Projecting NBA's Top 10 Small Forwards Heading into 2014-15 Season
In today's NBA, the small forward position represents star power.
With five of the last six MVP awards, the last five scoring titles and the last three NBA Finals MVP awards, players at the 3 have shown that their position might be the most talent-filled spot in the league.
So let's take a stab at who will populate the list of the NBA's top 10 small forwards in the upcoming season. Naturally, players presumed to be out for the year due to injury, such as Paul George, are not eligible for ranking.
We'll also look at what each player's statistics could look like in 2014-15. Better statistics will help a player's ranking, but stats don't tell the whole story. A player's defensive ability isn't always accurately quantified by stats, and a player's role within his team may skew his numbers one way or the other.
And, to clarify, ESPN.com's player profiles will have the final say on a player's position. For example, Carmelo Anthony plays a lot of his minutes at the power forward position, but ESPN still lists him as a small forward.
Which 3s will rule the NBA hardwood in 2014-15? Flip to the next slide to find out.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
10. Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
2013-14 NCAA per-game stats (at Duke): 19.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.1 steals, 28.4 PER, 0.205 win shares per 40 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 18.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.7 blocks, 0.9 steals, 15.1 PER, 0.097 win shares per 48 minutes
Jabari Parker is the most NBA-ready rookie in this year's draft class. As SB Nation's Tyler Lashbrook noted in the former Blue Devil's scouting report, Parker is "born to get buckets."
And that's just what he'll do in 2014-15 for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Brandon Knight is the only player he'll have to compete with for go-to-guy status, and that's even a stretch. Parker is undoubtedly the best scorer on the Bucks roster, and he should make that clear fairly early on in the season.
One of the main questions concerning Parker's NBA potential, however, is what position is best for him. He has the ball-handling and shooting skills of a wing, but his bulky frame and below-average quickness may push him to a post position. He will have trouble guarding both wings and power forwards.
But wherever he plays, he will score, and he will do it in a variety of ways (highlights courtesy of YouTube).
9. Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 per-game stats: 14.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.2 steals, 18.4 PER, 0.073 win shares per 48 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.3 steals, 17.8 PER, 0.112 win shares per 48 minutes
Tyreke Evans is probably pretty happy that Al-Farouq Aminu signed with the Dallas Mavericks this summer.
Evans, the 2009-10 NBA Rookie of the Year, has seen his minutes and points per game decrease every year he's been in the league. Last year, he started only 22 of the 72 games he played for the New Orleans Pelicans, while Aminu started 65 contests.
When he started last season, Evans averaged 19.9 points per game, while Aminu averaged just 7.4 in the starting lineup. Aminu is a better rebounder and defender than Evans, but the huge advantage Evans had in scoring ability should have given him the starting position all season.
Anyway, it's safe to say Evans will fill in the starting small forward slot in 2014-15.
To make up for Aminu's departure, Evans will have to focus more on defense. Per 82games.com, opposing small forwards notched a 15.6 PER against him (15.0 is league average). That doesn't look too bad, until you realized that he was usually matched up against backup small forwards.
With Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon coming back from season-ending injuries, and Anthony Davis ruling the paint, Evans' offensive burden won't be too heavy. For that reason, he should be more successful on defense in 2014-15.
If Evans actually had a working jump shot, he would be much higher on this list.
8. Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 per-game stats: 13.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.7 blocks, 0.9 steals, 15.8 PER, 0.128 win shares per 48 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 13.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.9 blocks, 1.0 steals, 16.2 PER, 0.139 win shares per 48 minutes
In 2011-12, Nicolas Batum averaged 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. In 2013-14, he was up to 7.5 and 5.1 in those categories, respectively.
How did Nicolas Batum change his game so much in two years? Maybe it was him embracing a different role with the team, or maybe it was just lots of hard work on his part. Maybe it was some of both.
Whatever happened, it's sure helping the Portland Trail Blazers.
SB Nation's James Herbert said the following about the do-it-all forward: "Batum ties the team together. He's a supercharged glue guy, asked to guard the opponent's best player in crunch time, rebound and make plays for himself and his teammates."
As Herbert also noted, teammate Damian Lillard gave Batum the nickname "Mr. Everything."
If there is one weakness in Batum's game, it's that he doesn't necessarily take over contests with his scoring. He's a decent scorer, but not an explosive one. His highest-scoring game of the season was just 26 points against the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, and even that took him 49 minutes of court time.
But Batum can play ball, and the list of weaknesses in his game is short compared to most small forwards.
7. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
2013-14 per-game stats: 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.5 steals, 13.7 PER, 0.135 win shares per 48 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 11.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.7 steals, 16.6 PER, 0.162 win shares per 48 minutes
2013-14 was definitely a season to forget for Andre Iguodala.
Iggy registered the lowest scoring average since his rookie year (2004-05) and didn't quite make the splash many people expected him to make in his first year with the Golden State Warriors.
However, there is reason to believe he will be better in his second season with the Warriors.
Iguodala dealt with a variety of injuries last year, but before the maladies kicked in, he was fantastic. Prior to hurting his left hamstring in late November, Iguodala was averaging 12.9 points and 6.3 assists per game on 54.5 percent field-goal shooting.
And, despite the injuries, he was still an elite defender. According to 82games.com, Iguodala held opposing small forwards to an 11.7 PER in 2013-14. His arrival also helped the Warriors improve from a No. 14 defensive-efficiency rating in 2012-13 to a No. 4 defensive-efficiency rating in 2013-14.
If Iguodala has better luck with injuries in 2014-15 and can learn to fit well in rookie head coach Steve Kerr's offense, expect a bounce-back season.
6. Chandler Parsons, Dallas Mavericks
2013-14 per-game stats: 16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.2 steals, 15.9 PER, 0.131 win shares per 48 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 17.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.3 steals, 17.1 PER, 0.150 win shares per 48 minutes
OK, let's get something out of the way: Chandler Parsons probably isn't quite worth the three-year, $46 million contract he signed with the Dallas Mavericks this summer. His offensive game is very good, but his defense is just average at this point.
But he's closer to a $15 million player than some people might think.
In a Houston Rockets offense that revolved around stars James Harden and Dwight Howard last season, Parsons still managed to pump in 16.6 points per game and dish out 4.0 assists. This was despite Harden and Howard considering Parsons a mere role player, as Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin and CBS Sports' James Herbert reported after Parsons signed with the Mavericks.
Needless to say, Parsons will fit better with the Mavericks.
Offensive stars Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis both have low-maintenance egos relative to Harden and Howard. And, according to ESPN.com, the ball also moves better in Dallas, as the Mavericks ranked No. 6 in assists per game in 2013-14, compared to the Rockets' No. 18 ranking. Parsons could have a field day with all the open shots he gets in Rick Carlisle's offense.
Expect a slight uptick in Parsons' numbers across the board.
5. Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings
2013-14 per-game stats: 20.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.3 steals, 18.3 PER, 0.091 win shares per 48 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 20.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.7 blocks, 1.4 steals, 19.1 PER, 0.135 win shares per 48 minutes
Remember when Rudy Gay banned stat sheets (link courtesy of SB Nation's Herbert) in the Raptors' locker room near the beginning of last season?
Gay still seems to be the butt of every joke related to shot-chucking and offensive efficiency, but he shouldn't be.
After a midseason trade from the Raptors to the Sacramento Kings, Gay registered career highs in points (20.1) and assists (3.1) per game, as well as field-goal percentage (48.2) and PER (19.6).
The games didn't mean much in the second half of the season for the lottery-bound Kings, but Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas (now with the Phoenix Suns) worked together to become one of the most formidable scoring trios in the NBA, each averaging over 20 points per game.
Gay's defense wasn't too shabby, either. He allowed a 15.0 PER to the Kings' opposing small forwards, per 82games.com.
Gay probably won't get much better as an NBA player, considering he's almost 28 years old and has played eight seasons without tons of improvement from year to year.
But he will continue to be an athletic scoring threat capable of putting up 20 points on a nightly basis.
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
2013-14 per-game stats: 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.7 steals, 19.4 PER, 0.193 win shares per 48 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 15.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 blocks, 1.9 steals, 21.0 PER, 0.202 win shares per 48 minutes
If you think the San Antonio Spurs' Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili actually represents the best three players on the team, you're lying to yourself.
Because Kawhi Leonard might be the Spurs' most important player.
It's hard to picture the Spurs' reign near the top of the league lasting this long without the athletic San Diego State product on the roster. In 2011, the Spurs' dynasty appeared to be over. Despite earning the first seed in the Western Conference, the team had lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies in six games. There was almost no young talent of significance on the Spurs roster.
But, with a draft-night trade, Leonard joined the Spurs and revived their contender status for (at least) a few more years, as Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski explains.
The 23-year-old reigning Finals MVP will never be a superstar on the level of a LeBron James or a Kevin Durant, but he's already one of the best defenders in the league, and his offense is rapidly improving as well.
As Leonard gains more and more freedom in head coach Gregg Popovich's offense this season, expect his numbers to rise.
3. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
2013-14 per-game stats: 27.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.7 blocks, 1.2 steals, 24.4 PER, 0.172 win shares per 48 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 27.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.7 blocks, 1.1 steals, 25.0 PER, 0.175 win shares per 48 minutes
Poor Carmelo Anthony. His New York Knick teammates just didn't give him very much help last season.
Sixth man J.R. Smith was a shell of his 2012-13 self, starting shooting guard Iman Shumpert had his worst year as a professional and, by the end of the season, Raymond Felton was tired of being called "fat," per Nina Mandell of USA Today.
Melo, meanwhile, posted arguably his best season as a professional.
Playing a mixture of small and power forward, he scored in every which way and even posted a career high in rebounds per game (8.1). The high point of Melo's season came in January when he dumped 62 points on the Charlotte Bobcats. I mean, just watch his YouTube highlights from that game. The man was about as on fire as you can get.
Now, for the elephant in the room: Melo doesn't play much defense.
You may be wondering why Melo, an elite scorer with below-average defensive skills, can be ranked higher than Leonard, an elite defender with above-average offensive skills.
The answer lies in their roles. Melo is asked to do much more on offense for the Knicks than Leonard is for the Spurs. If the 23-year-old Leonard were asked to shoot 20-plus shots per game on a team without a viable second option, it probably wouldn't go well. Leonard's defense would also suffer, since he would need to expend so much energy on the offensive end.
Despite his shortcomings, Melo is still a clear-cut NBA star. However, it will be interesting to see if the Knicks' rookie head coach, Derek Fisher, can help turn Melo into more of a two-way player.
2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
2013-14 per-game stats: 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 0.7 blocks, 1.3 steals, 29.8 PER, 0.295 win shares per 48 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 29.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.9 blocks, 1.2 steals, 29.1 PER, 0.287 win shares per 48 minutes
Durant is the NBA's best offensive player.
He gets most of the praise for his breathtaking scoring ability, and deservedly so, but Durant has also become one of the best passers at the small forward position. In 2010-11, he averaged 2.7 assists per game. By last season, he had increased that total to 5.5 per game.
So where does the reigning MVP look to improve his game now?
The obvious answer is on defense. Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN's TrueHoop blog said the following about Durant:
Defensively, Durant’s just bad, relative to his size and lengthy frame. A lot of that coordination and mobility we see on offense leaves him on the defensive end. He can be a wobbly defender, unsure of how much space to cede, unable to turn his hips when driven past.
This isn't to say the 6'9", 240-pound Durant didn't deserve his MVP award. He had one of the best offensive seasons in recent memory, and his main competitor for the award (you'll read more on him later) was not quite his usual self on defense. Durant was definitely the right choice.
But, if he wants to win that all-elusive championship ring and take the crown as the league's best small forward, he must devote himself to playing better defense.
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
2013-14 per-game stats: 27.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.6 steals, 29.3 PER, 0.264 win shares per 48 minutes
Projected 2014-15 stats: 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.5 steals, 30.1 PER, 0.275 win shares per 48 minutes
With apologies to Durant, James is still the best basketball player in the world. Durant is ever so slightly superior on offense, but LeBron has a decisive edge defensively.
On his new team, however, LeBron could take a different role.
The Cleveland Cavaliers will have Kyrie Irving at point guard and Kevin Love at power forward, two of the best scorers in the game. Will LeBron need to put the Cavaliers offense on his back like he did for the Heat during much of the 2014 NBA Finals? Probably not.
For that reason, we could see LeBron taking much more of a facilitating role within rookie head coach David Blatt's offense in 2014-15. I have a feeling we will see LeBron running lots of pick-and-pops with Love and kickouts to Irving on the weak side for an open three-pointer.
And with LeBron in more of a passing mode, he will probably have more energy for the defensive end, where he was a bit lazy in 2013-14. The Heat defense was actually 2.8 points per 100 possessions better last year when LeBron wasn't on the floor, per 82games.com.
The Cavaliers will need all the defensive help they can get, as they ranked No. 19 in defensive efficiency last year. Love isn't exactly a stopper on that end, either.
Despite their probable struggles on defense, the Cavaliers should be title contenders in 2014-15, mostly thanks to James' all-around talents.