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 30 franchises.
Peja Stojakovic and Jason Kapono are three-point marksmen with no other appreciable skills. Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier, and James Posey are premier defensive specialists with little appreciable offensive talent. Gerald Wallace and Andrei Kirilenko are athletic high flyers on offense, and especially, on defense.
Paul Pierce, Brandon Roy, Hedo Turkoglu, and Caron Butler are asked to do everything for their teams, and they do it well. Carmelo Anthony needs the ball to be explosive, Matt Harpring does all his work without the ball, and Boris Diaw is at his best when he’s delivering the ball to someone else.
This list does not take into account a player’s future prospects or past salad days. The criteria is simple, and framed as a question it is: Which NBA small forward is best suited to being an integral part of a championship team this year?
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, Ron Artest, Shawn Marion, and Rashard Lewis are listed as power forwards.
No rookies made the list. We haven't seen them play in meaningful games against meaningful competition, so we can't know where they should be ranked.
With the formalities taken care of, the list.
1. LeBron James—Cleveland Cavaliers
Spectacularly athletic, James is easily the best small forward in the NBA, and has a chance to be one of the best ever. James is exceptionally quick with an explosive first step, but it’s his linebacker strength that allows him to discard contact and finish in hostile crowds and enables him to be the premier finisher in the league.
James is also blessed with tremendous court vision which allows him to spot open teammates when defenses are converging on him. His defense has improved considerably from his first years in the league, as he is no longer a defensive liability, and he has actually become a well above-average defender.
James’ jumper tends to abandon him, and he rarely plays off the ball, two characteristics that hold him below Kobe Bryant as the best player in the game. Nonetheless, given James' talent and the fact that he’s steadily improved each year in the league, it's clear that there is every possibility that James will someday be mentioned among the basketball immortals.
2. Paul Pierce—Boston Celtics
Pierce was Mr. Everything in Boston’s most important games last season. He was the one with the ball in his hands in crunch time, when the Celtics needed somebody to deliver a key score or a key pass. He was the one who defended opposing teams’ best players, often shutting them down.
Aggressive enough to finish in contact, unselfish enough to defer to teammates with better matchups, and clutch enough to always come through when it matters, Pierce is a complete and total basketball player.
3. Shane Battier—Houston Rockets
Battier is far and away the best wing defender in the NBA. His quick hands have always been able to poach lazy dribbles, he muscles weaker opponents off their game, and he spends so much time scouting opponent’s moves and practicing his footwork, that he often knows what his opponents will do before they do.
What separates Battier’s defense from that of other specialists is not only his quickness, but also his sheer physicality off the ball. Not only will he lock players up on the outside, but he’ll blow up off-ball cuts before they can happen.
On offense, Battier is a reliable three-point shooter, a willing passer, and a strong finisher along the baseline. If asked why a more dynamic player like Carmelo Anthony is ranked below Battier, ask yourself which is better, Battier’s offense or Carmelo’s defense?
4. Carmelo Anthony—Denver Nuggets
Anthony has dynamic athleticism, great strength, and a myriad of ways to score the ball. He’s also the best non-center/power forward post player in the league, because of his explosive athleticism, and his gifted passing skills from the post.
However, not once in Anthony’s career has he dedicated himself to the defensive end of the court, nor has he shown the mental toughness to succeed in the playoffs. Carmelo is just as immature as he is talented—one of the many reasons Denver has gone nowhere under his leadership.
5. Brandon Roy—Portland Trail Blazers
A future superstar, Roy’s game is as mature as it is smooth. More cerebral than athletic, Roy is blessed with a high basketball IQ, a clever handle, a reliable mid-range game, long strides which allow him to get to the rim a beat quicker than defenders expect, and quick hands and feet on defense.
The only thing holding Roy back is a relative lack of explosion, though with more experience he’ll be so sharp he’ll easily be able to compensate.
6. Caron Butler—Washington Wizards
Butler probably has the quickest pair of hands in the NBA, which allows him to menace opposing dribblers along the perimeter. His range has improved, but his jumper is still questionable, and he doesn’t have a first-class handle which prevents him from being an elite superstar.
7. Bruce Bowen—San Antonio Spurs
An elite perimeter defender, Bowen is also a reliable three-point shooter and entry passer on offense. Unlike other wing defenders like Shane Battier and Ron Artest, Bowen can be had off the ball by sharp physical cuts and post ups.
8. Hedo Turkoglu—Orlando Magic
Orlando’s Paul Pierce, Turkoglu was asked to be Orlando’s primary scorer, shooter, and facilitator last season, and he performed each task exceptionally well. Throw in the fact that he’s always been a good defender, a good rebounder, and big in the clutch, and Turkoglu was Orlando’s MVP last season.
However, he isn’t as defensively prolific as Bowen and Butler and he is turnover prone—the two traits holding him at eight on the list.
9. Andre Iguodala—Philadelphia 76ers
A physical defender and athletic specimen, Iguodala excels when he can get up high in the open court. In the half court, Iguodala isn’t explosive enough to beat premier defenders, and his subpar jumper allows defenses to sag off of him and take away his drives. His place on the list will improve as his jumper improves.
10. Richard Jefferson—Milwaukee Bucks
Jefferson can score, pass, and rebound, though the more he concentrates on his offense, the worse and worse his defense becomes. He’s also injury prone, and when he is concentrating on his offense, he hasn’t been able to carry the Nets to victories.
11. Corey Maggette—Golden State Warriors
A powerful baseline scorer and rebounder, Maggette’s defense waned the past few seasons as he became more and more discontent with his status on the Clippers. Maggette ranks below Jefferson because his range, jump shooting, and passing skills are all subpar compared to Jefferson’s.
12. Lamar Odom—Los Angeles Lakers
Odom’s length and athleticism give him the ability to take over games on both ends of the court. However, he’s physically soft and he has problems focusing on the basketball court. This means that he isn’t adept at paying attention to detail, and if he isn’t force fed action he tends to drift during the course of a game.
13. Gerald Wallace—Charlotte Bobcats
One of the most athletic players in the NBA, Wallace’s long wingspan, first step, and tremendous leaping ability allow him to be one of the game’s premier turnover forcer and finishers on the break. His lack of a consistent jump shot keeps his half court offense in check, and he isn’t the most physical of defenders.
Either way, he’s Charlotte’s best two-way player and their future.
14. Tayshaun Prince—Detroit Pistons
Long-limbed and rangy, Prince can swallow up perimeter attackers by swallowing them in his wingspan. However, Prince has problems guarding versatile physical players who can go through Prince as well as around him.
On offense, Prince has a very reliable jumper, a respectable post game, and a mid-range game to boot. He can also pass the ball and is a very good decision maker. His lack of strength separates him from other elite defenders, but his versatile offensive game places him above other stoppers like James Posey and Andrei Kirilenko.
15. James Posey—New Orleans Hornets
Strong, tough, physical, accurate from deep, clutch—all winning qualities that endear Posey to any coach and team. However, Posey has a habit of being lazy after successful seasons, and his defensive first step isn’t as quick as the media sometimes makes it out to be.
In fact, he was the third best Kobe defender in last season’s NBA Finals behind Ray Allen and then Paul Pierce; Kobe often got past Posey with his first step before the second wave of defenders rotated over.
This isn’t to detract from what Posey should offer the Hornets if he stays in shape and stays hungry. It is, however, the reason why he’s lower on my list than other physical defenders.
16. Andrei Kirilenko—Utah Jazz
Like Tayshaun Prince, Kirilenko is long-limbed, athletic, and struggles against physical offensive players. He’s an excellent shot blocker, a good passer and rebounder, and a smart decision maker, but his jumper tends to desert him.
He isn’t particularly explosive with the ball, and his offense tends to be mechanical and predictable. Still, he’s a jack-of-all-trades and any team can find a particular use for his numerous talents.
17. Luol Deng—Chicago Bulls
Deng has a solid, if unspectacular offensive game from 18-feet and inwards. He isn’t particularly athletic, and is an underwhelming player on the defensive end, but he has enough tricks up his mid-range sleeve to earn a spot in the middle of the list.
18. Josh Smith—Atlanta Hawks
(My apologies to Hawks fans. Marvin Williams is Atlanta’s small forward, Smith is their power forward, however, it is too late to amend the list.)
Smith started to mature last year and blossom into the player he should be, instead of the player he could be. His on ball defense started to improve slightly, as did his decision making on offense.
Still, Smith gambles way too much on defense for steals and blocks, and these bad habits prevent him from adequately defending his own man. Plus offensively, he isn’t strong enough to absorb contact and finish, and his jumper has too slow a release for it to be successful unless wide open.
Smith is taking steps, but he’s still a work in progress.
19. Danny Granger—Indiana Pacers
Granger is a better rebounder than most small forwards, has more range, and better handles than most power forwards, but doesn’t really have the body or the skill-set of either position.
Smaller players tend to be too fast for him, while taller players tend to be too strong. He’s crafty enough to take advantage of the mismatches he creates offensively, but he’ll always be on the other end of a similar mismatch on the opposite side of the court.
20. Josh Howard—Dallas Mavericks
Howard is long and athletic, better on the break than in the halfcourt, and strictly an isolation player. He tends to lose focus and disappear during games, and is unable to deliver under postseason pressure.
He’s talented, but like many of his Maverick teammates, he’s also a coward and completely unreliable when all the chips are on the table.
21. Peja Stojakovic—New Orleans Hornets
One of the best regular season, first-to-third quarter jump shooters in NBA history, Stojakovic is notorious for his infamous postseason choke jobs and his complete inability to defend along the perimeter.
22. Rudy Gay—Memphis Grizzlies
Gay is young, athletic, and has no idea how to defend, or play off the ball offensively. His learning curve is high, he was tougher last year than his rookie season, and he’s still figuring out how to assert himself without putting himself above the team. His future is bright, but he’s too raw to be higher on the list.
23. Grant Hill—Phoenix Suns
An astute passer and decision maker, a clever baseline scorer, and a reliable mid-range jump shooter, Hill is an ordinary defensive player, lacks explosion, lacks three-point range, and gets by more with his brain than with his legs nowadays.
24. Al Thornton—Los Angeles Clippers
A talented up-and-coming rookie with an NBA body and an effective jumper, Thornton is a talented scorer and rebounder who should improve rapidly with age.
25. Andres Nocioni—Chicago Bulls
Reckless and unabashed, Nocioni is one of only two (Joakim Noah) Chicago Bulls who play with any degree of heart. Nocioni has no concern for his well-being, driving into (and often times, through) crowds of defenders, diving for loose balls, battling for rebounds, taking charges, and scrapping around defensively along the perimeter.
He plays with just as much courage as he does talent.
26. Boris Diaw—Phoenix Suns
A wonderful passer, Diaw is too unselfish for his own good. He often passes up necessary open shots to distribute the ball to well-defended teammates. He’s also defenseless, gets pushed around, and is a below average shooter.
27. Matt Harpring—Utah Jazz
One of the toughest players in the NBA, nobody cuts harder away from the ball than Harpring. All his points come from curling around screens for mid-range jumpers, or simply going through defenders and sealing under the basket for layups or fouls.
He’s hard as a rock defensively, and never gives an inch to anybody. In all honesty, Harpring is a linebacker disguised as a basketball player.
28. Jamario Moon—Toronto Raptors
An athletic finisher who knows how to play off the ball, Moon is an earnest defender and a high-leaping rebounder with limited skills in other areas. He isn’t particularly strong, and his jumper has a slow release, limiting its effectiveness against active defenses.
29. Jason Kapono—Toronto Raptors
Kapono has one trick, to shoot three-pointers, and he performs that trick exceptionally well.
However, unlike Peja Stojaokovic, Kapono can’t even create his own shot by pump faking. His all-around offensive game and even his defense are worse than Stojaokovic’s.
30. Ryan Gomes—Minnesota Timberwolves
A wise, if unheralded player, who has great court vision, passing skills, and a reliable jumper, Gomes was the only player who played with savvy on last year’s Timberwolves team.
He’s a willing defender and rebounder, and cuts with alacrity off-the-ball. Gomes is the rare youngster with a veteran’s feel for the game.