B/R NBA 200: Ranking the Top Combo Forwards of 2013-14 Season
When the discussion revolves around combo forwards, the superstars just have to come out and play.
LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony aren't even the only elite players at this position, which is populated by the guys who were thrown onto the court as both small forwards and power forwards for significant portions of the year. Paul Pierce is another example, even if he spent his career with the Boston Celtics lining up almost exclusively at the 3.
Is LeBron's perch atop the position safe? Did the futility of the New York Knicks allow a more unheralded player to surpass Melo?
The NBA 200 metric identifies the players who performed best during the 2013-14 season. Potential doesn't matter, and neither does reputation. It's all about what happened this season, and this season only. All positions are graded using the same criteria (though rim protection was added into the equation for bigger positions), but the categories are weighted differently to reflect changing roles, with max scores in parentheses:
- Scoring (20)
- Non-Scoring Offense: Facilitating (7) and Off-Ball Offense (10)
- Defense: On-Ball (18), Off-Ball (17) and Rim Protection (5)
- Rebounding (13)
- Intangibles: Conduct (5) and Durability (5)
For a full explanation of how these scores were determined, go here. And do note these aren't your father's classification schemes for each position. Players' spots were determined not by playing style but by how much time they spent at each position throughout the season, largely based on data from 82games.com, and we're expanding the traditional five to include four combo positions.
In the case of ties, the order is determined in subjective fashion by ranking the more coveted player in the higher spot. That was done by a voting committee comprised of myself, NBA Featured Columnist D.J. Foster, National NBA Featured Columnist Grant Hughes, NBA Lead Writer Josh Martin and Associate NBA Editor Ethan Norof.
Below you can find the publication schedule for the rest of the NBA 200 series. Remember that we're not using traditional positions but rather subdividing those to account for the positionless schemes used by many NBA teams.
- Top 200 Players: Monday, May 19
12. Al-Farouq Aminu, New Orleans Pelicans
Al-Farouq Aminu isn't much of a volume shooter, preferring instead to use his energy in less glamorous aspects of the game, but he tends to pick and choose his spots wisely. Three-point attempts and long two-pointers don't usually work out to his advantage, but the 23-year-old forward is usually relatively adept at finishing around the bucket, especially when he can receive the pass after he's broken past the first line of defense.
While a strong cutter and roll man, Aminu's lack of a consistent jumper doesn't do much to keep defenses honest. They know that unless he's in the corner and well below the break, he's either going to pass the ball to a teammate in a more advantageous situation or find more rim than net after a shot attempt.
Aminu entered the league in 2010 with an excellent defensive reputation, but he's regressed slightly since that point. Though part of the reason was the lack of supporting pieces on the New Orleans Pelicans, the combo forward struggled in isolation and was far too prone to being posted up successfully. His on-ball defense needs work, as does his rim protection when he finds himself alone in the paint, but at least he's quite active in pursuit of shooting threats.
Though Aminu's defensive rebounding regressed to the mean after an astronomical improvement in 2012-13, he remained a constant presence on the boards. Among players who weren't able to spend at least 30 minutes per game on the court, Aminu was one of the true standouts in terms of opportunities produced, though his hands betrayed him on some attempts.
Not only did Aminu remain free from controversy throughout the 2013-14 season, but he also managed to keep a clean bill of health. The biggest injury concern was...well, nothing really.
Aminu isn't the most glamorous player out there, and he was often substituted out for a bigger offensive threat within the NOLA organization. However, the 23-year-old still has time to grow into his 6'9", 215-pound frame, becoming more than an off-ball defender and noteworthy rebounder. His game might not be pretty, but it was moderately effective in 2013-14 with the potential to lose the adverb going forward.
11. James Johnson, Memphis Grizzlies
Most forgettable scorers rely on others to set them up, but James Johnson doesn't fall in line with that conventional action. Instead, he creates the vast majority of the two-point shots he gets to drop, using his teammates' assists on less than 35 percent of those makes. That's an insanely low number for any player who doesn't operate out of the backcourt.
Johnson's athleticism makes him a dangerous cutter, but he's not exactly a spot-up threat. Though he tries to knock down the occasional three-pointer, that's only out of necessity, given the dearth of court-spacing options who wear a Memphis Grizzlies uniform. At least he's a decent passer for his position.
This is where Johnson makes his living, as he's a fearless defender who thrives when he's allowed to match up with a superstar like LeBron James. He might not shut down those studs, but at least he does his darnedest and makes them fight for their points. That said, Johnson is prone to lapses against lesser players, especially in isolation and post-up situations.
For a tough athlete with a physical style, Johnson sure isn't much of an aggressive rebounder. He attacks the glass after a teammate misses a shot, but he's too hesitant to go in and clean the defensive glass, particularly when he's playing with an adequate frontcourt rebounder like Marc Gasol.
A sprained ankle hindered Johnson at one point during the season, but he remained durable for much of his first campaign with the Grizz. He also tended to avoid creating any distractions, letting the focus rest on the surging second half that spurred Memphis into the postseason.
It's hard to believe the arc that Johnson endured during just the 2013-14 season. He was waived by the Atlanta Hawks right before the start of the season, ended up playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the D-League through the middle of December, then was picked up by the Grizzlies and excelled. Talk about perseverance.
10. Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers
Matt Barnes rarely creates looks for himself, but he does have the ability to knock down open three-pointers and help provide jolts of offense for the Los Angeles Clippers when the primary options are misfiring. Though he's nothing more than a tertiary option (at best), Barnes is a well-rounded scoring threat who is decent in just about every facet. Not good, not bad. Just decent, and there's value in that.
The well-rounded nature of Barnes' game carries over into this section, as the combo forward can capably keep the ball moving in the LAC offense and is enough of a cutting and spot-up threat that he makes defenses stay honest. He just isn't used very often.
Barnes is a natural small forward who was forced to play at the 4—due to the putridity of the Clippers' backup big men—often enough that he ended up being listed as a combo forward, and that works against him when it comes to protecting the rim. While he stands out both on and off the ball, he just isn't big enough to insert himself right at the bucket often enough.
A good defensive rebounder, Barnes offers very little on the offensive glass. In fact, the Clippers were lucky when he even managed to record two offensive rebounds in the same game, something that he achieved only 14 times throughout the entire regular season.
Barnes loves stirring things up on the basketball court, and the 2013-14 season didn't see an end to that trend for the 11-year NBA veteran. While most of what he does is meant to defend the Clippers, he can occasionally create trouble and brawls to the point that it's detrimental for his own team. Being an enforcer is one thing; being a troublemaker is another.
Pigeonholed into a role in which he could play stellar defense, focusing the bulk of his attention on that end of the floor, Barnes excelled during the 2013-14 campaign. Although his offense regressed slightly from his first few seasons in the Staples Center, he still continued the late-season renaissance he's enjoyed ever since taking his talents to Hollywood.
9. Marcus Morris, Phoenix Suns
Though Marcus Morris struggled with his perimeter jumper last year after he was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Phoenix Suns, he regained effectiveness during his first full season in the desert. That—along with an ability to create and make his own looks from mid-range zones, particularly those from 10 to 16 feet—allowed the lesser Morris twin to squeeze as much value out of his limited touches as possible.
A decent off-ball threat, Morris is still at his best when he's able to put the ball on the floor at least once. Defenses recognize this, and it makes it less of a priority to close out on him with breakneck speed. The development of more catch-and-shoot prowess or an increased level of passing skills would surely remedy this.
Morris is a terrible rim-protector and a solid off-ball stopper, but he actually appears to be a plus-defender when he's able to match up in a man-to-man situation. He was particularly adept when covering forwards who found themselves in pick-and-roll sets, whether they were functioning as the man with the ball or the player setting the screen.
As a rebounder, Morris has two main flaws. He's often unable to corral the ball when he's in the general vicinity, due to a pair of hands that need some strengthening, and he spends enough time on the perimeter that his quality opportunities to crash the boards are already limited. He's adequate on both ends, but nothing more.
Morris stayed completely healthy throughout the 2013-14 campaign and managed to avoid creating any sort of negative headlines for the upstart Suns. No complaints here.
Although he was severely overshadowed by his twin, Markieff, this particular forward had a season to remember as well. Morris was granted fewer opportunities within the Phoenix rotation, but he managed to make them count by playing solid defense and consistently creating his own looks offensively.
8. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Getting an efficient and high-volume outing from Draymond Green is cause for celebration. In fact, it happened only twice during the 2013-14 season: 20 points on nine shots against the Minnesota Timberwolves in April and 18 points on 12 shots in a March contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Seriously, that's it.
To his credit, Green is an intelligent cutter who can make defenses pay when they forget about him. And that does happen, even though he can knock down the occasional triple as well. It's passing that can be an adventure, as he has nice vision but can tend to produce inopportune turnovers.
Mark Jackson showed nothing but confidence in Green's defense, often showcasing his versatility by having him defend a guard on one play and a power forward on the next. Though he's not quite big enough to guard the rim as effectively as the true standouts at this position, he does an adequate job while thriving both on and off the ball. He's a true stopper, one who would look even better if the Golden State power forwards as a whole were more effective at defense.
Given Green's 6'7", 230-pound frame, it's pretty shocking that the combo forward is able to pull down so many rebounds. But he's a tough player, one who can routinely overcome a size disadvantage through force of will and proper positioning.
I'd expect almost anyone to complain about roles before Green. He plays as though he's quite satisfied with his speciality job for the Dubs, always giving 100 percent on the defensive end and taking advantage when he's granted an offensive opportunity.
Green was an all-around stud during his career at Michigan State, but that didn't translate into anything more than a second-round selection in the 2012 NBA draft. However, the defensive spark plug has used his two professional seasons to emerge as a draft gem, thanks primarily to his contributions on the less glamorous end of the court.
7. Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic
Tobias Harris is a unique frontcourt scorer, as he can light it up from just about any space within the three-point arc. However, he tends to take far too many inefficient jumpers, and he'd be better suited either focusing on increasing his range or working his way toward the basket for easier attempts and more post-up situations. The tools are there, but the decision-making isn't yet.
The Orlando Magic combo forward isn't much of a spot-up shooter (like, not at all), but he's an extremely adept cutter who can torque his body to avoid contact and finish the play in various ways around the basket. Cutting comprised just over 8 percent of his offense in 2013-14, and it would be nice to see him even more involved in that facet going forward.
Harris is an adept off-ball defender who moves well and tends to insert himself within the plays. But he's terrible when guarding the player with possession, and you could make a legitimate argument that he was one of the least effective frontcourt rotation members throughout the NBA in this aspect of the game. Routinely abused in isolation and tortured in the post, he was utterly incapable of stopping players without help from the weak side.
An intelligent rebounder who picks and chooses his attempts carefully, Harris manages to pull down quite a few boards every game even without fighting through contact. He does a nice job boxing out when he has to, but his anticipation skills are what allow him to stand out in this area.
Only injuries work against the former Tennessee Volunteer, as a severe left ankle sprain delayed the start of his season until late November, when he played just 16 minutes against the Phoenix Suns before taking another prolonged seat. Dec. 13 was the true start of his year, which is obviously problematic.
For the second year in a row, Harris excelled after the All-Star break, though he struggled—relatively—before it. Is his career doomed to this "one step backward, one step forward" trend, or is this just a strange coincidence? It's too soon to tell, though the Magic should be paying close attention to the beginning of the next campaign, which just so happens to be a contract year for the 21-year-old forward.
6. Shawn Marion, Dallas Mavericks
During his prime, Shawn Marion could occasionally create his own looks, but the years have taken their toll on the Dallas Mavericks forward. Each and every one of his three-point makes—even the vaunted corner threes—came as the result of an assist, and nearly 80 percent of his two-point conversions required a pass from a teammate. His volume and efficiency might be superior to some players who received higher scores in this category, but they're less valuable because of the extreme inability to be self-sufficient on offense.
While the inability to create for himself hurts Marion's grade as a scorer, it helps him here. He's still able to put up a respectable number of points, and he does that primarily through his cutting and spot-up shooting. It's nothing to write home about—a statement that also applies to his passing—but he's by no means a liability on offense.
Age hasn't sapped effectiveness from The Matrix. He's an extremely effective defender both on and off the ball, and his biggest weakness comes when he's asked to protect the rim. Unfortunately for him, that happens a bit more often than it should because of Dirk Nowitzki's inability to play defense like a 7-footer.
His nickname is based on his ability to do everything, so it shouldn't surprise you that Marion still excels on the boards. That's the area most resistant to a decline, as the 35-year-old forward still routinely emerges with above-average numbers on the glass. His totals are worse than they've been in the past, but they remain impressive for a combo forward.
Marion did miss six games during the 2013-14 season, but that's not enough to dock points from anyone, much less a 36-year-old whom the Dallas Mavericks treated cautiously. A shoulder injury suffered during a Jan. 7 contest against the Los Angeles Lakers kept him out for a few games, and it flared up again a little while later.
Can you imagine how bad the Dallas defense would've been if Marion hadn't been able to stay on the court for the vast majority of the season? Even if he's no longer the fantasy basketball superstar he was in his prime, The Matrix still does all the little—and big—things for the Mavericks, just not in remarkably high volume.
5. Paul Pierce, Brooklyn Nets
2013-14 saw Paul Pierce produce the absolute worst per-game and per-minute scoring numbers of his lengthy career. However, he figured out how to share the ball with his teammates nicely, picking his spots wisely to the tune of the second-best shooting percentage he'd ever produced within the arc. Even though The Truth didn't receive enough opportunities to excel as a scorer, he certainly staved off a sharp decline by virtue of some efficient play.
Perhaps the biggest change between Pierce's last season with the Boston Celtics and his first with the Brooklyn Nets was his passing. All of a sudden, he didn't have possession of the ball often enough to create for his teammates on a consistent basis, and his assist percentage plummeted from a career-high 25.1 percent to 14.5, a mark better than only the one posted during his rookie go-round back in 1998-99.
Pierce has been an underrated perimeter defender for a long time, and this season was no exception. Though he's not exactly capable of high-level rim protection when the Nets leave him as the second-biggest player on the court, the veteran forward excelled when guarding a back-to-the-basket player. Diminishing lateral quickness plagued him against 3s at times, but he still did an admirable job then as well.
Pierce is certainly an asset on the defensive glass, but he's one of the worst offensive rebounders in the Association. Forty-six qualified players during the 2013-14 season spent at least 20 minutes per game on the court and had an offensive rebounding percentage below two. Dirk Nowitzki, Richard Jefferson, Tayshaun Prince and Pierce were the only non-guards or swingmen on the list.
Clutch. A born leader. Ruthless. Refuses to give up. You pick a cliche about leadership and intangible tools, and it probably applies to Pierce.
Pierce shifted from a featured role with the C's to a system that distributed the ball among nearly every player on the court. It depressed his overall value—something that likely wouldn't have happened had he remained in that featured spot—but The Truth was by no means a bad player in 2013-14. He remained an efficient offensive contributor and a solid, albeit underrated, defender whenever he stepped onto the court.
4. Josh Smith, Detroit Pistons
It's inconceivable that such a physically gifted player could have such awful shot selection. Josh Smith should attack the rim whenever possible, but instead he's convinced himself that he's a jump-shooter, and the results are horrific. Though he can still put up points in bunches when he plays the right way, it's impossible to overlook the fact that among every qualified player in NBA history who has taken over three triples per game, only Antoine Walker (1999-00) shot a worse percentage from beyond the arc.
Though Smith can't shoot spot-up jumpers—well, he can shoot them; he just can't make them—he's an athletic cutter who constantly keeps defenses on their toes. Nobody wants to end up on a poster, after all. Additionally, Smoove is a good passer, but he commits too many turnovers to be considered great.
Even though the Detroit Pistons weren't a particularly effective defensive squad, it's tough to pin the blame on Smith. He protected the rim extremely well for a combo forward, and his off-ball defense was quite excellent. Smoove always had an innate ability to travel around the half-court set at high speeds, blocking shots, stealing passes and wreaking havoc. A new location didn't change that.
As a 6'9", 225-pound combo forward who can jump through the roof, Smith is definitely able to make an impact on the boards. Although his numbers aren't particularly impressive, they look far better in context. Smith spent his time playing next to Andre Drummond (the best rebounder in basketball this season) and Greg Monroe, and he still managed to convert quite a few opportunities.
Is refusing to play the right brand of basketball bad for your team? Absolutely, which is one of the reasons Smith's on-court conduct suffered. At some point, a player has to be held accountable for his complete and utter unwillingness to play intelligent, beneficial basketball.
In terms of raw potential, Smith is still an All-Star talent. There's a chance he could actually make the Midseason Classic next season, though the percentages are dwindling now that he's 28 years old and still refusing to listen to the critics. And at this point, there are a lot of them.
3. Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings
Rudy Gay was an awfully overrated scorer with the Toronto Raptors when he couldn't even shoot above 40 percent, basketball's version of the Mendoza Line. But once he was traded to the Sacramento Kings, he suddenly became one of the best scorers in basketball, upping his per-game average despite taking more than three fewer shots per game.
Gay still isn't a potent spot-up threat. In fact, his improvements in Sacramento came largely because he stopped shooting the three-ball. However, he's an athletic and intelligent cutter who can also distribute the ball out quite nicely among his teammates. If only he could do so without coughing it up, though.
While Gay has the physical tools to excel as a defender (and he does when greeted with a man-to-man situation), he lacks the discipline necessary to thrive off the ball. The combo forward was especially susceptible to spot-up shooters, and he often loafed on the less glamorous end, failing to exert the energy required to get involved.
Gay is a solid rebounder. Nothing less, and nothing more. He can be relied upon for more than a handful of boards during any given game, and they'll generally come on both types of glass, even if he doesn't excel on either.
Although he was a negative offensive contributor north of the border and even banned box scores from the Toronto locker room, Gay was more of a punchline than a distraction. Then he went to Sac-Town and became a much better teammate, staying healthy all the while.
The Raptors may have improved quite a bit when Gay was traded away to the Kings, but the combo forward improved dramatically as well. He started taking the right shots, allowing him to live up to his lofty two-way potential for the first time since he left the Memphis Grizzlies. Perhaps it won't look too awful now if he decides to opt into the final year of his deal, which just happens to be worth over $19 million.
2. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
He can put up as many points as anyone during a single game and was one of just two players to top 60 points during the 2013-14 season. He can knock down three-pointers or put his back to the basket and torture defenders in the post. He can hit the tough, superstar shots that he creates for himself. Even if he sometimes has cold-shooting games, Carmelo Anthony is unquestionably one of the best scorers in basketball.
Would you ever want to leave Melo open? I didn't think so. The only reasons he's not earning a perfect score here are twofold: Anthony is better with the ball in his hand than he is as a spot-up marksman, and his passing isn't exactly elite for the position. It's an underrated asset, largely because the New York Knicks failed to turn his passing into assists, but it's still not elite.
One of the greatest myths out there is that Melo is a terrible defender, a liability on that end of the court. He's not. Anthony isn't a great rim-protector and often takes possessions off, which depresses his ability in the off-ball category, but he can look like an excellent on-ball defender when he puts his mind to it. Not only were the Knicks significantly better at preventing points when he played, but he absolutely thrived as a post-up and isolation defender.
Another underrated element of Anthony's game came on the glass, where he set career highs in rebounds per game, rebounds per 36 minutes and defensive rebounding percentage. He was already an asset on the boards in the past, but he flat-out excelled this year.
The 2013-14 season could've easily become a never-ending stream of distractions for this impending free agent. But he chose to stay focused throughout the entire campaign, giving the Knicks his full attention and staying both motivated and healthy until his shoulder problems at the end of the year.
New York's season was disastrous, and you can dole out heaping portions of blame to quite a few figures within the organization. But Anthony's plate should remain nearly empty, as he was the one consistent force who actually kept the Knicks within shouting distance of a playoff spot. If MVP actually meant "Most Valuable Player" in the literal sense, Anthony would absolutely deserve a spot on the ballot this year.
1. LeBron James, Miami Heat
Not only was LeBron James one of the top scorers in the Association in terms of points per game, but his true shooting percentage left him trailing only Kyle Korver among all qualified players. In the history of the NBA, just four players have posted a true shooting percentage higher than 64 percent while scoring over 27 points per game: Adrian Dantley (twice), Charles Barkley, Kevin Durant and LeBron.
No forward in the NBA is better at passing the rock than LeBron, who routinely posts numbers that look as though they belong to a true point guard. Only his off-ball offense isn't perfect in this category, as LeBron doesn't spot up quite often enough to earn top marks. He's a deadly shooter—35th in spot-up points per possession—and a phenomenal cutter, but he's sometimes willing to serve as nothing more than a decoy for a few possessions.
LeBron had a subpar defensive season...by his standards. Even though his reactions were slower, his effort stats (blocks and steals) declined, and he often looked disengaged, he was one of the better defensive players in the league. His athletic tools allow him to wreck offensive schemes without even guarding the man with possession, though he's also quite adept at going into lockdown mode when faced with a one-on-one situation.
Maybe this had to do with the occasionally lackluster effort levels as well. But regardless of the reason, LeBron submitted his worst rebounding season since the 2006-07 campaign. And he was still one of the better combo forwards on the boards, thanks to his remarkable size, instincts and athletic abilities.
Sure, LeBron flops and exaggerates contact. Who doesn't? Flopping has been around since the beginning of the NBA, but the advent of social media and the 24/7 circus has brought it to the forefront of national attention. Regardless, the Miami Heat certainly don't care that LeBron tries to win Oscars because he stays healthy, plays through minor injuries/broken noses, acts like a leader and rarely creates headlines that are actually detrimental to the championship efforts.
LeBron continues to serve as a model basketball player. He excels in every single facet of the game, especially now that he's continued to hone his three-point stroke, which he relied upon more than he has since joining the Heat. He's an elite defender, a once-in-a-lifetime offensive threat, a great rebounder and a superb leader. The weaknesses just continue to disappear.
Don't forget to check back here for the latest updates to the NBA 200 series, but in the meantime, feel free to discuss any or all of these rankings with me on Twitter.
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