The small forward used to compliment the frontcourt, but in the contemporary game it’s a position that’s turned out elite wing players with the body of a power forward from just a generation prior. Small forwards are basketball renaissance men who can do it all: shoot, pass, handle the ball and create havoc for opponents. That’s what makes this list so difficult to pin down.
A class of players far deeper than that of the shooting guard position, the small forward is a hybrid position home to many all-time great scorers and defenders. Names like Alex English, Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, and Carmelo Anthony all hold meaning for their talent as elite scorers but the position class is so deep not one made the top 10. Multiple time All-Stars like Paul Pierce and Shawn Marion are worth noting but also fell short of the all time list. Selecting just ten names from such a large pool of players makes it tough to trim the fat. Here are the 10 greatest small forwards in NBA history:
[RELATED: The 10 greatest point guards in NBA history]
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Honorable mention: Paul Pierce
The Truth has been getting it done with an old school game predicated on wile rather than an overwhelming athleticism. He’s just as liable to pull out an up-and-under as he is to just go up with the ball. While he’s no longer the player who made 10 consecutive all-star games between 2002 and 2012, Double P is still worthy of mention on this list.
He has a title and was the 2008 NBA Finals MVP, but he’s only ever finished within the top 10 for MVP voting once, during Boston’s followup to his only ring. Now he’s masquerading as the same big shot player in Brooklyn, but his athletic gifts — already a notch below some of the game’s contemporary greats — are in remission. Still, he’ll be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and if it weren’t for the overwhelming number of talented power forwards, he’d crack the top 10.
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10. Kevin Durant
Career Accolades: MVP, 5X All-Star, 4X All-NBA
It’s hard to put a player this young on the list. He’s 25 years old, never won a championship, and doesn’t have as long of a resume as many players left off the list. Yet, he might’ve just had the greatest scoring season ever for a wing. The MVP award definitely helps, and it goes a long way towards his inclusion when a guy like Pierce is left off. He also just won his fourth scoring title in seven years as an NBA player. He joins Adrian Dantley as the only two players ever to average 30 plus points a game with a true shooting percentage of .630 or higher. He also just became one of three players to average 30 or more points, seven or more rebounds, five or more assists, and still shoot above 50 percent from the field. The other two guys are Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. Durant just came off a historic season and will have a chance to really throw himself into the conversation if he can carry his regular season success deep into the playoffs.
9. James Worthy
Career Accolades: 3X Champion, Finals MVP, 7X All-Star, 2X All-NBA
Big Game James got a hell of a ride. Due to a ridiculous trade which landed the already loaded Lakers the No. 1 overall pick, Worthy was drafted to Los Angeles. It was the first time in NBA history the reigning champions held the number one pick. At 21 Worthy joined forces with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and Bob McAdoo. Worthy stepped up big for the Lakers over the years, winning three championships and even stealing a controversial Finals MVP away from Magic. His per-game numbers are nowhere near as flashy as the other guys on this list but he was a great contributor with a fantastic team.
8. Rick Barry
Career Accolades: Champion, Finals MVP, 12X All-Star, 10X All-NBA
Barry is someone who takes a lot of crap for his reputation as a selfish teammate, but the guy can play. He also gets knocked for spending some of his prime years in the ABA. But his time there might actually make him better suited for today’s game. Barry was a grimy, grinder of a player. He also had that old school toughness and the new school scoring style. He had experience shooting the three ball, unlike many of his NBA peers. He also finished his career as — at the time — the all-time leader in points per game.
7. Dominique Wilkins
Career Accolades: 9x All-Star, 7X All-NBA
‘Nique was as sensational a player as they come. Trapped in the shadow of basketball’s greatest era, as both an entertainer and player, he never reached the pinnacle of what could’ve been. The meat of his career spanned ten seasons in which he averaged 28 points per game. Wilkins was a gifted athlete, using athleticism to flat-out drop buckets. Unfortunately for ‘Nique, the height of his playoff prowess was a Game 7 loss against the Celtics in the Eastern Semifinals. Despite losing the series, ‘Nique was sensational: he averaged 31 points a contest throughout the matchup. In iconic final game with his back against the wall, he scored 47 points but ultimately was unable to trump the Celtics’ superior talent. Stay tuned for more on one of the participants in that game.
6. John Havlicek
Career Accolades: 8X Champion, Finals MVP, 13X All-Star, 11X All-NBA, 8X All-NBA Defense
Hondo was an excellent player all around. He brought a Scottie Pippen-esque impact to the Celtics. He was a winner, he could score, facilitate, and defend. Unlike Pippen, after Russell left, Hondo continued the winning tradition and proved he could win as The Man. In 1974 Hondo (and Dave Cowens) carried the Celtics over a loaded Milwaukee Bucks squad, featuring 1974 MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, to a 4-3 win in the NBA Finals. Hondo benefited from playing on some excellent teams but he was a gifted player with few, if any, weaknesses; Hondo was a jack-of-all-trades everyman for a host of impressive C’s squads.
5. Elgin Baylor
Career Accolades: 11X All-Star, 10X All-NBA
Baylor put up incredible per-game numbers throughout his career. Over one five-year span he averaged 32 points, 16 rebounds, and nearly five assists per game. He was even once credited with saving the Lakers franchise by owner Bob Short. However, Elgin Baylor reached the NBA finals eight times and failed to leave with a single championship. He was an elite talent, his numbers — specifically his scoring — blew people away, but even with Jerry West, and eventually Wilt Chamberlain he didn’t win a title, retiring after playing nine games for the 1971-72 Lakers who would go on to win the 1972 title after rattling off a still-record 33 consecutive wins during the regular season.
4. Scottie Pippen
Career Accolades: 6X Champion, 7X All-Star, 7X All-NBA, 10X All-NBA Defense
The best sidekick in the history of sidekicks, and that’s not an insult. If only every NBA superstar had a superstar teammate completely willing to ride shotgun. Pippen had the talent, he could do it all, but his ability to fill in the gaps and be who the team needed him to be any given night made him special. We’ll never know if prime Scottie could’ve been “The Man” on his own team. What we do know is he got to win six championships next to MJ and it sure didn’t hurt his legacy.
3. Julius Erving
Career Accolades: 2X ABA Champion, Champion, 3X ABA MVP, MVP, 16X All-Star, 12X All-NBA, All-NBA Defense
Although Mr. Vince Carter is the best dunk artist of all time [Ed. Note: No], DR. J was no slouch. He put fans in the stands with a lot more than his dunks. He won a total of four MVP’s (three in the ABA) and was a dynamic scorer who couldn’t be kept out of the paint. The knock on DR. J stems from the majority of his elite seasons coming during his time in the ABA. His NBA championship at 32, and his NBA MVP should assure any doubters of his ability to ball, though.
2. LeBron James
Career Accolades: 2X Champion, 2X Finals MVP, 4X MVP, 10X All-Star, 9X All-NBA, 5X All-NBA Defense
The King could’ve been number one and very few people reading this would’ve flinched. LeBron is up there with Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal for the most dominant players to ever step on the hardwood. Closer to the Big O than MJ in style of play, LeBron has bullied his way into the NBA elite. He may or may not finish his career as the best to ever lace them up, but make no mistake people we are watching the prime of an NBA legend.
1. Larry Bird
Career Accolades: 3X Champion, 2X Finals MVP, 3X MVP (the last person to do so in consecutive years), 12X All-Star, 10X All-NBA, 3X All-NBA Defense
Larry Legend holds the top spot for at least one more year. Who knows where he will be after this year’s NBA finals. The Legend is one of only three players to win three MVP awards in consecutive years; the other two players being Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. The Legend helped create legends as much as he was one himself. Some of the best rivalries and duels in NBA history have Bird at one end. Bird vs. Nique, Bird vs. King, and of course the immortal and greatest rivalry in sports history Bird vs. Magic. The Legend was incredibly efficient, a killer shooter, a gritty player, and most importantly a winner. If his body had held up he might have a legitimate argument for the GOAT.
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