'He brings that punch': Why the Clippers' Norman Powell could win sixth-man award

Norman Powell leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin when asked to name the Clippers who have won the NBA’s sixth man of the year award.

“Lou Will, Montrezl, JCrawford,” Powell said. “Am I missing somebody else?”

He paused for about 10 seconds to gather his thoughts, wanting to make sure he hadn’t left anyone out.

“Lou Will, JCrawford, Montrezl,” Powell repeated. “Go through the years. Go through the years.”

Powell squinted his eyes and shook his head, his mind still racing.

The Clippers have five sixth man of the year trophies they can boast about, Powell was told.

He was reminded that Jamal Crawford won two of his three awards with the Clippers, in 2013-14 and 2015-16, and Lou Williams won two of his three with the Clippers in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Montrezl Harrell won it in 2019-20, capping a three-year Clippers reign.

Powell laughed. “That’s crazy, though, twice for Lou Will and JCraw,” he said.

Powell hadn’t entered the NBA yet when the Clippers began that run in 2014. Now he’s the latest sixth-man extraordinaire for them and has a very good chance of joining that illustrious company.

“It would be amazing. It would be a lot for me,” said the eighth-year veteran out of UCLA. “It would be recognition for the importance for the team and being able to step up and help the team win and just a testament to all my hard work throughout the years. I feel like I’ve always been an underdog, having to earn my stripes and my spot. Even when I do really well one season, the next season it’s not automatically given. I’ve got to work to get it and prove myself.

“So, I think that would be an accolade that speaks to the grind and the sacrifice of giving myself up for the team. Even though I see myself as a starter and an impact player that can contribute in a starting role. But I think the biggest thing is sacrificing and giving yourself up and still being able to help the team win.”

The competition for the award is stiff because of the high level of play off the bench from Sacramento’s Malik Monk, Cleveland’s Caris LeVert, Minnesota’s Naz Reid, Dallas’ Tim Hardaway Jr., Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis Jr. and Utah’s Jordan Clarkson.

Powell is more than holding his own as one of the NBA’s top reserves. A look at his stats:

• Third-highest scorer off the bench (13.8) and fourth on the Clippers.

• Second-highest field-goal percentage (48.9%) among bench players with a minimum of eight field-goal attempts.

• Second-highest three-point percentage (43.5%) among bench players with a minimum of two three-point attempts per game and seventh in the NBA.

• Fourth-most minutes (25.8) among bench players.

• Seventh highest plus-minus (+2.7) among bench players.

• Third-highest offensive rating (118.1) among bench players.

• Ninth-highest net rating (5.1) among bench players.

• Ninth-highest effective field-goal percentage (59.8%) among bench players.

• Seventh-highest true shooting percentage (62.9) among bench players.

“Norman Powell is doing great, averaging about 14 points a game,” Crawford, who works as an NBA analyst for TNT and NBA TV, said in an interview with The Times. “And he’s on one of the best teams in the league. And he’s doing it when they need him to do it. We know the stars are going to be stars, but they got to have that punch. His punch, when he brings that punch, it can get everybody else on track.”

Crawford has a good perspective on what it takes to be a successful sixth man because he’s tied with Williams for the most such honors in NBA history.

Crawford won two while playing alongside former Clippers stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Yet Crawford knew his value to the team was high.

“It’s a balance, right, because you got to believe in something bigger than yourself on being on a good team,” Crawford said. “And then you also have to use that confidence in a different way to say, ‘You know what? They started the show, but Superman is coming in.’ You come to save the day. You got to hype yourself up to walk around the stars’ confidence. So, it’s a balance of humility and being humbled but then knowing I’m a bad boy whether I start or come off the bench.”

Powell performs that same balancing act with the current Clippers stars. He’s playing alongside four likely future Hall of Famers in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Still, the 6-foot-3 Powell knows his role is important to the team and that foursome.

“Yeah, definitely. I think the roles change,” Powell said. “I think especially with this team and how dynamic we are, especially with the star power that we have — four Hall of Famers, four guys who have had teams built around them. It’s me trying to earn my way and battle and fight and make it tough for those guys and show that I’m here as well.

“They have the lifelong career of accolades and All-Star games and I still see myself at that level that I can be given the opportunity. So it’s balancing yourself out, knowing that you’re as good as these guys. You might not have the notoriety, but the skill set, the determination, the work ethic is right at the top with them. But balancing it out and knowing that they are the guys that we are going to play through. They are the guys we are built around and it’s my job to help them, making it easier on them and give them the best opportunity for me to be successful as well.”

The idea that the Clippers have garnered more sixth-man awards than any other team made Doc Rivers smile with pride.

Rivers was the coach of the Clippers when Crawford, Williams and Harrell were the winners, and he sees Powell in the same vein.

“He is just a flamethrower,” Rivers said. “He has great confidence. All three of those guys — Jamal, Lou, Norman — could have easily started on most teams and they accepted like, ‘I’ll be the guy coming off the bench.’ That’s a place they mentally have to go to. So, yeah, the Clippers have another great sixth man in Norman.”

In a high-stakes game at Minnesota this month, Powell showed his worth. George was five for 15 from the field for 15 points while Harden missed all 10 of his shots and scored just four points.

Powell stepped into that void, playing efficiently in scoring 24 points on nine-for-13 shooting that included six of eight from three-point range.

He missed last Sunday’s game against Atlanta because of a left lower leg contusion, and the Clippers missed Powell’s scoring and energy.

“The biggest thing about being a good sixth man is sacrifice and then, two, being able to watch the game and put your input on there and what the team is needing and what the game flow is calling, asking for, what the team is lacking,” Powell said. “Every game is going to be different. It might not be scoring. It might be defensive rebounding. It might be getting defensive stops. It might be communicating.

“It might not be your night, in terms of putting up stats, but you’re helping the guys on the floor with what you see in that sixth-man role coming off the bench. It could be how the refs are calling [the game], what we’re lacking offensively, defensively and building that confidence. I think that’s what the sixth-man role is, that next player up that helps the team no matter what’s being asked of him.”

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