Saturday's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics was much more than just a battle between the NBA's two greatest franchises. No, it also served as a duel between the NBA's two Sixth Man of the Year award favorites. One of those players finished with 26 points, six assists and four rebounds. He defended Anthony Davis for lengthy stretches despite giving him half a foot in height, and thanks in large part to his performance, his team won. The other player missed 10 of his 14 shots, committed five turnovers and didn't play in the fourth quarter.
Off that information alone, you'd assume that the first player, Malcolm Brogdon, was the betting favorite. Alas, that honor belongs to the second player, Russell Westbrook. At Caesar's Sportsbook, Westbrook is the minus-125 favorite to win the award. Brogdon is trailing behind at plus-165. If this confuses you, well, it should. For all of his gaudy counting stats, Westbrook simply hasn't played well enough to win that award.
It was only a season ago that Westbrook played so poorly that the idea of sending him away from the team as Houston once did with John Wall was a reasonable discussion point. As it stood, they spent an entire offseason trying to trade him. Well, this season, he's shooting worse on both 2-point FG attempts (48.5 percent to 47.3 percent) and 3-pointers (29.8 percent to 28.2 percent). He's turning the ball over more often as well (5.8 turnovers per 100 possessions this season compared to 5.3 last season), and both FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR and ESPN's Real-Plus Minus suggest that he is playing worse defensively than he did a year ago.
The Lakers aren't winning his minutes, either. Their net rating dips slightly when he comes on the floor, though that isn't abnormal for sixth men as so many of their minutes come without their best teammates. What's more troubling is what happens in the fourth quarter. The Lakers have been outscored by 21 points in Westbrook's fourth-quarter minutes, but they have outscored opponents by 88 points in the fourth-quarter minutes they've played without him. This is part of why he missed the fourth quarter against Boston. His poor shooting makes him a detriment late in games.
The only area in which he's tangibly improved, aside from attitude, is as a playmaker. On Monday, he moved past Hall of Famer Gary Payton and into 10th place on the NBA's all-time assists list with 8,967 dimes for his career. Westbrook is one of three active players in the top 10, along with Chris Paul (third) and teammate LeBron James (sixth).
He's dishing out 12.3 assists per 100 possessions compared to 9.8 a season ago, and statistically speaking, even that improvement is somewhat dubious. Westbrook actually averaged more potential assists per game last season (13.8) than he is this season (12.9), yet he's averaging more assists this season (7.5 vs. 7.1) because his teammates are making more of the shots he creates. Some of that is luck. Some of that is the team putting him in more sensible lineups. Not much of it is a significant improvement. He's still making many of the same poor decisions he was a year ago.
It's not as though he's hitting the typical criteria for a Sixth Man of the Year winner, either. The leading bench scorer wins around half of the time (10 of the past 17), yet this season, Benedict Mathurin and Norman Powell are both out-scoring him. The winner is almost always on a good team, as only one player in the past 20 years has won it on a lottery team. The Lakers are 23-28 and in real danger of missing the play-in round.
So why are the odds skewed toward Westbrook? Exposure is an easy answer. Westbrook's odds were astronomically low at the beginning of the season, so if enough enterprising bettors grabbed them before he got benched, the books would get killed if Westbrook actually won the award. Moving the odds towards Westbrook would theoretically encourage bettors to spend money on other candidates. If that is the case, it's working. The entire premise of this story is that you should bet on people not named Westbrook. The more likely explanation is that Westbrook is extremely famous and playing for an extremely famous team. His benching was one of the highest-profile stories of the season. People are talking about what he's done as a sixth man. Bettors might think that will translate to votes.
It might. This is an award that voters get wrong frequently. Andre Iguodala never won. Manu Ginobili only won once. They're both Hall of Famers. Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams each won three times. Westbrook fits the inefficient gunner archetype this award tends to seek out, but considering his actual performance, it's just hard to imagine him actually winning this award on a team that's probably going to finish below .500. If you assume he doesn't, his place as the award favorite creates a ton of value on the rest of the field. So, where should you be betting? Here are a few names to consider.
All lines via Caesar's Sportsbook
Malcolm Brogdon (+165)
Brogdon doesn't score like the other candidates—normally a dealbreaker with this award—but he makes up for it by lapping all of them in just about everything else. He's shooting nearly 45 percent on 3's. He's got the best assists-to-turnover ratio of the bunch. He's a stellar defender. The Celtics don't get better with Brogdon on the floor, but they're at least winning his minutes handily.
Brogdon is the thinking man's sixth man. If you trust the voters to pick the best bench player this season to win this award, it's going to be Brogdon. It's that simple. He is the most well-rounded reserve in the league and a critical component of the NBA's best team. The electorate gets smarter every year. When a recent Reddit post attempted to discredit Jaren Jackson Jr.'s Defensive Player of the Year campaign with misleading stats, for instance, a number of prominent NBA voices immediately rushed to his defense. Players aren't measured exclusively by points per game anymore.
And yet, Iguodala never won. Ginobili won once. Jordan Clarkson beat Joe Ingles two years ago in a debate very similar to the one that will be held between Brogdon and the field. I'd still pick Brogdon (and bet on him), but I'd understand reservations. There are still a lot of voters stuck on the idea that a sixth man is meant to score above all else.
Tyrese Maxey (+500)
If you're looking for a candidate to check the "prominent starter accepts a bench role for the sake of his team" box, it's Maxey, not Westbrook. For starters, Maxey is embracing a reserve role in what is effectively a contract year, as he is eligible for his first big contract after the season. Westbrook is doing so because the alternative was, effectively, the end of his career. One is making a far greater sacrifice.
Maxey is also a vastly superior player. There's not much point in digging into Maxey's numbers because he's missed so much time and his current stats have been accumulated as a starter. His case is going to rely on Philly competing for and possibly getting the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The numbers will take care of themselves. Maxey has to win with narrative, but if the Sixers do their part as a team, he'll do his part statistically and make a real run at this thing.
Norman Powell (+750)
Powell is the candidate likeliest to fill the "best bench scorer on a very good team" lane in the race now that Mathurin's Pacers are slipping into play-in territory. The 16.2 points on extremely efficient shooting numbers he's posted this season falls right into the classic Sixth Man of the Year statistical range. The Clippers have climbed to fourth in the Western Conference. Now that they're healthy, third feels attainable.
The questions here are twofold: first, how does Powell's production handle a healthy Paul George and Kawhi Leonard? He's scoring enough to win the award as is, but he doesn't have much distance from Brogdon at 14.5 points per game. Brogdon wins on just about every other front. The second and likely more pressing concern is the trade deadline. The Clippers are angling for a point guard. If they get one, that's fewer touches for Powell, which probably knocks him out. I'd probably avoid Powell for that reason, but if his odds stay put and the Clippers don't make a move, he's worth revisiting after the deadline.
Bobby Portis (+7500)
Portis is out for the next two weeks or so with an MCL sprain, but he hadn't missed a game before that. Maxey and Powell have both missed significant stretches, and Brogdon usually does at some point, so don't count on injury knocking Portis out of the race. The Bucks are about to go on a run now that they're healthy, and Portis can point to his double-digit rebounding as a feather in his cap and nobody else's.
It's unlikely that Portis wins this award, but the odds are so long that he's worth sprinkling a few bucks on if you're going heavier on someone else. If you're putting $100 on Brogdon to win $165, for instance, you only need to put $2 on Brogdon to get to roughly that payout ($150). I'd say that little tax is worth the peace of mind in case things get weird in the next few months.