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The Future of the NBA's Stacked Power Forward Position Looks Brighter Than Ever

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 18, 2015

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 31:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans drives to the basket against Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors during a game at the Smoothie King Center on October 31, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Talent and volume. The NBA's power forward ranks have them both.

This is neither a forced spin nor a matter of debate. It's a fact.

But will it remain a fact?

As the NBA has evolved, so too have the roles at every position. And no spot has undergone more of a functional facelift than the 4. 

Current Crop

The power forward position is in very good hands—for the time being.
The power forward position is in very good hands—for the time being.Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Much like the small forward position, the 4 spot is steeped in stardom. Five of this season's top 15 player efficiency ratings belong to power forwards—more than any other group. The position is beyond loaded:

  • Anthony Davis would be the NBA's best player if Stephen Curry wasn't a flame-throwing sorcerer.
  • Draymond Green is a quintuple-double threat whenever he steps on the floor. 
  • Blake Griffin is what happens when you give 26-year-old Larry Bird a chiseled physique and jet-propelled feet.
  • Kevin Love averages a double-double even as a glorified role player.
  • Paul Millsap is Al Horford in power forward form. Derrick Favors would be a perennial All-Star in the Eastern Conference.
  • Paul George, an MVP candidate for the first time in his career, is playing the 4 these days. 
  • Father Time is Dirk Nowitzki's butler.
  • As someone who blocks shots and shoots threes, Serge Ibaka is a pioneer and forever on the All-Star bubble.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge's off year consists of being the second-leading scorer and top rebounder for the league's second-best team.

That list can go on. And it will continue to go on, thanks to a healthy batch of up-and-comers. 

Parker and Porzingis are among the youngsters who may blossom into stars if the future of the power forward position is to keep pace with its present.
Parker and Porzingis are among the youngsters who may blossom into stars if the future of the power forward position is to keep pace with its present.Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Tobias Harris, 23, now spends half of his playing time at power forward for the Orlando Magic. Aaron Gordon (20), Jabari Parker (20) and Kristaps Porzingis (20) are all Top Four draft prospects who still aren't old enough to order their own cotton candy cosmopolitans.

Terrence Jones, almost 24, is shooting and blocking shots like a less athletic Ibaka. Tristan Thompson, not yet 25, would be a double-double machine if he wasn't playing fourth fiddle for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Nikola Mirotic, 24, need only improve his three-point clip by a few percentage points before giving us a glimpse into what it would be like if Doug McDermott, 23, could play defense. Jared Sullinger, 23, always seems one month away from a full-blown breakout.

There's a clear lack of burgeoning superstar talent here that might be cause for concern. With the exception of Porzingis, no other 4 has been pegged as the next big thing.

Developing projects like Gordon, Parker, Julius Randle, etc. will have to make significant leaps in the coming years if the NBA's power forward ranks are to remain impressively deep. But, at the same time, the current crop of megastuds consists mostly of players in their prime. Davis, Favors, Ibaka and Love, among others, are all 27 or younger and have plenty of high-impact basketball left in the tank.

If there's any looming—or semi-imminentthreat to the position, it's a lack of direction.

Today's power forwards aren't your grandaddy's power forwards.
Today's power forwards aren't your grandaddy's power forwards.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Power forwards are seldom just power forwards anymore. They are wings playing up a level in small-ball systems (George, Green, Harris) and bigs (Davis, Favors, Ibaka) who vacillate between the 4 and 5 camps. The notion of an exclusive 4 is entirely outdated at this point.

Bruising post-up brutes of yesteryear have bowed to sharpshooting skyscrapers, who have given way to playmaking high-rises, who are now welcoming career swingmen into the frontcourt. As Zach Lowe detailed for Grantland in May:

A few executives have dumped the term “stretch 4” altogether and replaced it with “playmaking 4” — a term I’m officially stealing right now. Shooting is nice, but it’s not enough anymore as defenses get smarter, faster and more flexible working within the loosened rules. Spot-up guys have to be able to catch the ball, pump-fake a defender rushing out at them, drive into the lane and make some sort of play. If they can’t manage that, a possession dies with them.

This job description is eerily similar to those of a shooting guard and small forward and is a big part of why Green's ascension figures to spawn a new breed of power forward. And while more traditionally sized 4s can always adjust to meet modern-day requirements, some of today's biggest names are bound to end up as full-time 5s.

More of Davis' minutes are coming at center for the first time in his career. Love has spent more time at the 5 than the 4 since arriving in Cleveland. The New York Knicks are already experimenting with Porzingis at the 5.

Is this a problem? Does the future of the power forward position lie in the hands of those not yet in the NBA more than anyone else? And if so, what's next?

Changing Landscape 

Love is among the many power forwards who now routinely see playing time at center.
Love is among the many power forwards who now routinely see playing time at center.John Raoux/Associated Press/Associated Press

Power forwards capable of defending the 5 will surely be seeing more time there. It allows teams to run and generate offense from a position they were getting very little from—Porzingis at center instead of Robin Lopez, Davis instead of Omer Asik, Love instead of Timofey Mozgov—without having to give up much at the other end. 

But converting a current 4 into a full-time 5 only works when that team doesn't already have a must-play starting center. And there are plenty of them still around and more up-and-comers, from DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard to Hassan Whiteside, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert.

As long as colleges and leagues overseas continue producing 7-foot anchors, the NBA's talent at power forward will stay at power forward. 

However, I do expect reserve 4s to start getting more time at the 5. Backup power forwards should typically be better offensive players than backup centers, who most likely aren't defensive difference-makers, either. In stretches, we could see coaches more willing to sacrifice some height for an extra scoring punch up front. 

Incoming!

It's possible LSU's Ben Simmons becomes a full-time power forward at the NBA level.
It's possible LSU's Ben Simmons becomes a full-time power forward at the NBA level.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

We asked Bleacher Report NBA draft expert Jonathan Wasserman to offer insight into the incoming NBA draft class and beyond.

There could be a handful of 2016 and 2017 lottery picks who spend chunks of their pro careers playing the 4. And they each come in different shapes and sizes with varying styles of play. 

For starters, it wouldn't be surprising to see LSU's Ben Simmons, the presumed No. 1 pick in next year's draft, logging minutes as an NBA power forward. Whether he does will come down to circumstances and his team's personnel.

Simmons hasn't shown much shooting range. And although power forwards with jumpers have risen in value, it's still more of a requirement for small forwards to spread the floor from three—something Simmons can't really do yet. 

Still, Simmons is capable of doing plenty of damage from the 4 spot. While he operates as more of a Lamar Odom-style point forward, he's an excellent rebounder and scorer around the basket, as well as a problem facing up in space against bigs with slower feet. And he could be used as a facilitator and passer from the same spots that Griffin is for the Los Angeles Clippers. 

Kentucky's Skal Labissiere has a real chance to make some noise as an NBA 4.
Kentucky's Skal Labissiere has a real chance to make some noise as an NBA 4.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Kentucky's Skal Labissiere, another likely top-three pick, plays in the middle as a freshman, but at 225 pounds with perimeter skills and foot speed, he could handle the 4 once he adds some bulk.

But Labissiere is a long-term project, evidenced by his slow start this season. But with size, bounce, footwork, touch, post moves and shot-blocking tools, it's easy to understand the best-case-outcome comparisons to Aldridge.

Croatia's Dragan Bender represents arguably the most intriguing up-and-coming 4. Like Porzingis, Bender is another international 7-footer comfortable operating around the arc, where he can shoot the three or put the ball on the floor. 

He's unusually skilled for a player his size and age, from his ball-handling and shot-making ability to his passing. The fact he can protect the rim and switch out defensively on the perimeter only strengthens his two-way image. 

At 18 years old, Bender isn't seeing much time with Maccabi Tel Aviv, but between previous FIBA play and last summer's Eurocamp (also MVP of Basketball Without Borders), Bender's talent is well-documented.

Marquette's Henry Ellenson, meanwhile, is a name that's started to heat up as of late. At 6'10", we've seen flashes of back-to-the-basket play, face-up scoring, three-point shooting and sharp ball-handling. 

But it's very possible the top power forward prospect (outside the NBA) is still a senior in high school.

Once healthy, Duke commit Harry Giles figures to drum up some serious buzz as a high-impact power forward.
Once healthy, Duke commit Harry Giles figures to drum up some serious buzz as a high-impact power forward.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

Duke commit Harry Giles is currently recovering from a second torn ACL (one to each knee), which is something NBA teams will surely remember over the next 18 months.

However, at full strength, Giles—6'10", 235 pounds, 7'2" wingspan—is an absolute monster. In June, he averaged 14.0 points and 10.6 rebounds in just 21.2 minutes per game for USA during the under-19 FIBA World Championships—where he was roughly two years younger than most competitors. 

And unlike the new-school, stretch-playmaking 4s, Giles is your more traditional power forward. He's an animal inside with natural-scoring instincts and major bounce around the rim. 

Kentucky commit Edrice "Bam" Adebayo, an interior-oriented big, and Isaiah Hartenstein, a rising 6'11" German prospect with perimeter skills, are two more 2017 draft-eligible names to monitor.

Crystal Basketball

If the primary concern for power forwards is an evolving job description, there's really nothing to be concerned about at all.
If the primary concern for power forwards is an evolving job description, there's really nothing to be concerned about at all.Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

The power forward slot has evolved more than any other position, and even in today's versatility-obsessed league, that can feel uncomfortable.

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott talked of playing Kobe Bryant at the 4 ahead of the regular season. He has thus far resisted, opting to use Bryant mostly at small forward, but it was a thing.

Playing a 6'6" career shooting guard at power forward was a thing.

Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks, who stands 6'8" on "Wear Your Elevator Shoes to Work Day," was primarily used at the 4 last season and is once again splitting time between the shooting guard, small forward and power forward spots this year.

These are the new extremes. Throwing out someone like George at the 4? That's the standard.

"Ten years ago, I think it would have been a crazy idea," Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel said of using George at the 4, per NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. "Because you'd be one of five teams that was doing it. Now, if you don't do it, you're one of five teams not doing it."

The NBA's power forward position is going to be just fine.
The NBA's power forward position is going to be just fine.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Ten years from now, we will be looking at a vastly different power forward landscape. Maybe slotting 6'6" would-be guards up front will be the new norm. Perhaps the NBA will revert to its post-up tenets of decades past.

Today's 4s have evolved so much, so quickly, we can't really be sure.

One thing, though, is for certain: Wherever the power forward position is headed, there is enough talent, both incumbent and inbound, to get it there.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited and accurate leading into games on Dec. 19.

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