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LeBron James and the 10 Greatest Small Forwards in NBA History

Adam WaksmanCorrespondent IIIJanuary 4, 2017

LeBron James and the 10 Greatest Small Forwards in NBA History

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    The London 2012 Olympics emphasized the rise of small forwards the NBA has seen in the last decade. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony all played huge roles for Team USA and reminded the world how dominant small forwards can be.

    To put what we recently saw in perspective, here is a list of the 10 greatest small forwards in NBA history. These rankings are based on an objective points system that accounts for offensive prowess, defensive prowess, team success and longevity.

Ranking System

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    In my analysis, I rank the top 10 small forwards to ever play in the NBA, allowing for all eras. This includes players who spent parts of their careers in the ABA. My goals are the following:

     

    Full Career Perspective

    I am taking into account the full careers and accomplishments of the players. For active players, I rank them as if they were retiring today, making no predictions about future accomplishments or development. I account for a balance of individual accomplishments and contributions to team accomplishments.

     

    Objectivity

    To be as objective as I can be, I have chosen a simple ranking system up front that weighs players' accomplishments. The rankings are the following:

    NBA All-Star Game Selections: 1 point each

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 2 points each

    All-NBA Second Team Selections: 1 point each

    All-NBA Defensive First Team Selections: 2 points each

    All-NBA Defensive Second Team Selections: 1 point each

    NBA Regular Season MVP Awards: 6 points each

    NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards: 3 points each

    NBA Titles: 2 points each

    NBA Finals MVPs: 4 points each

    NBA Rookie of the Year Award: 1 point

    NBA Scoring Titles: 1 point each

    I am not counting All-NBA Third Team selections for anything because they have not been around long enough.

     

    Exceptions

    The Robert Horry Exception requires a player to be a full-time starter on his team to count for NBA titles.

    The Voter Randomness Exception grants players three points (half of an MVP) if they came top three in the MVP voting at least once in their careers. You could also think of this as the Elgin Baylor Exception.

    The Era Exception allows me to make a judgment call between two players of different eras who are within 5 points of each other.

Honorable Mention: Kevin Durant

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    Ranking Points: 16

    Career Stats: 26.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.0 bpg, 46.8 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 3

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 3

    Scoring Titles: 3

    2008 Rookie of the Year

    2nd in 2012 MVP Voting

    Despite his obvious potential, Kevin Durant has not done enough yet in his career to reach the top 10. He is already the best scorer in the league and has the best shot of any big man. However, he's yet to bring Oklahoma City its first championship. However, at just 23, he has plenty of time.

    Nabbing the scoring title these past three years, Durant is positioned to go on a Jordan-like run of scoring title. If his teammates James Harden and Serge Ibaka re-sign, he should expect title contention for the rest of the decade. Though I cannot put Durant in my top 10 just yet, I wouldn't be shocked if he were to rise to the top of this list 10 years from now.

10. James Worthy

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    Ranking Points: 17

    Career Stats: 17.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.7 bpg, 52.1 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 7

    NBA Titles: 3

    NBA Finals MVP Awards: 1

    James Worthy was known for two things—being clutch and playing with Magic Johnson. Never a true standout in the regular season, James Worthy came up big repeatedly in the playoffs in the late '80s. He helped the Lakers win three titles in four years and earned the finals MVP in 1988, the last year that Magic won a ring.

    His 36-16-10 performance in game seven of the 1988 finals is perhaps his most memorable performance. Always efficient, his career 54.4 percent shooting in the playoffs is a bar that very few players will ever reach.

    The biggest knock on Worthy is that he was never the top guy on his own team, playing mostly in the shadow of Magic and Kareem. However, one could argue that Worthy was as essential a piece to the two titles in '87 and '88 as anyone else.

9. Paul Pierce

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    Ranking Points: 17

    Career Stats: 22.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.6 bpg, 44.8 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 10

    All-NBA Second Team Selections: 1

    NBA Titles: 1

    NBA Finals MVP Awards: 1

    Paul Pierce is one of only two active players to make this list. He is also one of only two players on this list to have never made an All-NBA First Team. Like Worthy's, his career is most noteworthy for its longevity and his accomplishments in the playoffs, including memorable shots like this one.

    In addition to being the 2008 finals MVP and the almost-2010 finals MVP (close Game 7 loss to the Lakers), he has led the Celtics deep into the playoffs several times over the past decade. After being with the Celtics long enough to start passing some of Larry Bird's records, he is a central piece in the history of one of the two most accomplished franchises in the NBA.

8. Dominique Wilkins

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    Ranking Points: 16

    Career Stats: 24.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.6 bpg, 46.1 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 9

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 1

    All-NBA Second Team Selections: 4

    Scoring Titles: 1

    Dominique Wilkins was a controversial figure in the basketball world and led a career similar in some ways to the first eight years of LeBron James' career. Ridiculously athletic—even by today's standards—the 6'8'' 230-pound small forward was big, fast and strong like no one else at the time.

    Despite never playing on a great team or getting deep in the playoffs, Wilkins had one of the all-time great playoff performances against Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1988. He scored 47 points in Game 7 in a losing effort. As Kevin McHale said:

    It was unbelievable. I tell you there was one four-minute stretch there that was as pure a form of basketball as you’re ever going to see.”

    Wilkins racked up only 16 ranking points—one less than Worthy and Pierce—but his individual dominance and statistics give him the edge and warrant my use of the Era Exception.

7. Rick Barry

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    Ranking Points: 26

    Career Stats: 23.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.1 apg, 0.5 bpg, 2.0 spg, 44.9 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 8

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 5

    All-NBA Second Team Selections: 1

    Scoring Titles: 1

    NBA Titles: 1

    NBA Finals MVP Awards: 1

    1966 NBA Rookie of the Year

    Rick Barry is a name that casual basketball fans might not know or remember. Known for his great scoring talents and ability to go off for 50+ points on any given night, Barry was the only player to lead the NCAA, ABA and NBA in regular season scoring.

    His title and finals MVP came during one of the league's least popular eras and for a franchise that hasn't seen relevance for a long time. Nevertheless, his level of dominance in the mid-70s on both offense and defense was impressive.

    His 26 ranking points put him well ahead of those behind him on the list, and that doesn't even take into account the few years he spent in the ABA, where he also won a championship in 1969.

6. Elgin Baylor

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    Ranking Points: 35

    Career Stats: 27.4 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, 43.1 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 11

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 10

    2nd in MVP Voting (Multiple Times)

    1959 NBA Rookie of the Year

    You may notice the lack of defensive statistics for Elgin Baylor. This is because he retired in 1972 before steals and blocks became statistics. Baylor is a name commonly found in "best to never do X" lists. Not only did he come second place in the MVP voting twice (1961 and 1963), his Lakers lost in the NBA finals all eight times he took them there.

    Elgin Baylor—a dominant player who put up incredible statistics—is the all-time NBA king of second place. He is considered by many to be the best player to never win MVP and the best player to never win a title. However, on this list, he gets to be sixth rather than second.

5. Julius Erving

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    Ranking Points: 34

    Career Stats: 22.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.8 spg, 1.5 bpg, 50.7 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 11

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 5

    All-NBA Second Team Selections: 2

    NBA MVP Awards: 1

    NBA Titles: 1

    NBA Scoring Titles: 3

    Doctor J. was one of the most athletic and exciting players in NBA history. He spent some of his prime in the ABA, which either helps or hurts his legacy depending on how you look at it.

    The positive argument is that he was a two-time ABA champion and a three-time ABA MVP. He was one of the best players to ever play in the ABA.

    The negative argument is that the competition and depth in the ABA was inferior, as evidenced by the huge drop in his statistics when he moved to the NBA.

    For me, his ABA achievements add enough to his legacy to grant him an Era Exception over Elgin Baylor, who ranks one point higher.

    Doctor J. was a fantastic scorer and dunker, who dominated on offense in both leagues he played in. By far the best team he ever played on was the "Fo Fo Fo" championship team of 1983. Despite needing one more game than they predicted to win the title, they were the only team to steal a championship during the Magic-Bird era.

4. Scottie Pippen

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    Ranking Points: 48

    Career Stats: 16.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.0 spg, 0.8 bpg, 47.3 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 7

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 3

    All-NBA Second Team Selections: 2

    All-NBA Defensive First Team Selections: 8

    All-NBA Defensive Second Team Selections: 2

    NBA Titles: 6

    3rd in 1994 MVP Voting

    The name Scottie Pippen is inevitably connected with the name Michael Jordan. Pippen is known as the ultimate Robin to Jordan's Batman. A big question surrounding Pippen's legacy is whether he would have been more or less great on a different team. Certainly he would have won less championships, but he would have been a perennial MVP contender. In the one full season he played for the Bulls without Jordan, Pippen came third place in the MVP voting behind Hall-of-Famers Hakeem Olajuwan and David Robinson.

    One of Pippen's most astounding records is that in the 1994-95 season, he led the Bulls in all five major statistical categories.

    The duo of Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan was the most dominant one in NBA history. In the 1990s, every time the two of them showed up to training camp, they ended the year with a championship.

3. John Havlicek

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    Ranking Points: 61

    Career Stats: 20.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.3 bpg, 43.9 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 13

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 4

    All-NBA Second Team Selections: 7

    All-NBA Defensive First Team Selections: 5

    All-NBA Defensive Second Team Selections: 3

    NBA Titles: 8

    NBA Finals MVP Awards: 1

    John Havlicek—a player whose name that should be heard more often in GOAT discussions—was the original LeBron James-like small forward. He played hard every game, dominating both on offense and defense, grabbing boards and making passes. In 1971, John Havlicek had one of the most prolific seasons in NBA history: 28.9 points, 7.5 assists and 9.0 rebounds per game.

    Of the great, truly versatile players the game has scene, Havlicek is perhaps the least celebrated today. His first six titles came in the shadow of the legendary Bill Russell. When Russell retired in 1969, Havlicek—already a star—emerged fully into the spotlight. He led the Celtics to two more championships in the following five years and won the finals MVP in 1974.

    While he never took home a regular season MVP award, he came fourth in the voting in 1972, the year in which he went on to win his 7th title.

    In addition to his amazing accomplishments, Havlicek was part of one of the greatest moments in NBA history, which can be seen here.

2. LeBron James

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    Ranking Points: 56

    Career Stats: 27.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 6.9 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.8 bpg, 48.3 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 8

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 6

    All-NBA Second Team Selections: 2

    All-NBA Defensive First Team Selections: 4

    NBA Titles: 1

    NBA Finals MVP Awards: 1

    NBA MVP Awards: 3

    When I told you Paul Pierce was one of two active players on this list, you of course knew who the second one was. Let me start by saying that while John Havlicek ranks five points higher than LeBron, I feel comfortable using the Era Exception in this case. The modern era is tougher than the 1960s, and LeBron is a stronger and faster player than Havlicek was.

    LeBron is the youngest player on this list and the only one still in his prime. If he stays healthy and productive for another five years, he has a good chance to get another championship, which would put him in contention for the No. 1 spot on this list.

    Lebron is known for his notorious quotes, but this one by Bill Simmons sums up LeBron's legend best:

    He sneezes and it's a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he's really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age.

1. Larry Bird

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    Ranking Points: 67

    Career Stats: 24.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 6.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.8 bpg, 49.6 percent shooting

    All-Star Selections: 12

    All-NBA First Team Selections: 9

    All-NBA Second Team Selections: 1

    All-NBA Defensive Second Team Selections: 3

    NBA Titles: 3

    NBA Finals MVP Awards: 2

    NBA MVP Awards: 3

    1980 NBA Rookie of the Year

    Larry Bird—one of only two players on this list to average a double-double, as well as the player with the most finals MVPs—is one of the greatest players of all time at any position. With better career numbers and more titles to his name than LeBron James has at this point, having Bird at No. 1 on this list is a no-brainer.

    The biggest knock on Bird is his lack of longevity. The first nine years of his career were more productive and successful than LeBron's nine years in the league have been. However, he missed his 10th season due to bone spurs and never got back to top form after that.

    It would not make sense to consider LeBron the greater player right now. However, if he stays healthy for several more years, he has every opportunity to dethrone Larry Bird. The most important achievement for him to get in the coming years is a second championship.

    Perhaps the most memorable quote about Bird came from his arch-rival Magic Johnson:

    Larry, you only told me one lie. You said there will be another Larry Bird. Larry, there will never, ever be another Larry Bird.

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