Do positions even matter anymore? They feel arbitrary. Shooting guards and small forwards should be wings or swingmen. Power forwards and centers should just be bigs. Most of the time, those are the terms people within the sport use. But for fans and the media, having specific one through five positions help to make sense of it all.
That’s how the NBA made news earlier this week when they said they were getting rid of the center spot on the All-Star ballet. The game perhaps isn’t changing, but people believe it is. As for the small forward spot, it’s home to some of the best individual talent in the league, and probably the two best players.
As part of our five-part series we’re running this week, we’re counting down the top 20 players in the NBA at each position. Today, I’m running through the 20 best small forwards in the world. I think you can guess the top three, but after that, there are some surprises…
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20. CARON BUTLER, Los Angeles Clippers
I nearly threw Chase Budinger in here, but he played just 22 minutes a night last year, and rang up solid advanced statistics going against second teamers and backups. Then, I nearly threw Michael Beasley in here because he has top-ten talent, and during a brief period in Minnesota, he looked like he’d eventually develop into a great sixth man who could come in off the bench and provide big scoring numbers on a playoff team. But he’s also terribly inefficient, doesn’t do much else besides score, and really, who knows what he’s going to give on a night-to-night basis? Metta World Peace is in shape, but he’s crazy. Trevor Ariza isn’t who we thought he was. Derrick Williams has been a bust so far. And Shane Battier played well for all of like 10 games last year.
Butler’s time in the NBA will be over soon, but the 6-7 swingman can still give you 12 points a night while shooting the long ball at a decent clip (1.5 a game last year at around 36 percent). Last season, his PER dropped all the way to 11.75, and playing with Chris Paul caused his usage rate to drop nearly 20 percent. You can argue he’s now just the third-best small forward on the Clippers roster, but come opening night, he’s probably still going to start.
19. TAYSHAUN PRINCE, Detroit Pistons
Prince has had a weird career. Through his rookie season in 2002-03, he rarely played, and then took center stage when he shut down the game’s top scorer (Tracy McGrady) in the playoffs. From there, Prince was incredible for a few years as a shutdown defender, using his outrageous wingspan to play an extra step off, which helped him make up for his lack of quickness.
But once Detroit’s title-contending teams started to fall off, so did Prince, and now he’s an inefficient role player on a bad team in a terrible situation.
Incredibly, per 100 possessions, the Pistons were actually 7.4 points worse with Prince in the game in 2011-12. Was it a lack of effort? A drop in athleticism? You can place the blame on a number of different areas, but more than likely, it had more to do with the Pistons as a group than anything else. They were dysfunctional, a complete mess. I wouldn’t necessarily blame Prince for that (especially when you look at his career history). It feels fluky.
What isn’t a fluke is his shooting. Among small forwards who played 30 games last year while averaging at least 25 minutes a night, Prince was dead last in true shooting percentage (47.1), way below the league average. He doesn’t make triples. He never really did. He doesn’t get to the free thow line, drawing fouls on just 5.2 percent of all his shot attempts. And last season, his shooting percentage, which had been higher than 47 percent over the last two seasons, dropped to a career-low 42 percent.
18. MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST, Charlotte Bobcats
He’s only a rookie who has never played in a real NBA game before, but I’m inclined to believe MKG will change at least one thing in Charlotte this year: he’ll get fans excited.
What he brings is intensity, and Charlotte needs a lot of it. Last year, the most intense person was sitting on the sidelines (Paul Silas). Kidd-Gilchrist won’t make triples, and I think he’ll struggle to break down NBA-level defenses off the bounce. Yet he’s always found ways to be effective.
I remember watching him in high school when he was a junior. Playing on the same team as Kyrie Irving, there were many taking Michael Gilchrist (as he was known at the time) as the best player in high school basketball, regardless of class. He wasn’t all that impressive: his jumper was super flat, he was a solid athlete but didn’t stand out, and he looked like he was near his peak as a player.
But he ended up scoring more than I anticipated, rebounding more than I anticipated, and he’s been doing that ever since. I think he’ll be the same way in the NBA.
17. JARED DUDLEY, Phoenix Suns
In order to get the most out of Dudley, he needs help. He needs a guard to get him the ball in his shooting pockets, and a defense that’ll back him up when he’s taking on the challenge of a high-scoring swingman. Basically, if you want the best from Dudley, put him on a good team. His destiny is as a role player on a great team, perhaps the four or fifth option. In Phoenix last year, even though it was probably the best year of his career â€“ starting full-time, scoring nearly 13 points a night and having a major impact on the team’s offense â€“ the Suns were average.
This year without Steve Nash, they’ll be even worse, although it’s hard to say the offense won’t at least be decent (last year they were still tied for eighth in offensive efficiency). Dudley played three different positions, and was pretty successful at all of them (although defensively, he was AWFUL at the four, giving up a PER of 31.1). He’ll continue to make shots, continue to draw fouls at a pretty high rate for someone with no game off the dribble whatsoever, and people will continue to overlook him.
16. WILSON CHANDLER, Denver Nuggets
During last year’s lockout, Chandler was one of the few who took the bait and ended up playing in China. Luckily for him, he was able to get out of the contract in time to at least contribute something to the Nuggets down the stretch and in the playoffs. It wasn’t much.
Chandler was virtually non-existant in the playoffs, scoring just 4.8 points a night through five postseason games. But even during the final weeks of the regular season, he wasn’t much help either, finishing with a single-digit PER and a true shooting percentage of 44.5, well below the league average and completely pathetic for a swingman who normally shoots it pretty well.
Considering he only played in eight regular season games with the Nuggets, and also that Denver sports what’ll likely be one of the top three offenses in the league this year, I highly doubt Chandler falters again. After being traded from New York to Denver during the 2010-11 season, he averaged 12.5 points a night, and made nearly two triples a game. While his PER was still below average (11.66) that year, it was better than his disastrous finish in 2012. Chandler isn’t as good as his talent suggests, but you can do worse.
15. GRANT HILL, Los Angeles Clippers
The 40-year-old Hill is currently out, nursing bone bruises in his right knee. But the Clippers didn’t bring him in to be insurance. They expect him to play and contribute. Hill is saying the same thing. He might be well into perhaps his third or fourth life as an NBA player, but the wheels haven’t fallen off yet.
Last season was actually his first year in Phoenix where there was a noticeable drop in production. His scoring (10.2 a night), rebounding (3.5) and shooting (45, 26 and 76 percent) took hits across the board. But Hill still had a positive effect on both sides of the ball, per BasketballValue. Even at his advanced age, he’s a solid defender who regularly gets tested by matching up with many of the game’s top scorers.
Now in Los Angeles, he’ll likely come off the bench behind Caron Butler â€“ even if I say here I still believe he’s a better player â€“ and will battle with Matt Barnes for playing time. During the preseason, Barnes has been lights out, and now has the love of Chris Paul. That could complicate things. Hill hardly saw any minutes last season at the four, but luckily, Barnes is more than capable of sliding down for some backup spot duty as a stretch power forward.
14. SHAWN MARION, Dallas Mavericks
Without Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas may struggle to stay within reach of the West’s top playoff teams for the season’s opening weeks. They’re incorporating an entirely new backcourt, as well as Chris Kaman and Elton Brand. The one constant will be Shawn Marion, the former All-Star who’s found a way to hang on despite evaporating athleticism. Remember when he was a 25-year-old beast who filled up box scores, finished fast breaks and had probably the quickest second jump of any player in the league? We figured by this point â€“ he’s now 34 years old and hasn’t been the same since being traded from Phoenix in 2007-08 â€“ he’d have nothing left to rely on. No consistent jump shot. No game off the dribble. A sliding defender without the speed and quickness to make up for mistakes.
Marion put up 10.6 points and 7.4 rebounds a night last year, and was imperative to a lot of the Mavs’ defensive schemes. In fact, during their playoff loss to Oklahoma City, the defense completely fell off without him on the court, according to BasketballValue. Nowadays, Marion isn’t needed as a primary scorer, but he’s still a valuable contributor to a playoff team.
13. ANDREI KIRILENKO, Minnesota Timberwolves
While I wrote earlier that Utah is one of the big winners from the Kevin Love injury, Kirilenko might be the biggest winner of all. Coming off a great season in Europe where he won the Euroleague MVP and was selected to the All-Euroleague First Team with CSKA Moscow, and a fantastic showing in the Olympics, AK-47 now gets to ride this wave of momentum in Minnesota, where he’ll be one of the team’s featured players throughout the first few weeks of the season.
During his final years in Utah, Kirilenko struggled. Whereas he once looked like a franchise cornerstone, a move further out on the perimeter turned him into just another decent player, someone who could get you 12 and five, but wasn’t going to make a difference in wins.
Now with the T’Wolves, he’s in direct competition with Derrick Williams for minutes, and once Love does return, he’ll be forced to play on the perimeter again. It won’t help him reach the near All-Star status he once had (expecting anything close to that is too much), but he still shoots it well-above average for a starting-caliber small forward (56.8 true shooting percentage in his last year with Utah), and is a very underrated creator.
I once took Kirilenko with a first-round pick in a fantasy draft. He was that versatile, that balanced. He’s no longer that kind of player, but he’ll be an upgrade for Minnesota this year.
12. KAWHI LEONARD, San Antonio Spurs
High? Perhaps. But I’m making the assumption that Gregg Popovich is pretty smart. I’m following his lead, and he thinks Leonard could someday be the face of the franchise. In the meantime, moderate improvement (at worst) should be expected in Leonard’s second season, and if I had a choice between Leonard, and players like AK-47, Chandler and Marion for the upcoming year, I’m going with the youngster every time.
Popovich kept the rookie under wraps for most of the season, playing him just 24 minutes a night during the regular season. Leonard, a 6-7 wing who plays more like he’s 7-feet because of his enormous wingspan and his absolutely gigantic hands, was still amazingly productive and consistent. Then in the playoffs, when most rookies wilt, the former San Diego State star actually improved on his shooting, hitting 50 percent from the field, and 45 and 81 respectively from beyond the arc and the free throw line.
Leonard is already one of the top five rebounding small forwards, and almost never turns it over (a turnover rate of 9.04). With added responsibility, that’ll likely increase, but it’s unavoidable, and shouldn’t be a hindrance because he does everything else so well.
Leonard isn’t just GOING to be great. He’s already pretty damn good, even at 21 years old. In fact, I might’ve even rated him too low. By this point next year, there’s a good chance he’ll be near the top five.
11. NICOLAS BATUM, Portland Trail Blazers
After a crazy bidding war between Minnesota and Portland this summer for his services, Batum is owed more than $46 million through 2016 on his current deal. That seems like a lot of money for a cat who wasn’t even a full-time starter last year while averaging 13.9 points a night (and a guy who also has issues with punching people in the nuts). But in reality, it’s slightly more than an average-level contract for a starter, and that’s what Batum is. I don’t think he’ll ever reach the potential some tabbed him with early in his career, but that has more to do with unreachable expectations than some fault of the Frenchman’s.
Among small forwards who played at least 25 minutes a night last year, he’s pretty average, finishing just outside of the elite group in many advanced categories. Yes, he could stand to improve his ballhandling, where he’s one of the worst passers among starting small forwards in the league, finishing with a lower assist rate than every starter outside of Danny Granger and Caron Butler. But overall, Batum is a solid player, a rangy forward who can make shots, defend and score in transition. You can win with him.
10. GERALD WALLACE, Brooklyn Nets
Crash is a conundrum of sorts for Brooklyn. They basically traded last year’s No. 6 pick (turned into Damian Lillard) for him, and then gave the now 30-year-old a four-year deal for $40 million this summer. In a sense, they had to. You can’t trade a valuable asset (a lottery pick) for 16 games of Gerald Wallace, and then let him walk, especially when you’re trying to please a partially new fanbase in Brooklyn as well as your starting point guard and franchise savior, Deron Williams.
So now they have a starting forward they’ll be paying $10 million a year until he’s 33 years old who can’t really shoot, relies almost entirely on his somewhat diminishing athleticism, has been traded twice in the past two seasons and has seen his numbers drop everywhere he’s been since the 2009-10 season with Charlotte.
That’s looking at the glass half empty. Take a different stance, as many new Brooklyn fans are sure to do, and Crash actually brings a lot to the table for the Nets. Let’s start with the obvious: he plays hard every night and is a great example as a pro for a lot of their young players. Brook Lopez has been criticized for being lazy. Kris Humphries still catches heat for being selfish. And MarShon Brooks struggles when you ask him to do anything outside of shoot. Wallace is a pinball, a forward who can defend wings, score over big men in the paint and grab rebounds at a terrific rate for someone who’s barely 6-7 and doesn’t have the hops he used to. If you have Gerald Wallace on your team, you can at least be thankful that he’ll give a shit.
This manifests itself most on defense, where his constant energy and ruggedness can help cover up many holes. Wallace isn’t a stopper in the traditional sense of the word, but he’s a valuable asset, one who made a monster defensive difference whenever he was in the game for both Portland and New Jersey last year.
That’ll be extra important now that the Nets fancy themselves a contender. According to ESPN’s John Hollinger, New Jersey was No. 27 in total rebounding rate last year, and where I’d normally blame Brook Lopez for this, he only played five games last season. It’s more than just a one-man problem. Then, there’s that defense, which was worse than everyone outside of Charlotte, and they don’t really count anyway.
Wallace only played in 16 games for New Jersey last year, and his defensive numbers, along with his playing time, were virtually identical to what he was doing with Portland. His rebounding did slightly increase â€“ from 10.7 to 11.1 in total rebounding rate â€“ but with so many free misses, it almost had to. He’s still a nuisance defensively, even if he’s no longer what he once was. But in Brooklyn, he must be even better.
Offensively, asking Wallace to be any type of creator or shotmaker isn’t going to work. He’s not someone you want spotting up for perimeter shots, even if he made a good deal of them with the Nets last year. It was only 16 games. He’s also not a great ballhandler. Thankfully, Brooklyn should have the goods this year to allow Crash to live up to his nickname and do what he does best.
9. LUOL DENG, Chicago Bulls
Recently in Smack, we asked Luol Deng to pick it up. No Derrick Rose. No prolific bench. They’re all gone, at least for the time being. Deng somehow made the All-Star Game last year despite the lockout-shortened season being one of his worst years with the Bulls. His scoring dipped. He shot 41 percent from the floor, and had his lowest true shooting percentage of the last five years (even as he shot the three-pointer better than ever before). And among all Chicago regulars, he had the worst negative impact on the team during the playoffs, according to BasketballValue.com. It wasn’t even close. Deng wasn’t exactly playing in the negative during the entire regular season, but the Bulls weren’t actually better with him on the floor, either.
Once upon a time, Deng was a key piece in potential trades involving Kobe Bryant, and even though he never reached the heights many pegged him for, he’s still a very solid player who’s at his best playing next to someone like Derrick Rose. That could help explain Deng’s troubles last year. Rose missed 27 games with various injuries in 2011-12, but the previous year, he had won a league MVP and played all but one game. That certainly helped Deng, who shot the ball much better during that season. He can go one-on-one at times and get a shot, but the former Dukie is at his best when he has someone else creating and setting the table for him. Once there, the majority of his best offensive moves come off one dribble.
With Rose out for most, if not all of this year, that heaps a barrage of questions on the Bulls. Can they survive with Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson running the show? Is the defense still good enough to carry them? Will Carlos Boozer continue to single-handedly keep Black Ice in business? And finally, does Deng have enough in the tank to bump his scoring average while also bumping his efficiency? He needs to, or else the Bulls will finish with a No. 7 or 8 seed. They’re still good enough to make the playoffs without Rose, but even if he does return, if they fall to one of those lower seeds, it’ll set them up on a date with Miami, or possibly Indiana or Boston. Currently, even with Rose back at hopefully somewhat close to 100 percent, they don’t have enough.
Individually, Deng has his own questions to answer.
8. DANILO GALLINARI, Denver Nuggets
You wouldn’t believe it, but Gallinari’s game is actually somewhat well-rounded. Of course, offensively, he makes shots from everywhere, and draws fouls on over 15 percent of his shots, a MASSIVE number for a perimeter player who’s not considered an elite scorer (that number actually jumps to nearly 20 percent during crunch time). His playmaking also exploded last year in Denver, as his assist rate nearly doubled to 18.53. He can thank George Karl‘s sped-up offense for that; half of Gallinari’s dimes were at the rim, which is where Denver lived all year.
I said “somewhat” well-rounded because while the man can do pretty much everything, he’s not elite in anything, not even shooting. Once touted by Mike D’Antoni as the best shooter the coach had ever seen, I think it’s safe to now put those claims to bed. Gallinari’s never even shot 45 percent from the floor, and his three-point percentage dropped below 33 last year, a career-low. His true shooting percentage was just 56.3, another career-low. For comparison’s sake, Steve Nash‘s number rested at 62.5.
Considering he’s playing in what’s probably the best offense in the league, and within a system that leads to a lot of open shots, this doesn’t totally make sense. But even as he’s struggled to live up to expectations on his jumper, he’s been better than expected off the bounce, where he’s become solid at getting to the rim off of two dribbles from the three-point line.
Gallinari played just 31 minutes a night last year, and now that Karl also has Andre Iguodala, and Wilson Chandler for a full season, Gallo’s overall numbers should take a slight hit.
But compared to Deng, statistically, Gallinari is much more important to his team. We know Deng is a great defender, but in Tom Thibodeau‘s system, his presence has virtually no effect on the team’s overall defensive output. They’re stingy with him or without. But Gallinari… take him out of Denver’s lineup and the Nuggets give up nearly seven points more per 100 possessions. No one will ever consider him a great one-on-one stopper â€“ he’s somewhat slow laterally, and isn’t the most physically imposing player â€“ but he knows how to use his 6-10 frame to contest shots.
Offensively, it’s much of the same. Chicago is actually better without Deng on the court while Gallinari provides Denver with a slight boost. And while most look at Gallo as simply a shooter, he’s actually slightly better off the dribble and creating for others than Deng is. As rebounders, they are virtually identical.
Gallinari doesn’t have the rep of Luol Deng, who’s gotten to that point where he’s been called underrated for so long that he’s now probably overrated. But in the end, he’s a better overall player.