NBA Player Rankings: B/R's Top 15 Power Forwards Entering 2018-19 Season
First, before you get knee deep in the league's best 4s, check out the previous installments of our NBA 100 series:
Delineating positions is tricky business nowadays. Handing out power forward labels is no different. Traditional bigs and stretch towers still have a stake in this race, but more and more wings continue to enter the fold, oftentimes blurring the lines between the 2, 3 and 4 spots.
Possession data from Cleaning the Glass will be used to help decide who qualifies as a power forward. Last year's returns are a guiding force, but depth-chart interpretations will supersede past particulars if a player has changed teams or seen the supporting cast around him overhauled.
Kevin Love is a good example of this transition. Most of his time came at center last year, per Cleaning the Glass. That doesn't stand to hold in the wake of LeBron James' departure and the Cleveland Cavaliers' reconfiguration. He will be treated as a 4.
Players are also being evaluated as if we're trying to acquire them for the entire 2018-19 campaign. Last season's performances matter, but they aren't everything. Projected regressions, improvements, post-injury performances, role changes and anything else you can dream up are worked into these rankings.
Anyone who is at risk of remaining sidelined into 2019 has been bounced from consideration. Kristaps Porzingis and his stans have our sympathies.
Now, let's rank.
15-11: Mirotic, Anunoby, Markkanen, Randle, Gordon
15. Nikola Mirotic, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
Everything might depend on Nikola Mirotic's facial hair. He'd been growing out his beard for quite some time (at least throughout his Chicago Bulls tenure), but that changed when he was spotted at practice with a baby face April 4.
Prior to getting out the razor, he'd suited up in 25 games for the New Orleans Pelicans, averaging 12.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks while shooting 38.6 percent from the field, 29.9 percent from downtown and 76.6 percent at the stripe. After removing the follicular forest, he caught fire for a five-contest stretch: 25.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game while slashing 56.3/46.5/100.
Those numbers aren't sustainable, but they did show the quality of his fit alongside Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis. Plus, he kept scorching scoreboards during the Pelicans' two-round playoff run.
14. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 5.9 points, 2.5 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks
OG Anunoby's placement is a volatile one, though not necessarily because of his on-court skills. We already know he's an elite defender capable of bodying up against physical behemoths and sliding his feet to stay in front of quicker guards. The Toronto Raptors were 1.8 points per 100 possessions stingier with him on the floor as a rookie, and his DRPM was distinctly positive.
No, opportunity could be the issue. He only played 20 minutes per game during his inaugural campaign (still miraculous, considering his expedited ACL recovery), and that might be around the ceiling in 2018-19. With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green aboard, as well as Serge Ibaka to roam the frontcourt as an incumbent 4, Anunoby may not have enough chances to play major minutes and increase his national profile, per-minute excellence be damned.
13. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks
As you might expect from any player after an up-and-down rookie season, Lauri Markkanen has distinct areas of needed improvement. He's a limited passer who can be baited into poor decisions on the block, and his defensive warts often hinder the Chicago Bulls on the preventing end. Until he adds more muscle, he'll continue to get pushed around, ceding both deep positioning and second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass.
But Markkanen is ahead of schedule on the scoring side, even if he could stand to play with a bit more urgency on some possessions. Few players this young have shot the ball so well, as he's now the only 7-footer (not just looking at rookies) to hit 36 percent of his triples while taking at least five per game. And based on his sterling efforts at the stripe (84.3 percent), that's by no means fluky.
12. Julius Randle, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
Just imagine what might happen if Julius Randle demonstrated a consistent ability to knock down shots from the perimeter. Defenders already know he wants to attack the basket off the bounce, but he's still so quick and physical that he's able to get past them and convert looks around the hoop—something he's now doing with his right hand more frequently than ever before.
But if he could force them to play even tighter...
Randle made strides in many areas during his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers, and the vast majority should carry over to his Pelicans days. He's a competent defender, a gifted frontcourt passer and a constant threat to probe the interior of the opposition. Now, he just needs to do better than shooting 35.1 percent from 10 to 16 feet, 25.6 percent on even longer twos and 22.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is by no means an unreasonable ask for a man who hasn't yet celebrated his 24th birthday.
11. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks
As Mohamed Bamba—and, to a lesser extent, Timofey Mozgov—join the capable bodies who already populate the Orlando Magic frontcourt (Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Isaac), Aaron Gordon may once again be pushed into an uncomfortable role. Try as the Magic might, he's not a natural small forward and struggles offensively when asked to fill such a role on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, that could mean we see the less-than-ideal version of Gordon once again, as we did following a brief hot stretch at the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign. Lest we forget (and we're not, hence his earlier-than-expected appearance in these rankings), he averaged 16.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks after calendars flipped to 2018, slashing a miserable 38.4/27.3/63.8.
He's certainly better than those numbers indicate. But will the Magic let the 23-year-old maximize his many talents or continue trying to make him something he's not?
10. Thaddeus Young, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
Thaddeus Young lacks the offensive star quality that foments sweeping recognition. His game is rooted in the absence of ego, but the resulting flexibility gets capped by his tweener range.
Only once, in 2016-17, has Young cleared 35 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He connected on nearly 44 percent of his long twos last year but provides neither the consistency nor reliability to space the floor as a spot-up weapon. His handles are fine—just not at the level of a pick-and-roll triggerman. Most of his damage will be done in transition, as a secondary screener or when opportunistically moving off the ball.
That dearth of offensive panache does not detract much from Young's standing. His defense keeps him firmly in the green—closer to a top-50 player than not.
He has quick hands and is serviceable across the wing and big-man stations. He'll break up plays both on the ball and in the passing lane, and the scope of his assignments imitate defensive depth and performance that belies the Indiana Pacers roster.
Among players to log at least 500 minutes last season, Robert Covington, Larry Nance Jr. and Victor Oladipo were the only ones to average more deflections than Young per 36 ticks. Nobody else on the Pacers came close to matching his face time versus Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he forced turnovers on 11.5 percent of the isolations he defended—tops in the league out of everyone to guard at least 100 of these possessions.
9. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Dario Saric kept in theme with the Philadelphia 76ers' 2017-18 season by exceeding expectations.
Concerns over how he would fare as an ancillary option have retreated into nothingness. Markelle Fultz's injury-ravaged rookie season simplified the transition, but it was no half-measure. Saric still deferred to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons without issue.
More than 45 percent of Saric's field-goal attempts came as spot-up triples, on which he shot 41 percent. He'll need to make more of his touches in transition as the 76ers incorporate other ball-handlers, namely Fultz. Saric has become someone they count on to swish rapid-fire looks coming around screens and make the occasional open-lane beeline.
Getting more comfortable off the dribble is the next step in his development. That sounds disingenuous to the talent around him, but the Sixers remain top-heavy. The bench placed dead last in points scored per 100 possessions prior to the All-Star break and is fixing for reversion following the losses of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova.
Fultz should take the edge off that strain. T.J. McConnell, too. Neither is the solution on his own. McConnell isn't wired to let 'er rip off the bounce in volume, and Fultz is a fledgling by NBA standards. Saric has shown some expert vision within the half-court and looks smooth on his methodically paced drives. If he can increase his pull-up exposure and efficiency (26.9 percent), he's Philly's ticket to rolling out bench-heavy mobs that include neither Embiid nor Simmons.
8. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.2 blocks
Last season's left wrist injury clouds Paul Millsap's potential peak with the Denver Nuggets. He missed more than half of the year, and many of the games he played were rife with unscripted freelancing. It sometimes seemed as if he was hijacking possessions.
Extra reps will cure this case of unfamiliarity, and the Nuggets did cobble together some nice lineups with Millsap. They outscored opponents by more than eight points per 100 possessions over the final month of the season whenever he and Nikola Jokic shared the floor.
A huge chunk of Millsap's individuality still stands to be extinguished in Denver. He's getting older, the offense runs through Jokic and Jamal Murray's workload will only increase. Gary Harris doesn't need a certain number of touches, but Will Barton does. Michael Porter Jr. could bite into Millsap's on-ball quota if his back ever gets right.
Feasting on the break will help keep the Nuggets' old head involved. The outlook only gets foggier from there if his featured-act volume comes down.
Denver does not dabble in a ton of pick-and-roll action, and Millsap has never been much of a diver. He doesn't have the lower-body burst to be an oversized cutter and isn't someone you have jack up threes after coming around screens. His outside touch is touch-and-go—even from standstill positions. He's shooting 32.3 percent on zero-dribble threes since 2015-16.
Deploying him at the defensive end will leave a mark. Millsap straddles the line between interior anchor and periphery switcher as well as any 33-year-old. But the move to Denver was always going to mute his offensive celebrity. This should be the season he slides into a more adjunctive role.
7. Tobias Harris, Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
It sometimes gets lost in his journeyman resume, but Tobias Harris has developed into one of the league's most potent scoring forces. He has shored up his outside shooting and gradually taken on provisional pick-and-roll initiation. He even wet his feet as a rim-runner while with the Detroit Pistons.
Extending his offensive utility has offset Harris' non-attacking style. He saw more of his looks come at the rim after joining the Los Angeles Clippers, but he doesn't have the first step to lean on point-blank volume and the higher-end free-throw-attempt rates they usually promise.
To be sure, Harris has the footwork and handle to get around some defenders—particularly on the catch. Even then, he's more inclined to settle for pull-up jumpers and floaters or probe angles around the basket for layup opportunities.
Others would see their offensive ceiling capped by this approach. It works for Harris. Leveraging an operable jumper helps. He posted a 60.2 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot looks last season while basically matching LeBron James' and Victor Oladipo's efficiency on pull-up attempts.
Subprime defense leaves Harris planted in the fringe-star territory. He's less of a liability at the 4 but a net negative all the same. Los Angeles coughed up 114.6 points per 100 possessions when he played power forward, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Improving upon that mark won't be easy as Harris logs time beside Marcin Gortat and Danilo Gallinari. A little role stability might help, but the Clippers cannot guarantee anything. They're a candidate for a midseason pivot, and Harris is entering a contract year. His offense will float his stock—which, in his case, works out just fine.
6. Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Blake Griffin is underrated. There, we said it. And we mean it.
The NBA's push toward like-sized wings who face up on offense and switch on defense has hoodwinked more than a few into thinking the game has left Griffin behind. It has not. He's just miscast at the power forward slot.
Most of his time should come at center, where he'd be no less of a defensive letdown and his offensive toolbox would be more of a matchup nightmare. That transition is long overdue—and it will stay that way. DeAndre Jordan blocked Griffin's conversion in Los Angeles. Andre Drummond is impeding it now.
Chaining Griffin to the 4 cheapens his peak. It does not lower his floor. He remains a to-die-for offensive talent.
Griffin's bag of tricks has deepened with the league's evolution. He has extended the range on his jumper and worked off-the-dribble playmaking into his arsenal. He ran 2.4 pick-and-rolls per game after being traded to the Detroit Pistons—just as many as Nicolas Batum piloted for the Charlotte Hornets.
Stop-and-pop jumpers will never be Griffin's strength. They became an inefficient crutch with the Clippers to start the post-Chris Paul era, and nothing changed with the Pistons.
Things should be different in 2018-19 beside a healthy Reggie Jackson. More off-ball work will look good on Griffin. He hit a respectable 35.6 percent of his spot-up treys last year, and his stint as a full-blown point big will serve him so much better as the secondary ball-handler.
5. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks
Jayson Tatum finished his rookie season as a definitively positive, decidedly underutilized NBA player. How do we not crystal-ball a monstrous leap for his sophomore crusade?
Finding his niche within the Boston Celtics' unfairly deep power structure could get a little complicated. Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are returning at the same time. Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Terry Rozier aren't just going to exit stage left.
Tatum is arguably the least affected by Boston's potpourri of playable instruments. He spent most of his rookie year fitting in beside everyone else. Almost 47 percent of his offensive possessions came in transition and on spot-ups, and more than one-third of his shots were put up without taking a dribble. He is a plug-and-play superstud—with the battle-tested chops to be so much more.
Playing out the postseason sans Hayward and Irving became Tatum's springboard to instant stardom. He split No. 1 duties with Brown and shined as a square-one playmaker. His assist rate spiked, and more importantly, he posted an effective field-goal percentage of 54.5 when using between three and six dribbles. For comparison's sake, Stephen Curry notched a 55.4 effective field-goal percentage on those same looks.
Tatum has earned even more faith at the less glamorous end. The Celtics allowed just 100.3 points per 100 possessions when he played power forward last year, according to Cleaning the Glass. His strength, conditioning and timing will only get better. Boston will have no choice other than to augment Tatum's involvement amid its own rotation expansion. He's ready for it.
Consider this: Eight rookies since 2009-10 have logged as many minutes as Tatum (2,438) and matched his value over replacement player (1.8): Curry, Tyreke Evans, Blake Griffin, Brandon Jennings, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons and Karl-Anthony Towns. And Tatum, at 19, was at least one year younger than anyone else to make the cut. He's special.
4. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 PER-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks
LaMarcus Aldridge should see his usage tumble as the San Antonio Spurs stagger into their post-Kawhi Leonard transition. DeMar DeRozan is the more convenient inception point, and Dejounte Murray is coming. Aldridge will get his post-ups, but he'll be more lieutenant than force-fed centrum.
Role reductions are unfailingly advertised as demotions. This one shouldn't be. Aldridge's segue is more of a simplification. Engineering something out of nothing was his modus operandi last season. More than 27 percent of his total attempts came off turnarounds, and he averaged 8.7 looks per game in which defenders were within two to four feet of his person—most in the league.
San Antonio's spacing will be a labor of ball and body movement. Joe Ingles hit almost as many threes last year (204) as this season's projected starting five (205). Aldridge will still reap the benefits of DeRozan's arrival. Defenses bend to his change-of-pace face-ups and have to plan around his knack for finding the ball when he's not on it. Aldridge will get more pick-and-pops, rim runs and cleaner post-ups.
Any regression he suffers is bound to come on defense. The Spurs lost three of their most important stoppers—Leonard, Kyle Anderson, Danny Green—and after qualifying as a center in 2017-18, per Cleaning the Glass, Aldridge will now have to log more time at the 4.
Standstill rim protection has its place at power forward when Pau Gasol isn't your center. San Antonio allowed more than 109 points per 100 possessions when he played beside Aldridge without Anderson, Green or Leonard in the lineup, according to Cleaning the Glass.
The Spurs will make it work anyway. Jakob Poeltl will let Aldridge hang back behind the free-throw line, and they'll have room for more dynamic frontcourt combos when Davis Bertans, Dante Cunningham or Rudy Gay is at the 4. Aldridge's value from last season should remain intact at both ends.
3. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
Remember the last time Kevin Love was an offensive focal point? Way back in 2013-14? When he was on the Minnesota Timberwolves, and when Al Jefferson was 11th in points per game, and when Michael Carter-Williams was empty calories-ing his way to Rookie of the Year?
Nostalgia is one helluva vice, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are preparing to indulge it.
They billed Love as their present and future with a four-year, $120.4 million extension—potential ulterior motives notwithstanding. He enters 2018-19 as LeBron James' offensive successor, so expect his usage to explode. Additional post touches will fatten up his scoring and assist totals, and his rebounding numbers should receive a boon from an inevitable surge in playing time.
Putting Love this high is neither an obligation or a no-brainer. It's a dice roll. Transitioning back to power forward threatens to sabotage his already wretched defensive value. And Cleveland's point guard corps casts a thick haze over the extent to which his offense can blossom.
Love wasn't spraying pull-up jumpers from all over the court during his Minnesota heyday. His floor spacing is predicated on having someone to set the table. He had Ricky Rubio in 2013-14. He has George Hill and Collin Sexton now.
Quality catch-and-shoot looks will be hard to come by. His 2018-19 should play out a lot like LaMarcus Aldridge's 2017-18, as a lifeline who gets his but must do so in the hardest possible ways.
2. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks
Three championships, one Defensive Player of the Year award and countless examples to the contrary later, Draymond Green's status continues to be obfuscated by the Golden State Warriors' superstar goulash. He is a product of his environment, or distinctly inessential, or overrated, or some combination of everything.
These dismissive takes remain an exercise in asininity. Green proved he wasn't above regular-season indifference last year. His defensive default veered away from unflagging fury toward inconstant diligence. But that changes nothing.
Green ratcheted up his stick-to-itiveness for the playoffs and is one of Golden State's life jackets even at three-quarters speed. No one on the team guarded more isolation possessions, averaged more deflections or contested more shots at the rim.
The talent around him is used to downplay his offense, but he's led the reigning champs in assists per 36 minutes for the past three seasons. The Warriors don't handle him like an accessory. Last year, Green averaged about as many minutes per game without Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (10.0) as Durant did without Draymond and Curry (10.3)—through which time Golden State was a net plus, per Cleaning the Glass.
Three-point shooting is Green's biggest wart. Defenses have no qualms about giving him a solar system's worth of space. He has connected on at least 34 percent of deep balls only once and nailed just 33.0 percent of his wide-open treys last season.
The Warriors can and will continue to deal. Green gives them more of their identity than Durant. After Curry, he's their second-most important player—for the time being anyway.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks
Every imaginable adjective and paranormal parallel has been used to capture the historical significance of Giannis Antetokounmpo's 2017-18 detonation. In the scramble to properly coronate feats already done, an overriding matter tends to fall by the wayside: Antetokounmpo is only getting better.
Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes pegged the NBA's alphabet overlord as one of the select few superstars in line for a career year:
"Giannis Antetokounmpo has a better chance of making this prediction look bad than anyone else on the list—not because he'll struggle to produce his best year to date, but because it's harder to make the case he'll be done improving after this season. His ceiling is incalculable.
"That said, Antetokounmpo could easily put up 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists and finally add a reliable three-point shot to his game. An MVP award is attainable, and there's no telling how impactful he might be on defense in new head coach Mike Budenholzer's schemes."
All the same holes in Antetokounmpo's game persist. He has yet to shoot threes at a league-average clip, and his accuracy from the charity stripe and on long twos dropped last season. There remains an inexact risk in casting him as the offense's heartbeat. He'll seem solvable for protracted stretches without a three-ball or functional pull-up jumper, and his playmaking is borne more from force, via an alien gait, than exceptional vision.
None of the nitpicking matters. Antetokounmpo doesn't turn 24 until December. He hasn't even entered his prime, and his game is imperfect, yet he's already a top-five player—a potential heir apparent to LeBron James' best-player throne. If this is Antetokounmpo unfinished, the thought of what comes next should be endlessly terrifying.