Pay attention to Bobby Portis as the Sixth Man of the Year

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Bobby Portis is having one of the best seasons of his career and making a strong case as the best bench player in the NBA.

In the Milwaukee Bucks’ final game of last season, their seventh of a second-round series against the Boston Celtics, Bobby Portis felt as though he let his team down.

Portis was held to 10 points and six rebounds off the bench as the Bucks were eliminated from the playoffs. It wrapped up what had been an underwhelming series for him: He averaged 9.9 points on 39.4 percent shooting, both marks well below his regular-season standards. Portis went into his eighth NBA offseason committed to learning from that experience.

“I think the Boston series really helped my game take off a lot,” Portis says.

Now Portis is putting together a career season for a Bucks team with hopes of returning to the Finals. Portis is averaging 14.2 points and 10 rebounds, shooting more efficiently and remaining available while key teammates miss time with injuries. And he’s doing it, mostly, off the bench.

Oddly enough, Portis has been overlooked as a Sixth Man of the Year contender, with a majority of select media members in a recent survey giving nods to seven others before mentioning Portis. Make no bones about it: Bobby Portis deserves to be among the first mentioned in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

In fact, it’s a goal of his. How do I know? Because Portis brought it up, unprompted, during a recent conversation in Miami.

“I wanna be Sixth Man of the Year,” Portis says when asked about his durability this season. “It’s been a goal of mine for a couple of years now. I don’t think I had a realistic chance over the last couple of years [with other teams] because some of the teams I’ve been on, and my role really wasn’t big like it is on this team.

“I got super confident in my game and my abilities over the summertime, and add that to the confidence that I already had, I think it’s a goal that is very attainable.”

At 27, Portis is more comfortable than ever with his place in the NBA. After playing for three teams in two seasons, Portis arrived in Milwaukee in 2020 and helped deliver a championship. He’s been with the Bucks now for three seasons, playing alongside mostly the same teammates, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez.

Last season, Portis was thrust into the starting lineup because of a months-long back injury to Lopez. This season, with Lopez healthy, Portis has settled back into his sixth-man role. He’s seen by the organization as the sixth starter. Portis plays most of his minutes alongside Antetokounmpo and Holiday, spacing the floor with pick-and-pops and providing an outlet when defenses load up on Milwaukee’s stars. Lineups that include Portis are outscoring opponents by 2.1 points per 100 possessions, versus 1.8 points per 100 without him, per Cleaning the Glass.

“Being in the system I’ve been in for three seasons now, I know more where to get the ball and things like that,” Portis says. “I’ve played off the guys that are here as well so the chemistry and camaraderie are already there. I’ve been playing with them for a minute now.”

Bobby Portis has re-balanced his offensive game this season

Rewind to the Celtics series. Portis had a hard time finding ways to impact the game when Boston committed everybody to stopping Giannis. The Celtics zoned up to build a wall between Giannis and the basket, daring the other Bucks to take advantage.

That left Portis alone to attack late closeouts or get matched up with smaller players while Boston’s bigs had their hands full with Giannis. Portis often rushed his shots or shied away from plowing his way to the basket against a smaller player.

Over the summer, Portis critiqued himself while reviewing film. He also realized he’d often sway to the left or right when rising for a jumper. Portis worked with shooting coach Christopher Matthews on maintaining his balance throughout his jumpshot and building muscle memory to make every jumper look the same. He’s locked into a shooting routine that he repeats every day during the season. While his 3-point percentage isn’t yet where he wants it to be, Portis is shooting a career-high on 2s (56.6 percent) and from the free-throw line (82.9 percent) this season.

“My balance, staying straighter on my shots, my follow through,” he says.

Portis is more choosy about his spots and patiently allows the defense to churn so he can leverage his strengths. He’s getting to the rim more than last season and finishing at a career-best rate of 67 percent and making 44.2 percent of his floaters. Portis won’t ever purge the occasional post-up from his game, but he’s converting at a career-best rate (0.99 points per possession).

“Trying not to be a guy that is easily scouted,” Portis says. “Try to mix my game up. I can pick-and-pop, I can roll to the hole, kick out, post-ups. Try to be as versatile as I can.”

Among the Sixth Man of the Year candidates, only Portis is averaging a double-double. Adding to his case is the fact that he’s yet to miss a game this season. Having filled in as a starter over the past four games as Giannis nurses a knee injury, Portis has played in every Bucks game this season. If he plays all 82 for a team that has been forced to navigate injuries to its best players all season, that should factor into the Sixth Man of the Year voting.

“That’s a goal of mine,” Portis says of playing every game this season. “I pride myself on being available for my team, for myself. It’s my dream to play in the NBA, so that’s enough for me to get some rest at night, take care of my body to the upmost and just be available for my team.”

With half the season left to play, the Sixth Man of the Year race is far from over, but Portis has done enough to insert himself into the conversation. If he keeps this up, he should be considered among the favorites.

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