NBA Free-Agency Rankings 2018: Top Available Small Forwards

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJune 13, 2018

NBA Free-Agency Rankings 2018: Top Available Small Forwards

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    Small forwards have been crucial pieces throughout NBA history, and that hasn't changed in the modern game.

    Today's 3s need to do everything well. Defensive liabilities are quickly exposed by their high-scoring counterparts. Those without shooting range get the sag treatment until they prove too dangerous to be left alone. Plenty of wings are comfortable handling the rock and creating for themselves or others.

    The two players at the top of this year's free-agency class exemplify that well-roundedness. LeBron James and Kevin Durant can do it all on the basketball court, as they proved while helping lead their respective teams to another head-to-head clash in the NBA Finals.

    But this crop of small forwards is about far more than two players, especially since one presumably isn't going anywhere new this summer. Big names are scattered throughout the rankings, as well as veterans and youngsters alike who will deserve gaudy paychecks.

    Just as was the case for our point guard and shooting guard rankings, this countdown—based on current level of play, age and expected performance during the next contract—should get you started as you build your mental ladder before the offseason begins in full.

10. Mario Hezonja

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    Team: Orlando Magic

    Age23

    Type of Free AgencyUnrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 13.7 PER, minus-2.04 RPM, minus-27.09 TPA

    Mario Hezonja needs to improve on defense, learn how to draw additional fouls and begin creating more of his own looks if he's going to break out into a rotation stalwart and provide a belated justification for the No. 5 pick the Orlando Magic spent on his services in the 2015 NBA draft. But during substantial portions of the 2017-18 campaign, he started to flash the well-rounded scoring upside and athleticism that originally made him so appealing.

    The 23-year-old is currently at his best in three different areas: handling the rock in pick-and-roll sets, setting up for spot-up attempts and making the most of his speed/leaping combination in the open court.

    As a PnR ball-handler, he scored 0.87 points per possession to rest in the 67th percentile. But that says nothing about his ability to keep his eyes up while probing a defense, operating in constant search of open teammates even as he drives into the heart of opposing schemes. Finishing in the 45th percentile for transition work represented a big step up from his sophomore efforts (15th percentile), and it didn't prevent him from improving substantially as a spot-up sniper.

    In those off-ball scenarios, Hezonja scored 1.05 points per possession (67th percentile). That growth alone should get him looks from teams eager to find more spacing options at the 3, especially because this package comes with so much enduring upside in other areas.

    The Croatian small forward averaged 12.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.6 blocks per game after the start of February—numbers only three qualified players (James Harden, Victor Oladipo and Ben Simmons) matched throughout the campaign.

    Honorable Mentions: James Ennis III, Joe Johnson, Doug McDermott

9. Jeff Green

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Age: 31

    Type of Free AgencyUnrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 14.8 PER, 0.24 RPM, minus-70.91 TPA

    We're cheating a bit here because Jeff Green spent most of his time operating at the 4 during the 2017-18 season. Basketball Reference indicates that 79 percent of his run came while he was playing power forward, while Cleaning the Glass shows a similar number—both driven up by LeBron James' omnipresence at small forward.

    Still, Green can play the relevant position; he already did for small doses this season and has even more frequently in past campaigns. Moreover, his 6'9" frame and athleticism should allow him to match up even better against smaller players, particularly on the defensive end. For that reason, as well as the extra depth of talent this free-agency class boasts at the bigger spot, we're listing him at the 3.

    Just rest assured he's far more of a combo forward than anything else.

    Either way, Green makes for an intriguing free agent because of his potential in so many different areas. The 31-year-old can occasionally serve as an off-ball marksman, a secondary ball-handler, a defensive stalwart capable of switching between many different positions and a thunderous finisher on the interior. He just has trouble blending the skills together in cohesive fashion, though he showed signs of growth during his season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    With him on the floor during the regular season, the Eastern Conference champions boosted their net rating by 5.8 points per 100 possessions. Among the team's rotation members, only Kyle Korver and George Hill had larger on/off differentials.

8. Wilson Chandler

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    Justin Tafoya/Getty Images

    Team: Denver Nuggets

    Age31

    Type of Free AgencyPlayer Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 11.0 PER, minus-1.14 RPM, minus-42.58 TPA

    If Wilson Chandler can get fully healthy and repel Father Time for a while longer, he makes for a prototypical forward in today's NBA. A three-and-D candidate who can use his size to disadvantage smaller opponents while maximizing his speed against larger ones, the 31-year-old can function as a matchup nightmare making life difficult for adversaries in all facets of the game.

    But that wasn't the case in 2017-18, which might make the Denver Nuggets hope he declines his $12.8 million player option in search of a long-term contract elsewhere. Even though he'd still be a good fit alongside Nikola Jokic and Co., cost-cutting moves are necessary in the Mile High City once the star center inevitably lands a max deal.

    Chandler is capable of mixing volume and efficiency from beyond the arc, but he could only connect on his 3.3 deep attempts per game at a 35.8 percent clip—just below the league average (36.2 percent). He's a versatile defender who constantly assumes tough assignments, but he still finished with a score of minus-0.38 in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, placing him at No. 56 among the 90 players qualified as small forwards.

    Fortunately, the idea of Chandler is still valuable in and of itself. Even if his numbers aren't quite there, his presence exhibits a gravitational pull and forces the opposition to account for him when drawing up offensive sets. If he shows resiliency by helping the metrics bounce back to more stable levels, he'll potentially be a bargain on the open market.

7. Carmelo Anthony

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Age34

    Type of Free AgencyEarly Termination Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 12.7 PER, minus-0.76 RPM, minus-191.46 TPA

    Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

    The transition from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't prove easy for Carmelo Anthony, who didn't fully buy into his role alongside Paul George and Russell Westbrook. He rarely displayed superior levels of defensive commitment, still commandeered some possessions by jab-stepping ad infinitum and struggled to embrace a job description that involved myriad spot-up attempts.

    During his final season in the Big Apple, Anthony's spot-up work accounted for 15.2 percent of his total action. He scored 1.23 points per possession on those 3.5 tries per game, which left him in the 94th percentile.

    In OKC threads, he engaged in spot-up sets for 23.9 percent of his plays. Those 4.1 possessions per game functioned as a step in the right direction, but they weren't always advantageous looks because he lollygagged around the court and failed to create the necessary separation. Even operating in a favorable situation, he could only log 1.02 points per possession (60th percentile).

    Anthony, in all likelihood, will never again function like a bona fide All-Star. He doesn't have the defensive discipline necessary to remain an all-around positive, and he's failed to adjust his playing style to the demands of the modern NBA. Perhaps the most telling number is that the Thunder were a team-low 27.8 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court in the playoffs.

    But this future Hall of Famer's pedigree speaks for itself, and we know how much offensive talent lies dormant within his 6'8" frame. Whether he opts in and accepts a role off the pine (something he's said he won't do, much to the chagrin of those seeking ways to maximize his late-career abilities) or hits the open market in search of another home, he has the potential to become one of the league's most devastating off-ball weapons moving forward.

6. Rudy Gay

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Age31

    Type of Free AgencyPlayer Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 18.0 PER, 0.27 RPM, 7.31 TPA

    Achilles injuries can have devastating effects on an NBA player's career, particularly when they occur as a contributor is moving out of his athletic prime. But as Ailene Voisin detailed for the Sacramento Bee, the malady that ended Rudy Gay's 3.5-season tenure with the Sacramento Kings had both positive and negative effects after he moved on to the San Antonio Spurs:

    "Gay, who was immobile for four months, then advancing to a scooter for two more months, changed his diet to avoid gaining weight. Pancakes for breakfast were replaced by vegetable omelets. Fast-food lunches and dinners gave way to lean meats, vegetables and healthy carbohydrates. ...

    "He isn't as fluid as he was, nor as explosive. His lateral quickness is suspect. Additionally, he missed 23 games with right heel tendinitis in December, possibly related to the surgically repaired left Achilles."

    Gay has changed his playing style, no longer depending upon the athletic advantages that made him so exciting, albeit inconsistent, during his earlier days. But the health changes have also aided his comeback, allowing him to showcase improved endurance and commitment on the defensive end—alterations that were, no doubt, teased out by the coaching brilliance of San Antonio signal-caller Gregg Popovich.

    During the 2017-18 campaign, Gay stopped relying as heavily on three-point jumpers and picked his spots more wisely from inside the arc. He cut back on his turnovers. He made a career-low 32 dunks, instead conserving energy in a manner that helped him post the second-best defensive box plus/minus of his career.

    Now, he's proved his game is malleable enough that he can reasonably accept an $8.8 million player option (and continue lining up more at the 4 than the 3) or seek a payday elsewhere that will likely see him again bouncing between forward positions.

5. Trevor Ariza

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Age32

    Type of Free AgencyUnrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 11.8 PER, 1.66 RPM, 69.21 TPA

    Though James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela (justifiably) drew so many headlines for the Houston Rockets during their ascent to the Western Conference's top seed, the rise wouldn't have been possible without the two-way abilities of Trevor Ariza. This forward remained a three-and-D presence content to spot up for open jumpers on offense while exerting most of his energy in a relentless defensive effort.

    The 32-year-old, however, is starting to show some cracks.

    Any shooting slippage is concerning for a veteran who doesn't really create for himself off the bounce, and Ariza only connected on 36.8 percent of his shots from beyond the rainbow. Still, he was effective enough in catch-and-shoot situations that he finished in the 73rd percentile for his spot-up work, scoring a solid 1.08 points per relevant possession.

    Defense served as the bigger concern.

    He was still a positive presence, but he posted the second-worst defensive box plus/minus of his 14-season career. Meanwhile, he checked in at No. 17 among small forwards in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus—the second consecutive season he'd recorded a good-but-not-great score.

    Still, Houston allowed a team-best 10.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court in the playoffs—a breath of fresh air after the defensive rating rose slightly when he played in the regular season.

    Ariza remained a three-and-D contributor, but he's getting to that tricky stage of his career at which the decline might come in fast and furious fashion. That concern alone pushes him behind the next small forward in our countdown, even if he currently enjoys a more sterling reputation.

4. Kyle Anderson

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Age24

    Type of Free AgencyRestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 15.9 PER, 3.07 RPM, 156.6 TPA

    Kyle Anderson is perhaps the most unorthodox player in these rankings, and his primary weakness is that he can be played off the court by some teams. The Golden State Warriors were one during the 2018 playoffs because they had the defensive switchability necessary to capitalize on his limited shooting abilities, essentially neglecting to cover him in the corners and daring him to make shots he couldn't hit with any consistency.

    If Anderson does develop into a spot-up threat (33rd percentile in 2017-18), he'll finally get the national recognition the other elements of his game deserve.

    This slow-footed forward excels as a deliberate pick-and-roll ball-handler who can carefully make decisions that optimize the skills of his teammates. He might take his time, but he avoids mistakes and plays with a cerebral ability that more than compensates for his molasses-like nature. Perhaps even more importantly, he's a game-changing defender for whom the ill effects of limited speed are mitigated by long arms and preternatural instincts.

    Among all 90 players listed as small forwards in 2017-18, only Robert Covington boasted a superior score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus. Remove positions from the picture, and Anderson trails only 15 players—an impressive feat when the stat tends to reward the efforts of bigger players and features 10 centers in the top 20.

    Even if Anderson were solely allowed to contribute on defense, he'd be plenty valuable. Considering he shot 37.5 percent from beyond the arc in 2016-17, this 24-year-old may yet have some offense to offer.

3. Paul George

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    J Pat Carter/Getty Images

    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Age28

    Type of Free AgencyPlayer Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.5 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 18.7 PER, 3.01 RPM, 145.6 TPA

    Though Paul George might not have made either of the NBA's All-Defensive teams for his efforts with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was a momentum-altering presence on that end of the court. Not only did he lock down numerous forwards and backcourt members with his on-ball work, but he was also one of the league's most terrifying presences away from the primary action.

    George has an uncanny ability to read developments in real time, and he understands exactly where to position himself in order to wreak the most havoc. Couple that with long arms, tremendous athleticism and an Energizer Bunny motor, and you have a deflection machine who constantly disrupts passing lanes and prevents his assignments from touching the rock despite cheating as far from them as he reasonably can.

    Among those logging at least 40 games, only Robert Covington registered more deflections per contest throughout the regular season. Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons were the only qualified players to recover more loose balls per game. George was a whirlwind on the court, maximizing his minutes without needing to engage in constant motion and wear himself out.

    We haven't even touched on his offense yet.

    Those 21.9 points and 3.3 assists per game came while George slashed 43.0/40.1/82.0—the middle number coming while he fired away 7.7 times per contest from beyond the rainbow. Only Stephen Curry could match his combination of volume and efficiency in trey-land.

    George is a legitimate two-way star. He'll be paid accordingly once he inevitably opts out of his $20.7 million player option, though we don't yet know who'll be stroking the checks.

2. LeBron James

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Age33

    Type of Free AgencyPlayer Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 28.6 PER, 4.96 RPM, 593.09 TPA

    If these rankings were solely about who'd play at the highest level during the 2018-19 campaign, LeBron James would sit atop the pack with room to spare. But we're curious about the entirety of the next contract cycle, which could extend far enough that the greatest current player would be operating in his age-37 season if he chose to sign—cue laughter—for the maximum duration.

    At some point, James has to prove human. Maybe.

    What he's doing right now is wholly unprecedented. Not only did he suit up in all 82 games for the first time in his illustrious career, he also led the league in minutes per contest while doing so. Beyond that, he shouldered a tremendous burden for the lackluster Cleveland Cavaliers and then found another gear during the playoff run.

    In all seriousness, you could make a convincing argument that James, even making his eighth straight run to the NBA Finals and with plenty of international experience tacked onto his resume, played at the highest level of his career while willing his teammates through the Eastern Conference gauntlet.

    He couldn't overcome the star-studded Golden State Warriors, but he averaged 34.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks while slashing 53.9/34.2/74.6 in the playoffs. He essentially beat back the advances of old age (for the moment), even displacing 2003 Tim Duncan to earn the top score since 1974 in NBA Math's postseason TPA database.

    Still, Father Time is undefeated. The decline has to start eventually.

    Right?

1. Kevin Durant

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age29

    Type of Free AgencyPlayer Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 26.0 PER, 3.61 RPM, 274.99 TPA

    The reigning Finals MVP, who should now be considered the third-best small forward in NBA history, isn't going anywhere. He's found a comfortable home with the Golden State Warriors that doesn't force him to shoulder an inordinate amount of leadership responsibilities but allows him to maximize his wide-ranging talents.

    Dubs general manager Bob Myers has already told reporters Kevin Durant will receive any contract he desires once he opts out of his current pact:

    "Sometimes you don't negotiate. I'd love to have him for 10 years. Kevin Durant, look what he did for us last year. He did us a great service. He's earned the right to sign whatever deal he wants. I just want him to sign a deal. But [I] want him to be happy and want him to know that we want him as long as he wants to be here. He's earned that, to kind of lay out the terms. He can do whatever he wants. That shouldn't be a long negotiation. Our goal, to be honest, is to try to keep the whole thing together, so that's the pieces of the puzzle we've got to try to figure out."

    Maybe Durant can't wrest the individual crown away from LeBron James in 2018-19, though he's getting closer after winning the head-to-head Finals battle and continuing to develop as an all-around defensive menace and distributor. But four years from now, he'll only be as old as his biggest rival is right now.

    Age has to give him the edge heading into this offseason, if barely. But even if he was still stuck functioning as No. 2, he'd be a coveted commodity playing at a Hall of Fame level and squarely in the midst of his prime years.

              

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.