Metrics 101: Greatest Power Forward Seasons in Modern NBA History
Power forwards today play a different game than their predecessors.
Dating back to 1973-74, which serves as our cutoff for the modern era because that was the advent of expanded statistical tracking, plenty of different player types have graced the NBA. We've seen back-to-the-basket stalwarts like Kevin McHale, defensive menaces like Andrei Kirilenko, do-everything stars like Draymond Green and pure, unabashed two-way superstars like those who populate the tip-top portion of these rankings.
But who's had the absolute best season?
Just as was the case in our point guard rankings, shooting guard countdown and small forward hierarchy, we're turning to NBA Math's total points added (TPA) metric, which weighs both per-possession efficiency and volume to show how much value a player added during a season. The calculation here is rather simple: Add together the regular-season and postseason scores so that both the first 82 games and the all-important playoffs are taken into account.
Each power forward is eligible just once, so we're taking only their best single seasons to determine the modern-era hierarchy.
15. Kevin McHale, 1986-87, Boston Celtics: 366.66
Regular-Season TPA: 333.16
Postseason TPA: 33.5
Per-Game Stats: 26.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.2 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-Defensive First Team, All-NBA First Team
During his prime, Kevin McHale wasn't just a master of post moves.
Sure, the legendary back-to-the-basket force baffled countless opponents on the blocks. They never knew if he was going to spin for a quick jump-hook, throw in a drop step or pull off a counter to whatever initial counter they first threw in his direction. Without this veritable arsenal of moves, he couldn't have scored 26.1 points per game on a staggering, league-high 60.4 field-goal percentage—numbers no player in NBA history has every matched.
But in the present day, McHale's defensive excellence often gets overlooked.
He didn't make the All-Defensive first team by accident. Playing alongside Robert Parish and Larry Bird, he helped the Boston Celtics earn a top-10 defensive rating during the 1986-87 season, suffocating opponents who dared attack him in the post by blocking plenty of shots and holding his positioning at all times.
This was the year in which McHale put all the pieces together, outpacing his work from one season prior to produce the best go-round of his career. It's just a shame his passing chops disappeared during the playoffs and prevented his postseason score from matching his fantastic regular-season pace.
Honorable Mentions: George McGinnis (1975-76), Anthony Davis (2014-15), Shawn Kemp (1993-94), Danny Manning (1991-92), Josh Smith (2009-10)
14. Larry Nance, 1991-92, Cleveland Cavaliers: 367.83
Regular-Season TPA: 324.9
Postseason TPA: 42.93
Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 3.0 blocks
Awards: All-Defensive Second Team
Defense historically gets undervalued during award season. Offense is more fun and glamorous—and slightly more important, sure. It's just not so much more valuable that the league's best defensive stoppers should be excluded from All-NBA and All-Star conversations.
Even on the most basic level, Larry Nance had the numbers to get more recognition. Recording one steal and three blocks during your average appearance is no easy feat. In fact, he's one of just 12 qualified players to do so throughout the entirety of NBA history.
Advanced metrics are similarly kind.
NBA Math's defensive points saved had Nance trailing only seven men during the 1991-92 season (David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, Hakeem Olajuwon, Mark Eaton, Patrick Ewing, Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen), and there's no shame in placing behind any of those players. Even more importantly, he lagged behind the same number in total points added, which now takes offense into account.
Nance may have been a defensive ace, but his high-flying habits also helped him provide plenty of offensive value. Though he didn't score too many points, his ability to produce them efficiently, feast around the basket and throw up numbers without ever turning the ball over helped boost the Cleveland Cavaliers not just into the playoff picture, but all the way to the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed.
13. Chris Webber, 1999-00, Sacramento Kings: 383.77
Regular-Season TPA: 351.52
Postseason TPA: 32.25
Per-Game Stats: 24.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.7 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA Third Team
This isn't just about the numbers, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe made clear for Grantland when beautifully arguing for Chris Webber's Hall of Fame inclusion back in 2013:
"This project was appealing because I just couldn't manage that emotional asceticism in Webber's case. I loved Webber's game. I got into arguments with my dad — actual arguments, with real tension and cries of 'You don't get it!' — about the utility of Webber's behind-the-back passes. I imitated the sideways violence of his dunks on my Nerf hoop — the way he'd extend his right arm way out to his side and rip it horizontally back toward the rim. I dug the mean mug, probably the greatest mean mug ever. I aimed for the sudden ferocity of his baseline spin move from the left block, a piece of hoops ballet, often preceded by a Jordanesque shoulder flinch, which left bulkier defenders standing befuddled as Webber scooted by for a power dunk from directly under the rim. This wasn't just an All-Star. It was an All-Star who added both art and a sneering, cool style. How many guys did that? How many big guys ever did that?"
The numbers, of course, do back up what eyeballs first told: Webber just did everything well.
He could score inside and out. He became one of the best frontcourt distributors the NBA has ever witnessed. His athleticism made him a threat to get anywhere during transition action or in the half-court set. Even his defense excelled during the 1999-00 season, as he was constantly active in the passing lanes and shut down players at multiple positions.
The Sacramento Kings ultimately limited his earning potential with a first-round playoff exit, but he'd already asserted himself as an all-time great.
12. Shawn Marion, 2005-06, Phoenix Suns: 394.15
Regular-Season TPA: 338.63
Postseason TPA: 55.52
Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.7 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA Third Team
Chris Webber might eventually get into the Hall of Fame, but Shawn Marion probably won't.
He was doomed to remain massively underrated throughout his playing days, and that will likely continue throughout his retirement, even if Basketball-Reference.com's objective analysis of his career says he has a 75.6 percent shot at eventual induction into Springfield.
No season helped "The Matrix" more than 2005-06, when he spent more time than ever at the Phoenix Suns' biggest positions and made opponents pay on a nightly basis. Marion already ranked No. 13 among small forwards for his work in 2006-07, but his efforts the previous go-round were ever-so-slightly better.
Marion was still a dangerous defender whose versatility helped the Suns avoid looking like total sieves. His offensive game was just even better, as he posted a career-high 21.8 points per game while shooting 52.5 percent from the field and 80.9 percent on his free-throw attempts.
With unorthodox form, the forward emerged as a spot-up threat from the corners who kept defenses further off-balance with his athleticism. If he darted toward the hoop, he could get up and finish plays above the rim, providing a different type of gravity that opened things up for Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash.
Marion doesn't get the same level of credit those two earned for his time with the seven-seconds-or-less (grammatical note: It should be "fewer") Suns, but he was every bit as important.
11. Andrei Kirilenko, 2003-04, Utah Jazz: 433.51
Regular-Season TPA: 433.51
Postseason TPA: N/A
Per-Game Stats: 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 2.8 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-Defensive Second Team
Just imagine if Andrei Kirilenko had come around a decade later.
Though he never developed into a capable stretch 4, his defensive chops would've played perfectly. With a lanky wingspan, boundless athletic reserves and the quick-twitch instincts necessary to switch on every screen, he was a monstrous defender capable of filling multiple roles—much like Draymond Green does now on the Golden State Warriors.
Throw in his passing ability in transition and from the blocks, as well as his rebounding prowess and knack for scoring around the hoop, and you have a devastating two-way threat. Kirilenko remains a rather unique figure in NBA history, and this was the lone season in which he was rewarded with an All-Star appearance.
The campaign also stands the test of time. To this day, Kirilenko is one of only five players to average at least 16.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocks, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Josh Smith. That, in a nutshell, is stuffing the stat sheet.
But Kirilenko didn't have the luxury of postseason play this year, which prevents him from moving up into the top 10. This version of the Utah Jazz was fairly devoid of talent—Greg Ostertag was probably the second-best player—and could only muster 42 wins behind the heroics of "AK-47," leaving it one game shy of the playoffs.
10. Elton Brand, 2005-06, Los Angeles Clippers: 452.29
Regular-Season TPA: 367.04
Postseason TPA: 85.25
Per-Game Stats: 24.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.5 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA Second Team
Elton Brand was an underrated superstar during his time with the Chicago Bulls and his early years for the Los Angeles Clippers, but he finally (and deservedly) got more recognition during his breakout season in 2005-06. Not only did he earn the second and final All-Star berth of his career, but he made his only All-NBA squad.
Naturally, scoring was the root cause.
The Duke product averaged between 18.2 and 20.1 points during his first six seasons, but he took control of even more offensive possessions during the campaign in question. Perhaps even more importantly, his leaping scoring average and career-high usage percentage didn't come with a drop in efficiency.
Brand morphed into a knock-down mid-range sniper, connecting on 49.4 percent of his shots between 10 and 16 feet, as well as 41.6 percent of his two-pointers from at least 16 feet. Couple that with continued excellence around the rim and two-way ability, and you have a bona fide stud.
He was even better on both ends during the Clippers' playoff exploits, but he bowed out against the Phoenix Suns after taking down the Denver Nuggets. Even with only two rounds to his credit, he trailed just Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade in NBA Math's TPA during the 2006 postseason.
9. Bobby Jones, 1976-77, Denver Nuggets: 459.1
Regular-Season TPA: 431.5
Postseason TPA: 27.6
Per-Game Stats: 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.3 steals, 2.0 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-Defensive First Team
The transition out of the ABA didn't trouble the indomitable Bobby Jones.
His field-goal percentage fell all the way to...57 percent (and he'd lead the NBA during the 1977-78 campaign at 57.8 percent). He scored even more frequently despite spending less time on the floor for the Denver Nuggets. And, perhaps most importantly, he kept thriving on the defensive end.
Averaging two steals isn't a particularly easy task. Ditto for rejecting two shots per game.
But Jones did both throughout the 1976-77 season, proving the adjustment to the NBA game wasn't anything to write home about—for him, at least. That's a feat only four players have achieved in the lengthy history of this wonderful sport, and the names are rather impressive ones: Jones, Hakeem Olajuwon (four times), David Robinson and Gerald Wallace.
Behind Jones' defensive intensity, the Nuggets finished the season allowing fewer points per possession than any other squad. It just wasn't enough for them to make much noise in the playoffs, as they fell in six games to the Portland Trail Blazers during the opening round of the Western Conference postseason.
8. Dirk Nowitzki, 2005-06, Dallas Mavericks: 465.91
Regular-Season TPA: 322.05
Postseason TPA: 143.86
Per-Game Stats: 26.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.0 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA First Team
Everything about this is initially confusing.
Dirk Nowitzki only ranks eighth? Well, let's hold off judgment until you see the fantastic seasons yet to come, while also acknowledging that his weakness on defense limits his upside. His offense is so strong that it allows the Dallas Mavericks to put one-way stoppers around him, but that's never going to show up in an individual assessment of what he actually added with his own play.
Secondly, why 2005-06? Nowitzki made the 50/40/90 club and won MVP one year later. He earned the only title of his career in 2010-11, working to topple the Miami Heat's Big Three throughout a not-too-competitive NBA Finals. Shouldn't one of those be the choice?
Nope. A couple elements push this over the top.
Nowitzki barely missed out on that aforementioned club (48.0/40.6/90.1) while scoring more points than ever. That, along with his remarkable penchant for maintaining control of the rock, made him an unstoppable offensive force. But he still only tallied the fourth-best regular-season TPA of his career, trailing 2002-03, 2004-05 and 2006-07.
The postseason makes the difference, since Nowitzki grew even deadlier with his constant parades to the charity stripe and carried Dallas all the way to the NBA Finals, where it would lose in six games to the Heat. The rest of his team just wasn't as strong, and we can't blame the German 7-footer for that.
7. Draymond Green, 2015-16, Golden State Warriors: 467.05
Regular-Season TPA: 342.73
Postseason TPA: 124.32
Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-Defensive First Team, All-NBA Second Team
Has the NBA ever seen a player quite like Draymond Green?
This passionate power forward has lent his identity to the Golden State Warriors, helping them create a dynasty behind his well-rounded game and ridiculous defensive ability. At his best playing free safety and bouncing from one assignment to the next, Green lets the Dubs switch on everything and forces them to exhibit constant, indefatigable displays of energy.
During the 2015-16 season, in which Golden State won an NBA-record 73 games, Green paced the entire league in NBA Math's defensive points saved. The same story rang true in the playoffs. Though the Warriors infamously blew a 3-1 lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, Green again led the field in the aforementioned category, edging out LeBron James and nearly doubling everyone else's scores.
But this Michigan State product didn't just contribute on one end.
How many Defensive Player of the Year candidates shoot 38.8 percent from downtown while taking 3.2 looks per game? How many chip in with 7.4 assists per game? Green did both those things, becoming one of the first players in league history to average at least 14 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, one steal and one block.
Scratch that. He was the first.
6. Kevin Love, 2013-14, Minnesota Timberwolves: 476.28
Regular-Season TPA: 476.28
Postseason TPA: N/A
Per-Game Stats: 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA Second Team
Win shares should by no means be used as gospel, but they do have some fun applications. Since they're meant to represent the number of victories a player added as an individual, they can be compared to a team's overall win total and shine a light on the relative value of the man in question.
Kevin Love's 2013-14 campaign for the Minnesota Timberwolves is a great example.
While averaging a double-double with room to spare and making an impact as a secondary facilitator, Love racked up 14.3 win shares in his 77 appearances. Minnesota won just 40 games and fell short of the playoffs, which means the power forward was individually responsible for approximately 35.8 percent of his team's successful outings. If we forget about the bench, he's only 20 percent of the starting lineup.
How does that compare to the rest of the NBA in 2013-14? I'm glad you asked!
Only seven other players were above 25 percent: Stephen Curry (26.3), DeMarcus Cousins (28.2), Carmelo Anthony (28.9), LeBron James (29.4), Anthony Davis (30.6), Kevin Durant (32.5) and Andre Drummond (34.1).
Don't make the mistake of assuming Love's stats were empty. His teammates on the 'Wolves just couldn't match his offensive production or rebounding exploits. And that, not anything he did, is to blame for the lottery finish.
5. Horace Grant, 1991-92, Chicago Bulls: 516.81
Regular-Season TPA: 410.48
Postseason TPA: 106.33
Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.6 blocks
Awards: NBA Champion
Seeing Horace Grant in the top five and outpacing a number of Hall of Famers and players who will eventually join that club might seem strange. But while helping the Chicago Bulls earn one of their many titles in the '90s, he did everything possible to maximize his score in this particular metric.
Grant didn't make the All-Star squad in the Eastern Conference. He wasn't voted onto either an All-NBA or All-Defensive team, though the latter would change during each of the next four seasons. But this age-26 campaign still saw him truly establish himself as a point-preventing force who played efficient offense.
The big man didn't just average 14.2 points per game. He did so while shooting 57.8 percent from the field and 74.1 percent from the charity stripe, which helped him earn a career-high 61.8 true shooting percentage. For reference, Charles Barkley, Brad Daugherty, Reggie Miller, Detlef Schrempf, Mark Price, Otis Thorpe and Sarunas Marciulionis were the only other qualified players to score at least 14 points per contest with a true shooting percentage no lower than 60 percent during the 1991-92 campaign.
"The Alfred to [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen's Batman and Robin, Horace Grant has always been acknowledged as a key component of the Bulls' first threepeat, but you can make the argument that during a couple of those years it could've been Scottie doing the butlering back at the Batcave," Jack Erwin and Ralph Warner wrote for Complex.com while calling Grant the second-most underrated player in NBA history.
Pippen would obviously go on to have the greater career, but the metrics weren't all in his favor during 1991-92. He loses the battle in win shares (14.1 to 12.7), win shares per 48 minutes (0.237 to 0.192), box plus/minus (7.3 to 6.5) and NBA Math's TPA (410.48 to 404.5).
4. Karl Malone, 1995-96, Utah Jazz: 516.82
Regular-Season TPA: 426.1
Postseason TPA: 90.72
Per-Game Stats: 25.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.7 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA First Team
Karl Malone was unstoppable during his best seasons.
His enduring reputation has become his pick-and-roll prowess alongside John Stockton, but that's not all he brought to the proverbial table. He was a devastating finisher around the hoop who could create his own offense, a gifted passer who helped facilitate for the Utah Jazz and a physical defender who made life difficult for opposing bigs.
"He was extremely physical, and at times he was borderline cheap," Doc Rivers explained about his one-time foe, per NBA.com's Legends profile. "But that didn't bother me because he was trying to win. When a guy throws an extra elbow or tries to knock you down, I've always viewed that as part of the game, especially if you let him get away with it."
Opponents knew they'd have to deal with "The Mailman" delivering some wayward elbows if they tested him with drives into the paint, and that worked in Malone's advantage. He owned the inside on both ends, pushing the Jazz to 55 wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals, where they'd fall in seven games to the Seattle SuperSonics.
Had Malone shot better than 8-of-22 in the decisive game and earned a date with the Chicago Bulls, his score here might've been even higher. Then again, if he'd maintained his exact level over the course of seven more postseason appearances, his final mark still would've left him a tier behind the three power forwards who have yet to appear.
That trio is a class of its own.
3. Charles Barkley, 1989-90, Philadelphia 76ers: 663.45
Regular-Season TPA: 601.59
Postseason TPA: 61.86
Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.6 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA First Team
What couldn't Charles Barkley do?
During the 1989-90 season, he consistently threw up well-rounded lines for the Philadelphia 76ers, thriving in so many different areas. One possession, he'd grab a defensive rebound and sprint down the court with the ball in his hands, either acting like a wrecking ball as he drove toward the rim or finding an open teammate for a kick-out attempt. The next, he might drain a triple; though he wasn't particularly efficient, he did make 20 throughout the year—an ahead-of-its-time tally for a big man of this particular era.
But what truly made Barkley special—and this is a bit ironic, given his well-publicized disdain for analytics—was his efficiency. He just refused to take bad shots while frequently working his way to the charity stripe, which made him one of the best scorers in NBA history. Maybe not in terms of volume, but definitely when you take both volume and efficiency into account.
Barkley averaged 25.2 points per game for the Sixers during the relevant year, and he did so with a league-high 65.3 true shooting percentage—one of four consecutive seasons in which he paced the NBA for that category.
Stephen Curry, Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant, Kevin McHale and Amar'e Stoudemire have topped 25 and 65 once apiece. Barkley did so three times.
It's just the length of this playoff run, which lasted 10 games before Philadelphia fell to the Chicago Bulls, that nudges this campaign ahead of the pack.
2. Tim Duncan, 2002-03, San Antonio Spurs: 673.81
- 2003 Tim Duncan: 226.51
- 2016 LeBron James: 203.44
- 1984 Larry Bird: 200.13
- 2012 LeBron James: 196.42
- 2009 LeBron James: 189.28
Regular-Season TPA: 447.3
Postseason TPA: 226.51
Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.9 blocks
Awards: All-Star, NBA Champion, Finals MVP, MVP, All-Defensive First Team, All-NBA First Team
Tim Duncan's career wasn't about an eye-popping peak. He was just dominant from the moment he entered the league until he finally pulled the plug on his NBA tenure. Even during his final go-round in 2015-16, he was a fantastic defensive presence who could still knock down banked elbow jumpers.
And yet, he did still have a peak: this 2002-03 campaign. Just by definition, everyone needs to have one.
Duncan was often around this level during the regular season. He actually posted a higher TPA during the first 82 games for his 2001-02 exploits, when he helped lead the San Antonio Spurs to a 58-24 record.
But one year later, he decided to explode in the playoffs. Working to justify his MVP trophy—as well as eventually earn Finals MVP and the second of his five titles—he averaged a scorching 24.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.6 steals and 3.3 blocks throughout the postseason. Better still, he played 42.5 minutes of sensational defense per game while shooting 52.9 percent from the field.
This wasn't just the best showing of the 2003 playoffs. Duncan produced the highest postseason TPA of any player in the modern era, and by a fairly wide margin:
To put that in further perspective, only 19 players added 226.51 TPA or more during the entire 2016-17 campaign, which contained 58 more possible games than in Duncan's legendary playoff run.
1. Kevin Garnett, 2003-04, Minnesota Timberwolves: 684.38
Regular-Season TPA: 593.11
Postseason TPA: 92.3
Per-Game Stats: 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.2 blocks
Awards: All-Star, MVP, All-Defensive First Team, All-NBA First Team
Had the Minnesota Timberwolves toppled the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2004 Western Conference Finals and given Kevin Garnett an opportunity to suit up in more playoff games, he would've provided further separation between himself and the rest of the pack. But that was always a tough ask for a squad that featured post-prime versions of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell as the second- and third-best players.
This was essentially a one-man show, and Garnett proved himself more than worthy of the "Big Ticket" moniker.
Garnett was an electric force throughout his career, but he sweated energy out of his pores during his prime. Whether he was talking trash to players who couldn't figure out how to score against him, jumping up to swat away shots taken after a whistle, backing opponents down before dunking on them or running the show as a facilitator from the blocks, he could always find a way to carry the 'Wolves.
What was his weakness? Seriously, did one exist?
Garnett's best years might not have lasted as long as Duncan's, but he was a nearly perfect player in 2003-04. He rarely turned the ball over. He shot efficiently from the field. He excelled on both ends of the floor, to the point that he finished behind just five players in the Defensive Player of the Year race while earning all but three first-place MVP votes.
If you're looking for an example of a prototypical power forward, just go watch some Garnett tape from this particular season.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.