Ranking the Top 10 NBA Power Forwards Entering 2017-18 Season
Please, everyone, put down your fidget spinners and offer a warm welcome to the NBA's newest power forward hierarchy.
Familiar names inhabit much of this space, so don't fret. But, just like we went through with shooting guards and small forwards, the Association's pivot to video positionless arrangements fogs up exact designations. All three spots can now fall under the wing umbrella.
Determining who should be considered a power forward will be both subjective and objective. Last year's classifications will matter, but changes of address, roster setups and lineup prerogatives are equally important to assembling the pool.
Kevin Durant, for example, is officially a 4 after spending most of his time there upon joining the Golden State Warriors. Carmelo Anthony will make a similar shift after getting traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. They're looped in with all the power forwards.
Draymond Green, in another twist, also registers as a 4. The Warriors' commitment to small ball allows both him and Durant to own the same titles; he vacillates between power forward and center, while four of Durant's six most-used lineups have him at power forward.
Other players have vacated the field due to rotation tweaks. To make room in the starting lineup for Jae Crowder—now a power forward—the Cleveland Cavaliers will move Tristan Thompson to the bench and Kevin Love into the 5 spot. Love could still soak up a bunch of minutes at the 4, but Cleveland's big-man situation behind Thompson suggests LeBron James' new best friend will stick indefinitely at center.
The final rankings will focus solely on the expected contributions from every player in 2017-18. Previous performances carry weight, but age, health, projected playing time and role changes (new teammates, play-style adjustments, etc.) will have a huge say in molding the chain of command.
Nos. 15 to 11
15. Tobias Harris, Detroit Pistons
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 48.1 percent shooting
Tobias Harris' 2017-18 season is in the hands of Detroit Pistons head coach and president Stan Van Gundy. If Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard cannot play themselves into essential roles, or if Van Gundy is hell-bent on getting minutes for Jon Leuer and Anthony Tolliver, Harris will be relocated to small forward.
Detroit should do everything possible to make sure this doesn't happen.
Harris can score as a 3, but he's a nightmarish matchup at the 4. He has the first-step edge to get around even the pseudo-wings, and bigger forwards don't have the side-to-side amble to hang with him around screens. Harris paced the Pistons in points scored per possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler—R.I.P. 2015-16 Reggie Jackson—and will continue smoking opponents off the dribble if slotted in the right spot.
Putting him this low is a hedge against too many minutes at small forward, where he's an above-average to replacement-level player.
14. Patrick Patterson, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 40.1 percent shooting
Patrick Patterson's offseason arthroscopic procedure doesn't remove him from consideration. He's too good for reachy caveats.
Oklahoma City can, and should, use him as a lineup supercharger. Combinations that feature him as a small-ball 5 will do some serious damage, but he switches smoothly enough on defense and swishes spot-up triplets at a high enough clip to remain effective as a full-time 4.
Don't stop me if you heard this one before, because you probably have. But it bears repeating: He finished second on the Toronto Raptors in 2016-17 (plus-348) and first in 2015-16 (plus-403) in plus/minus. That doesn't happen by chance.
13. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: N/A
Advanced Metrics: N/A
Inserting rookies into these shindigs is maddeningly difficult. Ben Simmons is particularly tough to place when he has yet to prove he can function in any kind of off-ball role.
First overall picks are traditionally worth this type of gamble. Simmons is no different. Even after accounting for his confined range—he shot just 32.9 percent on two-point jumpers at LSU, per Hoop-Math.com—he has the goods everywhere else to render the Philadelphia 76ers an offensive dream.
As The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote:
"The mismatches also extend to the half court. With Simmons on the floor, the Sixers will use on-ball and off-ball screens to find the most desirable matchup. Though Simmons is the "point guard," 2017 no. 1 pick Markelle Fultz will have the ball in his hands plenty. Fultz is a dynamic pick-and-roll playmaker who can pull up over the top of defenses or snake his way to the rim. Joel Embiid should prove to be a massive screening threat for Fultz, but Simmons’s off-ball impact shouldn’t be overlooked.
"If Simmons screens for Fultz, or vice versa, defenses will look to switch, which would place a smaller player on Simmons and a larger player on Fultz—the starting point for most mismatches in the NBA. If Simmons has a big size advantage, the Sixers could benefit from using him on the post."
Let the record show Simmons is more likely to outperform his placement than wilt against it.
12. James Johnson, Miami Heat
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 steals, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks, 47.9 percent shooting
Behold, every player to walk out of the 2016-17 crusade exceeding 20 points, nine rebounds, six assists and two blocks per 100 possessions: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Marc Gasol and...James Johnson.
Also behold, every Eastern Conference player (from last year) to match Johnson's values added on both sides of the floor, as determined by NBA Math's TPA: Antetokounmpo, Paul Millsap and...that's it.
Are we done here? I think we're done here.
11. Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.6 blocks, 48.0 percent shooting
Consider this a gift. Serge Ibaka could check in even lower.
This isn't to insinuate he's not a worthwhile contributor. He is. He owns his role. He'll block shots and hit threes.
The problem: That's about all he does at a high level, and the Raptors will hamstring his ability to keep sending back attempts at the rim by consigning him to power forward.
Ibaka is a 5 in today's NBA. He doesn't switch as well on defense like contemporary 4s, and the total absence of an off-the-dribble game curtails his offensive potential.
Build upon his maxed-out skill set, and Ibaka will climb. But again: Toronto doesn't have the roster malleability to guarantee him swathes of minutes at center, where his best shot at evolving into something more than a rather-ordinary stretch big lies.
10. Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.8 percent shooting
Harrison Barnes is so darn difficult to place. He began his tenure with the Dallas Mavericks by successfully making the changeover from offensive subordinate to featured scorer. His usage rate soared by more than nine percentage points, yet his shooting slashes scarcely dimpled under the extra weight.
Isolation possessions accounted for fewer than nine percent of Barnes' total offensive plays during his final season with the Warriors. That share almost tripled with the Mavericks. Jamal Crawford was the only player to budget more of his touches for one-on-one sets.
Volume alone is enough to make you appreciate Barnes' team-leading 19.2 points per game. His shots didn't come easy. Dallas slogged through one of the NBA's least appealing point guard rotations.
Barely half of his made baskets came off assists, and a whopping 17.8 percent of all his attempts came late in the shot clock, with anywhere between four and seven seconds left on the ticker—tops among 365 players to make at least 10 appearances.
That he shot 48.2 percent on those looks is a minor miracle. Ditto for his efficiency in isolation. Of the 23 players to chew through 175 or more one-on-one possessions, Barnes' 45.7 percent clip trailed only DeMar DeRozan and Kyrie Irving.
Tack on his sturdy defense against power forwards, and we have the incentive to overlook his wonky on-off splits. Divide the season into quarters, halves or even monthly segments, and the results remain underwhelming. His body of work seldom tipped the statistical scales in the Mavericks' favor.
Working in concert with rookie Dennis Smith Jr. should help. Barnes won't have to champion a one-track mind with a quality playmaker by his side. Dirk Nowitzki's move to full-time center will also open things up for everyone, allowing and encouraging Barnes to defer with greater frequency on post-ups and drives.
9. Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 43.3 percent shooting
Finally, at long last, Carmelo Anthony is where he belongs—at the 4.
"He's going to start the power forward spot for us," Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. "That's what he's going to do.”
This pivot is long overdue...by about four years. Close to 80 percent of Anthony's minutes came at power forward in 2012-13, but the New York Knicks moved away from that setup immediately thereafter, because they apparently despise 50-win seasons and constructive logic.
His sliding over to the 4 doesn't change much now. Anthony's best years are behind him, and wings are no longer strangers to manning power forward. He won't hold as much of an advantage.
A heavier spot-up role in tandem with this switch will recapture most of his Anthony's mismatch appeal. He is unstoppable when coming around screens or just circling drives and launching off the catch.
Eighty-one players finished 200 or more spot-up plays last season. Anthony's 1.23 points per possessions ranked sixth. And that was while he played for a sorry Knicks team devoid of a first-rate playmaker. Both his volume and efficiency should—and must—climb next to Paul George's and Russell Westbrook's.
Buying into this third-wheel role is imperative to maximizing his stock. He cannot get in a vanity contest down the stretch of close games or look to seize control of the offense when Oklahoma City's other two stars are in the game.
Donovan can indulge Anthony's ego by playing him in bench-heavy units without Westbrook. The rest of Anthony's time should be spent looking to nuke nylon within the offense's flow, off as few dribbles as possible.
And even then, in the best-case scenario, his ceiling stretches only so high. The Thunder can account for his defensive disinterest whenever George and Andre Roberson are on the court, but Anthony has never once ranked as a plus stopper, according to NBA Math's Defensive Points Saved. He's not about reinvent himself now.
8. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks, 47.7 percent shooting
Closed-door chit-chats with head coaches never, ever, ever engender ranking upgrades—unless you play for the San Antonio Spurs.
LaMarcus Aldridge recently admitted to ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright that he wasn't totally happy two years into his Black and Silver tenure. But he also divulged that he and head honcho/2020 presidential candidate Gregg Popovich hashed out his thoughtz and feelz:
"It was me kind of being blunt about it, and being kind of forward. He was open to it. I kind of just spilled my heart about how I felt about how things were, and how things had been going.
"I think he was kind of caught off guard. I don't think he really had noticed [that I was unhappy]. But once I said it, he was great about listening, and it was good from there. I felt like I wasn't really fitting into the system as best I could. I wasn't really helping like I felt I could."
Go ahead and pencil in Aldridge for a quasi-resurgence this season. He wasn't inept by any means last year. His scoring dipped, and he finished the schedule searching for post-up pizzazz, but he remained an operable pick-and-pop option and retained his touch from close range.
Addressing his concerns with Popovich will only help matters. Aldridge has already hinted that he'll be heaving more threes after largely moving away from the long ball since arriving in San Antonio. Increasing outside volume worked out for Pau Gasol last year and should have a similar effect on Aldridge—especially during stretches in which he's cast as a center.
Having shown his value as a half-court rim protector will hold, Aldridge and his new dawn are roped almost exclusively to his re-emergence as an offensive life jacket. The Spurs' point guard situation will remain in flux even after Tony Parker returns from his calf injury, and they need someone to carry the torch when Kawhi Leonard is watching from the sidelines.
7. Jae Crowder, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting
Almost all of Jae Crowder's action will come at the 4 now that he's expected to start for the Cavaliers, per The Athletic's Jason Lloyd. Head coach Tyronn Lue is smart to take this measure regardless of the defensive implications attached to using Kevin Love as the full-tilt center.
Crowder has plenty of experience defending up a position. He jumped from point guards to power forwards and everything in between with the Boston Celtics. He'll save LeBron James from overexertion on the less glamorous side. Even when lumbering bigs are strong-arming him on the block, he's still closer to a coin-toss defender than sieve.
Cleveland will feel as many, if not more, benefits on the offensive end. Crowder is a comprehensive supplement—a near-sweeping fit for any caste system.
More than 43 percent of his three-point attempts last season came as a spot-up triggerman, on which he shot 40.7 percent. He doesn't need the ball; he's not even sort of used to having it. He also put down 47.8 percent of his looks from the corners. Plunking him down beside James and Love is cruel and unusual punishment for defenses.
Sidekicks needn't do much off the dribble in Cleveland, but Crowder's provisional attack mode is about to reach another level. He shot 59.5 percent on a modest number of drives in 2016-17 (1.3). His volume could rise ever so slightly thanks to the cogent magnetic pull from the Cavaliers' army of shooters—assuming he's not leashed to lineups that run out both Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade.
Many will say the deep-cut metrics overrate Crowder. Others would rather have Anthony and his superior shot-creation. But Crowder didn't lead the Celtics—and place 20th overall—in RPM wins by accident. He plies the functional camouflage of the optimal role player, with the consistency and proficiency of an underestimated star.
6. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.0 blocks, 45.0 percent shooting
Welp, congratulations are in order for the Knicks. They've successfully brainwashed Kristaps Porzingis into thinking he's best served playing power forward.
"I think it's better for us," he said, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. "Me at the 4, especially if I'm playing against a non-shooting 4, I can do a lot. When I'm playing against the 5, I'm fighting with the big a lot of times and I'm wasting a lot of energy."
Did anyone present during these comments make sure Porzingis wasn't blinking "I'm a center. Please send help." in morse code? Asking for a friend.
Nothing Porzingis says is false. He can play power forward without issue on offense. He's a 7'3" wing with improving handles, a natural-looking stroke and the burgeoning confidence needed for defender-shedding pull-ups.
Pinning him to the 5, like he said, doesn't help his spindly frame. He isn't a good enough rebounder to box-out beefy bigs, and his stances against post scorers verge on nightmarish.
None of us should be pretending, though, he isn't better off at center. He talks like the NBA is still populated by "non-shooting 4s." It's not. Power forward has become an honorary wing. He shouldn't be chasing around players who switch, and often run, pick-and-rolls in their sleep.
Porzingis is being stereotyped as a power forward out of convenience, not sincere preference. The Knicks don't have room to use him at the 5 with Willy Hernangomez, Enes Kanter, Joakim Noah and Kyle O'Quinn on the roster.
Fortunately for New York, Porzingis is talented enough for this not to matter. He is a better defender in space than advertised and hasn't let this identity crisis detract from his rim protection. Only Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert saved more points around the basket last season.
Up Porzingis' usage, which inexplicably declined as a sophomore, and everything will be fine. He'll finish 2017-18 as a fringe top-30 player—one who'd rank even higher if the Knicks had the wherewithal or resources to properly use him.
5. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks, 44.2 percent shooting
Meet Draymond Green, in score-first form.
Paul Millsap would own more prominent real estate if he wasn't co-existing in the Denver Nuggets' frontcourt with Nikola Jokic. His field-goal attempts should dwindle; there will be nights when he doesn't get off 10 shots. Flirting with last season's scoring average will be tough unless he turns himself into a lights-out spot-up splasher from deep.
The Nuggets' wacky wing rotation also figures into his somewhat lower ceiling. Failing a breakout from Malik Beasley, they'll run out of workable defenders at the 3 after Will Barton and Wilson Chandler.
Gary Harris and, to a lesser extent, Jamal Murray will feel the ramifications of this squeeze. And so will Millsap. Juan Hernangomez cannot survive protracted stretches defending bouncy 3s. Millsap will need to switch a ton. Head coach Mike Malone may even borrow a page from Mike Budenholzer's 2015-16 book and try getting away with Millsap at small forward for abbreviated periods.
Knifing into his usage only to augment his defensive scutwork is borderline disrespectful. But if anyone's going to respond well, it'll be Millsap. He'll get gravy-train looks from three and on cuts when Jokic directs the offense, and Malone is imaginative enough to stagger minutes so Millsap sees run alongside second-stringers.
Convincing him to play defense on a swivel is likewise a non-issue. Millsap isn't foreign to habitual switching. No one in the league last year tussled with as many pick-and-roll ball-handlers (60) and divers (99).
Beyond all this, his track record speaks for itself. He averaged over 17 points, three assists, one steal and one block per game through four seasons with the Atlanta Hawks—benchmarks matched only by DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant.
4. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 49.3 percent shooting
Blake Griffin is another ranked-a-tad-too-low candidate. But his murky health bills leave no other choice.
Recurring injuries aren't the problem, per se. Freak accidents are the larger concern. He's suffered everything from knee, back and elbow injuries, to toe and hand issues since 2015. He's totaled 83 regular-season absences over the past three years—more than an entire schedule's worth.
Move past this misfortune, and Griffin is all aces.
He has fallen out of top-10 debates in recent years and probably won't return. But he's a potent enough offensive force to reappear on the top-15 fringes—now more so than ever, with Chris Paul buddying up beside James Harden in Houston.
Individual numbers will come. Griffin averaged 23.2 points and 6.4 assists on 50 percent shooting per 36 minutes of court time without Paul last year. The Los Angeles Clippers put up 111 points per 100 possessions during these solo acts—akin to a top-three offensive rating.
Losing JJ Redick's sweet shooting hampers Griffin's lone-wolf stock a bit, but he's fenced in by enough secondary playwrights. Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams afford him nice kick-out options, and the two-man game between him and Milos Teodosic has the makings of a more improvisational Lob City.
Los Angeles' offense, and Griffin's output, will be fine. And if he parlays his hourslong hang time on jumpers into median three-point accuracy, he'll immediately be the second-most terrifying offensive 4 alive.
Improving as a pick-and-roll disruptor and interior deterrent is Griffin's ticket back into the top-15-player discussion. His positioning is erratic at best in the former, and he has held opponents to sub-54-shooting around the basket just once in the past four years (2014-15). With defensive question marks on the wings—and a 4-5 partnership with Danilo Gallinari on the table—he'll need to nail down his rotations.
3. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.4 blocks, 41.8 percent shooting
The rule of thumb mandates we cannot discuss the Warriors' All-NBA foursome without hat tips and fist bumps for the concessions made by Klay Thompson. And he deserves all the praise he gets for happily accepting his role. He averages approximately minus-2.4 dribbles per game.
But Green warrants equal ado. He saw his already modest number of shot attempts slip by almost 15 percent following Durant's arrival and has fully immersed himself in the engine-that-passes capacity.
Golden State should get more from Green in 2017-18. His three-point rate fell to 30.8 percent last year, down from 38.8 in 2015-16. If any of his playoff mojo (41 percent from downtown) carries over to the regular season, he'll have the opportunity to rival, if not reset, his career-best scoring performance from the Warriors' 73-win romp (14 points per game).
Of course, Green's standing has virtually nothing to do with an uptick in buckets. As Adam Fromal wrote for NBA Math, he exists to live up to his Defensive Player of the Year billing:
"Draymond Green could sit down on the offensive end and still serve as one of the most valuable players in basketball.
"The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, this former second-round pick thrived with indefatigable passion and energy, bouncing between assignments to become the rare player who’s somehow at his best when he’s guarding no one. Functioning as something of a basketball free safety, he can wander between foes to disrupt schemes, cutting off one passing lane and then bodying up against a bigger player a few seconds later."
Stephen Curry gives the Warriors their identity. His unrepressed range and hocus-pocus handles overwhelm opponents in ways Durant's big-wing game doesn't and Green's every-place defense can't. But the Warriors aren't indomitable without Green. His unflagging interest in wreaking havoc on defense, irrespective of his offensive participation, mythologizes their end-to-end play style.
2. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.2 blocks, 50.5 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 27.5 PER, 4.35 RPM, 204.56 TPA
Teaming up with DeMarcus Cousins does nothing to damage Davis' status. He'll forfeit some touches and collect fewer shots and boards while bird-dogging opposing 4s and roving around extra passing lanes, but his output won't vary that much.
The New Orleans Pelicans, for starters, don't have the tested depth to do anything other than ride the backs of both their bigs. Davis will get his, because they need him to get his. He averaged 23.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes of spin next to Cousins. His defensive counting stats may have peaked within this dynamic, but his offensive production will improve as he acclimates to the new world order.
In fact, they already have.
Davis posted 27.5 points on 51.6 percent shooting per 36 minutes with Cousins over their final seven appearances, during which time the Pelicans torched opponents by 12.8 points every 100 possessions.
Small samples are the enemy of sustainable substance—exponentially so toward season's end. But the Cousins-Davis pairing can work on offense. Playing with Cousins might even be the impetus behind Davis establishing himself as a respectable catch-and-shoot option from three-point land.
Should this marriage fail, Davis remains closer to a top-10 player than not. His offense could crater amid sardine spacing, and he'll still be a 6'11" wing-looking shot-swatter with the tools to switch pretty much everything. And the numbers, in this case, prove it.
According to NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles, Davis had a positive impact in every defensive subset except when taking a stab at pick-and-roll ball-handlers.
1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.6 blocks, 53.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 27.6 PER, 5.74 RPM, 344.31 TPA
Efficiency and volume have never before coexisted like they do here.
Durant has notched a true shooting percentage north of 60 while attempting at least 1,000 shots and 250 free throws six times in his career. No active player has more such seasons to his name; James comes closest with five, followed by Curry and Harden with four.
The ease with which Durant pulls up over defenders and pierces through traffic jams is mesmerizing. He manufactures shots from square one, without real separation, using a flick of the wrist. He is a catch-and-shoot flamethrower when someone else has the ball. He is an oversized point guard when the Warriors need him to be. He'll post-up not as a last resort, but because he can.
Offensive ceilings don't get any higher. Durant's mystique has reached its apex. His status is predicated on maintenance.
Scores of people will argue he's still in pursuit of James, a questionable, but not unreasonable, hill to fight on. Whether or not believers realize, though, this slant is more entrenched in Durant's defensive advancement with Golden State than offensive sustention.
Opponents shot 48.6 percent against him at the rim the last season—top-15 stinginess among 69 players to challenge 300 or more point-blank looks. He finished in the 78th percentile of isolation defense and held his own when managing back-to-the-basket assignments. He responded to joining Golden State's small-ball rabble by corralling more defensive rebounds per 100 possessions than ever.
Very few would have refrained from billing Durant as a two-way player before joining the Warriors, and life is good when attached to so many defensive hustlers. But Durant is doing everything he used to do in small doses on a larger scale.
No amount of cushy context can detract from that.