— Sixth Man: Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to enter the game the moment you’re summoned and provide an immediate surge of energy, thereby maintaining — or preferably, elevating — the existing level of play established by the starting five.
And by the way, you can scratch that "should you choose to accept it" part of the assignment — we just said that because it sounds good.
Here’s a look at some of this season's elite sixth men in the NBA:
Andres Nocioni, Bulls
He prods, he pokes, he flops, his hair flops, he spots up and hits a 3-pointer. Nocioni is all about gritty (and often infuriating) defense, and setting his feet to drain long jumpers (so far this year, he has made 41 of 106 treys for a 38.7 percent average). And in the seven games in which he has played 30 minutes or more (two of them starts), the Argentine forward has averaged 18.1 points per game.
Lou Williams, 76ers
The 22-year-old is the future of point-guard play in Philadelphia, but for now he's the Sixers' high-scoring combo guard off the bench. Though he has a point guard's size (6-foot-1), Williams has shooting guard instincts — the only issue with that being that he lacks a shooting guard's pure outside stroke (despite improved marksmanship in December, he has made just 26.5 percent of his 3-pointers this year). Williams compensates for that notable — but still developing — deficiency with devastating ability to create off the dribble, and lately he has shown a glimpse of his future as a prolific scorer by averaging 17.0 points through his first 10 December games.
James Posey, Hornets
The 31-year-old sharpshooter can frequently be seen hoisting his patented scissor-kick jumper to jam a knife into opponents with late, game-clinching 3-pointers. Much like the Bulls’ Nocioni, Posey makes a living playing hard on defense and waiting to bury a three (assist: Chris Paul). He has got little in the way of offensive versatility, but even so, there's probably not a single team in the league that wouldn't appreciate having Posey play his limited but extremely effective role.
Charlie Villanueva, Bucks
The 2008-09 incarnation of Villanueva is the epitome of a wild card, which is both a good and bad quality for a sixth man to have. In some ways, it’s intriguing to put a player into the game and truly have no idea whether he's going to erupt for 20-plus points (as Villanueva has done six times this year) or score less than 10 (as he's done eight times). In Villanueva's defense, some of his inconsistency is because of irregular minutes from coach Scott Skiles. But in Skiles' defense, those irregular minutes are because of what the coach perceives as erratic effort. Regardless of the cause, the net effect is that Villanueva (12.9 points, 6.7 rebounds) is consistently dangerous but altogether unpredictable. Throw him into the game or bench him, but whatever you do, you do so at your own risk.
J.R. Smith, Nuggets
If you look at the upper right-hand corner of the Wikipedia page for the word "enigma," you'll see a picture of a smiling J.R. Smith giving the camera a thumbs-up. The preceding sentence is actually 100 percent untrue, but there's nothing false about Smith’s omnipresent and befuddling unpredictability. On any given night, Smith can look like one of the premier shooters in the game, featuring an absurdly quick, wild west-style release, tremendous range and the ability to bury one difficult three after another (he has averaged 13.2 points and 1.7 threes thus far). However, on nights when he disappears, Smith goes completely AWOL — he has scored five or fewer points six times, and has nine single-digit scoring games in total. At 23, his career is still very much under construction, but even on his worst nights, the defense still has to honor his shot. And on his best nights, the defense has the unpleasant experience of watching a barrage of threes rip through the net.
D.J. Augustin, Bobcats
The only rookie on this list has been understandably somewhat erratic, but at the same time, he has been undeniably electric. Augustin has performed significantly better as a starter (18.8 points in six games) as opposed to a reserve (11.5 points in 23 games), but regardless of when he has entered the game, he has done so as a significant offensive threat. In many ways, that's what being a key reserve is all about.
Lamar Odom, Lakers
He's certainly not a sixth man by choice, but then again, who is? Due in large part to a traffic jam of size on the Lakers' front line (brought on by the presence of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum), the 6-10 Odom has been forced to take on a bench role in his contract year. And while he's arguably the most talented player coming off the bench in the entire league, Odom has been far from the NBA’s best sixth man — the 10th-year pro is averaging career lows in minutes (27), points (8.6), assists (2.3) and free-throw percentage (61.8). Though his season stats are far from spectacular, he remains a gifted scorer and passer who's basically suffering from a lack of assertiveness — through his first 29 games, Odom hit double figures in shot attempts just four times. Assuming Odom hopes to truly boost the Lakers (and for that matter, procure a nice new contract), his shot attempts and overall stats are going to need a significant boost as the season goes on.
Andrei Kirilenko, Jazz
His machinery slowed by a pileup of small injuries, AK-47 is not the same dynamo who averaged 15.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.2 blocks in 2005-06 (including 10 blocks in a game once). Despite diminished stats, Utah’s Russian submachine gun remains an unselfish and productive offensive talent who still capably (if no longer ferociously) protects the rim. The 27-year-old — whose basketball age, because of injuries, is probably closer to 31 — is still averaging a solid 12.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks.
Nate Robinson, Knicks
Like some other players on this list, Robinson has started a handful of games (five), but he’s predominantly been a sixth man, and an electric one at that. Robinson plays with the clear exuberance of a child, which is fitting, because with a generously-listed height of 5-9, he’s usually the smallest player on the court. Like any self-respecting youthful individual, Robinson enjoys running around and exerting a large amount of energy, and in this case, his playground is Mike D'Antoni's offense. Through his first 20 games this season, Robinson was averaging career bests of 16.5 points, 4.1 assists, 2.0 threes and 1.6 steals. There have been times this season when — height limitations cast aside — he has been absolutely unstoppable, and with Allen Iverson (18.0 points per game) apparently on the decline, Robinson is on his way to becoming the most dynamic little man in the league.
Manu Ginobili, Spurs
Though he has started slowly while recovering from ankle surgery (his current 14.1 scoring average is his lowest since 2003-04), Ginobili's offensive repertoire makes him perennially one of the NBA's premier subs. Armed with a deadly spot-up and step-back jumper, moves off the dribble that give the illusion of no skeletal structure to restrict his range of motion and, perhaps most importantly, a ruthless scorer's mentality, Ginobili should be in the hunt for his second straight Sixth Man of the Year award. But as good as he is (and as good as he'll presumably be once his ankle stops hindering him), he hasn't been the best in the league this year.
Jason Terry, Mavericks
Quite simply, the man known as "Jet" has been in a different stratosphere than most other sixth men this season. Despite having come off the bench for 23 of his first 28 games, Terry is averaging a career-best 21.0 points (16th-best in the league) with 3.8 assists on 46.8 percent shooting. Early in his career, the Atlanta Hawks envisioned Terry as a point guard because of his size (6-2), but it has become abundantly clear Terry is at his best playing the role of undersized, gun-slinging two guard. Too small to pair with starting point guard Jason Kidd for an entire game, Terry comes off the bench for 35 minutes a night, with explosive results — he has topped 25 points nine times this year. And though Dirk Nowitzki is Dallas' clear go-to option, coach Rick Carlisle has no fear of drawing up a key play for Terry, and in turn, Terry has no fear of taking that all-important last shot.
Proof, it seems, that while enjoyable to use, the term "sixth man" is actually something of a misnomer. As Terry and this band of prolific bench contributors so often prove, there are plenty of instances in which No. 6 is decidedly more crucial than Nos. 1 through 5.