NBA All-Time Player Rankings: Top 10 Power Forwards

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2019

NBA All-Time Player Rankings: Top 10 Power Forwards

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    Who's the greatest power forward of all time?

    Now that we've discussed the top 10 point guards, shooting guards and small forwards in NBA history, it's time to look at the chameleon of basketball positions: power forwards.

    For years, the 4 was your lineup's bruiser, often more so than the 5. Think about guys like Charles Oakley, Dennis Rodman or Karl Malone. Heck, Rodman and Malone even duked it out in a WCW ring.

    But then Dirk Nowitzki came along and popularized the concept of a stretch 4. Suddenly, skill became as important as muscle. Kevin Garnett helped with that revolution by demonstrating how big men can run a break and even act as a de facto point guard.

    Now, the stretch 4 has given way to the playmaking 4. Being able and willing to shoot threes is no longer enough. Just ask Ryan Anderson.

    But long before power forwards became the NBA's petri dish for positionless basketball, 4s dominated the boards and the paint. Several of those old-school bigs populate this list. But don't worry, the revolutionaries will make their presence known as well.

    In determining the order here, we'll use the same mostly subjective criteria from the previous positional top 10s.

    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...

    That last part is critical for this particular article. Plenty of fans likely see Tim Duncan as a power forward, but Basketball Reference tabs him as a center for 71 percent of his minutes. So, if you're looking for the breakdown on TD, it's on the way, but it's among the rest of the top-10 centers.

    Now that the stage is set, it's showtime...

10. Dennis Rodman

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    Per Game: 7.3 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 9.0 points, 16.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +1.3

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +3.0

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .150

    We kick this list off with one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history. Despite standing just 6'7", Dennis Rodman trails only 6'11" Andre Drummond and 7'0" Hassan Whiteside in career rebounding percentage.

    And if you dig up Basketball Reference's pace estimates for each of Wilt Chamberlain's NBA campaigns, you'll see that Rodman's career average for boards per 75 possessions is higher.

    For a 10-year stretch from 1990-91 to 1999-2000, Rodman's 15.9 rebounds per game wasn't just first in the NBA; it was a whopping 3.5 boards per game more than second-place Shaquille O'Neal. That distance is about the same as the gap between Shaq and 23rd-place Vin Baker over that time frame.

    The Ringer's Brian Phillips explained the Worm's almost scientific approach to dominating the glass:

    "To me, a missed basketball shot looks like haha, whoops, boing. To Rodman, a missed shot presented itself as a comprehensible set of information: the speed, angle, and spin of the ball, the point of contact on the rim or the backboard, the tendencies of the shooter. He had an elite baseball pitcher’s understanding of the aerodynamics of a ball in flight, only instead of throwing the pitch, his job was to materialize at the end of it. And in reversing that process, he reversed the whole emotional dynamic of the game." 

    That was just the latter two-thirds of Rodman's career. Before he came to be known as one of the NBA's top rebounders, Rodman won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1990 and 1991.

    "I wanted this award so bad," he said in tears after receiving the honor for the first time. In that moment, it was clear that Rodman had dedicated himself to that goal in the way he would later dedicate himself to rebounding.

    If nothing else, he was a vivid example of the capabilities of the human spirit. In a game and position ruled by giants, Rodman carved out a unique role that has never been replicated.

    He was a critical component of five championship teams, too. Only 13 players in NBA history have won more titles.

9. Chris Webber

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    Per Game: 20.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 21.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.5 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: -1.6

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +3.9

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .132

    Chris Webber was a playmaking 4 before playmaking 4s became in vogue.

    Through the end of his final season (2007-08), Webber had the seventh-highest career assist percentage among players his height (6'9") or taller. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Toni Kukoc, Alvan Adams, Kevin Garnett and Lamar Odom were the only players ahead of him.

    If you expand the sample to include all seasons, Ben Simmons, Nikola Jokic, Blake Griffin and Giannis Antetokounmpo all show up ahead of Webber, while Garnett and Odom fall behind.

    Regardless of which time frame you use, Webber checks out as one of the game's best passing bigs. He may not get enough credit for that, as Grantland's Zach Lowe expounded on:

    "The [Sacramento] Kings built their offense around the passing of Webber and [Vlade] Divac, and they almost always put Webber in positions that produced both scoring chances and natural passing angles. He was brilliant at reading defenses two steps ahead, both from the elbow and from the post, where he drew constant double-teams despite sometimes struggling against defenders who could match his strength. His inside-out passing started a lot of chain reactions that led to open threes; the hockey-assist stat might cement Webber as the best passing big man ever, if we had access to it."

    Webber's unselfishness likely would have garnered more appreciation in today's game, when many schemes expect all five players to bring a variety of skills to the floor. In his time, power forwards were known more for rebounding and scoring inside, but Webber excelled in those areas as well. 

    And to round things out, he also averaged 1.4 blocks and 1.4 steals across his career. Anthony Davis, Julius Erving, Andrei Kirilenko, Nerlens Noel, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson are the only other players in league history with at least 5,000 minutes and career averages that high in both categories.

8. Elvin Hayes

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    Per Game: 21.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.0 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 17.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.8 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: -2.6

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +0.9

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .116

    Like plenty of professional athletes before and since, Elvin Hayes often struggled with the aspects of sports and stardom that existed outside the game itself.

    "To many basketball fans, Hayes is known as one of the original bad actors of sports' big-money era, a troublemaker who has doomed to certain failure every professional team he ever played for," Sports Illustrated's John Papanek wrote in 1978.

    The piece goes on to detail less-than-pleasant run-ins with coaches, teammates and media. It also shares a nugget from Hayes himself.

    "Finally winning the championship completes the picture. because no one can ever again say that E's not a champion. But the one thing they've taken away from me that I feel I have deserved is the MVP. And I don't think I'll ever get it, because I think, more than anything else, people want to see me fail."

    Hayes would never win that MVP, despite leading the league in scoring once, rebounding twice and minutes per game twice. Over his first 10 years in the league, his 23.9 points per game ranked 10th, and his 14.7 rebounds ranked fourth.

    He was absurdly productive, but his interactions with others and his lack of a title until his 10th season influenced the way he was perceived. That sounds like James Harden or Russell Westbrook, right?

    Decades before social media put its onerous imprint on sports, there were still plenty of misunderstood stars. Hayes never won an MVP award, but he's in the Hall of Fame and has to be considered one of the greatest power forwards of all time.

7. Kevin McHale

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    Noren Trotman/Getty Images

    Per Game: 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 20.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.0 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +6.8

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +2.5

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .180

    Unselfishness was a staple of Kevin McHale's Hall of Fame career. After being selected with the third overall pick in the 1980 NBA draft, McHale started just over 20 percent of the games he played in his first five seasons.

    "On this team, there is so much talent," McHale said of the Boston Celtics, per Alex Ward of the New York Times. "It's never bothered me."

    Over those five seasons, McHale averaged 15.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just 28.4 minutes. His role then expanded to 36.4 minutes over the next five years, wherein he averaged 22.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.8 blocks.

    On top of the up-and-unders, offensive rebounding and shot blocking, a big part of the brilliance of McHale's career was his willingness and ability to accept and adapt to whatever role was thrown his way.

    Regardless of the roles he had, he maintained a level of efficiency that was nearly unrivaled for his time. Among players who took at least as many shots, McHale's career 60.5 true shooting percentage ranked first.

    Despite averaging less playing time than his peers featured here, McHale made seven All-Star teams, six All-Defensive teams and one All-NBA team. He also won three titles and two Sixth Man of the Year awards.

6. Dolph Schayes

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    Per Game: 18.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists

    Per 75 Possessions: 17.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +3.3

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: N/A

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .192

    Over the course of his Hall of Fame career, Dolph Schayes' .192 win shares per 48 minutes trailed only Bob Pettit's .214 among power forwards.

    And his 18.5 points per game were the product of a well-rounded scoring game.

    "People remember Dolph's long set shots," former teammate Al Bianchi said in Terry Pluto's Tall Tales (h/t the New York TimesRichard Goldstein). "But what made him great was that he could shoot running one-handers—and make them with either hand. His left was as good as his right."

    That Schayes was so comfortably above average as a shooter while taking long-range shots on a floor without a three-point line is impressive. Before threes arrived, the general goal was getting as close to the rim as possible. But Schayes was something of a floor-spacing anomaly.

    "He was the only guy who had legitimate 25-30 foot range," Hall of Fame coach Alex Hannum told ESPN's Ken Shouler. "You could add five points to his career [average] if they had the three-point shot back then."

    "...a bridge between the old game and the new one," Schayes tallied 12 All-Star selections, 12 All-NBA selections, one NBA title and one rebounding title in 15 seasons.

5. Bob Pettit

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    Per Game: 26.4 points, 16.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists

    Per 75 Possessions: 21.2 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +4.2

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: N/A

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .213

    Over his 11-year career, no one scored more points (20,880) than Bob Pettit. Bill Russell (15,206) was the only player who had more boards than him (12,849).

    The first MVP in NBA history, Pettit led the league in player efficiency rating for four straight seasons from 1955-56 through 1958-59.

    Prior to the arrival of legends like Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Pettit was the NBA's premier big man.

    "The thing that defined me as a basketball player was my determination to succeed," Pettit told MyNewOrleans.com's Adam Norris.

    That determination led to 11 All-Star appearances, 11 All-NBA selections, two scoring titles, two MVPs, one rebounding title and an NBA championship.

4. Karl Malone

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    Per Game: 25.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 25.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +4.7

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +5.4

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .205

    Few players in NBA history combined production and longevity quite as impressively as Karl Malone.

    He had a whopping 17 seasons with at least 500 minutes and 20-plus points per game. That puts him in a tie with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is the only player in NBA history with more total points.

    And like Kareem, Malone wasn't just a volume scorer.

    He also had 13 seasons with 500-plus minutes and a 5.0-plus box plus/minus, which Basketball Reference defines 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."

    Charles Barkley also had 13 such seasons. And LeBron James (15) is the only player with more.

    Another way to look at Malone's longevity is the leaderboard for single-season box plus/minuses put up by players over the age of 35. There, Malone has the top three and four of the top 13 seasons ever.

    And his post-35 wins over replacement player (the cumulative variant of box plus/minus) isn't just first. It's over 40 percent higher than second-place Kareem.

    But Malone's greatness wasn't just about holding on to such a high level for so long. His peak was ridiculous as well.

    From 1988-89 through 1997-98, Malone averaged an eye-popping 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks.

    By the time he was done, the Mailman was second all time in points scored and sixth in rebounds. He piled up 14 All-Star selections, 14 All-NBA selections, four All-Defensive selections and two MVPs.

    The knock on Malone is his lack of titles. Much like so many other greats of his era, Malone had the misfortune of hitting his peak while Michael Jordan was still around.

3. Charles Barkley

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    Per Game: 22.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 22.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +7.8

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: +7.4

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .216

    Charles Barkley's well-documented hatred of analytics has always been fascinating, in part because so many advanced numbers suggest he's one of the best players in NBA history.

    LeBron James (9.1) and Michael Jordan (8.1) are the only players with higher career box plus/minuses than Barkley (7.4). He's also 11th all time in career win shares per 48 minutes, 21st in rebounding percentage and 11th in true shooting percentage.

    Barkley's issues with the leaguewide increase in three-point attempts are interesting, too. When he retired, he was 34th all time in career three-point attempts, even though he shot only 26.6 percent from deep.

    Remove those three-point attempts from Barkley's stat sheet, and his true shooting percentage would jump to 63.7, which would move his all-time rank from 11th to a tie with DeAndre Jordan for second.

    Yes, analytics adore Chuck, even if the feelings aren't mutual.

    In case we need to make this argument with basic numbers, Barkley had his own absurdly productive (and long) peak.

    From 1985-86 through 1996-97, Barkley averaged 23.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks, with a 61.9 true shooting percentage.

    Shaquille O'Neal (13), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (12), Wilt Chamberlain (12) and Hakeem Olajuwon (12) are the only players who had more seasons than Barkley (11) averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.

    Drop the points qualifier down to 10, and Barkley jumps to first place with 15 seasons, ahead of Wilt, Dwight Howard and Moses Malone (14 each). It also gives him the record for most seasons averaging a double-double (John Stockton's 10 is the high for points and assists).

    For well over a decade, the Round Mound of Rebound was about as steady as they come, dominating both on the glass and as a scorer. But like Malone, Barkley never quite cracked the championship code.

    Statistically, he has an argument as the best power forward in NBA history, but never winning a title puts him behind the upcoming top two.

2. Dirk Nowitzki

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    Danny Bollinger/Getty Images

    Per Game: 20.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.3 threes, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 23.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.5 threes, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +4.1

    Net Rating Swing: +9.4

    Box Plus/Minus: +3.1

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .193

    Dirk Nowitzki was a basketball revolution.

    "[He] made his NBA debut in [1999].

    "Before that, a total of 40 7-footers had hit a 3P. The combined total for 3P from those 40 players was 507.

    "Dirk Nowitzki made 1,982 3P in his career.

    "Since Dirk started, 81 other 7-footers have hit 7,253 3P."

    Without Dirk, who knows where the game would be today? He expanded our expectations of 7-footers, ushering in an era more reliant on skill than any before it.

    Today, it doesn't matter what position you play or how tall you are. Every skill should be sought-after.

    Nowitzki is on the short list of players who truly changed the game.

    He had plenty of team success along the way, too.

    Over his career (1998-99 to 2018-19), the Dallas Mavericks were first in points per 100 possessions (108.9) and third in simple rating system (a combination of point differential and strength of schedule).

    And in 2011, Nowitzki led the Mavs to an unlikely championship over the Miami Heat at the dawn of the superteam era.

    Deadspin's Patrick Redford described the run:

    "Remarkably, Nowitzki's 2010-11 season was the first time he'd started slowing down a bit since his first All-Star appearance nine years earlier. Nobody thought much of the Mavericks that season, and with the Lakers still in power, the Thunder and Heat on the rise, and Dallas' core slowly aging out of relevance there was already the sense that Dirk was somewhere on the shoulder of his time as a championship contender. Teams like those Mavericks don't win titles, and yet Nowitzki was good enough for 21 games to defy that logic."

    Over those 21 games, Nowitzki averaged 27.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists. He shot 48.5 percent from the field and 46.0 percent from three en route to a 60.9 true shooting percentage.

    That summer, Dirk went from being an all-time great to a legend.

    In the first round of that postseason, six of 12 ESPN experts picked the Portland Trail Blazers over Dallas. In the next round, 14 of 14 picked the Los Angeles Lakers. The narrative shifted for the Western Conference Finals, when 12 of 18 experts went with Dallas. Then finally, 15 of 22 went with the Miami Heat in the Finals.

    In the context of this ranking, the way Dirk put his underdog Mavericks on his back for the game's ultimate prize is worth more than the slight statistical edges Malone and Barkley may have over him.

1. Kevin Garnett

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    Per Game: 17.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.4 blocks

    Per 75 Possessions: 20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.6 blocks

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +1.4

    Net Rating Swing: +11.5

    Box Plus/Minus: +5.4

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: .182

    Before LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo changed our perception of what frontcourt players were capable of, Kevin Garnett helped to lay the foundation for today's increasingly positionless game.

    He could dominate the boards. From 1999-2000 to 2007-08, Garnett led the NBA with 12.4 rebounds per game.

    He could create for others. Among players 6'11" and taller, KG ranks fourth in career assist percentage.

    He could defend. Garnett is first all time in career defensive rebounds, 18th in career blocks and 18th in career steals. He won one Defensive Player of the Year and made 12 All-Defense teams.

    And of course, he could score. He's 17th all time in career points, and he averaged at least 20 in nine straight seasons from 1998-99 to 2006-07.

    But Garnett's most impactful trait may have been one that isn't quite as easily measured.

    "He changed everybody, from coaches to trainers to massage therapists, to the entire organization," Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. "I think that it was just his energy and enthusiasm. But also, it was the fact that he believed. He had this strong faith in what the team could be."

    Following a 2007 trade to Boston, Garnett's leadership was at the forefront of one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NBA history.

    In 2006-07, the Celtics went 24-58. The next season, Garnett's first in Boston green, the team went 66-16 and won the title, giving us KG's famous "Anything is possible!" moment.

    All statistics via Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.