Has the torch been passed?
The new crop of elite power forwards has officially arrived. The young superstars at the position are beginning to push the aging vets out of the top spots and are cementing their status as the best in the game. While some of these changes can be attributed to new frontcourt rotations, others are a direct reflection of just how good the new crop has played, and are expected to play this season. Two of the best power forwards of all-time don’t play the position anymore (no, you won’t see Duncan or Garnett on this list). Amazingly, all position shifting aside, the average age of the top three power forwards in the game is only 24. There is not another position in basketball that has this many young studs completely setting the tone for the rest of the league.
Rewind six years ago to the 2006-2007 season. Of the top ten scorers in the league, only one was a power forward and he barely made the list (Dirk was tied with Tracy McGrady for the tenth spot). Last season? Four of the top 10 scorers in the league were power forwards – and that ratio could be even higher this year. We haven’t seen power forwards producing like this for a long time, and it looks like these guys are here to stay.
While we saw unprecedented numbers from the four spot last season, some of the most memorable moments were the ridiculous displays of athleticism from the new era of the position. These guys can run like wings and finish in ways we’ve never seen before. They also can step back and nail the three like no other crop of power forwards in the history of the league. It’s an exciting time for power forwards in the NBA, so let’s look at the best 20 at the position going into this season…
*** *** ***
20. NENE, Washington Wizards
The addition of Emeka Okafor in Washington allows Nene to slide to the power forward spot, which is clearly his more natural position. If Nene can stay on the court (he has a history of missing games for what some consider to be less-than-serious injuries), he’s a lock to be productive on offense and a force on defense. In his 11 games with the Wizards last season, he posted an excellent 24.2 PER and per-36 numbers of 20 points and 10.5 rebounds. And he shot over 60 percent from the field. Not too shabby for the big man.
19. LUIS SCOLA, Phoenix Suns
He’s not flashy, but he gets the job done. Yes, Phoenix Suns power forward Luis Scola fell victim to the amnesty clause this offseason, but it doesn’t mean he can’t produce. He’s one of the more crafty players in the post and has the ability to make a defender look absolutely stupid as he lays the ball in on a slick up-and-under. He’s not an elite rebounder or defender, but he’ll get the Suns 15 points a night.
18. KENNETH FARIED, Denver Nuggets
Kenneth Faried may be the most fun player to watch in the league. He makes up for his lack of size by playing unbelievably hard. Next time you catch a Nuggets game, keep your eyes on him for five or six straight plays. It will completely exhaust you. His rebounding numbers are way above average for power forwards and he’s good for at least one highlight reel dunk a game. It’s looking like Denver snagged the steal of the 2011 Draft when they took him at No. 22.
17. KRIS HUMPHRIES, Brooklyn Nets
Kris Humphries is statistically one of the best rebounders in the league. His 11 boards per game was the second-best clip among power forwards last season, and his 18.8 total rebounding rate was fourth. Last season was the first time Humphries averaged more than 30 minutes a game and he responded well by being one of only eight players to average a double-double in points and rebounds. The Nets will rely heavily on his rebounding prowess this season as he will have to make up for his frontcourt mate Brook Lopez, who is one of the few centers in the league that is allergic to crashing the boards.
16. DAVID WEST, Indiana Pacers
Once a back-to-back All-Star, David West’s 20 points per game seasons are clearly behind him. That doesn’t mean he’s not a solid starting four in the league, though. West is a perfect combination of toughness and intelligence. He’s a great pick-and-pop player and was among the best power forwards in the game last season from 16-23 feet out. He’s asked to do much less on the court in Indy than he was in New Orleans, but his veteran presence and leadership is crucial to this young and talented Pacers squad.
15. CARLOS BOOZER, Chicago Bulls
Once considered one of the best power forwards in the league, some question whether or not Carlos Boozer is even the best four on the Chicago Bulls at this point. While his play diminished in recent years, there is no question that the dude can still produce. He has a sweet midrange jumper and rarely takes a bad shot (53 percent from the field last season). At 30 years old, nobody expects his iffy defense to improve. The Bulls, however, are happy with his 15 points and nine boards a night (their happiness over his $15 million salary next season in another matter).
14. RYAN ANDERSON, New Orleans Hornets
Last year’s Most Improved Player, New Orleans Hornets power forward Ryan Anderson is looking to make the most of his new surroundings. He hoisted a staggering 422 threes (most attempts in the league) last season for the Magic, but converted 39 percent of them and posted a respectable 16 points a game. It’s been reported that coach Monty Williams will bring Anderson off the bench this season to be a offensive sparkplug for his young squad. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to his new role.
13. ERSAN ILYASOVA, Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee Bucks big man Ersan Ilyasova opened a lot of eyes last season as his 20.55 PER was one of the best marks for a power forward. He has excellent range (45.5 percent from three last season), but is not afraid to bang down low and scrap for rebounds. He ranked in the top ten last season in offensive rebounding rate and total rebounding rate. Ilyasova will be a big part of a Bucks team looking to avoid the lottery this season and compete for a playoff spot in the East.
12. DAVID LEE, Golden State Warriors
One guy capable of reaching the 20-and-10 plateau every year is Golden State’s David Lee. Lee is one of the better scoring bigs in the league, and is one of only five power forwards to average over 20 points a game last season. While he’s an excellent scorer and rebounder, his lackluster defense is what keeps him out of the top 10.
11. ANDREA BARGNANI, Toronto Raptors
Former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani can score the basketball. Although his rebounding numbers are far below average, his 20 points per game make him a real asset on a Raptors team that desperately wants to improve. Now that Jonas Valanciunas has arrived in Toronto, Bargnani will be able to spend a lot of time at the power forward position instead of taking a pounding night in and night out from NBA centers. Bargnani has the skills to be a top-five scoring big man in the league, and if he can stay healthy, he should do so next season.
10. SERGE IBAKA, Oklahoma City Thunder
There were only nine games last season where a player blocked eight or more shots. Oklahoma City big man Serge Ibaka is responsible for almost half of those. Not only were his 3.65 blocks per game the best in the league, but according to Basketball-Reference.com, he blocked 9.8 percent of all two-point field goals attempts while he was on the court. That’s good for the third-highest block percentage of all-time. Although he’s not likely to drop 30 points any time soon, his unique combination of ridiculous athleticism, stellar defensive instincts and world class motor make him an irreplaceable piece on a championship-caliber Oklahoma City team. And at only 23 years old, don’t be surprised if he sets some all-time block records before he’s done.
He led the league in blocks per game and total blocks (241) and was the only traditional power forward to be selected for either one of the NBA’s All-Defensive Teams (he was a first team selection). If he sees a substantial bump in his playing time (he’s averaged 27 minutes a game over the last two seasons), he could potentially be the first player to average five blocks a game since Manute Bol in 1986.
While he’s definitely not Dirk Nowitzki with the ball in his hands, he’s still decently productive on the offensive end of the floor. He converted 70 percent of his attempts at the rim last season and also shot a respectable 46 percent from 16-23 feet. He only averaged 2.6 jumpers per game from that range, but his percentage was better than LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Chris Bosh.
9. ZACH RANDOLPH, Memphis Grizzlies
It seems the consistent benchmark for a great power forward is if they can be a 20-and-10 guy. Zach Randolph may as well change his nickname from Z-Bo to 20-10, as he’s reached that mark in nearly every season he’s been a starting four in the league. Yes, he plays under the rim, but he he’s a wizard in the post and is one of the better rebounding fours in the game. According to recent reports out of Memphis, Randolph is fully healed from his recent knee injury and will be playing at 100 percent for the first time in over a year.
We didn’t see Randolph at his best last year – which is the main cause for his drop in these rankings – and his partially torn MCL deserves most of the blame. Rewind a year ago, to his last healthy season, and you can see how productive Randolph can be for the Grizzlies. In 2010-2011, he averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the floor. He was one of only six players that season to average double-digit points and rebounds.
At 31 years old, Randolph’s best days are likely behind him, but his strength has never been his athleticism. Besides maybe Kevin Love, nobody knows how to utilize every pound of their body to gain excellent rebounding position as well as Randolph – and he’s not going to forget how to do that this season. Both Randolph and the city of Memphis are hoping for a huge bounce back year for the big fella, and I don’t think he’ll disappoint.
8. PAUL MILLSAP, Utah Jazz
Utah Jazz power forward Paul Millsap combines his limitless energy with a high basketball IQ to be one of the more productive and efficient fours in the game. He’s a top ten scorer (16.6 points per game) and rebounder (8.8 boards per game) among power forwards and has done it at a bargain price ($8.6 million owed this season). He’s extremely active on defense and his 103 steals last season were the third-most in the entire NBA (no other power forward ranked in the top 20). He’s one of those right-place-at-the-right-time kind of guys and has a great nose for the ball.
The biggest knock on Millsap is his size; he is undersized for the power forward position and this weakness shows when he has to put a body on some of the more traditional fours in the league. But he plays aggressively and can out-quick the more lumbering bigs to loose balls and to the bucket. He jumpshot is nothing to freak out over, but his 71 percent at the rim was the second-best percentage in the league among qualified power forwards.
With young stud Derrick Favors breathing down his neck for additional playing time, it will be interesting to see how Millsap takes advantage of this season (a contract year) and whether or not he sticks with the Jazz beyond 2013. If he makes it to free agency next summer, there are plenty of teams that will be willing to fork out some decent cash for his services.
7. AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE, New York Knicks
New York Knicks’ power forward Amar’e Stoudemire is not the same athlete he was a few years ago in Phoenix. And he’s never going to be. However, that doesn’t change the fact that he is still a productive big man capable of exploding for huge games on any given night. It’s easy to forget that we are only one season removed from Amare being the fifth-highest scorer in basketball (2010-2011 with 25.3 points per game). One aspect of his game that is still among the best in the league is his efficiency in the paint. He converted 70 percent of his attempts at the rim last season, good for the third-highest clip among qualified power forwards.
He can still win one-on-one matchups with most non-fire extinguisher defenders. Defensively, however, he only has a puncher’s chance to stop other skilled bigs. This season we’ll see him paired (once again) with point guard Raymond Felton. Felton and Stoudemire showed an excellent chemistry over 50-plus games during the 2010-11 season and it will be interesting to see if Felton’s return provides any type of spark for Stoudemire to rekindle some of his excellence from two seasons ago.
As long as he stays healthy, Stoudemire is always a scoring threat and is likely good for at least 17 points and eight or so boards a game. While those numbers aren’t the 25 and nine we saw in Phoenix, they’re still nothing to sneeze at and the Knicks will need him to be good if they want to make noise in the postseason.
6. JOSH SMITH, Atlanta Hawks
Josh Smith is frequently near the top of the list in several important statistical categories for
power forwards. Last season, his per game averages ranked him sixth in points, fifth in rebounds, first in assists, second in steals, third in blocks and fifth in double-doubles. No other power forward in the game can stuff the stat sheet like Smith. He is by far the most underrated passing big man in the league while also being one of the most active defenders (when he wants to be). There is not another power forward in the league that can have the same impact on both ends of the floor, yet he has never made an All-Star team. It’s a head-scratcher.
Smith does have a tendency to settle for too many long jumpers (and he’s not an outstanding jump shooter), but his overall productivity makes him the most underrated power forward in the game. He could be the most explosive athlete on this list not named Griffin, and the best passer not named Gasol. Smith posted the highest scoring (18.8) and rebounding (9.6) averages of his career last season and will be looking to expand on that performance this year for the Hawks. There may not be a better power forward with the ball in his hands on a fast break than Smith, but the Hawks are consistently at the bottom of the league in pace. It will be interesting to see how Smith’s game opens up now that the ball-stopping Joe Johnson moved to the Nets.
5. PAU GASOL, Los Angeles Lakers
When I watch Pau Gasol on the basketball court, I can’t help but feel like he knows something nobody else on the court does. Rewind to last January at Staples Center. During a secondary fast-break opportunity for the Lakers, Matt Barnes fires a pass from the corner to a trailing Gasol. As Gasol enters the key, he diverts the pass with two hands around his head (and in-between two Pacers defenders) to Andrew Bynum for a bucket and a foul. It’s one of those plays that I’ve watched 10 times and still can’t see the angle that Gasol knew was there. His assist numbers are consistently near the top of the list for big men and he can sometimes be unselfish to a fault. He’s a wizard with the ball in his hands and Lakers fans should be excited to see the magic he conjures in the high-low with Dwight Howard lurking in the paint.
Gasol has never been an explosive athlete, but he’ll use every drop of the athleticism he has to beat out a youngster for a long rebound. He’s a double-double machine (three consecutive double-double seasons with the Lakers) with a solid midrange jumper and post moves that can embarrass even the best defenders down low. He’s been the Lakers second-leading scorer in all but one season since he’s been there, and has been a top-10 scoring power forward for 11 consecutive seasons (in other words, his entire NBA career). Isn’t it terrifying to think that Gasol is the fourth-most talked about Lakers starter? Okay maybe the fifth, but Metta World Peace is talked about for more extracurricular reasons.
4. DIRK NOWITZKI, Dallas Mavericks
Dirk was originally a couple spots higher on this list, but with the recent news about his knee surgery (and the subsequent time he will miss), he slipped in the rankings. Dirk isn’t a pup anymore. At 34 years old, it’s not a given that he will bounce back from even a minor arthroscopic knee procedure. When healthy, Dirk is easily one of the best in the game. When not, we’ll see.
His biggest strength is (and always will be) his scoring. He’s the most prolific scoring power forward since Karl Malone and the only one to post a career scoring average of more than 22 points a game since the Mailman left the game in 2004. Is there a more terrifying player with the ball in his hands at the elbow? Dirk shot 50 percent from 16-23 feet last season (best among power forwards who averaged more than 25 minutes a game). Combine that with his 90 percent free throw average and 37 percent clip from beyond on the arc and you have the best shooting big man in the game today – and possibly of all time.
This season will be different for Dirk. Jason Terry isn’t floating on the perimeter anymore to keep defenses honest. Jason Kidd is no longer there to spoonfeed Dirk in the perfect place at the perfect time. It will be interesting to see how he operates with all of the new pieces around him.
3. BLAKE GRIFFIN, Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin is a highlight waiting to happen. You could seemingly make a top-10 dunk video every week during the season that exclusively features the Los Angeles Clippers power forward. Luckily for the Clippers, he’s more than just a dunking monster – he’s also a beast on the glass. Griffin is one of only three power forwards to average double-digit rebounds last season. His 10.9 rebounds per game was the third-highest mark among power forwards, and his 17.8 total rebounding rate ranked him fourth.
Not only was Griffin a top-ten scorer in the league (20.7 points per game), but he converted an impressive 55 percent of his field goal attempts. He lead the league in makes at the rim per game (5.3) and also saw solid improvement on his midrange jumper. Not many bigs can handle the ball in the open court like Griffin, especially with a head of steam and a couple bodies to dunk on. He’s well worth the price of admission as he’s good for a handful of jaw-dropping athletic moments every game.
There are only two deficiencies in Griffin’s game that keep him from being higher on this list. First, among players that averaged more than 30 minutes a game last season, only Dwight Howard was a poorer free throw shooter. Improving his numbers from the line will not only boost Griffin’s scoring average, it will help ease the nerves of Clippers fans late in close games. And second, he has yet to translate his unbelievable athleticism into being a consistent presence on defense.
2. LaMARCUS ALDRIDGE, Portland Trail Blazers
While he may not be the best power forward at any one thing, Portland Trail Blazers big man LaMarcus Aldridge does a little bit of everything very well. He’s excellent with his back to the basket and has a sweet midrange game. He’s a so-so rebounder (we’ll see if his numbers increase after a full season without Marcus Camby cleaning the glass in Portland), but is an underrated post defender. He’s an excellent free throw shooter and a great finisher in the open court. In fact, he posted career-highs in both field goal and free throw percentage last year.
There have been a lot of changes in Portland this season, and it will be interesting to see how they affect Aldridge. Will new coach Terry Stotts use Aldridge in similar ways to how Dirk was utilized in Dallas? Will that mean more isolation plays from the elbow for Aldridge? Will the addition of an efficient shooting point guard like Damian Lillard (something Aldridge has never played with) open up more quality looks for the big man as the opposition will be forced to keep a close eye on the perimeter?
As injuries dimmed (or extinguished) the flames of former Trail Blazers Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, Aldridge’s star has been burning brighter every year. He demonstrated that he’s clearly up to the task of being Portland’s go-to guy by posting the second-highest scoring average among power forwards last season, and being chosen for his first All-Star Game. Expectations have decreased for the young Blazers squad, but not for Aldridge. While nobody expects the Blazers to make the playoffs this season, everyone expects Aldridge to continue his All-Star-caliber play and be the leader his young team desperately needs. Luckily for the Blazers, he certainly has the tools to do it.
1. KEVIN LOVE, Minnesota Timberwolves
Kevin Love has been unprecedentedly good. He has already done things in his brief career that have never been done before. Typically, when that happens, phrases like “redefining the position” start getting thrown around. He is the only player in NBA history to average at least 20 points and 13 rebounds per game while shooting over 37 percent from downtown in a season. Actually, he’s done it twice. And he just turned 24 years old. He’s one of only a handful of legitimate MVP candidates and will be relied upon every night as he fights to propel the Minnesota Timberwolves into the playoffs for the first time in almost 10 years.
Unfortunately for the Wolves, his super macho knuckle push-ups have him out for the first several weeks of the season. The crazy thing is that even with the missed games, he’ll still be among the league leaders in rebounds and total threes made.
His 26 points per game last season was the highest mark for a power forward since Dirk averaged 26.6 back in 2006. But unlike Dirk, Love is statistically the best rebounding power forward since Dennis Rodman. He’s the first player since Shaq to average over 26 points and 13 boards for a season. He owned the fifth-best PER in the league last year, and was selected to the All-NBA Second Team. If his defense continues to improve like it did last season, he could be atop this list for many years to come. And hopefully the Wolves management can convince him to hold off on the knuckle push-ups until after he retires.
Do you agree?
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanMcochran.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.