach Ime Udoka has been so prudent with his rotations is that the non-starter C’s aren’t getting it done - especially on offense. Boston’s bench ranks 25th in FG percentage and 26th in points per game in the NBA.
The Celtics desperately need a player in reserve who can steady the ship when the starters are off the floor. Thankfully, though, Boston actually pioneered the sixth man position. The model for success is hanging in the rafters at TD Garden.
Frank Ramsey the original Sixth Man
Frank Ramsey’s No. 23 was retired by the Boston Celtics in 1964. He was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. Ramsey was a seven-time NBA champion and an absolute offensive dynamo.
For his professional career, however, Ramsey averaged just 24.6 minutes of playing time a game.
Alongside the likes of Bill Russell and Bob Cousey, the 60’s Celtics didn’t need another ball-dominant star. It was legendary coach Red Auerbach who recognized that a player as talented as Ramsey could upend an opposing team’s expectations and rhythm.
“On a lot of teams they make a big deal out of the ‘starting five’. If you don’t start, it implies you’re not as good or as valuable as the next guy.
That’s not the way we looked at the men on our bench in Boston. Psychologically, as soon as you pull one of your starters out of the game, the other team is going to let down just a bit. That’s when I wanted a guy like Ramsey or [John] Havlicek to get out there and run them into the ground.”
Ramsey played 623 games as a member of the Boston Celtics, but rarely started. He would come in for about 15 or 16 minutes a night, drop a dozen or so points and grab six or seven rebounds, all while the opposing reserves looked on stunned. Said teammate Bob Cousy, “[Ramsey] simply made things happen instead of just going with the flow.”
Superstars are the ultimate currency in the NBA. They get the max contracts, the endorsements, and MVP trophies. But the unsung heroes are often the ones who deliver teams to the promise land, and when that is done correctly, the results can be spectacular.
Havlicek, McHale, and Posey
(And Walton, Silas, and Nelson. And Terry, Turner, and Delk)
Boston is no stranger to the devastating effects of a well-crafted sixth man position. When the right player comes along, the Celtics have had immense success letting a player off the bench cook.
Consider the immortal Johnny Most call: “Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball!”
It was Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals, and John Havlicek just broke Philadelphia’s collective heart. During the 1964-65 season, Hondo averaged just 28.7 minutes of playing time a night. (Well short of his career average of 36.6 mpg.) (Or his career high, when he played 45.5 minutes a night in 70-71!)
Havlicek picked up where Ramsey finished, giving the Celtics an athletic and punchy play-maker off the bench. Yes, he could fit in alongside the starters. But he could also create for himself and sustain Boston’s pace and dominance.
Boston didn’t just pioneer the practice of unleashing a star-level player off the bench, but has continued the tradition into the modern era.
The official Sixth Man of the Year Award started in 1983. Kevin McHale won the honor in ‘84 and ‘85. During the 1984 championship season, McHale played in all 82 regular season games but started just ten of them.
Two years later Bill Walton earned the Sixth Man of Year Award en route to another Celtics title. Reggie Lewis began his career often coming off the pine.
More recently, Boston has asked veterans like James Posey or Jason Terry to serve as sixth man. Especially in an era with top-heavy rosters, finding a key reserve who can elevate the bench, take the pressure of the marquee players, and step up in the case of injuries is critical.
Derrick White (and Grant Williams)
Right now, Boston’s starters look poised to make a deep postseason run. Jayson Tatum is playing like a true world-beater, and the rest of the starting unit is positively humming.
The bench, too, is playing better as of late, but features players like Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis who are much more plug and play guys. The Celtics reserves are role players in every sense of the term.
Yes, Grant Williams is perhaps functionally the team’s sixth man. He sometimes earns starts in place of Al Horford, and since the All Star break, Williams is in fact averaging this sixth most minutes per game on the team. That said, Williams isn’t really a play-maker; he’s not going to be the focal point of either the offense or the defense.
Derrick White, on the other hand, has what it takes to be a prototypical sixth man for the Celtics (even if he’s technically the seventh guy off the bench). Behind Tatum and Brown, White is the most adept and versatile shot creator on the roster.
During his days as a Spur, White showed consistent growth passing the ball, a low turnover rate, and a reasonably high true-shooting percentage. Importantly, he’s a defensive plus, unlike some the spark-plug point guards that sometimes serve on bench units. He’s still finding his footing in Boston, but with time and consistency, his track record would suggest he’ll rise to the occasion.
Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart will do much of the ball handling for the Celtics. But having a player like White in reserve is helpful to give JT and Smart a chance to rest or to play off ball. As such, White can play alongside the starters or anchor the offense for brief stretches alongside complimentary players like Pritchard and Theis.
At the same time, Udoka has shown a willingness to ride the hot hand. In a recent game against Charlotte, White logged 31.5 minutes of playing time and was a +22 on the night. White wasn’t the hero of the game for Boston, but he was an integral part of a big Celtics win.
Boston has an ace up its sleeve in Derrick White. He’s young, athletic, and has a Popovich pedigree. He’s not going to blow the game, but instead can blitz opposing benches or flawed units. He gives Udoka and the C’s a critical component of flexibility and true depth.
Respectively, Derrick White isn’t James Posey or Jason Terry. He’s not Kevin McHale or Bill Walton. And he’s not John Havlicek or Frank Ramsey. But if you squint your eyes, you can see how he might fit the bill, and if you listen closely, the echoes of Celtics history might sound a little bit louder.