The wounds from the James Harden Trade may never heal, but Dennis Schröder has certainly helped the effort. Ever since Harden’s incredible 2011-2012 season, when he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award (6MOY) in a landslide, Oklahoma City has been looking for another Sixth Man Extraordinaire. The original plan was to build a Big Three of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Harden, but an impasse over contract negotiations ended that abruptly, with James being sent to Houston, where he has blossomed into a superstar and MVP.
Since the unfortunate day of that trade, OKC has cycled through numerous players in an attempt to replicate Harden’s success. Kevin Martin was a one-year stopgap at the position, filling in admirably during the 2012-2013 season. Reggie Jackson found success at the 6th man position, most notably during that memorable 2014 playoff series against the Grizzlies, where he almost single-handedly saved the Thunder on the road in Memphis. But Reggie aspired to be a starting point guard more than a super sub, resulting in his being traded to Detroit.
Dion Waiters was great in the Sixth Man role and essential to the Thunder’s small ball success in the 2016 postseason, but was jettisoned in the fallout from KD’s July departure. (OKC reportedly wanted to keep Waiters, but renounced his rights to make room for the Westbrook extension.) Enes Kanter was a fantastic sixth man for OKC during his time here. Not only an offensive rebounding and scoring monster, Kanter was a stalwart champion of OKC off the court in the community, and a treasured teammate. Having said that, in certain match-ups, he was literally unplayable, as he would be mercilessly hunted in pick-n-roll match-ups by elite ball handlers (see Billy Donovan’s candid comments during the OKC-Houston 2017 postseason series for reference).
Once Kanter’s tenure in OKC ended with the Carmelo Anthony trade, OKC was briefly without a stand-out sixth man. After trading Carmelo to Atlanta, it was now Dennis Schröder’s time to shine. In his first year in the role, Schröder had high peaks, and very low floors. He earned the nickname “Second Half Schröder” from the Thunder broadcast team for his ability to simply explode in the second half of a game, and lift the team when they were struggling. But, as mentioned before, he was very inconsistent that season.
He could have a solid few games, then be ice cold for a very long stretch. He was consistently inconsistent. Combine this with a rather uninspiring first-round series against the Portland Trailblazers, hopes were not high for Schröder coming into this season, especially after the Paul George and Westbrook trades. Many expected him to be traded from OKC by the trade deadline, as the Thunder appeared destined for a rebuild.
But something magical happened: Schröder found his groove. This season has been, without a doubt, one of the very best Sixth Men in the NBA.
At the beginning of training camp this season, Billy Donovan pulled aside Chris Paul, Schröder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. After the off-season roster shakeup, the Thunder were left with an unbalanced roster, with three of their best players all being point guards. He told them that he needed them to work together to make a system work that, at first glance, seemed like a disaster. Having two rather small guards, along with SGA having to slide up a position as well, was asking for match-up nightmares.
Little did we know that the match-up nightmares would be forced upon other teams, with the Thunder being the Dream Reavers. Billy Donovan’s strategy, born of desperation and innovation, has been truly incredible. The lineup with CP3, SGA, Schröder, Gallinari, and Adams has the best net rating in the NBA. Talk about catching lightning in a bottle!
This lineup requires sacrifice from all three, with the scoring, assist, and rebound numbers going down individually for each during the season. But on any given night, one of them can go off and be the focal point–sacrificing for the greater good, so to speak. This formula has been perfected by the three guards, with each proving pivotal to the team’s success.
This brings us to Schröder, who for all intents and purposes is vastly overqualified for his Sixth Man role. Like James Harden before him, he is excelling in his role as the super-sub off the bench, instilling life into the team when he enters the game. It has been a long road since Harden left town, but OKC finally has their next Sixth Man Supreme. Dennis Schröder, in my opinion, should be this year’s Sixth Man of the Year.
An airtight case
As one of the smallest guys on the court every night, one would think that Schröder’s having to play out of position would put him in unenviable match-ups and situations. But using his unusually long wingspan for a player his size, blazing speed, and everlasting energy, Schröder has been positively tremendous this season. He has become consistent with his effort and play, delivering every single night, showing the heart and hustle of a true warrior. He’s one of the few players in the league to full court press all night, making it his personal mission to harass, agitate, and disrupt an opposing team’s schemes. He fights for defensive position against much larger players, and has been a revelation this season on that end of the court.
On offense, Schröder’s game has improved dramatically as well. He is now a reliable threat from three-point range, can speed to the rim against anyone, and has adopted free throw tactics in the vein of Chris Paul and James Harden, being able to manufacture points when possessions bog down. By his constant placement in a lineup with either SGA or CP3, or both, it allows him to pick his spots to either attack the defense or defer to the best match-up or hot hand. Lob passes, which were always an adventure last season, have been pinpoint this year as Schröder has developed excellent chemistry with Nerlens Noel and Steven Adams.
The Clippers’ Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are both having fantastic seasons respectively, and both are in my top three for Sixth Man of the Year. A few things hurt their candidacy, though, and boost Schröder’s.
- The Clippers are absolutely stacked with elite talent and roster flexibility. Having two guys capable of winning the 6MOY is just a sign of that luxury.
- With both of them on the same team, they cannibalize their own vote numbers, which helps Schröder in that column.
- Narrative matters in award races, and Schröder has the edge in this category as well. He is having a breakout year on the biggest Cinderella story of the NBA season. Many people assumed the Thunder were left for dead after summer trades, but Schröder has done his part, to the upmost of his ability, to ensure that the team is seen as very much alive.
While no one is confusing Harden in Houston with Schröder, there is a legitimate point to be argued that Schröder has equaled or surpassed Harden in OKC. In terms of raw numbers and the eye test, Schröder is neck and neck with Harden’s Sixth Man of the Year campaign in 2011-2012. Harden was younger than Schröder when he won the award, but he also had the benefit of having Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka on the team with him. With the summer departures of Westbrook and George, Schröder has stepped up to the plate, embraced the mantle of responsibility, and has performed brilliantly.
If the season is truly over, then Schröder should have the Sixth Man of the Year Award on lock.