B/R NBA Player Rankings: Top 15 Small Forwards for 2019-20
Ready or not, here come the NBA's top small forwards entering the 2019-20 regular season.
Before you cannonball into the league's best 3s, be sure to check out or bookmark the other installments of our NBA 100 series:
Hashing out specific positions is harder now that we've entered wing-player territory. Possession data from Cleaning the Glass will be used to determine which umbrella a player falls under, but it isn't an end-all. Positions can be changed from last season if a team's depth chart calls for it.
Klay Thompson is being billed as a small forward after the Golden State Warriors' addition of D'Angelo Russell. LeBron James has spent time at point guard in the Los Angeles Lakers' mock crunch-time lineups, but we don't yet have the definitive call necessary to officially change his position.
Kudos to the Boston Celtics for being a migraine among headaches. Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum all qualified as small forwards last season. But the assumption here is they'll start together, so they're listed based on how they were classified on paper while playing with each other. Hayward ended up as the 3, with Brown as the 2 and Tatum as the 1.
Other tough calls needed to be made.
Luka Doncic is getting the LeBron treatment. He's functionally the Dallas Mavericks' point guard, but the bet is he logs most of his time in lineups with at least one of Jalen Brunson, Seth Curry and Delon Wright. The Miami Heat's rotation is honestly unknowable right now, but their supporting cast suggests Jimmy Butler will soak up most of his minutes at the 3.
Try not to make a big deal out of these decisions. Positions are more interpretative than objective. Pay more attention to a player's ranking relative to the field up for discussion. That will say more about his value than whether he'll see most of his reps at a given spot.
Everything else is the same as ever. Small forwards are evaluated as if they're being acquired for the entire 2019-20 season. That includes the playoffs. But players are not penalized if they're on lottery-bound squads. The degree to which they can positively impact winning at the highest level is all that counts.
Preseason has not heavily influenced these rankings. Injuries matter and will factor in accordingly. Thompson is going to miss most of the season, so his ranking will be lower than usual. Kevin Durant isn't expected to play at all, so he'll be excluded. Rookies are also left off. A handful are bound to crack the overall top 100 by season's end, but passing judgment on players without NBA reps under their belt is a no-win exercise.
15-11: Barnes, Green, Ingram, Gordon, Hayward
15. Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings
Harrison Barnes, president of Entering Free Agency at the Most Opportune Time, has slid back into the underappreciated ranks. The "he might be a star outside of the Golden State Warriors' marquee-name pileup" sheen has worn off, but his time with the Dallas Mavericks was nothing if not proof he has another offensive level.
Tabbing him as a No. 1 clearly isn't the answer. He doesn't get to the rim or the foul line nearly often enough, and his playmaking on the move is basic and approaching nonexistent. Put him on a team that balances Golden State Harrison with Dallas Harrison and you've really got something.
Sacramento really has something. Barnes hits enough of his set threes for bystander duty but has shown the side-to-side amble required to attack closeouts and go one-on-one. His isolations have more value as a tool in his belt, and the Kings have already granted him freedom in transition.
Nitpickers will quibble over whether he's a bankable small forward. Sometimes, I might be one of them. But Barnes is a rock-solid defender versus most 3s, and Sacramento finagled minutes for him at the 4 in the preseason. Barnes has never come closer to being optimally deployed, and the optionality he offers will be better known for it.
14. Danny Green, Los Angeles Lakers
Danny Green, 32, has aged into the "Should we expect a decline?" portion of his career. For this season at least, it doesn't matter.
Three-and-D specialists have a way of aging well, and Green's livelihood doesn't depend on anything supernatural. If he's taking on-ball reps or tasked with attacking the basket, his team has failed. Perhaps his transition defense will drop off, but someone less than one of the best transition defenders ever is still plenty useful.
Switching teams doesn't change Green's outlook. Last season, his first and only with the Toronto Raptors, gauged the depth of his plug-and-playness. He passed with flying colors, and he'll do the same on the Lakers, if only because his offense is for everyone.
Close to 60 percent of his shot attempts last year were standstill three-pointers, which he converted at a 47.4 percent clip. Nearly 80 percent of his total looks came without more than a single dribble. Arming LeBron James with this kind of offensive accessory should be illegal.
Green's lows can be infuriating—he looked unplayable by the end of the Eastern Conference Finals—but he's a proven shot-maker and defender at the game's highest levels.
13. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Stubbornness fuels Brandon Ingram's NBA 100 inclusion. I remain bullish on his future, just like last year, in a way not always supported by what's happening on the floor. Maybe this isn't fair to members of the field, but Ingram, who only turned 22 in September, remains young enough to gamble on potential.
Each of his past two years has unfolded like two separate seasons in one: The hype train rolls in at full steam, he disappoints, he starts finding himself, he finishes the year strong but prematurely due to injury, and the process starts all over again.
Between Jan. 13 and March 2 last season, a span of 20 games, he averaged 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists while drilling 36.8 percent of his three-pointers. And then blood-clot issues in his right arm forced him out of action. Clockwork.
Watching Ingram is liable to stir up a mental tug-of-war. He looks so smooth with the ball and can get to his spots. You just don't always like his spots. He hits a high enough percentage of his threes for a long enough stretch to tempt you into stanning. But then you realize this efficiency comes on negligible volume, and that he's still prone to passing up or dribbling out of wide-open treys.
His length is disruptive on defense, even at the 4. But is he strong enough for that to hold in more than smaller spurts?
New Orleans has every reason to test out Ingram's team offense. He is one of the many centerpieces they received in the Anthony Davis trade and is set for restricted free agency next summer.
Whether the Pelicans have the patience to weather Ingram's inconsistency is another matter. Zion Williamson so thoroughly dominated the preseason, as did Nickeil Alexander-Walker, that the team could stumble into a more immediate timeline. Ingram's leash might not be all that long.
12. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Orlando does not have the rotation equity for Aaron Gordon to settle into the role he was ostensibly born to play: that of a floor-running, lob-catching finisher who wreaks defensive havoc on assignments from the inside out. With so many bigs and so few playmakers, the Magic need him to be more of a point forward, even if it comes at a cost.
Mind you, it does.
Gordon isn't yet suited to a steady volume of pull-up jumpers or spot pick-and-roll duty. But the threat of attacking off the dribble puts pressure on defenses in ways the Magic's other wings—aside from Terrence Ross—do not. They can only hope Gordon becomes more efficient in those situations over time, and entering Year 6, he doesn't have much left before the he-is-what-he-is default prevails.
To his credit, Gordon has not wilted in the face of being (potentially) miscast. He is a semi-reliable set shooter from beyond the arc—he's hitting 37.8 percent of his spot-up treys over the past two years—and his defensive difference-making has not been muted by spending so much time covering wings on the perimeter.
11. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
Gordon Hayward has the chance to blow this finish out of the water. His closing kick to last season suggests he will. Isolate his per-36 splits after the trade deadline and his output was more closely aligned with his 2016-17 self:
- Hayward per 36 minutes in 2016-17: 22.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 6.1 free-throw attempts, 47.1/39.8/84.4 shooting slash
- Hayward per 36 minutes post-2019 trade deadline: 17.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 4.6 free-throw attempts, 56.0/39.3/81.9 shooting slash
Granting Hayward a one-year reprieve following his recovery from a devastating ankle injury is perfectly fine. And hey, this season's placement may be overcompensating for last fall, when he checked in at—gulp—No. 22 on our list.
Cautious optimism still feels like the correct default mode. Hayward has never relied upon explosion, getting to the rim with inordinately high frequency or hitting acrobatic jumpers. He was as complementary as then-potential-top-25 players came. But his long-term outlook could still be compromised.
Will he ever get to the line at the same clip? Or look the same attacking switches in space? Will he be consistently available for 30-plus minutes per game? What does his fit look like within an offense that, even without Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, remains on the crowded side?
These questions persist. Until they don't, this year, unlike last year, must be about waiting and seeing and, yes, hedging.
10. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles is finally part of a roster that only needs him to follow his normal instincts. Over the past couple of years, as the Utah Jazz navigated shot-creation deficits, they've needed him to impersonate a No. 2 or third wheel. That all changes with the acquisitions of Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley.
Donovan Mitchell is the only member of the Jazz who might benefit more from their arrivals. Ingles no longer needs to be a scorer or primary playmaker in most lineups. The ones in which he does should be Ingles-plus-another-starter-and-bench units.
That still frees him up to focus on his playmaking. Having no fewer than one superior outlet around him at all times should help limit his turnovers on the move. He coughed up the ball on 28 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions last season, the worst mark in the league by a humongous margin.
Pretty much everything else Ingles does is beyond critique.
He didn't shoot well in last year's playoffs, but he's routinely among the most accurate snipers every season. Stephen Curry, Buddy Hield, Kyle Korver, CJ McCollum, JJ Redick and Klay Thomspon are the only other players who have hit as many threes since 2015-16 while shooting at least 40 percent from beyond the arc. Ingles has even shown he can dribble into some triples if given enough space.
Bake in multiposition defense and his case as one of the NBA's premier glue guys writes itself. What he lacks in speed he makes up for with discreetness. He knows how to use space and Rudy Gobert to his advantage, and he's so rarely out of place that it's as if he has a Rolodex of player and team tendencies ingrained into his brain.
9. Otto Porter Jr., Chicago Bulls
Breakout seasons from seventh-year players are uncommon, and that's putting it generously. Otto Porter Jr. has a real opportunity to challenge the norm.
Getting traded from the Washington Wizards to the Chicago Bulls has already proved to be a blessing of volume. Gone is the niche—and therefore prohibitive—role he assumed behind Bradley Beal and John Wall. Chicago has given him a license to discover.
Through 15 appearances for the Bulls last season, Porter averaged 5.2 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and 6.5 pull-up jumpers per game, up from 1.6 and 3.4, respectively, with the Wizards.
To be clear, he has a long way to go before he's a secondary hub. His assist totals didn't spike enough relative to his increase in pick-and-roll usage, and he was far from the most efficient scorer off the dribble.
But this is hardly cause for concern.
Porter spent the first five-plus seasons of his career capitulating to bigger names. He's not going to master a functional facelift over a few weeks or months. A steep learning curve is the rule. It matters more that the Bulls seem prepared to let him work through the motions. They're facing slightly higher expectations this year, but they're far from playoffs-or-bust, and Porter's preseason usage hints at a similar amount of leeway.
Should he develop into a secondary playmaker, Chicago will have an imitation Khris Middleton on its hands. Porter doesn't project as the same scorer, but the two-way flexibility he'd provide on the wing would be eerily similar to the little bit of everything the Milwaukee Bucks get from their No. 2.
8. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson would be much higher if not for his torn left ACL. The Golden State Warriors don't plan on bringing him back until after the All-Star break, which leaves him out of the rotation for at least 55 games, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater.
Finding the right spot for Thompson is then a matter of both his recovery and abbreviated availability. He is Golden State's most important perimeter defender, now more so than ever following the departures of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala. Any mobility he loses, even if only for the interim, endangers his standing—not to mention the Warriors' place in the West.
On the sort-of-bright side, Thompson isn't coming back from an Achilles tear or a ruptured quad. Baron Davis and Kyle Lowry suffered ACL injuries before entering the NBA. Jamal Crawford tore his ACL before his sophomore season. Al Jefferson and David West dealt with similar injuries in the middle of their careers and continued to play at high levels.
Derrick Rose's career arc is a fair rebuke to rosier outlooks, but Thompson's offense isn't built upon explosion. More than half his shot attempts last season came without taking a dribble, and he's more likely to post up than attack in isolation.
Thompson's off-ball motion might suffer, but the Warriors may not need him to make as many sharp cuts. They have to indulge more pick-and-roll sets after landing D'Angelo Russell, a tactical pivot that would allow shooters to remain more stationary. Thompson's touch isn't going anywhere. That alone makes it worthwhile to step out on a limb.
And if he returns to the form he flashed during Game 6 of the Finals, in which he swished more off-the-dribble jumpers, he'll have no trouble outdoing what are, for now, restrained expectations.
7. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers
Tobias Harris looked out of sorts for long stretches after he joined the Philadelphia 76ers. They're betting $180 million it wasn't a fluke.
That isn't a ridiculous wager to make. Harris is not max-contract material in a vacuum, but the free-agency market dictated his price point. Other teams would have peddled a four-year windfall. The Sixers' only real advantage was that fifth season—offering 8 percent raises compared to 5 percent doesn't tilt the playing field—so they gave it to him.
Teams have done far worse than overinvest in a player like Harris.
He will only be 31 when his deal concludes, and making the Eastern Conference All-Star pool is not out of the question. Harris still wound up shooting 39.7 percent from three and averaging nearly 1.2 points per spot-up possession for the entire season. He is wired to play off Philly's main squeezes, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Still, it may take Harris time to get there—more than a training camp and preseason. The Sixers are adding another big, Al Horford, into the equation. Space will be tighter if two of him, Embiid and Simmons aren't making threes at above-average clips.
Philly must also consider working in more pick-and-rolls if Harris is going to find his comfort zone. Only the Warriors ran fewer pick-and-rolls last season. Meanwhile, more than one-quarter of his offensive possessions with the Los Angeles Clippers came as pick-and-roll ball-handler, compared to 18.8 percent with the Sixers.
This all adds up, and it amounts to a complicated relationship.
Philly can forge a happy medium by pigeonholing Harris into the third or fourth option, but that risks crunch-time rhythm. With Jimmy Butler gone, it needs another face-up threat on the perimeter. Harris is the natural alternative but an uncertain fit, particularly if he's not empowered to work off the dribble in volume for most of the game.
6. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan is an expert in the difficult. He pours in 20-plus points per game like clockwork, but he does so on an imbalanced diet of mid-range jumpers and without tapping into any three-point volume. He averaged a career-high 6.2 assists during his first season with the San Antonio Spurs, but the offense tallied more points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench.
Getting hung up on DeRozan's long-range volume is petty. He has never hit on 34 percent of his outside attempts for an entire season. Expecting it to suddenly become a meaningful part of his bag is unreasonable.
Worrying about his overall shot selection is an entirely separate and acceptable matter. Over 40 percent of his looks came from mid-range last year, of which he hit just 40.5 percent. Offenses can get only so far when their go-to scorer's trademark shot yields roughly 0.81 points per attempt (not including and-1 opportunities).
None of this makes DeRozan a net negative. The Spurs' bench was deep enough to explain last year's on-off splits, and his stop-and-start tempo out of the pick-and-roll is a nightmare even for set defenses.
It is more accurate to say DeRozan isn't the clearest positive. That's a legitimate qualm.
His is a skill set that surrenders impact when he doesn't have the ball. That's somewhat fine when offenses can be tailored around him. The Spurs are no longer in that position. LaMarcus Aldridge is still in tow, Derrick White is on the rise, and, most notably, Dejounte Murray is back in the fold.
This could be the season DeRozan's limitations hurt him most.
5. Khris MIddleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Khris Middleton's greatest sin is not of his own production. The Milwaukee Bucks have cast—and paid—him to be the No. 2 on what, for the sake of Giannis Antetokounmpo's future, needs to be a championship team. And as has been pointed out ad nauseam, Middleton is not a to-the-letter co-star.
He doesn't have that ready-made ability to create separation and assault the rim, and his playmaking isn't fully translatable to lineups he anchors on his own. The Bucks allocated more time last season to Malcolm Brogdon in combinations that didn't include Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe or Middleton (1,067 possessions) than they gave to arrangements featuring Middleton alone (324 possessions).
Stephen Curry, Paul George and Kyrie Irving were the only other players last season who cleared 18 points, four assists and one steal per game while matching Middleton's three-point clip. He may not be the quintessential from-scratch scorer, but his game is by no means rooted in dependence. He rated in the 92nd percentile of isolation efficiency and knocked down 36.7 percent of his pull-up treys in 2018-19.
Dominance in any specific area is typical of stars. Middleton doesn't quite meet that bar. He is a long and versatile defender but not a lockdown one. His offense is not made for entire-game takeovers, although his 2018 postseason performance begs to differ.
Perhaps this proves something. Maybe it means nothing. Perhaps Brogdon's exit will force Middleton to unlock another gear. He cold-turkeyed long twos last year. He's not beyond change. Or maybe he is.
Either way, if Middleton isn't a true No. 2, he's the next best thing: a highly efficient mix of secondary scoring and passing with the bandwidth to play and defend three positions.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Nothing speaks more highly of Luka Doncic's rookie season than the question it spawns: How much better can he reasonably get as a sophomore?
Only 14 other players have ever cleared 20 points and six assists per game while making as many threes (168). None of them were rookies. He is already one of the five to 10 best passers in the league. What would a leap even include?
Doncic began his career in a veteran's role. He ranked ninth in pick-and-rolls initiated per game and fourth in pull-up attempts from beyond the arc. He averaged more shots per 36 minutes of crunch time than Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook, and he hit more step-back threes than anyone except James Harden.
Doncic will add new tricks to his arsenal. Running pick-and-pops with Kristaps Porzingis will open new means of production, and his offseason conditioning might help him get by more defenders and finish more shots at the rim. Maybe he'll consistently defend 4s in smaller lineups.
For the most part, though, Doncic's path upward runs through stamina and maintenance. His shooting percentages plummeted over the second half of 2018-19. He slashed 41.9/28.0/69.0 overall and posted an effective field-goal rate of 39.8 on pull-up jumpers.
Trae Young never loosely joins the Rookie of the Year conversation if Doncic doesn't hit that first-year wall. He had a legitimate All-Star case before then. If his shot-making doesn't tail off, Doncic will do what few sophomores before him have done: enter the top-15-player debate.
3. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Between tour de forces in Minnesota and a superabundance of marquee names in Philadelphia, Jimmy Butler's spot among the stars has become tough to peg down. His numbers trailed off with the Sixers. His shooting suffered, too. He went from a hands-down top-10 player in 2017-18 to a "We're not quite sure where he ranks" last year.
Compromise is the price of wannabe superteams. Butler made it work with the Sixers anyway. By the end of the year, there was little to doubt about his essentiality. His crunch-time usage rate skyrocketed after the All-Star break, and Philly leaned on him harder in the playoffs, both as a clutch finisher and a pseudo point guard.
Joel Embiid very much misses him.
Landing with the Miami Heat clears the way for Butler to resume his 2017-18 ways, if not his swan-song performance with the Chicago Bulls in 2016-17. Head coach Erik Spoelstra won't commit to using Justise Winslow at point guard again, and a healthy Goran Dragic can play off the ball. No one is immediately above Butler in the pecking order. Nor are the Heat grooming anyone to be.
Equally important, Butler mostly remains an every-possession gnat at the other end. The league has better team defenders, but his on-ball pressure is ceaseless.
In so many ways, Butler is the dream: a proven crunch-time crutch and half-court initiator with an affinity for breaking defensive sweats. No one has the grounds to forecast regression in Miami. Butler feels like an old 30, but he's not yet ancient. The Heat way also jibes perfectly with his maniacal work ethic. This is just as much a cultural fit as a basketball one.
Absent a second star, Miami is subject to a hard ceiling. Butler on his own, though, punches a playoff ticket, which is how it tends to be for any top-10(ish) player.
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Little else is more terrifying than the idea of a well-rested LeBron James with a grudge. He is coming off his first extended offseason since 2005 and might be annoyed by so many stripping him of his best-player throne.
It has been a while since we've seen a LeBron James revenge season. This should be fun. His regular-season cruise control isn't going anywhere, but he turned in yet another 27-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist campaign last year while missing time with a groin injury and playing for a Los Angeles Lakers squad fast-tracked to nowhere after Christmas. His phone-in jobs are half-baked masterpieces.
James may even have a reinvention in him.
He spent the early portion of 2018-19 downing step-back threes and has openly declared the Lakers offense will run through Anthony Davis. The concept of him in a quasi-secondary role has long tantalized—and eluded.
It is very much wait-and-see, but James is going on 35 and playing with a top-seven superstar nearly a decade younger. If there were ever a time he'd settle into even more of a pass-first mode, throw up more set jumpers and, just maybe, focus on moving without the ball, it would be now.
Buying fully into Vengeful LeBron and Co-Star LeBron, at the same time, takes a certain willful ignorance. We've heard the "LeBron will play off the ball more" schtick before, and it never lasts. And why should it? He's LeBron friggin' James, an offense unto himself.
Greater exception is taken with the possible chip on his shoulders. He's too self-aware to completely revamp his regular-season approach. He knows his G.O.A.T. case now lives and dies with championships. Courting majority opinion in the regular season doesn't do anything for him.
Ignore all of that and, well, James is still turning 35 in December and coming off the most serious injury of his career. Scheduled rest, however infrequent, seems inevitable. And he won't suddenly stop taking plays off.
If nothing else, James' tiny tumble down the individual ladder can be spun into a matter of choice and circumstance. He doesn't need the No. 1 spot, and the list of players who can lord over the NBA is deeper than it has ever been during his reign.
1. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard's return to the floor last season after a mostly lost 2017-18 left many clamoring for him to enter the best-player-alive discussion. And, well, he's in it.
Regular-season load management served him well.
The 22 games he missed took a backseat to his career-high 26.6 points per game on 60.6 percent true shooting. His legend only grew in the playoffs. From his 30.5 points per game on even better efficiency to his Game 7 series-winner against the Philadelphia 76ers and takedown of the (shorthanded) Golden State Warriors, the pull to crown him best player alive has never been stronger.
Changing teams for the second time in two years does not weaken his claim. Fitting into the Los Angeles Clippers offense will be a basic transition. He began his career conceding touches and status to stars in San Antonio and has not lost that plug-and-play air. With the exception of his nine-game performance in 2017-18, he has never shot below 38 percent on spot-up threes.
Standstill jumpers have become a smaller part of his game in recent years—but for the better. Leonard has evolved into one of the league's most dangerous hubs. He finished in the 84th percentile of isolation scoring efficiency last year and put down 45.2 percent of his pull-up twos.
It will, at times, seem like Leonard is working outside the rest of his team. That is not a problem. His mid-range jumper isn't the shot you live with; it is the shot you game-plan around, insofar as you even can. He found nylon on a combined 54.4 percent of his contested and heavily contested twos last year.
Integrating Leonard should end up being an easier adjustment for the Clippers than it was for the Toronto Raptors. They do not have a point guard of Kyle Lowry's caliber, and Paul George is best suited as the No. 2 or 1B. The ball will default to Leonard's hands. Anyone waiting on his Kevin Durant-assist-number leap might now get it.
Defense is not about to erode Leonard's best-player case, either. He is less of an every-possession attacker, but his selective blanketing both covers more plays than 95 percent of the league and is good for his long-term viability.
Leonard's prospective maintenance program is all that compromises his position. He has said he plans on playing the entire season, but the Clippers are not an upstart with happy-to-be-here aspirations. They want to win the whole damn thing. Running out Leonard for 75-plus games before the playoffs is at best unnecessary and at worst self-sabotage.
Toronto rested Leonard for 22 games last year. He still exited the NBA Finals with a left knee injury, potentially as the result of overcompensating for his right quad throughout the year. Caution is necessary. That doesn't break his best-player case, but it is dampened in comparison to others who will see more time, either by choice or necessity.