NBA Position Rankings: Top 15 Small Forwards for Season's 2nd Half

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2018

NBA Position Rankings: Top 15 Small Forwards for Season's 2nd Half

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Hello, elite wings.

    Small forwards are now among the NBA's most sought-after commodities. Remove the blurred lines both separating them from and conjoining them to shooting guards and power forwards, and 3s have ownership of the league's tippy-top pedestal.

    Every team wants talented wings on the payroll. Like-sized players who switch across multiple positions are schooled in off-ball offense and come with the requisite handles to fire up pick-and-rolls and coordinate drive-and-kicks. And where 2-guards and 4s can still be undersized swingmen or traditional bigs, respectively, the small forward spot is almost always reserved for true wings.

    Adam Fromal and I are here to hammer out a pecking order for the NBA's foremost billboards of versatility. How many youngsters can earn consideration in a conversation earmarked for seasoned importance? Which surprise names sneak into the running? Is the top of this hierarchy set in stone, or can someone, anyone, come close to catching his royal highness, LeBron James?

    Before we get started, though, let's parse some ground rules.

    Like the point guard and shooting guard rankings, small forwards are evaluated as if we're trying to acquire them for the rest of the current season while assuming health. Candidates will only be deemed ineligible for injury-related reasons if they're not expected to play again this year. Apologies to Gordon Hayward. We'll catch ya next time.

    To determine which players qualify as small forwards, we'll turn to Cleaning The Glass' exhaustive positional data. Starting-lineup placement doesn't matter. Comprehensive volume is what we're after. Keep this in mind as we journey onward so you're not taken aback by the inclusion of DeMar DeRozan or exclusion of Giannis Antetokounmpo (power forward).

    To the rankings!

15-11: Anunoby, Anderson, Iguodala, Ariza, Brown

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    15. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

    Age: 20

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.4 points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.1 blocks, 46.8 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 10.1 player efficiency rating, 16.22 total points added, 1.85 real plus-minus

    OG Anunoby turned heads from the jump just by being available to open the season—and he hasn't stopped since. He emerged as the perfect complementary piece for the Toronto Raptors in the starting lineup while Norman Powell recovered from a hip injury.

    Anunoby tackles some of the toughest defensive assignments and has injected balance into an otherwise uneven starting five. He won't ever be a wholly self-sufficient scorer, but when more than 90 percent of his shot attempts come inside three feet or from behind the three-point line, he doesn't need to be.

          

    14. Kyle Anderson, San Antonio Spurs

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.7 blocks, 52.5 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 15.8 PER, 56.63 TPA, 1.35 RPM

    Kyle Anderson, believe it or not, is among the primary forces allowing the San Antonio Spurs to smoothly navigate Kawhi Leonard's brush with injury bugs. He's always showcased Boris Diaw- and Joe Ingles-like switchitude at the defensive end but never found his place on offense—until now.

    Anderson mirrors some of DeMar DeRozan's patience when dribbling through traffic and is a legitimate option to trigger some pick-and-rolls. Low-volume success from three helps keep defenses on their heels, but his improved finishing around the rim and splashy clip between 10 and 16 feet have given him jack-of-all-trades appeal.

         

    13. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors

    Age: 33

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 5.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 42.5 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 10.2 PER, -1.86 TPA, -1.42 RPM

    Andre Iguodala's ice-cold jumper would be a real concern for the Golden State Warriors if they were any other team. But they're not. They're flush with star power that nullifies a cast of lackluster marksmen.

    Besides, Iguodala's value isn't tied to his jumper. He's still someone the Warriors can toss on the game's premier wings when it matters, and his frigid shooting has not impaired his ability to anchor bench-heavy fireballs. Golden State obliterates opponents when he runs the show without Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant or Draymond Green.

         

    12. Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets

    Age: 32

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, 43.0 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 12.1 PER, 50.89 TPA, 2.68 RPM

    Trevor Ariza's outside accuracy has predictably climbed in the aftermath of the Houston Rockets' offseason makeover. Otherwise, he's largely the same player he's always been—and nothing's wrong with that.

    Ariza struggles defensively when slotted against bigger players, but Luc Mbah a Moute (when healthy) and P.J. Tucker have limited the amount of time he sees versus more physical wings and fringe bigs. He remains a steadying defensive presence, even matched up with younger ball-handlers, and the Rockets have proven more unguardable than usual running him alongside two other wings.

         

    11. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

    Age: 21

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, 46.2 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 13.4 PER, 0.00 TPA, 1.64 RPM

    Jaylen Brown's three-point percentage has dipped in recent weeks, but he gets enough looks in the corners—from where he was effective even as a rookie—to suggest his ballooning clip will hold. Those post-ups the Boston Celtics pepper in for him are never pretty, but they can be useful, and he's making strides as a finisher in transition and off the dribble.

    Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum should thank Brown for making their lives easier at the defensive end. Both look more poised and engaged than projected—pleasant surprises made possible by Brown's comfort switching up or down a position.

10. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Age: 30

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 44.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 12.8 PER, 38.62 TPA, 1.00 RPM

    Joe Ingles' performance is rooted in balance and proportion. His game takes many forms for the Utah Jazz, shape-shifting based on opponents and lineups.

    Swish threes with absurd efficiency? Done. Jumpstart pick-and-rolls with (occasional) sleight typically reserved for point guards? No problem.

    Rotate between defensive assignments from all walks of skill—big and small, explosive and slick, on-ball maestros and spot-up assassins—with seamlessness that belies his workaday athleticism? Sure thing.

    Few players are more underappreciated than Ingles. He's been billed as a modest-volume specialist, someone hardly worth his $52 million price tag. His absolute value, however, gets lost in the number of hats he wears.

    Envisioning him as a featured option is tempting, if only to determine whether he can shine as an alpha. But this imagineering is an exercise in futility. Ingles' usage has climbed barely a tick following departures from Gordon Hayward and George Hill, and Donovan Mitchell's ascendence won't allow for much growth.

    Functional variance, then, caps Ingles' ceiling. And that's fine. Every team pines for wings who drain threes at a 40-plus percent clip, flash sleek vision and defend their butts off—making Ingles a coveted, albeit underloved, commodity.

9. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    Age: 27

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, 42.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 13.8 PER, 55.91 TPA, 4.79 RPM

    Public service announcement: Robert Covington is older than Khris Middleton. Major props if that doesn't blow your mind. You're an NBA-birthdate connoisseur.

    Anyway, Covington is playing his age, in no small part because the Philadelphia 76ers are, for the first time of his career, stocked with actual healthy NBA players.

    Spending time with Joel Embiid, J.J. Redick and Ben Simmons has opened things up for him on offense. He is canning almost 40 percent of his triples, and his efficiency on drives has skyrocketed from last year's 40.5 percent clip.

    Covington could fall slightly lower in favor of higher-volume studs. Close to 90 percent of his baskets come off assists, and more than one-third of his threebies go completely uninterrupted. But his defensive contributions make the difference.

    Philadelphia liberally switches him across all wing positions and isn't above using him to stalk point guards in pick-and-rolls. He leads all small forwards in defensive real plus-minus and, as a result of his two-way contributions, owns the Sixers' second-highest net rating, behind only Joel Embiid.

    What Covington lacks in usage, he makes up for with incontestable importance. Philly won't morph into a contender without him playing this exact brand of basketball.

8. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Tom Lynn/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.2 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 17.0 PER, 0.00 TPA, 1.14 RPM

    Khris Middleton is as close to accepted stardom as a player can come without inarguably reaching it. And the barrier separating him from the hottest #NBAVote ranks remains the same: an ostensible lack of from-scratch efficiency.

    Although Middleton receives his share of isolation opportunities and ranks second on the Milwaukee Bucks in crunch-time shot attempts per 36 minutes, he's not a viable crutch. Deference is baked into his off-the-dribble work, and he, generally speaking, doesn't attack with the same sheer force displayed by Giannis Antetokounmpo or Eric Bledsoe.

    Hence Bledsoe's arrival at all—not to mention Milwaukee's cameo in the Kyrie Irving sweepstakes last summer. The Bucks needed that additional jolt of star-powered self-indulgence.

    Yet, at the same time, they stagger Middleton like their second in command. No one has played more possessions without Antetokounmpo, according to PBPStats.com, and he logs more solo time, on average, than Bledsoe.

    These extra lone-wolf duties fuel Middleton's defensive demise in the eyes of catch-all metrics. The Bucks are collectively inconsistent on the less glamorous end to begin with, and headlining units barren of both Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe cramp Middleton's returns—even though he's still comfortably a member of the league's Switchables Guild.

7. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.6 steals, 49.5 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 18.3 PER, 89.33 TPA, 4.97 RPM

    Figuring out the Washington Wizards' hierarchy has become a headache-inducing errand. John Wall is clearly their best player, but who comes next?

    Bradley Beal is the reflexive answer, and for good reason. He's a transcendent offensive talent, even as his shot profile devolves, and is thus more qualified to serve as a lifeline. But Otto Porter isn't far behind—if he trails Beal at all.

    Washington doesn't give Porter work as a soloist. He seldom plays without Beal or Wall on the court, which gives way to arguments—or, more appropriately, illusions—that he's incapable of shouldering heavier offensive loads.

    Let's assume Porter, for argument's sake, cannot dabble in pick-and-roll authorship (he can) and is undeserving of an off-the-bounce green light (he's not). Does it really matter? Not in the faintest sense.

    Porter has flat-out mastered his niche role. He's flirting with a 45 percent success rate from deep and is opportunistic on off-action cuts. Between last season and now, among nearly 200 players to jack at least 200 threes, only Kyle Korver and LeBron James have a better effective field-goal percentage.

    Stir in Washington's reliance on Porter as its (developing) go-to wing-stopper, and he's redefining the cachet usually awarded to specialists.

6. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 48.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 24.2 PER, 88.52 TPA, 2.25 RPM

    First, an explanation for the irrationally jilted: DeMar DeRozan qualifies as a small forward. Around 60 percent of his minutes come within lineups that denote him as the 3, according to Cleaning The Glass, which trumps his role as the 2-guard in the Raptors' preferred starting lineup.

    For those refusing to look beyond this designation, here's a gift from us to you: After years as the whipping boy for overrated-star conversations, DeRozan is absolutely, positively, unambiguously producing like a top-25 player—positional constraints be damned.

    Said standing is not punctuated by any unanticipated leaps. DeRozan remains an inattentive and passive defender and isn't suddenly a three-point flamethrower. But he is a threat to score from beyond the arc. He's shooting a career best from long range on watermark volume and turning to pull-up triplets as more than mere last resorts.

    Combine this with progress as a distributor—he's running more than twice as many pick-and-rolls as Kyle Lowry—and DeRozan has transformed into a hub recognized by many.

    To wit: Toronto's point differential per 100 possessions with him is higher than its mark without him for the first time since 2011-12.

5. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Age: 27

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.6 steals, 43.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 18.4 PER, 72.70 TPA, 3.57 RPM

    Paul George has found his footing within the Oklahoma City Thunder's offense, which should terrify the rest of the league—most notably any team that hopes to steal him by the trade deadline or in free agency (cough, Los Angeles Lakers, cough).

    In the 17 appearances George has made since the end of November, he's averaging 21.4 points and 3.1 assists while shooting 45 percent overall and almost 48 percent from distance. Not coincidentally, Oklahoma City is 13-4 through these games and scoring like a top-three offense with him on the floor.

    Many doubted whether George, following a below-board start, could thrive in a system featuring both Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook. But his mixed skill set always suggested this breakout was inevitable, as Danny Chau explained for The Ringer:

    "If Tony Snell is dimensionally the league's most average player, George is the Vitruvian NBA superstar: The template of a modern player who can assume the responsibilities of three different positions, shoot threes both pulling up and from a standstill, and play prideful defense and switch on any assignment. George's half-season with the Thunder has so far affirmed that his versatility wasn't just a convenient intellectual exercise for the offseason—he is every bit as plug-and-play as his game suggests."

    That George has been completely engaged defensively solidifies his place among the NBA's elite. He is a top-15 player at his peak, and he guarantees no worse than top-25 value when displaced into sidecar duty beside a ball-dominant partner such as Westbrook.

4. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Age: 28

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 46.8 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 22.7 PER, 120.96 TPA, 4.85 RPM

    Jimmy Butler will incite the same ire DeMar DeRozan drew from positional sticklers. He, too, qualifies as a small forward, with more than 90 percent of his court time coming at the 3, according to Cleaning The Glass.

    Similar to DeRozan, though, Butler's placement is more enlightening when measured against the entire league. Minnesota has ditched the early-season push-and-pull politics and since identified No. 23 as its best, and most important, player. The end result: a fully unleashed Butler in hot pursuit of top-10 dap.

    The Timberwolves no doubt hoped he would match last year's three-point accuracy (36.7 percent), but the potential gripes stop there. And this hiccup has more to do with the team's makeup than Butler himself.

    Head coach Tom Thibodeau scantly prioritizes spacing or long-range volume in his rotation, making it difficult to penalize a notoriously on-again, off-again shooter for turbulent outside splits. Plus, the Timberwolves enjoy first-rate offensive output whenever Butler plays. He's lights out near the rim, hits a high percentage of his long twos, hovers around the five-assist sweet spot and draws fouls in crunch time on command.

    Most of all, the Timberwolves are an average defensive team with him in the game—no small feat, even as they climb the stopping-power ladder, given how much time he logs beside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

    Superstars leave profound impressions, and Butler is making one helluva dent. Minnesota is within striking distance of a top-three playoff seed almost entirely because of him.

3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Age: 26

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.0 blocks, 45.6 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 25.3 PER, 17.83 TPA, 0.14 RPM

    Kawhi Leonard is incurring some serious bad luck. He missed the Spurs' first 27 games while rehabbing a right quad injury, and now, fewer than 10 outings into his return, finds himself sidelined indefinitely with a partial tear in his left shoulder.

    League sources told ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright the Spurs don't consider the latest setback to be serious. Head coach Gregg Popovich echoed these sentiments, telling reporters (via Wright): "I don't think it will be a while."

    Anyone who followed Leonard's first stint on the shelf knows non-specific optimism means nothing in San Antonio. The Spurs are tight-lipped when it comes to injury timetables—opacity that does little to help his case within this discussion.

    But it doesn't take much brainpower to put Leonard here. Again: We're assuming health and grading these players as if we're trying to acquire them for the rest of this season. And we'd be fools not to give him latitude.

    Just last season, the Spurs went from scoring like a bottom-five attack without him to tallying second-place efficiency when he took the floor. Having already affirmed his worth as an offensive savior while retaining Defensive Player of the Year mystique, he deserves benefit-of-the-doubt treatment so long as he's expected back this year.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.3 blocks, 50.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 24.7 PER, 122.25 TPA, 3.56 RPM

    Kevin Durant is growing into the ultimate anomaly with the Warriors.

    Never mind his dalliance with another 50/40/90 shooting slash. That's child's play for him—especially on the best team ever assembled. But the league leader in blocks? Him? Seriously? That feels unfair.

    Durant is not the stingiest rim protector, and his one-on-one defense is showing signs of decline. (Now's a good time to note he turns 30 in September, which, just, wow.) The whole "Has Durant seized the best-player torch from LeBron James?" rallying cry from last June is overblown as well. That debate exists only to prisoners of the moment.

    Obsessing over Durant's proximity to the four-time MVP does a disservice to his overall value anyway. He's a surefire top-five talent who, on any given day, lays a certain claim to the NBA's second-best argument.

    Stephen Curry is Golden State's most valuable player. But Durant isn't any less of a generational name because he forfeits status to two or three (or four) other era-significant megahumans.

    The Warriors still fare like a superpower—not quality team, but actual juggernaut—when he goes it alone. In the time he's logged without Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, they post a better point differential per 100 possessions than the Spurs. Durant is a superstar for the ages. Remember that.

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Age: 33

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.0 blocks, 55.8 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 30.2 PER, 310.82 TPA, 4.98 RPM

    Now, about the belief that someone, anyone, will reasonably challenge LeBron James for the best-player-alive crown sometime, anytime, in the near future...it ain't happening.

    James, in his age-33 season, is exploring previously unplumbed levels of dominance. His true shooting percentage—which measures two-point, three-point and free-throw accuracy—is hovering near his career high. He has never averaged more assists. He's tracking down steals and swatting shots with fountain-of-youth frequency. And he's a staple at the top of every pertinent kitchen-sink metric:

    • PER rank: 3
    • TPA rank: 1
    • RPM rank: 5
    • Value Over Replacement rank: 1
    • Win Shares rank: 2

    Isaiah Thomas will eat into James' share of the Cleveland Cavaliers offense as he returns to normal. And the King himself will always battle cruise-control warts through mid-April. The Cavs, even as they manage to tread water when he sits, will play down to the level of inferior opponents, harshing his MVP vibes in the process.

    Still, the idea that anyone should curry favor over James has long been, and will continue to be, unequivocally laughable.

         

    Unless otherwise cited, all stats are courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and current leading into games on Jan. 8.

    Dan Favale and Adam Fromal cover the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow them on Twitter, @danfavale and @fromal09.

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