NBA All-Time Player Rankings: Top 10 Small Forwards

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2019

NBA All-Time Player Rankings: Top 10 Small Forwards

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    Who's the greatest small forward of all time?

    That's the question at hand with the top 10s for both point guards and shooting guards in the rearview.

    As was the case with the 2s, there isn't a ton of suspense surrounding the top spot here. Though there are some holdouts for a certain superstar from the '80s, the only player LeBron James really has left to catch is Michael Jordan.

    There's still loads of intrigue over spots 2 through 10 (and beyond), though. And while the selections were largely made on a subjective basis, the same advanced numbers from earlier lists had their influence.

    Catch-all metrics like box plus/minus (available from the 1973-74 season on) and win shares per 48 minutes came into play. And you'll see pace- and playing-time-adjusted numbers (in the form of "per 75 possessions"). But intangibles have to be factored into these conversations as well.

    One final housekeeping note: We'll consider Basketball Reference the arbiter of positional determinations for this piece and subsequent top 10s for power forwards and centers.

    So, without further ado, here's the list...

10. Kawhi Leonard

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    Per Game: 17.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.4 threes, 0.7 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 21.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.7 threes, 0.8 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +5.5

    Net Rating Swing: +4.6

    Box Plus/Minus: +6.1

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .219

         

    Yes, Kawhi Leonard only has eight seasons of NBA experience to his name. And he only made nine appearances in one of those seasons. But Kawhi's already one of the most accomplished postseason performers in NBA history, as evidenced by a few all-time ranks.

    • Playoff box plus/minus: 5th (2nd among small forwards)
    • Playoff value over replacement player: 25th (6th among small forwards)
    • Playoff win shares per 48 minutes: 4th (2nd among small forwards)
    • Playoff win shares: 28th (7th among small forwards)

    In 2019, Leonard solidified those ranks and his status among the game's best players with a historic playoff run. In 24 games, he averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.3 threes and 1.7 steals per game. His true shooting percentage was 61.9.

    Here's the complete list of players who played at least 500 minutes, averaged 30-plus points and had a 60-plus true shooting percentage in a single postseason: LeBron James (three times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alex English, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kawhi Leonard.

    In the 2019 Finals alone, Leonard averaged 28.5 points per game. And after he and the Toronto Raptors eliminated the Golden State Warriors, he was named Finals MVP for the second time in his career.

    He joined Kareem and LeBron as the only players in NBA history to win that award with more than one team.

    On top of the loaded playoff resume, Kawhi also has two Defensive Player of the Year wins, five All-Defensive selections, three All-NBA selections and three All-Star selections.

    In this context, all his lack of experience really means is he'll probably climb higher by the time he's done.

9. Paul Pierce

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Per Game: 19.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 threes, 1.3 steals

    Per 75 Possessions: 22.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.8 threes, 1.5 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +3.5

    Net Rating Swing: +6.3

    Box Plus/Minus: +3.3

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .157

         

    On March 13, 2001, third-year Boston Celtic Paul Pierce went 13-of-19 from the field on the way to 42 points against his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, who also happened to be the reigning champions that year.

    "Take this down," reigning MVP Shaquille O'Neal said after that game, per NBC's A. Sherrod Blakely. "My name is Shaquille O'Neal and Paul Pierce is the motherf--king truth. Quote me on that and don't take nothing out."

    Pierce scored another 42 points two days later in Phoenix. And over the rest of his career, he was one of the game's most prolific and consistent scorers.

    By the time he retired in 2017, Pierce had racked up 26,397 points, 6,918 free throws and 2,143 threes. Today, he ranks 15th, ninth and eighth, respectively, in those three categories.

    On top of his steady scoring (he's second in Celtics history in points scored), Pierce was also a solid secondary playmaker (3.5 assists per game) and a reliable defender (part of six top-five defenses in Boston).

    He was also the leading scorer on the 2007-08 title-winning Celtics.

8. Adrian Dantley

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Per Game: 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals

    Per 75 Possessions: 23.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +8.3

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +3.1

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .189

         

    Adrian Dantley is one of the most efficient scorers in league history.

    There are 64 players with at least 5,000 minutes and a scoring average at 20 or more. Only six of those players have a 60-plus true shooting percentage. And Stephen Curry (62.4) and Karl-Anthony Towns (61.9) are the only two ahead of Dantley's (61.7).

    Perhaps even more remarkable, Dantley posted four seasons in which he averaged at least 30 points per game with a 60-plus true shooting percentage. There is a grand total of 16 such seasons in NBA history. Four each belong to Dantley and Michael Jordan. No one else has more than two.

    That Dantley did this at 6'5" and long before threes were in vogue (he only hit seven in his career) is remarkable.

    Perhaps Dantley's dominance was due in part to the fact he never played like he was 6'5".

    "He always seems to know where that crack in the wall is," former Celtics coach K.C. Jones said, per Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times. "If I put Kevin McHale or Bill Walton on him, he just yawns and says 'Oh, well, another little guy on me.'"

    In the same Times piece, Dantley's own coach, Frank Layden, expounded further:

    "What's happened is that Adrian may be the greatest scorer ever to play in the NBA. That's quite a statement, I know. But we're talking now about a long period of time, all right? This is his 10th year in the NBA. He's a scoring machine. And it isn't 50 points one night and 15 another. It's 30 every night. He doesn't slip.

    "He is so great at getting his position near the basket. Then he uses his drop steps, holds his man off, pump-fakes, all the things we talk about but seldom are used. There's nobody who plays the pivot better than him, whether you're 7 foot or not. His footwork and his pump fakes and his ability to get position are a clinic...a masterpiece."

    In today's game, we're unlikely to see anyone play quite like Dantley did. At that size, you better be able to shoot threes nowadays. But his combination of strength, fundamentals and craftiness made him one of the best scorers we've ever seen, regardless of what era of players you compare him to.

7. John Havlicek

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    WCC/Associated Press

    Per Game: 20.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists

    Per 75 Possessions: 17.6, 5.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: -0.9

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: N/A

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .136

         

    Though there was only an average of 14.6 NBA teams per season over the course of John Havlicek's career, eight titles is eight titles. And they didn't all come alongside Bill Russell.

    In fact, two of his championships were won with Dave Cowens in the rapidly expanding NBA of the '70s. And while his pace-adjusted numbers may not leap off the screen, he was still uniquely dominant for his time.

    And in his opinion, he and his contemporaries would be just fine in today's game.

    "I certainly think we could compete, and given the same latitude [as modern players]—wraparound dribbles, three or four steps to the rim—we would be even better," Havlicek told the New York Times' Harvey Araton. "For every dunk they'd get on us, we'd probably get two backdoor layups on them."

    In his own time, Havlicek was one of the game's most well-rounded players.

    Over the course of his career, Havlicek's 20.8 points per game ranked 29th. And the only players to match Havlicek's combination of points, rebounds and assists over that time were Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry and Oscar Robertson.

    He finished with 13 All-Star appearances, 11 All-NBA selections, eight All-Defensive selections and the 1974 Finals MVP.

6. Scottie Pippen

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    Ron Frehm/Associated Press

    Per Game: 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.8 threes, 0.8 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 18.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.9 threes, 0.9 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +0.7

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +4.7

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .146

         

    "Scottie Pippen is probably the innovator of the point forward," Dennis Rodman said on ESPN's The Jump. "I love Magic [Johnson]. I love [Larry] Bird. I love [Clyde] Drexler. I love all these guys, but I want the world to know, this guy right here? Smooth. ... All the guys that's 6'9" and 6'10", all you guys need to come up to Scottie and please bow down to him. Because he revolutionized that position in the NBA."

    Pippen's former teammate isn't wrong. Through the end of his career (2003-04), Pippen was one of only four 6'8"-plus players with career averages of at least 15 points, five rebounds and five assists. The other three were Grant Hill, Magic and Bird. Hill's assist average eventually dipped below that threshold.

    If you add Scottie's steals average to the mix, he stood alone.

    Since the end of his career, do-it-all players are more common. LeBron James, Ben Simmons and Nikola Jokic are the names added to the list since Pippen's career ended. And if you get rid of the height qualifier, you'll also have Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kobe Bryant and Luka Doncic.

    With the possible exception of a reliable three-point shot, Pippen had every basketball skill. And in his era, that range wasn't nearly as important.

    What's more, he was a critical component of six title teams. To call him Michael Jordan's sidekick is a disservice. Instead, he was half of what is perhaps the greatest duo in the game's history.

    In two of the six championship runs (1996 and 1998), Pippen led the Chicago Bulls in playoff value over replacement player.

5. Elgin Baylor

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Per Game: 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists

    Per 75 Possessions: 20.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +0.4

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: N/A

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .148

         

    Over the first seven years of his career, Elgin Baylor averaged 30.2 points and 15.4 rebounds. In 1961-62 alone, he put up an eye-popping 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds.

    He was an All-Star in 11 of his 14 NBA seasons. And he made All-NBA 10 times.

    But what Baylor may be best known for is the way he expanded the game. Basketball was something of a ground-bound endeavor for many of Baylor's contemporaries.

    In contrast, Baylor took to the air for jumpers, rebounds and even some dunks.

    "I told them I take helium before every game," Baylor said of his response to those who used to ask him about his vertical game (h/t Gary Peterson of the Mercury News). "And they honestly believed that."

    When you follow basketball's evolutionary trails, Michael Jordan leads you back to Julius Erving. Dr. J, in many ways, can be traced back to Baylor.

    In Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball, Bijan C. Bayne explained Baylor's impact further (h/t Jason Reid of The Undefeated):

    "The style of basketball that we accept as conventional today all comes out of him. Go away from the stereotype of Elgin [starting] the lineage of Michael [Jordan] and Dominique [Wilkins]. People get caught up on the hang time and the elevation, but he wasn't, for most of his career, Dominique or Vince Carter; it's more subtle than that.

    "The things that we accept as routine today, like changing direction after one has left one's feet. A spin move, double-pumping, any improvisation off the dribble, hesitation dribbles, all of that comes out of Elgin. And even to some degree, for a person of his size, no-look passes. That's all from Elgin."

    Baylor was a revolutionary. And he set basketball's stage not just for his immediate successors but for the game that's played today.

4. Julius Erving

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Per Game: 22.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.5 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 22.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.6 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +2.6

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +5.1

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .178

         

    It's fitting that Elgin Baylor's final season in the NBA (1971-72) was also Julius Erving's first as a professional, and Dr. J discussed the impression Baylor made on him, per Jason Reid of The Undefeated:

    "...I remember [Baylor] was the first guy I saw grab the rebound, bring it in transition and then playmake from the top of the key. He was a playmaker, he was great one-on-one, he was great using airspace … he was just ballet in basketball. And that opened a lot of doors for young players, myself in particular, to try that stuff. Suddenly it was like, 'Wow. This can actually work.'"

    Over his first five seasons as a pro, Erving dominated the ABA, averaging 28.7 points, 12.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.0 blocks. And though his numbers dipped a bit following the NBA/ABA merger, he still did more than enough to make this list.

    In 11 NBA campaigns, Dr. J made 11 All-Star teams and seven All-NBA teams. He won the league MVP in 1980-81 and led the Philadelphia 76ers to their most recent title in 1982-83.

    His well-rounded game obviously shows up on the stat sheet, but his legacy may be more about what he did after he took the baton from Baylor.

    Erving expanded the aesthetics of basketball, playing with an unprecedented flair and leveraging his athleticism in ways no one had before.

3. Kevin Durant

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Per Game: 27.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.8 threes, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 27.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.9 threes, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +7.0

    Net Rating Swing: +5.0

    Box Plus/Minus: +5.1

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .217

         

    Kevin Durant may be the most complete scorer in the history of basketball.

    He can score at the rim, in the post, in the mid-range and from the outside. And he's not just proficient at those various levels. He's among the best in every area.

    Just check out his shot chart with either the Warriors or the Thunder, and you'll see lots of red (which is good) all over the floor.

    If that's not enough, allow Andre Iguodala to explain (h/t Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver):

    "People don't appreciate him enough. He's the most talented scorer of all time. Hands down. He's a walking 30 points. He'll get 30 on 12 shots. That's very, very hard to do. Very efficient. Most guys need to feel the ball in their hands a lot to get a rhythm. He doesn't.

    "Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the two guys with unstoppable moves. MJ had the fadeaway and Kareem had the skyhook, but KD is a 7-footer who can hit a hesi pull-up from 50 feet out. That's his unstoppable move."

    Durant's 27.02 points per game ranks sixth all-time. His true shooting percentage is a blistering 61.3. The best true shooting percentage among the rest of the top 10 scoring averages is LeBron James' 58.6.

    In fact, there isn't another player in league history who matches Durant's combination of volume and efficiency. For his career, he has a usage percentage of 30.1. Among the 15 with a 30-plus career usage percentage, he's first in both true shooting percentage and effective field-goal percentage.

    And that legendary efficiency barely wavers in the high-pressure environment of the playoffs. Durant's playoff scoring average (29.09) ranks fourth all-time. His playoff true shooting percentage (59.67) is 11th.

    But what may set Durant apart more than anything else is what he's done in the NBA Finals.

    Among players with at least 100 Finals minutes, Durant (24.7) is first in career average game score. Michael Jordan (24.5), Charles Barkley (23.4), LeBron James (22.6) and Shaquille O'Neal (22.6) round out the top five.

    Over 15 Finals games, Durant's averages are 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals. Perhaps most impressive, his Finals true shooting percentage is 67.4.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that Durant has two Finals MVPs in addition to 10 All-Star selections, nine All-NBA selections, four scoring titles and one league MVP.

2. Larry Bird

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Per Game: 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks, 0.7 threes

    Per 75 Possessions: 22.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks, 0.7 threes

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +2.7

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +7.2

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .203

         

    Earlier this summer, Bleacher Report posted a more comprehensive breakdown of the "Kevin Durant or Larry Bird" debate. Suffice it to say, if KD can come all the way back from the torn Achilles, Bird is within reach. But for now, Bird has the more complete all-time resume.

    Over his 13-year career, Bird piled up 12 All-Star selections, 10 All-NBA selections, three All-Defensive selections, three NBA championships, three league MVPs and two Finals MVPs.

    Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only players in NBA history with more career "NBA MVP Award Shares," defined by Basketball Reference as the number of voting points a player received divided by the total points possible.

    "For example, in the 2002-03 MVP voting Tim Duncan had 962 points out of a possible 1,190," the site's glossary reads. "His MVP award share is 962 / 1,190 = 0.81."

    Bird's place at or near the top of the league throughout his career was the product of one of the most fundamentally sound individual games in the history of basketball.

    Bird did everything for the Celtics. If you frame his basic numbers as what he did relative to the league average at the time, they look even more impressive.

    • +13.2 rPTS/gm (relative points per game), +5.6 rREB/gm, +3.7 rAST/gm, +0.8 rSTL/gm, +0.3 rBLK/gm, +0.6 r3P/gm, +1.3 rFG%, +7.0 r3P%, +12.5 rFT%

    That's right. Above average at everything. Way above average in several categories.

    And Bird didn't just dominate the NBA. He did it with an unrivaled and unique brand of swagger.

    You can find plenty of collections of Bird's trash-talking stories all over the internet. One from Complex's Jose Martinez details the time Bird verbally gave it to a two-time Defensive Player of the Year:

    "Larry Bird was scared of no one. Not even Dennis Rodman. During his years with the Detroit Pistons, Rodman recalls a time when Bird made four straight baskets on The Worm and walked over to Pistons head coach Chuck Daly. 'Who's guarding me, Chuck? Is anyone guarding me? You better get someone on me or I'm gonna go for 60.'

    "On the ensuing possession, Larry Legend continued the trash talk. Rodman recalls, 'I would be all over him, trying to deny him the ball, and all Larry was doing was yelling at his teammates, 'I'm open! Hurry up before they notice nobody is guarding me!'' After knocking down another jumper on Rodman, Bird went over to Daly again, saying, 'Coach, you better get this guy out and send in somebody who's going to D me up because it's too easy when I'm wide-open like this.'"

    And that just scratches the surface. Larry Legend went beyond humiliating his opponents with his skill. He also wrecked their wills.

1. LeBron James

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Per Game: 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.4 threes, 0.8 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 27.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.5 threes, 0.8 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +4.6

    Net Rating Swing: +11.4

    Box Plus/Minus: +9.1

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .235

         

    Basketball Reference defines box plus/minus as "a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions that a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team."

    LeBron James isn't just first all-time; he's over a full point ahead of second-place Michael Jordan. And the distance between LeBron and MJ is about the same as the distance between Jordan and eighth-place James Harden.

    In the cumulative variant of box plus/minus (think of the difference between points and points per game), LeBron's lead is starting to look like one of those untouchable records, like John Stockton's total assists.

    LeBron's cushion there is about the same as the distance between second and 10th place.

    Now, let's switch to playoff value over replacement player. Of course, LeBron is first again. But if the amount of value over replacement player between LeBron and second-place MJ were its own individual player, it would rank 19th in NBA history.

    Now, box plus/minus is just one way of looking at a player's all-around contributions, and it's not without its flaws. But LeBron's vice grip on the NBA over the last 16 years is summed up well by this particular catch-all.

    His list of accolades helps as well: 15 All-Star selections, 15 All-NBA selections, six All-Defensive selections, four MVPs, three Finals MVPs, three championships and one scoring title.