Shandon Anderson, Antoine Carr and Matt Harpring might’ve been stellar off the bench for the Utah Jazz, but nobody was a stronger sixth man than Thurl Bailey.
I’ll admit it: Thurl Bailey was well before my time. And if it wasn’t for his appearance in “The Singles Ward” back in 2002 or the fact that he’s a full-time, in-arena broadcast analyst for the Utah Jazz, it probably would’ve taken longer than it did for me to take an interest in his career.
Luckily, as I matured as an NBA fan, bench-scoring greats like Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams, Manu Ginóbili and yes, even James Harden for the first three years of his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder, led me to seek out and study the best sixth men in league history.
Having “been there” and “done that” with the NBA’s most storied bench players, I can say with confidence that Bailey isn’t an all-time super-sub. As far as Jazz history is concerned, though, he wasn’t only one of the best off the bench to don the purple, green and gold of Mardis Gras …
He is the best.
Bailey spent 12 of his 16 years as a professional basketball player in the NBA — the other four were overseas in Greece and Italy. Of those twelve years, nine were with Frank Layden, Jerry Sloan and the Utah Jazz. And while he started his first two years in Utah, the rest were off the bench.
For his career, as a bench player, Bailey averaged 16 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.2 blocks — starter-level numbers, as (truthfully) he was getting starter’s minutes. But while the numbers were impressive, what most set Bailey apart from the rest of the league was his incessant motor out on the court — he’d do whatever it took to win a basketball game.
In Bailey’s mind, his win-at-all-costs attitude meant suiting up for and playing in as many games as he was needed. John Stockton might’ve missed only 22 games in 19 NBA seasons, but Thurl’s durability wasn’t too shabby, either. In eight straight seasons from 1983 to 1991, Bailey played in a minimum of 80 basketball games — stunning stuff in the age of “load management,” for sure.
As a bench player, Bailey’s two best years in a Jazz uniform came during the 1987-1988 and 1988-1989 NBA seasons. During that spell, in spite of only starting in 13 of 164 possible games, Bailey averaged just under 20 points. Tack on two-year averages of six rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.3 blocks, and it’s staggering he didn’t take down the Sixth Man of the Year Award at least once.
In hindsight, for both seasons, Bailey’s doing in as a potential Sixth Man of the Year was likely due to the minutes coach Sloan gave him. In 1988, Roy Tarpley won the award with an average of 28.5 minutes per game — Bailey averaged 34.2 of ‘em. In 1989, it was more of the same with Eddie Johnson playing 29.2 minutes per contest, compared to 33.9 on Bailey’s end.
Whatever the end result, the point remains the same: Bailey was a beast.
To all those Jazz fans who offer a prayer of gratitude at the feet of the Stockton and Malone statues on game days, take a minute to remember just how good Bailey was for Utah back in the day. This much I can guarantee you — the Jazz’s current roster could use more players like him.