Ranking NBA's Top 15 Small Forwards Entering 2018-19 Season
Paging all of the NBA's top small forwards. Hey, hi, hello! We just wanted to let you know it's your turn to enter the best-player crucible.
Before we dive in, though, make sure you've checked out all of the previous installments for our NBA 100 series:
Adequately sorting through such an extensive field of talent is never easy. It involves a lot of second-guessing, self-loathing and if you're the authors of this piece, workplace name-calling.
Small forwards only make this process harder. They're the toughest group to define as the league more closely aligns itself with positionless basketball. They are wings by general definition. But these days, that could mean they spend most of their time at shooting guard or power forward.
Last season's roles will be our guide when determining who qualifies as a 3. Possession data from Cleaning The Glass will be used to settle hair-splitting disputes. Depth-chart interpretations will be leaned on when looking at players who switched teams or are returning from injuries.
Please try not to get caught up in how everyone earned their label—especially on the small forward front. The Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown-Gordon Hayward-Jayson Tatum wing triangle can be viewed in a number of different lights. LeBron James' minutes distribution could change if he plays more power forward for the Los Angeles Lakers.
We understand all of that. We've chosen to build the small forward pool this way. Focus your energy on despising the rankings themselves rather than, say, Tatum's eventual inclusion in the power forward discussion.
Everything else is pretty cut and dry. This remains a predictive exercise. We're evaluating players based on who we'd want to acquire for the entire 2018-19 season. Anyone at risk of remaining on the sidelines until the calendar flips to 2019 has been removed from the discussion for now. They'll be eligible for our inevitable midseason mulligan once they return to action.
15-11: Iguodala, Barnes, Prince, Covington, Richardson
15. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks
Old reliable is still chugging along. Andre Iguodala's days of filling up the box score are over. He concedes touches and status to Golden State's armory of superstars, and like his championship teammates, he has a deliberate "Wake me when the regular season's over" vibe about him. His three-point splits spent most of last year toiling in the gutter as well.
Whatever. Iguodala shows up when it matters. He shot 37.8 percent from deep during the postseason, and the Warriors still liberally use him to cover point guards and wings.
Going on 35, he may be past defending the LeBron Jameses of the NBA Finals. Then again, maybe not. A left leg injury hampered his availability this past June, but he still got his me-versus-the-best-player-ever licks in. Only Kevin Durant averaged more possessions per game guarding Lonzo Ball's newest sidekick.
Essentially, Iguodala remains an exhaustive defender who can piece together half-court offensive possessions in a pinch without ever concerning himself about his usage or scoring totals. Every team wants that type of player.
14. Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks
Harrison Barnes' place in the league is almost impossible to peg.
His self-sustaining offense has been a pleasant surprise since his arrival in Dallas. He closed 2016-17 and 2017-18 inside the 70th percentile of efficiency on isolation possessions. Last year, he connected on 42.9 percent of his looks when using between three and six dribbles—not great but in line with marks from Durant (43.4 percent) and Donovan Mitchell (43 percent).
Barnes' game nevertheless wants for a certain depth. He rarely gets to the free-throw line and has yet to develop into much of a playmaker. Fifty-two players have made at least 75 appearances and maintained a usage rate north of 25 over the past two seasons. Among that group, Barnes ranks 38th in free-throw-attempt rate and 51st in assists per 36 minutes.
Meaningful improvement isn't out of the question. He's 26, and this will be only his third season as a featured cog. But the path to quasi-reinvention is complicated by Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Both profile as tentpole ball-handlers whose developmental arcs knife into Barnes' volume.
13. Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
Taurean Prince is getting tons of love here, and deservedly so. He shined in 2017-18 after the Hawks turned over a larger share of the offense to him.
In his final 31 appearances last season, Prince averaged 17.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals while drilling 37.9 percent of his triples. His secondary playmaking remains a nice surprise. He coughed up possessions on 27.3 percent of his pick-and-rolls, but he was brand new to half-court creation. His mistakes will dwindle amid better spacing—shout-out, Trae Young—and with more reps.
Replicating last season's closing surge will be tough, as Prince will cede touches to Young, Kent Bazemore and Jeremy Lin. But the Hawks' power structure is hardly set in stone. He will have plenty of opportunities to broaden his offensive scope, especially if the Hawks trade Bazemore. Prince's defense buoys the rest of this projection. He has the chops to switch between shooting guards and small forwards, and he should stand up against 4s once Atlanta receives more consistent play from its centers.
12. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks
Robert Covington can be an infuriating offensive player. He rarely needs to branch out from hitting spot-up jumpers and finishing straight-line drives, yet he sometimes struggles to do even that. He couldn't buy a basket during the Sixers' playoff run.
Covington's defense is worth his offensive uncertainty. He covers every type of wing while staging more-than-occasional battles with opposing point guards. He earned his first-team All-Defensive billing last year. Kyle Anderson and LeBron James are the only wings who saved more points, according to NBA Math.
By the way: Covington's offensive warts aren't that dire. He splashed in 37.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys last season while shooting an adequate 45.3 percent on drives. It'd be nice if he could match JJ Redick's pinball shooting around screens, but he's far from a total non-factor on offense.
11. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
Come swim out in the deep end with us. The water's great.
Brandon Ingram is worth this nod. Watch him, and you'll see he has a great feel for the game. He isn't a pull-up maestro, but he gets to his spots when working off the dribble.
Some of the numbers are starting to catch up with the eye test. From Jan. 1 onward, Ingram averaged 16.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists while canning 45.3 percent of his three-pointers. He needs to dramatically increase his outside volume before being dubbed a league-average shooter, but he finished in the 75th percentile of spot-up efficiency. Plopping him next to LeBron James should do wonders.
10. Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks
Though the Miami Heat's far-reaching depth has prevented Josh Richardson from averaging even 13 points per game during his three-year career, he's already made one thing clear: He is a legitimate star on defense.
Richardson did not earn any defensive accolades last season, and he was far from the league leaders in steals. Among South Beach rotation players, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo had more positive effects on the team's defensive prowess. But head coach Erik Spoelstra believes Richardson deserves more recognition, per Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald:
"I think unquestionably, he's an All-NBA defender. I think it's a shame. I don't think his name out there. I don't think people recognize the kind of defender he is except for the teams that he plays against. I think they see it.
"Night in, night out he's going to have three of the toughest covers in the game...and he doesn't even blink. And that's the expectation and how he's developed that potential. He's become a very disciplined, dynamic defender, one that can really guard multiple positions in a totally different way. He will challenge Dwyane [Wade] as far as a shot-blocking two guard if he's able to play that many years down the line. He's going to rack up a lot of blocks. And as we call them, one-on-one kills."
Perhaps the 24-year-old's regional reputation will go national this season. We're already giving him plenty of credit in these rankings—spoiler alert: He's the only member of the Heat in our overall top 50—and not just because he coupled that pestilent defense with a 37.8 percent clip from beyond the arc.
He's just that good on defense.
9. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
Otto Porter Jr.'s remarkable spot-up shooting from the 2016-17 season was never sustainable. Players aren't supposed to knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers frequently enough to post 1.31 points per possession and fall in the 97th percentile.
But regression didn't knock Porter too far down the totem pole. Boosting the Washington Wizards with 1.15 points per spot-up possession in 2017-18, he still sat in the 85th percentile while ranking 30th in such attempts throughout the league. Coupling that frequency with the per-possession output expected from an average contributor (1.01), he still ranked No. 20 in spot-up value added.
That isn't too shabby for a player who's so much more than an off-ball threat.
Porter is a solid rebounder. He can also switch between multiple positions defensively during a single trip down the floor. He's comfortable swinging the ball around and hitting cutters, even if he'll rarely take control of a play and serve as a primary facilitator.
In other words, he's an ultimate glue guy. Somewhat sneakily, he even ranked second in Washington for cumulative TPA over the last three seasons (466.27), narrowly falling behind John Wall (469.67) and outpacing Bradley Beal by a substantial margin (195.07).
Maybe he's benefiting from the offensive abilities of his two All-Star teammates, but he's still filling his role to near perfection.
8. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks
If the Utah Jazz need a stop against an opposing wing, they can call on Joe Ingles.
He was a sterling defender throughout the 2017-18 campaign, but his coup de grace came in a first-round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Throughout that series, he got under Paul George's skin and kept him in check. With impressive lateral quickness and tremendous instincts, Ingles doesn't cede space easily and rarely lets his mark sneak between him and the basket.
But that isn't all he provides.
A steady presence in the pick-and-roll game who can connect on pocket passes and keep his eyes up in search of feed opportunities, Ingles always manages to rack up a respectable number of assists. Last season, only nine players listed at 6'8" or taller averaged more dimes. If that isn't enough, he's also one of the most dangerous marksmen in the Association.
Last season, only 11 qualified shooters took at least five triples per game and connected on at least 40 percent of those attempts. Ingles cleared those benchmarks with room to spare, recording a 44.0 three-point percentage while taking 5.7 treys per contest—numbers just he, Raja Bell, Stephen Curry (three times), Kyle Korver, Peja Stojakovic and Klay Thompson have ever reached during a qualified go-round.
So, what do you get when you take a historically great shooter and make him a game-changing passer as well as a bona fide stopper? You get a player who deserves a lot more national respect.
7. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks
The mid-range game won't go out of style while Khris Middleton is in the NBA.
Even though his three-point percentage nosedived in 2017-18, the Milwaukee Bucks swingman was a valuable scorer nevertheless. He proved adept at making tough two-point jumpers that provide a different type of spacing. Though his efforts don't decompress the opposition's defense quite as much as triples might, shooting 54.5 percent from between 10 and 16 feet is valuable, especially when also hitting 45.2 percent of even longer twos.
Middleton might be miscast as a No. 1 scoring option, but he doesn't have to function as such in Brewtown. Instead, he can thrive as a complementary figure alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe, still initiating some plays but largely feeding off the opportunities created by his teammates while conserving some of his energy for defense.
His malleability is as important as any singular skill.
The 27-year-old has yet to appear in an All-Star Game, but he's now in a position to change that. In the midst of his athletic prime and comfortable with the surrounding environment—particularly if offseason continuity pays off for the Antetokounmpo-Bledsoe-Middleton trio—he's starting to put up per-game numbers that showcase the immense talent careful observers have already recognized.
6. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 2.0 points, 1.0 rebounds
Should we be concerned about Gordon Hayward returning to a Boston Celtics squad that now has to dole out minutes to Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, none of whom had broken out when he signed in Boston last summer? Absolutely not.
Here's what Favale wrote when we spotted him at No. 14 overall in the preseason countdown for the 2017-18 edition of our top 100 players:
"Possession allocation could become an issue if [Kyrie] Irving really coordinated his departure from the Cavaliers because he wants more touches. But he has extra freedom in Boston by default and might not stress about the chain of command when no one on the Celtics casts a four-time-MVP-sized shadow.
"Above all else, Hayward has the skill set to navigate the minefield of possible warts. He boasts a doctorate in assimilation. Over half of his buckets were assisted last year, while more than one-quarter of his total shot attempts came off the catch. No one in the league ran as many pick-and-rolls (419) while finishing more than 100 possessions as a cutter."
Nothing has changed in the year since. Hayward's ability to regain his previous form is a bit concerning after the devastating ankle injury that ended his inaugural Celtics campaign within mere minutes. But that's a separate issue than blending into head coach Brad Stevens' rotation. In many ways, the flexibility of his game should ensure a higher floor as he works back to tip-top shape.
In a best-case scenario, the 28-year-old will resume his pre-injury fireworks by contributing in seamless, across-the-board fashion. But even if he can't quite get there, he's talented enough in off-the-ball situations that he'll thrive as a complementary piece.
5. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
Though the "three-and-D" label is typically bestowed upon players who haven't achieved stardom, Paul George should be considered one of the NBA's premier members of that two-way category. His ability to create his own shots and take over as a go-to scorer gives him value beyond those facets of the game, but his primary skills come in the two aforementioned areas.
As a shooter, George is a deadly presence who requires constant attention. He can knock down triples off the bounce. He can shoot in rhythm when passes hit him right in the pocket, and he's adept at catching slightly off-target feeds from a driving Russell Westbrook before recovering and finding nothing but twine. Hitting 40.1 percent of your shots from outside the rainbow is never easy; it's particularly challenging when you're taking a whopping 7.7 attempts per game.
And yet, George might be better at the "D" part.
Not only is he capable of guarding a wide variety of foes in on-ball scenarios, but he wreaks unmatched havoc when operating away from the primary action. Though plenty of players are capable of jumping passing lanes and racking up deflections, few are able to do so with such remarkable frequency, to the point that his mere presence can force plays to unfold on another portion of the court. Fewer still can gamble incessantly but still recover to their assignments.
Best of all? Now that he's remaining with the Oklahoma City Thunder rather than joining the Los Angeles Lakers, we get to see what he can do with the luxury of continuity.
4. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
The full extent of Jimmy Butler's abilities isn't appreciated nearly enough.
Sure, he's viewed as a volume-scoring threat who can put up big numbers by efficiently converting his looks from all over the floor. We know he's a capable distributor who's always willing to set up his teammates when those opportunities present themselves. His defense may be the most well-known skill of all, given his long-standing prowess on the less glamorous end—prowess that traveled with him from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But combining all those elite skills into a singular package is rare.
So consider this: Along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, James Harden, LeBron James, Khris Middleton, Victor Oladipo and Russell Westbrook, Butler was one of only nine qualified players last season to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and four assists. We can further cull that exclusive group in a few different ways.
Only four members (Antetokounmpo, Durant, Harden and James) could match Butler's 59.0 true shooting percentage. Oladipo was the only other one to join him in the club featuring players who recorded at least two swipes per contest. Thus, we've already found different iterations of the rankings that feature no overlap aside from this 29-year-old swingman.
Butler doesn't just do it all. He does it all well.
3. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.0 blocks
If you know what to expect from Kawhi Leonard in 2018-19, would you mind lending us your crystal ball for a little while?
Leonard's level would be tough enough to predict if he were remaining with the San Antonio Spurs and coming back from the mysterious quadriceps injury that limited him to only a handful of appearances in 2017-18. Perhaps he'll find the form that made him a popular MVP choice before this last campaign began and we realized the full extent of his maladies. On the flip side, he may never be the same, hindered by lingering effects and the time away from on-court action.
But that isn't the only variable in play.
Leonard is now joining a different team after an offseason trade sent him from the Spurs to the Toronto Raptors. That means learning an entirely new system. It requires building chemistry with new teammates and a new coaching staff. It means figuring out how to thrive apart from San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich and realizing how he can excel when he isn't operating with offensive autonomy.
An adjustment period isn't likely, so much as inevitable.
If you're of the belief that Leonard will pick up where he left off, again functioning as a primary challenger for the NBA's individual crown, more power to you. We are talking about a 27-year-old with Defensive Player of the Year chops who can function as a capable No. 1 option. But that's an argument that can't yet be fully substantiated, which means we have to be a bit more cautious here.
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks
Even if Kevin Durant is still questing for forgiveness after joining the Golden State Warriors, he's certainly justified the choice. In two seasons with the Dubs, he's won two titles and earned a pair of Finals MVP trophies, bringing himself even closer to sitting atop the positional—and overall—hierarchy.
This isn't just Durant coasting alongside other top-tier talents, either. Sure, his job is easier because defenses have to pay attention to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But he still averaged 29.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists during this latest postseason run while shooting 48.7 percent from the field, 34.1 percent from downtown and 90.1 percent at the stripe.
Durant's path to championship glory was simpler because of his free-agency decisions. That much is undeniable and won't change moving forward, especially with DeMarcus Cousins potentially making the Dubs that much stronger in 2018-19. But what often gets lost in this narrative are the improvements he's made to his own game. Durant worked hard to become a better, more well-rounded defender while simultaneously heightening the quality of his work as a facilitator.
This is the most complete version of Durant we've seen, fully primed to take over a game on either side of the court while filling myriad roles for Golden State. He's willing and able to flourish as a go-to scorer, a pass-first wing, a perimeter defender or a last line of defense.
And given his dizzying levels of skill and physical ability, he may not be done realizing the full extent of his generational talents.
1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks
A lot has been made of LeBron James' otherworldly levels of success during his 15th professional season—for good reason.
He played at arguably the highest level of his career while willing the Cleveland Cavaliers to yet another appearance in the Finals. That came on the heels of a regular season in which he led the league in minutes played while refusing to miss even a single game. If anything, he hasn't received enough credit for his absurd accomplishments in 2017-18.
According to NBA Math's GOAT rankings (based on performance relative to the league throughout the Association's history), James earned 8.991 GOAT points for his efforts during the regular season and playoffs combined. That might not mean anything to you in a vacuum, but this should: Only two of James' prior seasons have earned higher single-season scores throughout the NBA's lengthy annals. Nothing from Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain or any of the other legendary players who have graced the hardwood.
Again, he did this during his age-33 season, with so much mileage already on his tires. No matter how much this accomplishment is hyped up, it won't be overblown.
In 2018-19, James is now entering an entirely new situation. He'll be thrust firmly into the Hollywood spotlight after joining the Los Angeles Lakers. He has to play against the brutal Western Conference more frequently, which could hinder his quest to make nine consecutive Finals trips. He'll be tasked with leading a collection of mismatched veterans—yes, we know it's allegedly all part of the plan—and up-and-coming youngsters on a roster that will likely look much different at this time next year.
But until he shows any sign of mortality, he'll keep his stranglehold on this No. 1 spot.