The small forward position is the most diverse position in the NBA, mainly because the job descriptions of small forwards vary with each of the NBA’s thirty franchises.
Rashard Lewis is asked to put up points from the outside, Corey Maggette does the brunt of his work inside, while Luol Deng is a mid-range maestro. Ron Artest and Paul Pierce are ferocious two-way players who dominate both ends of the court, while Kevin Durant specializes in offense and Tayshaun Prince’s priority is defense.
Hedo Turkoglu does his best work with the ball in his hands, Matt Harpring is at his best with the ball not in his hands, and Trevor Ariza is adept at causing the ball to change hands.
This list does not take into account a player’s future prospects or past salad days. The criteria is simple: Which NBA small forward would be best suited to winning a championship with a random collection of starting-level talent. For example, if Andris Biedrins, Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, and Beno Udrih are your teammates, who would you want as your small forward?
Due to the way some NBA lineups are presently constructed, a handful of potential small forwards will be asked to play different positions this year. For that reason, Boris Diaw is listed as a small forward, while Shane Battier, Andre Iguodala, Josh Howard, and Stephen Jackson are considered shooting guards.
No rookies made the list, as neither you nor I have seen them play in meaningful games against meaningful competition to know where they should be ranked.
With the formalities over and done with, the list.
1. LeBron James—Cleveland Cavaliers
An awesome combination of speed and power, LeBron is a force unlike any other in NBA history. Sure, other great wings have shared his phenomenal athleticism, but Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Julius Irving, and Kobe Bryant can’t simply run through people, and Karl Malone can’t run and jump the way LeBron can.
What’s more, James has taken it upon himself to work on his defensive game, which is leaps and bounds better than it was at this point two years ago. He’s an unselfish star, an almost unstoppable force, and has the potential to rewrite NBA history books before his career is over.
The frightening part is that James can still improve so much.
His post skills are shockingly rudimentary for a player with his size and strength. James also tends to massage the ball too long in pressure situations, his jump shot is streaky, and he has almost no mid-range game to speak of.
Plus, while James’ defense is very good, he still tends to play too off-balanced where quick players can attack his first step or change direction on him far too easily. This, among other reasons, is why Rafer Alston scored with so much ease during the Eastern Conference Finals, and why conversations imploring James as the best defender in the NBA are totally bogus.
Still, considering James’ defensive improvement the past two years, it’s fair to expect similar strides to be made this year. He’s already easily the best small forward in the game. If he continues to add to his repertoire, he might become one of the best players of all-time.
2. Paul Pierce—Boston Celtics
There are a couple of reasons why Pierce takes the two spot away from Carmelo Anthony. One, while Anthony is certainly clutch, he has an alarming habit of disappearing against good teams in the postseason, as he did over the final five games in Denver’s series against the Lakers. Contrast this with Pierce who steps his game up in the playoffs.
Secondly, while Pierce and Anthony are both adept at being their teams’ top scorers and top playmakers, Pierce doubles as Boston’s perimeter defensive stopper while Anthony’s defense isn’t up to par. If Carmelo’s the better raw scorer, Pierce is more reliable in huge games.
3. Carmelo Anthony—Denver Nuggets
Anthony is right on the cusp of greatness. His ability to put the ball in the basket is phenomenal, he’s reliable late in games, and his shot selection is worlds better since Chauncey Billups arrived in Denver. If only he’d stop checking himself out of contests when a defense prevents him from simply showing up and dominating. The ability to transcend great opposing defensive gameplans is what’s holding him down from being an MVP-caliber superstar.
4. Ron Artest—Los Angeles Lakers
Rough and rugged, Artest is a monster near the basket since he’s simply too strong for most opposing wings to handle. He can also knock down standstill threes, occasionally can create offense off the dribble, and is one of the three best perimeter defenders in the game.
Artest will tend to make brainless decisions on both ends of the court—gambling for steals on defense, while dribbling away the shot clock on offense—and he isn’t reliable under pressure situations. Still, he’s one of the finest two-way players in the league regardless of position.
5. Caron Butler—Washington Wizards
Butler’s defense slipped last year as he was asked to carry more of an offensive role for Washington, but you can count on Butler to use his quick hands to rip away steals by the bushel while scoring timely baskets on offense. Butler is a below average shooter, and he doesn’t have the raw talent to single-handedly take over games, but because he’s tough, athletic, and hard-working, he constantly makes plays at both ends of the court.
6. Kevin Durant—Oklahoma City Thunder
Even with only two seasons in the league, Durant has already proven to be an explosive scorer. His shooting stroke is flawless, and because of his 6’9” height, his jumper is seldom contested.
Besides having a superior jump shot, Durant is also a gifted athlete, with a dynamite first step, the ability to leap small buildings, and the wingspan of a pterosaur. There’s no doubt that Durant is the league’s next gifted scorer.
Where can Durant improve? He’s still too frail to be a dominant scorer in the paint, his defensive instincts are poor, and he doesn’t have much of a back-to-the-basket game. His passwork and court awareness also aren’t up to snuff. But if Durant’s body fills out the way it should, and if he continues to learn from his mistakes, he’ll put up prodigious numbers for at least a decade.
7. Danny Granger—Indiana Pacers
Last season, Granger showed that he’s a pure point-producer from near, far, and anywhere in between, though he does most of his work from the perimeter. He’s a tough cover because he’s bigger than most shooting guards, and faster than most forwards. His next step is improving his defense to make him a complete player.
8. Richard Jefferson—San Antonio Spurs
Jefferson’s an interesting case study because of his uneven career. When asked to be a team’s major scorer he’s responded by taking plays off defensively and lounging around the perimeter. When Jefferson’s been a supporting option, he’s played ferocious defense, and smart, fearless offense. Given that he’s once again surrounded by elite talent, it’s fair to expect to see the Jefferson from the Nets’ championship runs, as opposed to the average star who’s stagnated the past several seasons.
9. Gerald Wallace—Charlotte Bobcats
Wallace can run, jump, score, and defend making him an extremely valuable commodity. He’s not a good enough scorer to carry a team, mostly because he’s an erratic jump shooter, but would be an exceptional complementary. Defensively, Wallace uses his quick feet and quicker hands to intercept any wayward pass or dribble in his vicinity. Plus, he’s a solid positional defender who doesn’t have to brazenly gamble to make a defensive impact. Consider Wallace the Bobcats’ version of Caron Butler.
10. Hedo Turkoglu—Toronto Raptors
Turkoglu’s a gifted playmaker, an accurate shooter, and one of the game’s most clutch performers when a contest’s final seconds are trickling down. Turkoglu’s exceptional at reading screens and punishing opponents that aren’t coordinated in their defense. Because of his 6’10’ height, he can simply shoot over most defenses, and a tricky first step, combined with his length, allows him to beat defenders to the rim.
All this being said, Turkoglu isn’t a gifted athlete and can be slowed down one-on-one by quick perimeter defenders. Also, good screen defense limits his effectiveness popping off picks to shoot, drive, or pass. Plus, since he isn’t particularly athletic or strong, he’s a deficient defender.
Despite those deficiencies, Turkoglu is a terrific playmaker. Without Dwight Howard setting crushing screens, and three-point shooters enveloping the perimeter, it’ll be a wonder to see just how creative Turkoglu is, though, without the perfect system for his talents.
11. Rashard Lewis—Orlando Magic
A mad bomber extraordinaire, Lewis has the capability to sink the opposition under a deluge of three-balls. If the flood gates aren’t opening for Lewis from downtown, he’s a capable slasher who can also post up, and who has become a hard-working defender.
Lewis’ offense is very streaky and he’ll turn into a missing person if his shooting hand isn’t running hot. His defense, while improved, isn’t anything special, and he goes through too many dry spells offensively to be a superstar. Lewis is a very good player, but he hasn’t been worth the exorbitant $118 million contract the Magic shelled out for him.
12. Shawn Marion—Dallas Mavericks
While Marion built his reputation as a scorer in Phoenix’ free-flowing seven-seconds-or-less offense, his best attribute is his ability to play strong individual defense against most small forwards, and some power forwards and shooting guards.
Marion’s effectiveness has declined the past few seasons because he can’t find a way to fit into halfcourt systems. His inability to succeed in the halfcourt keeps him out of the top ten.
13. Tayshaun Prince—Detroit Pistons
One of the premier wing defenders in the business, Prince’s wingspan swallows up the majority of the players he’s assigned to guard. If Prince has a defensive weakness, he’s not particularly strong, so scorers with muscle can go through him, instead of the nigh-impossible task of trying to get around him.
Offensively, Prince can handle, shoot, and has a left hook he likes to put up from the right box, though his calling card is clearly on the defensive end.
14. Andrei Kirilenko—Utah Jazz
Kirilenko may be the most versatile player in the NBA. His length makes him a good on-ball defender, and his athleticism allows him to be an ace shot-blocker, steals-generator, and finisher in the open court.
He’s an able rebounder, passer, slasher, and shooter as well, sampling statistical categories for his box score, the way wine-tasters sample new bottles. A glass of rebounds here, a sip of blocked shots there, Kirilenko’s penchant for filling up different stat categories plays to his all-around utility on the court.
Unfortunately, besides playing long-armed defense, there aren’t many things in which Kirilenko excels at. He’s not a particularly tough defender, he’s not an exceptional offensive player in any category, and most damning of all, he has a reputation of not competing with games on the line.
Kirilenko’s confidence wavers too easily, preventing him from being a special player, and preventing the Jazz from being a special team.
15. Wilson Chandler—New York Knicks
Chandler is the real deal. He’s a prime time athlete that can handle and finish, he makes good decisions with the ball, and plays above average defense considering New York’s laissez faire attitude on that end of the court. With more experience and more confidence, Chandler could easily become a twenty-point scorer.
16. James Posey—New Orleans Hornets
Posey’s a tough, rugged defender, probably the best in the business at roughing up perimeter scorers and throwing them off their game. He’s also one of the most clutch playoff shooters of recent history, with his big-time shot making helping to capture two titles this decade.
As Posey approaches his 33rd birthday, his quickness has lost a step, preventing him from being able to hang with speed guards on the perimeter. Worst, Posey has a bad habit of not playing as hard after successful seasons, reasons why his defense has regressed every other year since his breakout 2003-2004 campaign.
Posey’s still a very good defender because of his strength and attitude, but he’s beginning to show signs of slippage.
17. Trevor Ariza—Houston Rockets
Ariza’s emergence during last year’s postseason was a boon to the Lakers’ championship hopes. He has tremendous length, quickness, and defensive instincts, which allow him to defend quicker, faster players, and to pick up steals when defenses get careless.
He showed himself to be a reliable three-point shooter during the postseason, though it’s difficult to know if he’s evolved into a knock-down shooter, or if it was an aberration considering his career three-point percentage is under 30 percent.
Ariza’s not a good defender against power scorers, he’s not capable of creating offense off the drive, and if his shooting in last year’s postseason was an anomaly, he doesn’t provide anything offensively besides a high-flying runner and cutter.
Ariza’s definitely an interesting subject—this season will be a strong indicator as to how good he really is.
18. Rudy Gay—Memphis Grizzlies
Gay can run, jump, and score in a broken field, but he’s lost defensively, has no clue as how to play structured offense, and is an inefficient scorer with no idea how to play without the ball in his hands. There’s a lot of style, but very little substance to his game.
19. Mickael Pietrus—Orlando Magic
Pietrus is a talented athlete who can knock down threes, fill lanes, and defend exceptionally well. Focus has been the biggest detriment to his career, but the older he gets, the wiser he becomes. He still needs to improve his court vision, as he often panics when he dribbles, not trusting his ability to see the court and make proper passes. But Pietrus is one of the game’s better two-way players.
20. Luol Deng—Chicago Bulls
Injuries have curtailed the past two seasons of Deng’s career, preventing from fully blossoming into his full potential. He doesn’t have all-NBA range, and he’s not a terrific finisher or defender. Instead, he has an advanced mid-range game with good touch on his jumper and cleverness when driving to the hoop. He doesn’t get to the free throw line very much though, which hurts him as a designated scorer, and he hasn’t been a defensive factor at any point in his career. Coming off a fractured leg, it’s fair to expect a drop in Deng’s athleticism and offensive production.
21. Thaddeus Young—Philadelphia 76ers
As Young grows and matures, it’s clear to see the potential he has. He’s an athletic slasher and finisher who isn’t afraid to take big shots. He’s also a respectable defender, though he’s a surprisingly poor shot blocker. As time goes on, expect him to creep farther and farther up the top small forwards list.
22. Jarvis Hayes—New Jersey Nets
Hayes is a tough, veteran two-way player who plays hard-nosed positional defense and hits timely threes on offense. After a disappointing season in Detroit, Hayes responded by playing the best ball of his career in his first season in New Jersey. With his defensive pedigree and ability to knock down triples, his skills are best suited to a winning team than the rebuilding Nets.
23. Michael Beasley—Miami Heat
After an underwhelming rookie campaign, Beasley will take over a new position as a small forward in 2009. Beasley has a quick first step and great size (6’9”) for a combo forward, and his three-point shooting as a rookie was exceptional.
Now it’s just a matter of Beasley putting his talent together and improving his basketball IQ. He has no idea how to play defense because he was never asked to play any defense in high school or at Kansas State. Because of that, Beasley had to spend the majority of his rookie campaign coming off the bench or else Miami’s defensive identity would be compromised.
Beasley is also a selfish scorer, as once he goes into attack mode on offense, he won’t give the ball up no matter how improbable his chance of scoring becomes.
However, despite being asked to come off the bench, Beasley took it all in stride and genuinely seems to care to improve his game.
As he continues to improve his awareness, work harder on his weaknesses, and get his personal life in order, we should see Beasley quickly climbing up the small forward charts.
24. Al Thornton—Los Angeles Clippers
Thornton’s a volume scorer who can’t pass or defend. He is capable of huge performances, but he needs to be more consistent and well-rounded. His talent is unquestioned, and his future is bright, but teams with inefficient volume scorers usually don’t accomplish very much.
25. Grant Hill—Phoenix Suns
Hill is still an effective scorer between the three-point line, whether he’s running the break, hitting mid-range jumpers, or driving along the baseline to score. He’s never been a good defender and his aversion to playing a grind-it-out defensive style is reported to be one of the main components that led to the Terry Porter firing. Hill still has a bit of game and a lot of wisdom to offer, but he’s past the point of being a difference maker on a championship-caliber team.
26. Travis Outlaw—Portland Trail Blazers
Freakishly athletic, Outlaw’s mastered his pet move—a step back jumper from the right wing that’s unguardable unless gameplanned for. However, Outlaw’s too soft, and his bag of tricks are too limited for him to be effective when his step-backs are taken away.
27. Corey Maggette—Golden State Warriors
Besides having one of the more ridiculous basketball nicknames (Uh-Oh-Maggettios!), Maggette’s best known for hogging the ball, committing turnovers, sleepwalking on defense, and displaying sloppy fundamentals. Shame, because with his strength, talent, and ability to outmuscle opponents on drives and cuts, he’s a bear of a scorer.
28. Ryan Gomes—Minnesota Timberwolves
While he doesn‘t possess a huge amount of talent, Gomes does a lot of things well. He’s a good ball mover, a capable point-maker, and an earnest defender. He plays hard, and he plays smart—talents that would shine through on a more veteran team.
29. Marvin Williams—Atlanta Hawks
After four seasons in the league, Williams still hasn’t found a niche. He’s more athletic than most fours, but as a three he’s only average. No matter what position assigned to him, he’s soft and has an inconsistent jumper. With the way the Hawks get up and down the court, his athleticism allows him to make plays here and there, but when he’s forced to slow down, he struggles. A mediocre player, Williams wouldn’t start on most teams in the league.
30. Matt Harpring—Utah Jazz
A Rhino disguised as a football player, Harpring’s made a career of playing harder than his opponents. Nobody cuts harder away from the ball, and he won’t give an inch defensively. He is also a reliable mid-range jump shooter popping off of screens and can score in the post.
Knee and ankle ailments wrecked his 2008-2009 season, and may cause him to retire before this season starts. Even when healthy, Harpring is only average athletically. Still, if he does call it quits, the NBA will lose one of the toughest players in the entire league.
Erick Blasco is a contributing writer for BallerBlogger.com. Erick is attending Brooklyn College on a full scholarship. He is majoring in Television/Radio and minoring in English with the hopes of someday becoming a professional basketball analyst.