Growing up, before I made it to high school, when I first started playing ball, the small forward spot was my comfort zone. I grew early, was nearly six foot by the seventh grade, but I never wanted to go hard in the paint Waka Flocka-style. For any big man growing up, that three spot was Disney Land. Oh so close, and yet sometimes so far off. It was attainable if you took just enough head-scratching jumpers, and showcased just enough of a propensity to shrink underneath the boards. Then maybe… just maybe they’d move you outside and you’d be free to divulge your inner Sam Perkins.
The point being, small forward is the ultimately position of versatility. It’s always been that way. Now we have these Drake-tendency power forwards running around shooting threes, but the three man birthed the point forward, the Bernard Kings of the midrange and even some of the greatest three-point gunners of all time. As a small forward, you have traditionally two smaller and quicker players out there with you, and two larger and slower teammates. Because of this you can play basically anywhere you want and not look out of place.
After reading our lists of the top 10 point guards, top 10 centers and the top 10 power forwards in the game today, you realize how hard it is to put something like this together. Everyone’s an expert and has an opinion of their own, so no matter what combination of 10 NBA players you assemble, even if they’re all All-Stars, you’re bound to leave off a former All-Star or up-and-coming talent. And no, I didn’t include Derrick Williams on this. Show me something first.
So with that, here are the top 10 small forwards in the NBA right now:
10. Luol Deng
I’m giving Deng the nod at the edge of this list over two other guys â€“ Michael Beasley and Stephen Jackson â€“ who are both natural small forwards with much better all-around offensive talent solely because Deng is twice the defensive player. In fact, Deng had the same defensive rating (amount of points given up per 100 possessions) last season as Josh Smith and LeBron (102), and was better than Andre Iguodala (104), Gerald Wallace (105), Rudy Gay (105), Danny Granger (106), Kevin Durant (107) and way better than Beasley, Jackson and Carmelo Anthony. Of course, it helps to play for Tom Thibodeau, but Deng has always been the equivalent of a T.I. album: solid all the way through.
Last season also found him at his best offensively since before the Bulls had Derrick Rose simply because he was pushed back into a secondary role. I’ll be stressing this point a lot with the bottom half of this list, but there seems to be an inordinate amount of small forwards in this league with way too much offensive responsibility. Could Deng average 18.6 points in Charlotte, as Jackson did last year? Easily. He averaged 17.4 a night last year while shooting much better (46 to 41 percent). Would he be a better player? If he was forced into a primary offensive role, no way. Chicago is the perfect fit for him, and he should’ve gotten more credit. I’d argue you’d have a case for putting him ahead of Iguodala on the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team last year.
He’ll never be what we once thought he could be (Remember when Chicago wouldn’t even part with him for Kobe Bryant?). But you can win a championship if you’re counting on Deng.
9. Andre Iguodala
Someone save him. Hire Tom Hanks to star in another movie where some long lost friend rediscovers Iggy and finds out he’s deteriorating and stuck in one of the worst situations possible (for his strengths). I swear Iguodala (who plays some two as well, but fits better as a SF) could be the first player in NBA history to be overvalued and overrated, and yet still have the potential to be a huge piece of a future championship team. He’s the classic beer goggles player: in Philly, he looks solid, but shoots too often, handles the ball too much on the perimeter and gets far too much responsibility. On other teams, if he was the third-best player who could concentrate on defense and rebounding, Iggy would be invaluable. Ask everyone from that 2010 USA World Championship team. I’ve said before I think he might be the best wing defender in the league.
Offensively, he took a big step back last year, scoring barely 14 a night. But he averaged a career high in assists, and is probably the second-best playmaker on this list. It’s amazing how similar in production he is to Gerald Wallace. But whereas Wallace stepped up his game in the playoffs last season, Iggy’s numbers fell to 11, seven and seven when Philly needed him the most. He’s supposed to be entering his prime, and yet Iguodala is dreading water. For that, I have to give Crash the slight edge.
8. Gerald Wallace
Wallace isn’t quite the hyperactive pinball he was a few years ago in Charlotte when he regularly put up 22/10/4/3/2 lines as if he was playing 2K12 on 10 minute quarters. But when you look at his contributions across the board, there’s the athleticism, the rebounding, the inside scoring, the ability to play off the ball and of course, that defense.
Wallace will be turning 30 years old next summer so there’s no question his time in this top 10 is waning. There’s also no doubt that before he left Charlotte, his game was sputtering on its final fuel. But would you believe as a Blazer, his PER jumped nearly four points (15 to 18.9), his shooting percentages skyrocketed (53 to 59 percent true shooting) and his steal percentage nearly doubled to 3.1. He had officially found his match, and was finally the third option he was destined to be all along. No more nights masquerading as the only Bobcat who could score and no more nights spent leaning on players like D.J. Augustin to get him the ball.
Wallace will never be a great shooter – although he’s better than you would expect – and he’ll never be able to create much off the dribble. But as a guy who can swing between being a primary star and a secondary role player, you can’t do much better.
7. Josh Smith
Is he a full-time small forward? No. Should he be? I think so, especially after Atlanta showed in the playoffs what they could be if they played a more conventional lineup with him at the three (Teague, Johnson, Smith, Horford and Collins). It’s hard to pinpoint Smith onto one list considering he’s basically a combo forward. But since my man AP didn’t think of him as enough of a four to make his top power forwards list, he finds his way here. Smith’s problem is he can’t shoot… like at all. In fact, there should be a rule in the ATL: if Smith takes a three .
Two years ago, Smith cut the fat out and refused to shoot them. He even cut down his calories by passing more often (career high in assists) and his sugar intake by shooting less (highest field-goal percentage of his career). It was no surprise he had by far the best year of his career. Last year, Smith had a relapse, and starting shooting threes again. He wasn’t quite at his best, but when he is as he was during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semis last May against Chicago (23 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists and two blocks), there are very few players more versatile.
If he had an even passable jump shot, I’d probably rate Smith a spot or two higher. But because of that one glaring weakness, it forces him to play within a 15-foot box. As it is, he’ll still average a 17/9/3 and a combined three steals and blocks a night.
6. Danny Granger
Everything about Granger’s situation is perfect. He’s in a state that cares more about the end result rather than how you got there or how pretty it looked. He’s playing on an uptempo team who have ballhandlers to get him the rock for open looks and a solid low-post player who can command a double team every so often. He’s found himself in a structured and balanced offense, which is the same reason why his scoring dropped nearly four points a game last season (24.1 to 20.5) and no one seemed to notice. Granger’s only problem is he’s a perfect No. 2.
He was nearly a fantasy MVP for a few seasons â€“ or at least, the most likely candidate to fall in the draft because your idiot friend only watches two games a week and thinks Carmelo Anthony is twice as good. Granger’s now 28 years old, and I’ve already seen signs of slippage in his shooting (under 43 percent for two straight years) and his defense (steals and blocks per game are both down). But part of that â€“ at least statistically â€“ comes from being on a better team. His scoring, shots and even minutes will inevitably drop as Darren Collison improves, as Paul George grows (literally), and as George Hill arrives. That’s the price to pay for winning. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything else, and when you averaged 21.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and shoot 48 percent against the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter how you do it. Those numbers jump out.
I don’t think he’s the talent that a few of the players rated below him are. But he takes less off the table than they do. Granger also gets props on this day of chaos for what he tweeted about David Stern.
5. Rudy Gay
Doesn’t it feel like Rudy Gay should be a little bit better than what he is? Match him up with LeBron and he almost stacks up physically. Not quite as filled out, not quite as powerful but still, Gay has to be one of the longest and most athletic players in the whole league who can actually handle and shoot. This has been going on for awhile now, so it was no surprise to me this summer while writing a feature on Gay that Marcus Williams â€“ Gay’s former teammate at UConn â€“ told me his talent level is off the charts but that Gay can sometimes be satisfied with it. I believe part of it is his demeanor. You seriously won’t find a more soft-spoken or chill dude in the whole league. But coming off his most efficient all-around season â€“ 19.8 points, 6.2 rebounds on 47/40/81 percentages (twos, threes & free throws) â€“ Gay finally has his stage. He should be an All-Star this year (if Memphis wins). The Grizzlies should win 50-55 games (if Gay balls out). And coming off his season-ending shoulder injury, Gay should be the one to bring it all together in Memphis.
If we’re going on potential and talent alone, Gay could be â€“ at worst â€“ right behind Carmelo Anthony on this list. He’s not there yet, and may never get there. Despite that, Gay’s versatility and his late-game clutch gene (he’s one of the best end-of-possession players out there) sneaks him into the top five. In the month before he got hurt, it was all starting to come together for him. That’s a scary thought for the West heading into this year.
4. Paul Pierce
He might have a YMCA tested and approved game, but Pierce still gets it done night after night against some of the best athletes in the world. As a crunch-time scorer, it’s hard to find anyone better than Pierce. Why? He can score from every spot on the floor and can draw and kick. Plus, he earns trips to the foul line like Ndamukong Suh earns spankings from Roger Goodell.
He might only average 18.9 points a night, but that’s more a case of playing with two other Hall of Famers on a veteran team rolling at a middling pace. If he needed to, I still believe the Truth could get you around 21 a night. I can think of maybe three or four players in the whole NBA who have a more complete offensive game (Kobe, perhaps Manu Ginobili, maybe Carmelo Anthony). Pierce can post from anywhere on the floor, can take you off the dribble and still rains threes as easily as Rick Ross makes hits. His pump-fake is about 10 years in, and yet has gotten every wing player in the league to bite.
If I need to win one playoff game, if I need to make one shot, I’m taking the Truth over everyone outside of the super-duper stars.
3. Carmelo Anthony
It’s incredible that ‘Melo has come to represent a sort of good twin of LeBron. Everything we say James isn’t, we’ve planted it all on Anthony. Clutch. Offensive juggernaut. Capable of carrying teams in the playoffs. While I agree there is something to that – LeBron’s late-game struggles point almost entirely to his lack of a midrange game, and the ability to rise up and shoot off the dribble – ‘Melo is two series wins away from being just another Tracy McGrady. Take away Denver’s 2009 run to the Western Conference Finals, and Anthony hasn’t done anything in the playoffs.
As Boston begins to crumble, and Orlando more than likely loses Dwight Howard, New York is in position to make it out of the first round. They should this year. But for the Knicks to truly win a title, it’s going to come down to ‘Melo, whether they get Chris Paul or not. Anthony is the late-game scorer, the player capable of finishing someone off in the playoffs. Inevitably with James in Miami, he’ll have to win that matchup, and that comes down to how badly he wants to play D, and if Mike D’Antoni ever holds him accountable for that.
With Tyson Chandler seemingly on his way, he’ll have someone behind him capable of erasing his mistakes. That could be huge because offensively, Anthony is what he is at this point: 26 a night on 45 percent shooting with three assists. You can take that to the bank.
2. Kevin Durant
LeBron bequeathed the Boy Wonder torch to KD sometime in the last year or so. You can enjoy Durant right now as much as you want, and you should. He can do no wrong. He can struggle in the playoffs for two consecutive years. He can be a part of two epic Western Conference Final collapses against Dallas â€“ as he was this year â€“ and yet it’ll be forgotten amidst the public’s LeBron James carnage. What he needs to improve: being able to score against physical defenders and his playmaking. But what he has: an unstoppable scoring ability, and a condor wingspan that allows him to swallow up offensive players in a web of arms and hands.
Durant makes everything look so easy that we’re all forgetting he’s still barely 23 years old. After having a down year last year (all of his scoring and rebounding numbers dropped), I’m expecting an MVP-type season from the Durantula this year.
Make sure you take enough time this year to enjoy the possible future all-time scoring leader since sooner or later, once his “newness” wears off, everyone will start hating on him.
1. LeBron James
Here’s my take. LeBron is still the best player in the league because while it’s hard to anoint someone who failed so miserably in the grandest stage last season, it’s not like anyone else has a great claim either. LeBron gets the BMOC crown by default. Kobe‘s old and can’t dominate every night anymore. Dwyane Wade is probably only second best on his own team. Kevin Durant still doesn’t do enough outside of scoring (and had his own playoff problems last year). I’m not going to suddenly give it to Dirk based off one championship. Dwight Howard stills shoots free throws too much like a musclehead. That leaves LeBron, who still had the highest PER (27.3) in the league. He was also No. 1 in win shares (15.6) by a wide margin.
He screwed up badly against Dallas last season, but he’s still the best small forward in the game (it’s not even close) and until KD starts dominating defensively or Carmelo somehow turns into the best passing forward since Larry Bird, I don’t see that changing.
Do you agree?
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