NBA Position Power Rankings, End of Regular Season Edition: Small Forwards
Can anyone dethrone LeBron James?
The Cleveland Cavaliers small forward has graced the top of the positional rankings for quite some time now, but he has a host of challengers in 2016-17. While he defers to Kyrie Irving and takes on more of a facilitating role than he's ever filled, players such as Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are working their way up the leaderboard.
Plus, plenty of youngsters are striving to move past some veteran counterparts. Not all of them have done so yet, but a few are getting close to ascending a tier or two.
By analyzing all aspects of the on-court work these players have produced in 2016-17, we're here to put the top 30 small forwards in order. The goal is to identify those we'd most want to build around for the remainder of the current campaign, so long-term upside and prowess in the distant past are irrelevant. For the sake of consistency, all positional designations are the same as they appeared in the midseason edition of these rankings, even in instances where splits have changed to slightly favor new positions.
Yes, that means you'll have to wait until the power forwards to see where Kevin Durant fits in.
30-26: Anderson, Hill, Johnson, Evans, Gordon
Per-Game Stats: 6.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks
Justin Anderson's three-point shooting hasn't come around since a midseason trade sent him from the Dallas Mavericks to the Philadelphia 76ers, but he's become a terrific finisher around the hoop. With the Sixers, he's shot a staggering 77.3 percent from within three feet, as well as 45.5 percent from between three and 10 feet. Those are both career highs, and they represent the type of offensive improvement the second-year wing needs to keep showing as he gains legitimacy on the scoring end.
29. Solomon Hill, New Orleans Pelicans (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Per-Game Stats: 7.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
"I think he's done a great job for the most part. The guys he's guarded have always been the best perimeter player, unless it's a point guard, and then we obviously feel comfortable with Jrue [Holiday] there. But between the [shooting guard] and small [forward] he always guards the best perimeter player of those two, and I think he's done a really good job," New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry told Scott Kushner of the New Orleans Advocate about Solomon Hill's defense. And though last offseason's wing addition hasn't figured out how to score efficiently, those point-preventing chops have allowed him to still serve as a useful contributor.
28. Joe Johnson, Utah Jazz (Previous Ranking: No. 22)
Per-Game Stats: 8.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.4 steals 0.2 blocks
Age has prevented Joe Johnson from truly shining in his new home with the Utah Jazz, but he can still turn back the clock for a few possessions at a time. Whether he's shutting down opposing wings or scoring in a manner that reminds the world of his "Iso Joe" moniker, the 35-year-old can spark a quick Salt Lake City run. It also helps that head coach Quin Snyder has been able to find success with him at the 4 in smaller lineups, even if small forward remains his natural position and from where 55 percent of his minutes stem.
27. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mentions)
Per-Game Stats: 10.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks
Apparently, a change in scenery was all Tyreke Evans needed. Since returning to the Sacramento Kings, with whom he spent the first four seasons of his NBA career, in the midseason DeMarcus Cousins deal, the veteran small forward has averaged 12.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 41.7 percent from the field and 44.7 percent from downtown. Evans entered the 2016-17 campaign as a career 28.8 percent shooter from three-point territory, so whether these substantial strides are small-sample-size flukes remains to be seen. But if they're not, he'll only continue his ascension in 2017-18.
26. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic (Previous Ranking: No. 24)
Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Until the Orlando Magic fully commit to using Aaron Gordon as a power forward, they'll hinder the growth of the promising 21-year-old. He's played 67 percent of his minutes at the 3 this year, even sliding to the 2 in extra-large lineups, but forcing him to the perimeter is a misapplication of his skill set. The athletic marvel is far better around the basket on both ends, though the Magic have insisted upon unsuccessfully trying to pigeonhole him into a Paul George-like role.
Honorable Mentions: Kyle Anderson, Luol Deng, Dorian Finney-Smith, Evan Turner, Justise Winslow
25-21: Morris, Mbah a Moute, Chandler, Harkless, Tucker
25. Marcus Morris, Detroit Pistons (Previous Ranking: No. 15)
Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Marcus Morris is scoring more for the Detroit Pistons than he did in 2015-16, but that's not a good thing. It can't be when his percentages are dipping from the field (43.4 to 41.8 percent) and beyond the arc (36.2 to 33.0 percent), leaving him as a below-average shooter who can't help space the court for his teammates. And opponents are starting to recognize the decline, failing to close out quite as hard against the versatile forward and electing to instead devote extra attention to his teammates.
24. Luc Mbah a Moute, Los Angeles Clippers (Previous Ranking: No. 19)
Per-Game Stats: 5.8 points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Blame the Los Angeles Clippers for Luc Mbah a Moute's declining rank. Despite his perpetual offensive woes, the veteran small forward has established himself as a legitimate defensive stopper—exactly what the team needs alongside Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. But head coach Doc Rivers refuses to play him in a larger role, limiting him to just 21.8 minutes per game. Since the All-Star break, that number has even dropped to 20.1.
23. Wilson Chandler, Denver Nuggets (Previous Ranking: No. 18)
Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
The Denver Nuggets run a scheme that should cause Wilson Chandler to thrive. His athleticism when running at the 4 in small-ball lineups should free him up as a quick cutter to the hoop, and his defensive chops should play well on a team that desperately needs someone to prevent dribble penetration. But ever since Nikola Jokic re-entered the starting lineup in mid-December, Chandler has been unable to break through as anything more than a role player. The defense in particular just no longer seems to be there for a 29-year-old forward who isn't always pleased with his declining role.
22. Maurice Harkless, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous Ranking: No. 25)
Per-Game Stats: 10.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.9 blocks
Just imagine if Maurice Harkless' three-point stroke continues to come around. It's already up to 35.1 percent (27.9 and 17.9 percent the previous two seasons), and that's the only thing holding him back. Well, the only thing other than his job with the Portland Trail Blazers. He's already a solid role player who does the little things well while thriving on defense, and there's still time for the 23-year-old to morph into a legitimate three-and-D contributor.
21. PJ Tucker, Toronto Raptors (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mentions)
Per-Game Stats: 6.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks
PJ Tucker has been exactly what the Toronto Raptors needed. Since he arrived in a deadline deal, the veteran wing has continued to serve as a lockdown presence on the defensive end, bodying up against bigger players and never hesitating to go after contested rebounds. But just as importantly, he's regained his three-point stroke, shooting 38.0 percent from beyond the arc after failing to best the league average since all the way back in 2013-14.
20-16: Carter, Ingles, Ross, Kidd-Gilchrist, Sefolosha
20. Vince Carter, Memphis Grizzlies (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mentions)
Per-Game Stats: 8.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks
Vince Carter is an ageless wonder, and not just because he can throw down ridiculous dunks during warm-ups. The 40-year-old has settled into his role as a seldom-used scorer who can contribute in less glamorous ways, fully committing to the defensive end and doing everything possible to positively impact the Memphis Grizzlies. And it's working. According to NBA Math's total points added (TPA), he joins Marc Gasol and Brandan Wright as one of only three players on the roster no worse than average on either end of the court.
19. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz (Previous Ranking: No. 27)
Per-Game Stats: 7.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks
Joe Ingles may have become the best player with whom not even some hardcore NBA fans are familiar. He's on the verge of leading the league in three-point percentage (among qualified players), and that's by no means all he brings to the proverbial table. The 29-year-old is also a deft passer from the wings who routinely makes the right play, and he's earned head coach Quin Snyder's trust as a go-to defensive stopper down the stretch who can slow physical forwards and ball-handling wizards out of the backcourt.
18. Terrence Ross, Orlando Magic (Previous Ranking: No. 13)
Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
The beginning of Terrence Ross' career with the Orlando Magic went so well, but he's fallen back to earth in Icarian fashion as the sample size has grown larger. During his first 20 appearances in a new uniform, he's averaged 13.0 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists, which sounds great until you realize he's hitting just 42.6 percent of his field-goal attempts and 33.3 percent of his triples. After serving as an offensive asset for the Toronto Raptors, he's been a distinctly below-average contributor in his new home.
17. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Hornets (Previous Ranking: No. 20)
Per-Game Stats: 9.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.9 blocks
Let's check in on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's shot. He's gone 1-of-9 from downtown throughout the entirety of the 2016-17 campaign, and his 35 percent shooting on twos from at least 16 feet isn't too much better. He improves as he gets closer to the basket, but it's a bit disheartening that the 23-year-old still isn't showing any signs of jump-shooting growth. At least he's stayed healthy and continued to assert himself as a bona fide All-Defensive candidate this year.
16. Thabo Sefolosha, Atlanta Hawks (Previous Ranking: No. 16)
Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks
"This season, not much has changed for [Thabo] Sefolosha. He has started 42 games so far this season and has provided the Hawks with a steady presence on the defensive end. At 6'7", 220 pounds, Sefolosha is a big, strong wing that can play either shooting guard or small forward. His toughness, aggression and edge make him a valuable asset for any team and he is not a total offensive liability either," Collin Huguley summarized for Soaring Down South. If it weren't for the increased opportunities for DeAndre' Bembry and Taurean Prince (more the latter), Sefolosha would've received additional chances to assert himself in an Atlanta Hawks lineup that can never have too much defense. Even still, steadiness will reign supreme and keep him in the same place he occupied at midseason.
15-11: Roberson, Carroll, Covington, Wiggins, Iguodala
15. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder (Previous Ranking: No. 23)
Per-Game Stats: 6.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks
If Andre Roberson could shoot at even a reasonably acceptable level, he'd be a top-10 small forward—potentially with room to spare. But his offense is so woeful, punctuated by plenty of bricked open threes and blown finishes around the basket, that he cancels out some of his superior defensive skills. The 25-year-old has emerged as one of the league's greatest wing stoppers, constantly taking on tough assignments and then ending possessions with defensive boards, but one-way play can only do so much.
14. DeMarre Carroll, Toronto Raptors (Previous Ranking: No. 11)
Per-Game Stats: 9.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
Averaging 1.7 free-throw attempts per game doesn't seem like a lot, but it is when you're only taking 7.8 field-goal attempts during the average contest. DeMarre Carroll's willingness to get to the line when he's granted touches in the Toronto Raptors offense helps make up for his surprisingly poor three-point percentage (34.9) and overall lack of involvement. So too does his defensive ability, which has been the primary reason his tenure with the Raptors hasn't been deemed a failure after joining on the heels of a breakout 2014-15 campaign with the Atlanta Hawks.
13. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous Ranking: No. 21)
Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.0 blocks
"[Robert] Covington's early three-point slump obscured how well he was playing defensively. Previously better against power forwards, Covington has worked to develop the footwork necessary to defend wings and even point guards. No small forward better combines steals and blocked shots and Covington's defensive RPM is easily the best at the position," Kevin Pelton wrote for ESPN.com while picking Robert Covington as his All-Defensive Second Team small forward. No player at the position graded out better on the preventing end using my methodology, and a three-point percentage that spent the season creeping closer to respectability before a torn meniscus halted the progress at 33.3 percent keeps him moving up the positional ladder.
12. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous Ranking: No. 12)
Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Andrew Wiggins has slightly improved his three-point marksmanship while consistently getting to the line, which allows his true shooting percentage (53.5) to remain at least in the same ballpark as the league average (55.3). Taking so many shots with below-average efficiency can still be viewed as detrimental, even if it's impressive he can provide so much volume in the face of extreme defensive attention and while operating on a team that needs his scoring. But until Wiggins starts contributing in other areas—it's staggering how often he can score 20 points without recording more than a few rebounds and doing nothing else in the box score—or holds his own in off-ball defensive situations, he'll have trouble moving into the top 10 at his position.
Per-Game Stats: 7.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
Andre Iguodala's role prevents him from doing too much for the Golden State Warriors, but he's still been quite the asset to the Western Conference juggernaut by filling every role he assumes in efficient fashion. Whether he's defending opposing wings, sparking undersized lineups with his playmaking, spacing the court or rebounding with aplomb, he's able to provide positive production. In fact, NBA Math's TPA shows he's one of only 13 players throughout the league who's added at least 50 points on each end of the floor.
10. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks (Previous Ranking: No. 10)
Per-Game Stats: 22.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
A topsy-turvy season for Carmelo Anthony won't result in a playoff berth. His future with the New York Knicks is even cast in doubt. As he said about his end-of-season meeting with team president Phil Jackson, per Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman, "I'm pretty sure the chips will be on the table."
Anthony hasn't been able to carry the Knicks past the regular season. He's regressed as a distributor and defender after making noticeable strides in 2015-16. He was only able to earn an All-Star berth as an injury replacement for Kevin Love, whose knee prevented him from suiting up in the midseason classic.
But he's still done one thing rather well: score the basketball.
The 32-year-old is averaging 22.5 points while shooting 43.4 percent from the field, 36.0 percent from downtown and 83.3 percent from the charity stripe, making him one of just 24 qualified players to top 22 points per game and a 53 true shooting percentage. And much like Andrew Wiggins, his scoring contributions—while less valuable from a purely statistical sense—have merit because New York needed points to come from somewhere.
Anthony is now miscast as the obvious leader of a team. Though he can still serve as a functional passer and occasionally lock down on defense, he's a much better fit as a beta dog on a more competitive squad that can make the most of his ceaseless scoring acumen.
9. Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings (Previous Ranking: No. 9)
Per-Game Stats: 18.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks
A ruptured Achilles ended Rudy Gay's season during a Jan. 18 contest against the Indiana Pacers, and that gave him just three appearances to alter perception after our midseason small forward rankings.
During that time, the Sacramento Kings lost all three outings against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Pacers. But it was hard to blame Gay, since the 30-year-old averaged 22.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting 48.9 percent from the field, 66.7 percent from long range and 87.5 percent at the stripe.
The veteran gave little reason to believe the strides he'd made throughout 2016-17's opening salvo were anything but legitimate. He was a two-way force for the Kings, thriving in his role as a secondary scorer and playmaker who could parlay his athleticism into high-quality defense.
But the injury makes it tough for him to move up or down. He doesn't have a lengthy enough resume (just 30 games this season) to jump past the league's other key small forward contributors, but he never declined, either. No one behind him made a jump so significant that he deserved to leapfrog Gay, so he'll continue to sit right at No. 9 for the time being.
8. Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets (Previous Ranking: No. 7)
Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Trevor Ariza isn't quite the living, breathing embodiment of the three-and-D wing. He won't be until he can shoot better than 35 percent from three-point territory, even if he still drags defenders toward him and exhibits a substantial gravitational pull for the Houston Rockets' dynamic offense.
The defense, however, is certainly there.
According to ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus (DRPM), Ariza lags behind 14 other players at his position while still posting a distinctly positive score. Perhaps he's held back because he routinely covers up for James Harden and constantly flits around to fill in the cracks for the Rockets' ever-improving bunch of stoppers. But that's still an impressive finish, and most other metrics will agree that the small forward is quite clearly an asset on this end.
What makes him a lock for the top 10 is that even while he struggles to maintain an above-average three-point percentage, he's still doing enough to become an offensive positive. Only three of the 14 small forwards ranked ahead of him in DRPM also boast scores in the green for the corresponding offensive real plus/minus (ORPM), and Ariza's ORPM is just as strong as his DRPM.
In fact, throughout the entire league, only Ariza, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Andre Iguodala, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, Paul Millsap and Draymond Green boast a score north of 1.4 on both ends. That company ain't too shabby.
7. Jae Crowder, Boston Celtics (Previous Ranking: No. 8)
Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
"I don't put a ceiling on my game," Jae Crowder explained in mid-March, per the Boston Globe's Gary Washburn. "Once the opportunity presents itself, I try to just step up to the opportunity. But we run a lot of stuff for Isaiah [Thomas] on the court and that just limits me on the offensive end a lot, so it is what it is."
On a roster without a go-to scorer, the 26-year-old small forward would likely post much stronger box-score stats. That's not hard to recognize, considering how much more efficient he's become during his second full season with the Boston Celtics.
After shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from downtown in 2015-16, Crowder has upped those numbers to 45.4 and 39.0, respectively. And that's not all. He's more involved as a distributor without a corresponding uptick in turnovers, and his defensive intensity hasn't waned even as he takes a step back on the scoring end.
The former second-round pick has become one of those players who's good in every area. But while there's nothing wrong with fitting such a profile, it'll be tough for Crowder to jump into the top six without a calling card at which he excels—unless, of course, we're factoring his minuscule salary into the equation.
6. Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards (Previous Ranking: No. 6)
Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
Otto Porter does plenty of everything for the Washington Wizards, whether he's buckling down on defense with his lanky arms or attacking the glass to end possessions. He's a capable facilitator in short spurts, and his finishing ability around the hoop has added a new element to the offense in the nation's capital.
But nothing stands out more than his spot-up shooting. Whether compared to last year's efforts or the rest of the field in 2016-17, Porter has been immaculate:
|Season||Frequency||Points per Possession||eFG%||Percentile|
Almost no one has been better, even if Porter is "only" in the 97.6 percentile this season. Kemba Walker (177 possessions), Pau Gasol (146) and C.J. Miles (224) are the only players scoring more points per possession while using at least 100 such plays, but their volumes still fall well shy of Porter's 295 possessions.
The Wizards turn to him early and often, frequently asking him to set up on the perimeter and await an on-target feed from John Wall. Usually, it works.
5. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
Don't make the mistake of thinking Gordon Hayward's first half was a fluke.
Though his early-season excellence resulted in the first All-Star nod of his career, it was only a sign of what's to come. The Butler product has improved across the board, to the point that he's now a legitimate star for the Utah Jazz who's capable of carrying the team offensively and still finding time to contribute in every other area under the sun.
Even since representing the Western Conference against its Eastern foes, Hayward has averaged 20.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.1 steals while shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from downtown. More importantly, he's helped the Jazz find much more success while he's on the floor.
Utah has been outscored by 2.8 points per 100 possessions without Hayward on the floor since the break. But when he plays, that net rating jumps all the way to 6.7, with the team thriving on both ends. That differential is especially significant since the Jazz have gotten healthier (to some extent, at least) as the season has progressed, and Hayward still has such a substantial impact.
He's bound to get plenty of love this coming offseason, during which he can opt out of his contract and hit the open market. But he already deserves proper respect right now, even if another stellar second half has pushed the next small forward just past him.
4. Paul George, Indiana Pacers (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
Paul George came out of the All-Star break looking a bit rusty. His first showing was a nine-point performance against the Memphis Grizzlies in which he could only muster 3-of-12 from the field, and it took him another few games to find his shot.
But lately, he's been sizzling.
Since the beginning of March, the Indiana Pacers superstar has averaged 28.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 48.5 percent from the field, 42.2 percent from downtown and 86.9 percent from the stripe. He's thrived in spot-up situations, easily created his own looks in the face of stifling defensive efforts and dominated in transition. No matter what set he's thrust into, he's been able to keep the Pacers offense afloat.
And while his defense still hasn't bounced back to its previous level—NBA Math's defensive points saved has him as a slight negative, while ESPN.com's DRPM has him just barely as a positive and trailing 40 other small forwards—the offense alone has reminded the world of how George can still function like a top-10 player when he's healthy and rolling along.
3. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
"A true sign of the MVP is what your team is without him. Look at our numbers when Jimmy [Butler] is on the floor—we're really good. And he makes other guys better," Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said, per Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune. "That's the thing this year with putting the ball in his hands as much as we have, [he's] not only creating for himself but he's making the right play and getting the ball to other guys and setting them up for easy shots, whether it's Robin [Lopez] at the rim or Denzel [Valentine] in the corner, making good, simple plays. [Butler] just continues to grow his game. And his durability is something that you marvel at."
While missing just six games, Jimmy Butler has logged 37.1 minutes per contest. And that makes it even more meaningful that he's helping improve the Bulls' net rating by a staggering 10.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
Without the shooting guard-turned-small forward, the Bulls would be deep into the lottery portion of the Eastern Conference standings. But because he's made so many strides as an offensive standout—his own scoring chops have improved while he still looks to get everyone involved with quality offerings—they're still fighting for a postseason berth even as injuries and ineffective rotation members pile up.
Now, just think of what Butler might be able to do if he were operating in a system that actually suits his talents. He's been able to do all this despite working with a group of guards and wings who simply can't space out the floor for his incessant drives toward the teeth of a defense.
2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Per-Game Stats: 26.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.8 blocks
At one point in the season, Kawhi Leonard may have had a legitimate shot to catch and surpass the No. 1 small forward in these rankings. He was continuing to function like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate—yes, in spite of the wonky on/off numbers—while carrying the San Antonio Spurs' potent offense.
But he wasn't going to complete the goal without threatening a 50/40/90 season while scoring at least 25 points per game. Now, a recent shooting slump has thrown him well off the pace, dropping his season-long slash line to 48.3/37.4/88.0.
For some reason, his perimeter jumper abandoned him until the calendars flipped over to April. During March, he attempted six triples per game and connected at a 28.9 percent clip, lowlighted by a two-game stretch in which he missed all 12 of his attempts.
However, Leonard has become such a devastating all-around commodity for head coach Gregg Popovich that he can still boast tremendously positive overall value even while struggling with his shooting form. NBA Math's TPA still has him on pace to finish the season with a score of 394.33, which would be a top-50 mark among the 25-and-under crowd since the 1973-74 campaign.
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks
LeBron James just refuses to slow down—aside from the extra defensive possessions he takes off these days.
Not only is the 32-year-old small forward averaging 26.2 points while shooting 54.4 percent from the field and 36.3 percent on his three-point attempts, but he's logging career highs in rebounding and assists. His average on the boards is 0.6 higher than it's ever been, and his 8.8 dimes per contest barely edge out the 8.6 he recorded in 2009-10.
This is just how James was born to play. He still scores because he's too physically gifted not to, but he's been able to use more energy in other areas as Kyrie Irving improves. More than ever before, he's using his historically excellent vision to find open teammates in nearly any situation.
The four-time MVP won't be adding a fifth trophy to his shelf in 2016-17. He could very well earn an unofficial bronze medal, but his narrative this year just isn't as compelling as what Russell Westbrook and James Harden have done for their respective squads.
But if we're only looking at which basketball players are the best at their sport? He's still right in the thick of the conversation, just as he should be throughout the foreseeable future.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.