Metrics 101: Greatest Small Forward Seasons in Modern NBA History
Small forward has become the NBA's do-everything position.
Since 1973-74—our cutoff for the modern era, since that's when statistical tracking expanded—the best of the best have been capable of challenging for triple-doubles with their penchant for putting on scoring clinics, crashing the glass and involving their teammates without losing steam. They can defend at a high level, shoot the ball from the perimeter and do so much more.
Just as was the case in our point guard rankings and shooting guard countdown, 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 small forward is eligible just once, so we're taking only their best single seasons to determine the modern-era hierarchy.
15. Cedric Maxwell, 1979-80, Boston Celtics: 362.15
Regular-Season TPA: 316.72
Postseason TPA: 45.43
Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks
Cedric Maxwell went on to take a lesser role with the Boston Celtics, bridging the gap between the Dave Cowens era and the one featuring Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, both of whom were acquired in a trade with the Golden State Warriors shortly after the completion of this 1979-80 masterpiece.
But no matter who suited up alongside him, this small forward excelled as a complementary piece who was always willing and able to do the little things. He didn't have to function as the team's leading scorer—though only Larry Bird outscored him on the Boston roster during the year in question—because he was instead content to play high-quality defense while only taking the right shots.
Maxwell never making the All-Star roster in the Eastern Conference remains a glaring oversight of the late-1970s and the entire '80s, but he never had a better argument than in this season. Though he didn't score quite as much as in 1978-79, he increased his field-goal percentage from a league-leading 58.4 percent to an NBA-pacing 60.9 percent while cutting back on his turnovers. He was the picture of efficiency, all while playing for a Boston squad that wound up winning 61 games and earning the top seed in the East.
To this day, only 14 different qualified seasons have witnessed a player averaging at least 15 points while shooting no worse than 60 percent from the field. Dwight Howard (6'11") and McHale (6'10") are the second- and third-shortest to do so.
Maxwell was only 6'8".
14. Marques Johnson, 1980-81, Milwaukee Bucks: 382.53
Regular-Season TPA: 323.67
Postseason TPA: 58.86
Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA Second Team
Rewind to November of 1980, and Sports Illustrated's John Papanek had some fairly nice words to write about Marques Johnson:
"If Marques Johnson is not generally conceded to be the best all-round basketball player in the game today, it is only because comparing players at different positions is as difficult as comparing pitchers with hitters, quarterbacks with linebackers or goalies with wingers. In the NBA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands alone at center and Magic Johnson has no equal at guard. But at forward, the game's glamour position, two players stand out. One is Philadelphia's 6'7" Julius Erving and the other is Milwaukee's 6'7" Johnson.
"Ask any NBA coach which of the two he'd rather have on his team and he will say 'both.' Each is a superb scorer—Erving averaging 26.6 points and Johnson 20.2 so far this year. But press a little bit, and the coach will say that Johnson is the superior defender; his 218 pounds provide more strength than Erving's 200. And then he might point out that Johnson is just 24 years old while Erving is 30."
Erving would make a run to the NBA Finals that year, helping differentiate himself from Johnson. He'd also just continue to get better and post monstrous numbers, which is why you won't see him appearing in this countdown for a while longer.
But at this zenith of Johnson's career, a time in which he truly was one of the the NBA's most well-rounded contributors, a legitimate argument existed.
Sadly, that debate has largely been lost during the passage of time, leaving this Milwaukee Bucks legend as one of the most underrated players in the sport's history and a man who deserves to have his number hanging from the rafters of the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
13. Shawn Marion, 2006-07, Phoenix Suns: 384.78
- Shawn Marion, 384.78
- Steve Nash, 224.05
- Leandro Barbosa, 153.64
- Raja Bell, 138.94
- Amar'e Stoudemire, 103.17
Regular-Season TPA: 335.72
Postseason TPA: 49.06
Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.5 blocks
Steve Nash was fresh off winning back-to-back MVPs and was joined by both Shawn Marion and Amar'e Stoudemire on the Western Conference All-Star squad during the 2006-07 campaign. But how did those three stack up in terms of value added to the Phoenix Suns?
Just for fun, let's see the team's top five TPA finishers, including both regular-season and postseason scores:
This isn't an aberration, even though Marion's score is greater than the combined sum of the next two Suns.
He led Phoenix in this metric during both of Nash's MVP campaigns (the forward's top score of 394.15 came in 2005-06, but he qualified at the 4), content to provide immense value with his two-way excellence and efficient play while his point guard racked up gaudy counting stats and accolades.
Marion could just do it all, whether using his herky-jerky jumper to drain corner triples or his athleticism and quick-twitch instincts to keep the Suns from devolving into a complete defensive disaster.
Between Nash and Stoudemire, Phoenix was already disadvantaged on the preventing end, and its run-and-gun style didn't make the matter any easier. But Marion helped salvage the starting lineup with his switchability and willingness to lock down a perimeter wing/forward on any given night—a major reason this team with so many defensive holes still ranked 13th in points allowed per 100 possessions.
His work as a scorer and spot-up shooter certainly aided the cause, and a remarkable number of his triples seemed to come early in the shot clock. But his defense and penchant for functioning as a do-everything glue guy more prominently pushed Phoenix toward the top of the Western Conference.
12. Jimmy Butler, 2016-17, Chicago Bulls: 391.7
Regular-Season TPA: 384.82
Postseason TPA: 6.88
Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA Third Team
Jimmy Butler put together an unbelievable season during his final go-round with the Chicago Bulls, stifling opponents on the defensive end while becoming at true go-to offensive player. His squad was always at its best with the ball in the swingman's hands, because Butler could create his own offense with aplomb while still generating easy looks for his teammates.
Averaging 23.9 points and 5.5 assists is special; doing so while slashing 45.5/36.7/86.5 and earning many trips to the free-throw line is even more special.
Butler produced a 58.6 true shooting percentage, which leaves him in some rather exclusive territory.
Throughout all of NBA history, only 13 other players have averaged at least 23 points and five dimes with a true shooting percentage at or above that level. All eight retired contributors are in the Hall of Fame (Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alex English, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley). Meanwhile, the active men to join the club is a who's who of current offensive stars: Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas, Stephen Curry, James harden and LeBron James.
Butler's season was that impressive. And his score might've reflected that even further if he hadn't played on such a middling Bulls squad, as quick elimination in the first round of the playoffs prevented him from racking up a higher postseason tally.
11. Tracy McGrady, 2004-05, Houston Rockets: 444.07
Regular-Season TPA: 400.31
Postseason TPA: 43.76
Per-Game Stats: 25.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.7 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA Third Team
Tracy McGrady already checked in with the No. 3 score among shooting guards for his work with the 2002-03 Orlando Magic. Two years later, he'd changed positions (maybe in name only) and teams, but he was still a rather dominant individual capable of wrecking the opposition in so many different ways.
Sure, this was the first time in three seasons he didn't lead the league in scoring, notching "only" 25.7 points per game. His three-point stroke had almost disappeared, as he still fired away 5.6 times per game while connecting at a 32.6 percent clip. These aren't great trends, and it's indisputable that small forward McGrady wasn't peak McGrady.
But he still got to the charity stripe frequently enough to remain an efficient volume scorer, and he put together an even better season as a distributor. Compared to his 2002-03 efforts, he averaged more assists and fewer turnovers per 36 minutes.
Perhaps even more importantly, McGrady excelled on defense when allowed to guard bigger players, leveraging his strength and athleticism rather than foot speed to slow down wings. This was the greatest point-preventing season of his prime years, which was a major reason he helped the Houston Rockets' net rating improve by 6.1 points per 100 possessions while he was on the floor.
10. Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2016-17, Milwaukee Bucks: 451.79
Regular-Season TPA: 425.68
Postseason TPA: 26.11
Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.9 blocks
Awards: All-Star, Most Improved Player, All-Defensive Second Team, All-NBA Second Team
Let's create a Frankenstein comprised of eventual NBA All-Stars in their age-22 seasons to see if we can replicate what Giannis Antetokounmpo produced for the Milwaukee Bucks as a brain-melting individual:
- Points: Terry Cummings also scored 22.9 points per game during his age-22 season.
- Rebounds: Pau Gasol also pulled in 8.8 rebounds per game during his age-22 season
- Assists: Maurice Cheeks racked up 5.3 assists per game during his age-22 season
- Steals: LeBron James also swiped the ball away 1.6 times per game during his age-22 season
- Blocks: Kevin Garnett blocked 1.8 shots per game during his age-22 season
Now, smoosh together Cummings, Gasol, Cheeks, James and Garnett in your mind and see what happens.
Pretty ridiculous, right?
Antetokounmpo was otherworldly while winning Most Improved Player and establishing himself as an MVP candidate going forward. This finish was already impressive enough for such a young player who, to be perfectly honest, doesn't really have a true position and is being pigeonholed in with the small forwards to split the difference between his various roles.
But he's only going to get better.
The aptly nicknamed Greek Freak should submit superior regular-season scores as he moves toward his dizzying ceiling. And as the Milwaukee Bucks improve around him, his playoff exploits will only grow more impressive as well.
9. Grant Hill, 1996-97, Detroit Pistons: 457.12
Regular-Season TPA: 443.2
Postseason TPA: 13.92
Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA First Team
Oh, what could have been.
As Sean Highkin wrote for USA Today after Grant Hill announced his retirement in 2013, this small forward was once one of the game's most exciting and well-rounded players:
"Before a series of ankle injuries chipped away at his athleticism, he was one of the most exciting players to watch on a nightly basis. He was an outstanding in-game dunker and had a killer handle. Just watch him shake Scottie Pippen, one of the greatest defenders in NBA history, to get to the hoop.
"His high-flying game singlehandedly redeemed the Pistons’ hilariously awful teal uniforms. He had a devastatingly quick first step that allowed him to get by almost anyone. But Hill was more than just a highlight machine. He was a versatile, unselfish player who could shoot, pass, rebound and defend."
That was all readily apparent early in his career, especially when he suited up in 80 games for the Detroit Pistons while logging 39.3 minutes per appearance. He threatened triple-doubles on a nightly basis, excelled on both ends and helped propel the Detroit Pistons to a 54-28 record.
Imagining what might have been is inevitable. This version of Hill was only 24 years old and still getting better. But he could never quite match these efforts from 1996-97 before drastically declining in the new millennium as he was snakebitten by one injury after another.
8. Vince Carter, 2000-01, Toronto Raptors: 465.9
Regular-Season TPA: 400.51
Postseason TPA: 65.39
Per-Game Stats: 27.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA Second Team
With Vince Carter, Antonio Daniels and Alvin Williams leading the charge, the Toronto Raptors wormed their way past the New York Knicks with a victory in the decisive Game 5, then gave the Philadelphia 76ers a test before falling in Game 7. The length of that run, in terms of games rather than rounds, allowed Carter to rack up plenty of postseason TPA—the second-highest of his career, in fact, behind only his 2005-06 efforts for a New Jersey Nets squad that again lost in the second round.
But this was by far the best version of the dunking machine during the regular season.
Back in the early-'00s, Carter was a high-flying superstar capable of finishing over any defender. If you doubt the athleticism, just go back and watch his Slam Dunk Contest showing from 2000. The conversation, as he might say, would be "over."
Sometimes falling asleep on the defensive end and lacking effort when things didn't go his way, Carter still might not have maximized his awe-inspiring abilities. But he was pretty darn good on the offensive end, averaging 27.6 points and 3.9 assists while shooting 46.0 percent from the field, 40.8 percent from downtown and 76.5 percent at the stripe.
When you take a future Hall of Famer (Basketball-Reference.com gives him a 94.5 percent chance of future induction) who specialized in producing points and pick the season in which he averaged a career high in scoring while posting his third-best true shooting percentage, you've likely found a solid year.
This isn't an exception.
7. Kawhi Leonard, 2016-17, San Antonio Spurs: 477.69
Regular-Season TPA: 383.56
Postseason TPA: 94.13
Per-Game Stats: 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-Defensive First Team, All-NBA First Team
Bear with me, because we're about to dive into a hypothetical.
Kawhi Leonard was on a torrid pace during the 2017 playoffs, averaging 27.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists while slashing 52.5/45.5/93.1. Those are sensational numbers, and they helped him finish behind only four players (LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant) in postseason TPA despite playing in only 12 contests.
Imagine if Zaza Pachulia had never undercut him (whether intentional or not) on his fateful jumper in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Had he maintained his exact level of play with three more appearances, his playoff score would've risen to 117.66 and pushed him past the next small forward in this countdown.
It gets better.
The Spurs were winning by a sizable margin in Game 1 before Leonard's injury. So had the series gone to seven games while he kept playing at the same level, his score would've jumped to 141.2 and left him just shy of the top five.
But what if San Antonio had defeated the Golden State Warriors and advanced to the NBA Finals? Again assuming a steady level of production, this time over the course of a seven-game Western Conference Finals and a seven-game NBA Finals, his playoff mark would've grown to 196.1, moving him ahead of all but the top three players in these rankings.
This is hypothetical, sure. But that's legitimately the level at which Leonard was playing before his season was cut short by injury.
6. Rick Barry, 1974-75, Golden State Warriors: 497.94
Regular-Season TPA: 384.36
Postseason TPA: 113.58
Per-Game Stats: 30.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
Awards: All-Star, NBA Champion, Finals MVP, All-NBA First Team
Rick Barry was so much more than an underhanded free-throw shooter.
Let's travel back in time and outlaw his unconventional form, forcing him to shoot normally and connect at 35.5 percent—Andre Drummond's worst qualified mark in NBA history from 2015-16.
The Golden State Warriors star would've hit just 144 of his 406 attempts (rather than 394 and a league-best 90.4 percent) in 1974-75. That's 250 points taken away, which drops him to "just" 27.5 points per game.
Of course, his true shooting percentage would also plunge from 50.9 percent to 45.7 percent—an unpalatable mark by today's standards. But without the benefit of a three-point arc, that was still a decent, though sub-standard, figure for the time. During the 1974-75 campaign, the league average stood at 50.2 percent.
Up to that point in NBA history, only 18 qualified players had matched or exceeded 27.5 points per game on 45.6 percent true shooting. All 18 are in the Hall of Fame.
So stop and consider that. Even if he were the worst foul shooter in league history, Barry would still have put together a remarkable scoring season. Throw in his actual performance from the stripe and his solid defensive work, and you have quite the campaign from the regular-season and Finals MVP.
5. Scottie Pippen, 1991-92, Chicago Bulls: 529.52
Regular-Season TPA: 404.5
Postseason TPA: 125.02
Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.1 blocks
Awards: All-Star, NBA Champion, All-Defensive First Team, All-NBA Second Team
Don't make the mistake of thinking Scottie Pippen was only the Robin to Michael Jordan's Batman. Calling him a sidekick simply isn't fair, even if he was the second-best player on a team featuring the man many regard as the G.O.A.T.
Pippen filled nearly every role for the Chicago Bulls.
He could buckle down and serve as the league's premier defensive presence against forwards and guards. He could function as a primary playmaker capable of making life easier for all of his teammates in the Windy City. He could crash the boards while surrounded by trees. He could even thrive as a go-to scorer who averaged 21 points while shooting 50.6 percent from the field.
The only time he couldn't excel was when spacing the floor with a three-point jumper, but the Bulls had enough players who could provide gravity in a league far more dependent on interior exploits.
During this 1990-91 campaign, which resulted in the second All-Star selection of his Hall of Fame career, Pippen became one of only two players in NBA history to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, one steal and one block—a true testament to the well-rounded nature of his play. LeBron James has joined the club three times, and only this Arkansas product stands beside him.
The list of near misses makes Pippen's achievement even more impressive; Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Grant Hill, Russell Westbrook and Larry Bird couldn't block enough shots to gain entry.
Pippen was a second fiddle...but only as a scoring option.
4. Julius Erving, 1981-82, Philadelphia 76ers: 571.14
Regular-Season TPA: 450.07
Postseason TPA: 121.07
Per-Game Stats: 24.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.7 blocks
Awards: All-Star, All-NBA First Team
Julius Erving has the No. 61 score in our metric, regardless of position. That's not just because of how excellent he was during the first 82 games of the year, but rather because he maintained his dominance throughout the Philadelphia 76ers' playoff efforts.
Precious few foes managed to corral Erving during the less important part of the NBA calendar. When he wasn't racking up steals and playing solid defense for the Sixers, he was proving impervious to hard-nosed defense and getting to the rim anyway. Then, when the playoffs rolled around, he got even more involved.
While Philadelphia pushed past the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics before falling to Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, Erving averaged a whopping 22.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks. He simply did everything while sacrificing almost nothing from an efficiency standpoint.
Not bad for a 31-year-old with plenty of miles on the tires.
Erving's massive hands and dunking prowess helped him earn top-100 scores during each of the two previous campaigns, but he was never better than in 1981-82.
3. Kevin Durant, 2013-14, Oklahoma City Thunder: 613.42
Regular-Season TPA: 546.04
Postseason TPA: 67.38
Per-Game Stats: 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks
Awards: All-Star, Scoring Champion, MVP, All-NBA First Team
Sure, we could focus on Kevin Durant's underrated defense, as he was able to use his lanky arms and athleticism to prevent players from driving past him while coming over from the weak side to help protect the rim. We could highlight his work as a facilitator for the Oklahoma City Thunder, since he averaged a career-high 5.5 assists without a corresponding jump in turnovers.
But that would all be disingenuous.
Durant reached such a lofty peak during his MVP season because he put together one of the greatest scoring performances the sport has ever witnessed. That's what allows him to sit in what's essentially a tier of his own, well clear of Julius Erving but a sizable way behind the top two small forwards in modern NBA history—we won't spoil the names, but you likely already know who they are.
Joining the 50/40/90 club puts any shooter in rarified air, and Durant couldn't quite make the cut in 2013-14. He hit 39.1 percent of his 6.1 triples per game and connected from the free-throw line at an 87.3 percent clip. He did, however, shoot so frequently from those two areas that he averaged 32 points with a 63.5 true shooting percentage, and that's nothing short of mind-boggling.
Throughout the entirety of NBA history, 25 seasons have been recorded in which a qualified player posted at least 32 points per game. Durant, while missing only a single outing and leading the league in total minutes played, outperformed every single one of them in the efficiency department.
In fact, the gap between his true shooting percentage and the No. 2 finisher (1988-89 Michael Jordan) is nearly as large as the difference between that Jordan season and No. 6 (1979-80 George Gervin).
2. Larry Bird, 1985-86, Boston Celtics: 766.43
Regular-Season TPA: 603.79
Postseason TPA: 162.64
Per-Game Stats: 25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.6 blocks
Awards: All-Star, NBA Champion, Finals MVP, MVP, All-NBA First Team
Larry Bird isn't just sitting at No. 2; he's earning a ridiculous amount of separation between himself and those who have previously appeared in this countdown.
The difference between Bird's peak season and Durant's is a whopping 153.01 TPA. Meanwhile, the gap between Durant's best year and Vince Carter's premier performance is 147.52. Since Carter sits at No. 8 in these rankings, you can gather just how high above the rest—excluding the No. 1 finisher—this Bird has flown.
And it makes sense.
Bird was the do-everything player of the 1980s, competing with relentless passion on both ends of the floor and displaying a level of skill few before or after have managed to match. Whether he was slapping the court on defense, rebounding like a center, passing like a point guard or helping popularize efficient shooting, he was always contributing positively to the Boston Celtics.
Winning MVP and Finals MVP during the 1985-86 campaign certainly helped this season rise to the top of his personal pack, but he also earned those same two trophies in 1983-84. Instead, it's the development of a three-point stroke that pushes this version of Bird all the way to the forefront.
The Hall of Famer hit his 0.9 attempts per game at a 24.7 percent clip in '83-84. Two years later, those numbers soared to 2.4 and 42.3, respectively.
1. LeBron James, 2008-09, Cleveland Cavaliers: 923
Regular-Season TPA: 733.72
Postseason TPA: 189.28
Per-Game Stats: 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks
Awards: All-Star, MVP, All-Defensive First Team, All-NBA First Team
Large as the gap between Larry Bird and Kevin Durant may have been, the yawning chasm between LeBron James and the man who preceded him as the greatest small forward in league history is even wider. And yet, that's not even the most impressive statistic we can dig up pertaining to his placement.
This season from James ranks No. 3 regardless of position, trailing only 1988-89 Michael Jordan and (a metric-breaking) 2016-17 Russell Westbrook. But this future Hall of Famer also has two more seasons in the top 10, as well as another two in the top 20.
His third-best score (2009-10) would still lead the position with room to spare.
Better still, he's put together jaw-dropping campaigns that rank within the overall top 20 during all three portions of his NBA career.
The best of the best came when the Cleveland Cavaliers were still a one-man show, allowing James to compete for scoring titles while coming fairly close to tripe-double averages. But he's also worked his way into that upper echelon as a member of the Miami Heat's Big Three, as well as after returning to Northeast Ohio and teaming up with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
No matter how he's been asked to play, he's done so better than almost anyone in NBA history. And that was never more true than in 2008-09, when he refused to turn the ball over, shouldered a monumental load and didn't slow down until Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic took advantage of his limited supporting cast in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.