Ranking NBA's Top 15 Small Forwards This Season
Who ordered the ranking of the NBA's best small forwards with a side of extra-saucy takes?
Before we open up the opinion factory, though, be sure to peruse the other installments of our NBA 100 series if you haven't already:
Anyone who hasn't logged at least 500 minutes this season is not eligible for inclusion. Sample size isn't everything, but we're evaluating players based on what they've done prior to the league's shutdown. Playing time has to matter. So please, pretty please, do not bombard the comments with "No Kevin Durant?!? You must be related to Draymond Green!" barbs. KD will get his pecking-order fist-bump in our 2020-21 lookahead.
Assigning players to specific positions has never been less of an exact science as the league continues to embrace non-traditional lineups. Possession data from Cleaning the Glass and Basketball-Reference will be used to remove much of the guesswork.
Invariably, though, fuzzier instances will demand judgement calls. These verdicts will be rendered after considering defensive matchup data, lineup deployment and consensus perception. This is the process by which both Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum qualify as 3s despite being starters on the same team. They spend enough time apart to meet the criteria separately.
If you're still rankled by who's included among the small forwards, we get it. Wings' responsibilities are the foggiest of them all. Depending on the team, the lines between 2s, 3s and 4s can all blur together. For those who can't move past it, we urge you to pay more attention to a player's overall placement rather than his position itself.
And now, we rank!
*Editor’s Note: It's NBA Top 100 Week here at Bleacher Report. Check back each day as Andy Bailey and Dan Favale rank the top 15 performers at each position from the 2019-20 season, culminating in their top 100 player rankings on Saturday, July 11.
15-11: Warren, Robinson, Anunoby, Oubre, Ingles
15. T.J. Warren, Indiana Pacers
In his first season with the Indiana Pacers, T.J. Warren has quickly established himself as perhaps the team's best scorer. In the rawest sense, his team-leading 18.7 points per game would suggest as much, though Domantas Sabonis' 18.5 aren't far behind. They're within a point of each other in the percentage of makes that are assisted, as well.
What sets Warren apart, though, is his ability to both spread the floor (37.5 percent on 3.0 three-point attempts per game) and run some pick-and-roll. Nearly a fifth of his possessions come as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and he's scoring at an above-average clip out of that play type.
He still leaves plenty to be desired on the defensive end, but for a team that has been missing Victor Oladipo for most of the season, that from-scratch offense is valuable.
14. Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat
The easiest gripe to make about Duncan Robinson is that he doesn't do much at a high level beyond shoot. Well, when you shoot like this, that's not much of a gripe.
Stephen Curry (2015-16) and Steve Novak (2011-12) are the only players in league history who have matched or exceeded Robinson's 2019-20 marks for volume (10.2 attempts per 75 possessions) and efficiency (44.8 percent) from three.
Among players who have taken at least 500 shots from anywhere in a season, Robinson's otherworldly 66.5 effective field-goal percentage trails only a bunch of All-Star centers and 2014-15 Kyle Korver.
He's been a flamethrower this season, and the Miami Heat have legitimately fallen apart when he isn't out there spacing the floor. They've been plus-8.8 points per 100 possessions when he's played and minus-4.9 when he sits, giving him a 13.7 net rating swing that ranks in the 99th percentile.
Even if he doesn't dish out a ton of dimes or lock down the opposition's best player, the impact driven by his shooting is immense.
13. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
On the other end of the equation is Toronto Raptors wing OG Anunoby, a solid offensive player who contributes the bulk of his value on the defensive end.
All season, Anunoby has been willing and able to spend time on the opposition's top offensive players. And Toronto's defense ranks in the 84th percentile when he's on the floor. His length, athleticism and switchability are reminiscent of some of the game's top defenders, which makes sense given his standout habits.
"Ron Artest, Scottie Pippen, Kawhi [Leonard], guys like that," Anunoby told reporters when asked who he patterns his defense after earlier this season. "Draymond [Green]."
Those are ambitious targets, but Anunoby possesses the tools to get there, at least on the defensive end.
Whether he can carry a bigger load offensively remains to be seen, but simply maintaining his three-point shooting from this season (38.1 percent on 3.4 attempts per game) would make him a prototypical three-and-D specialist.
12. Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns
The 2019-20 campaign has marked a breakout for 24-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr. He's raised his scoring average in each of his five NBA seasons, peaking at 18.7 with the Phoenix Suns.
His three-point percentage (35.2) is just shy of the league average on a steady diet of 5.5 attempts per game.
And even with those marks on the offensive side of the floor, Oubre's greatest value may be derived from his defensive ability. His length and athleticism allow him to cover multiple positions. His tenacity leads to being second on the team in rebounds per game (6.4) and first in total rebounds.
Overall, the Suns' defensive rating has been 2.8 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the floor, though the team still defends at a below-average level. When he shares the floor with another switchy wing in Mikal Bridges, though, Phoenix's defensive rating jumps to the 67th percentile.
11. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
He may be categorized as a small forward here, but Joe Ingles has functionally been the point guard of the Utah Jazz's Quin Snyder era.
That's tied largely to the fact that he's been with the team as long as Snyder, but during this partnership, Ingles' 1,695 assists almost double No. 2 on the list. His assist percentage over the same span trails only Ricky Rubio and Trey Burke among all Jazz players.
He's gotten plenty of credit as a shooter over the course of his career, but Ingles' passing and feel for the game out of pick-and-rolls really drive his value.
He's generally been a solid perimeter defender, as well. He doesn't possess the same vertical and lateral athleticism as other wings, but he has solid size (6'7", 226 lbs), competes and is almost always in the right place on his rotations.
Put it all together and it should be relatively easy to see why Ingles is having another high-impact season despite averaging just 9.8 points. On the season, the Jazz have been plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions with Ingles on the floor and minus-1.2 with him off.
10. Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz
Joining the Utah Jazz has uncomplicated Bojan Bogdanovic's offensive utility. They have him run the occasional pick-and-roll and mix in an iso here and there, but he otherwise exists to open up the floor and alleviate the burden placed upon Donovan Mitchell.
Well, mission accomplished.
Bogdanovic is one of six non-bigs averaging more than 20 points per game with a true shooting percentage above 60. His company: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton.
Last year's Indiana Pacers team leaned on Bogdanovic for from-scratch offense in the aftermath of Victor Oladipo's ruptured right quad. Though he tackled the task admirably, that was always an overextension of his skill set. He is more in his wheelhouse with the Jazz as a play-finisher.
More than 20 percent of his offensive possessions come as spot-ups, on which he owns an effective field-goal percentage of 58.4—a top-10 mark among everyone who has gotten off at least 200 field-goal attempts in these situations. He's also shooting a rock-solid 45.4 percent on 9.1 drives per game.
Occasional returns to self-creation separate Bogdanovic from other accessory scorers. He shouldn't really be the focal point of any lineup, but he can get to his desired spots coming around screens and is putting in 39.4 percent of his pull-up three-pointers.
Utah's playoff stock now needs Mike Conley to be Mike Conley more than ever. Bogdanovic underwent season-ending surgery to repair a right wrist injury, and without him, the Jazz are in the same predicament they found themselves in last year: absent a decided No. 2.
9. Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
Kitchen-sink metrics are love, love, loving Will Barton's season. He grades out as a fringe top-50 player when looking at his average rank across six catch-alls. That clearly overestimates his impact, but it also isn't flat-out egregious.
Lineup composition accounts for some of Barton's advanced-stat good fortune, particularly as it pertains to his defense.
He keeps his fouls in check, and opponents have shot just 14-of-37 against him in isolation (38.0 percent), but Gary Harris usually spares him from covering the toughest wing assignment. And more than that, he's constantly on the floor with the rest of the Denver Nuggets' best players. As Jared Dubin wrote for FiveThirtyEight in December:
"Barton contributes at a considerably above-average level across a wide variety of categories on both offense and defense, and crucially, he’s doing so almost exclusively in the context of really good lineups. He’s been on the floor for 1,778 possessions this season, per PBPStats.com, and of those possessions, he has had at least three of Denver’s four other regular starters alongside him for 1,402 of them—a rate of 78.9 percent. That may not make Barton the eighth-'best' player in the NBA, but it does shed light on why a plus-minus statistic like RAPTOR thinks so highly of his contributions this season."
The statistical dap Barton keeps receiving isn't all due to convenience. He's been huge for the Nuggets. After a right hip injury bilked much of his offensive mojo last season, he's back to capitalizing on life as the third wheel to Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
Way more of Barton's looks are coming at the rim (35 percent) relative to 2018-19 (28 percent). His finishing around the basket isn't great (41st percentile), and he doesn't draw a ton of shooting fouls, but he's a reliable playmaker off the ball. His 1.22 points per spot-up possession rank in the 90th percentile, and he's converted 86.8 percent of his scoring opportunities off cuts (33-of-38). Denver can largely count on him to make the right pass when attacking closeouts.
Doing a little in a lot of different areas adds up. Gordon Hayward, Brandon Ingram, Kevin Love, Khris Middleton and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only other players averaging over 15 points, three assists and six rebounds while knocking down at least 37 percent of their threes.
8. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan's net impact is under siege, even more so than it was last summer. His is a distressed value. He does everything deemed most important—initiating offense for both himself and others—but the terms of his engagement are so outmoded that they leave an imprint only under specific circumstances.
The good remains really good. DeRozan is an intuitive scorer and passer out of the pick-and-roll. He can still manipulate defenses with his change of pace, and teams usually fawn over No. 1 options forever under control.
Just seven other players are averaging more than 20 points and five assists while matching DeRozan's true shooting percentage, a list that mostly reads like a who's who of top-25 stars: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard and Trae Young.
Not all efficient offense is created equal, though. DeRozan is getting to the rim more often and ranks inside the 99th percentile of shooting foul percentage, but he's still a blemish on his team's spacing.
Almost two-thirds of his field-goal attempts come from mid-range, and the San Antonio Spurs don't even bother having him shoot threes.
Star scorers deserve certain liberties. The mid-range isn't dead so much as readily available only to a select few, DeRozan among them. He creates enough of his own shots and, this season, hits enough of his in-between looks to let them fly.
Building an entire offense around someone who plays this way is still tough. Like three-pointers, mid-range jumpers are high-variance, but with a lower payoff. Living on them is a fragile existence. It is even more tenuous when a team doesn't generate the spacing necessary to ensure those looks are of the best possible quality.
DeRozan wrestled with the slimmest of margins until LaMarcus Aldridge started bombing more threes. And even since then, the Spurs have been 3.7 points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor. (His defense is a problem.)
Certain teams have the requisite shooting to optimize DeRozan. But to what end? Tailoring rosters around floor-raisers is always a nebulous venture, and as the gap between what DeRozan does best and what the league values most continues to widen, his ability to lift up a postseason contender will only wane.
7. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
Gordon Hayward has finally settled into a new normal following the devastating compound left leg fracture and dislocated left ankle he suffered on opening night of the 2017-18 season. He is both better and more consistent than he was last year, his comfort level perhaps most evident in the ease and frequency with which he dribbles into turnarounds and fadeways that require him to spin or stop on a dime.
At the same time, Hayward is visibly different.
This is not the might-be All-NBA candidate the Boston Celtics signed in 2017. He has never put a ton of pressure on the rim, but he's at least slightly more reserved when attacking from advantageous positions in space. His presence at the foul line was on the modest end to begin with and has since been slashed. He's averaging a career-low 2.7 free throws per 36 minutes.
Moving beyond what Hayward was versus what he is now isn't particularly hard. Boston has been unable to buy time on offense when he plays without Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, and he's on the books for superstar money, but his shift in status post-injury isn't dire. He's still an effective, efficient player.
Hayward is shooting a remarkable 55.3 percent inside the arc, including 53.6 percent on pull-up two-pointers. He ranks in the 91st percentile of efficiency on spot-up possessions, which account for nearly 20 percent of his offense. When he does get to the rim, he's converting at a 69.0 percent clip (89th percentile).
The Celtics can't expect him to carry entire lineups, but they can count on his two-man game with Daniel Theis, tidy drop-offs to shooters and wicked-fast post entry passes.
Viewed in its totality, Hayward's contribution falls well shy of stardom. His numbers—17.3 points and 4.1 assists per game with a 59.3 true shooting percentage—put him in esteemed company, but neither his responsibility nor volume is the same. It may never be.
That's fine. Because if stardom is off the table, Hayward has already shown he can be the next best thing: high-end support for a championship contender.
6. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Brandon Ingram has come of role this season. Beforehand, he was the silhouette of an offensive hub, but only for stretches at a time, usually toward the end of the schedule. This year, on a new team that has given him more creative agency, he's been a wire-to-wire force.
His All-Star selection speaks for itself, even though it came during a down year for Western Conference wings. His numbers say even more: 24.3 points and 4.3 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of 59.0—benchmarks that, prior to this year, have only ever been hit by one player in his age-22-or-younger season. That player's name? Michael Jordan.
Friendlier circumstances (and a cleaner health bill) aren't solely responsible for Ingram's ascent. He has both broadened and refined his game.
He's always had a knack for reaching his spots on-ball and making plays at the rim, but his finishing lagged elsewhere. He now wields a more consistent touch between 10 and 16 feet and a more willing trigger finger from beyond the arc. Both his three-point and free-throw clips have exploded relative to his career average.
What's most impressive about Ingram's arrival isn't the leap itself but its endurance. His improvement has not only spanned the entire season, but it's also survived two different iterations of the New Orleans Pelicans: pre-Zion Williamson and post-Zion Williamson.
Slightly lower usage beside Zion has not rattled Ingram. He's been money in catch-and-shoot situations (60.2 effective field-goal percentage), and his true shooting percentage has dropped without plummeting when they share the floor. Encouraging still, across a 704-possession sample, New Orleans owns a plus-14.6 net rating with Ingram and Zion manning the 3 and 4, respectively.
This is not a small development. Ingram's success as part of a larger operation, one that doesn't always default to him, was never a given. Deference can throw players off balance.
Ingram himself still has kinks to work out next to Zion, but the early returns suggest his leap is at once permanent and, just as important, generally adaptable.
5. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
The process to get here wasn't always smooth, even after a standout rookie season in 2017-18, but Jayson Tatum is now the guiding force through which the Boston Celtics play. It is on the back of this progression that he's entered superstar territory.
Skeptics like to harp on his efficiency. His 56.2 true shooting percentage is below the league average, and he's banging in his mid-range jumpers at an unspectacular clip. Calling him erratic or unreliable still equates to misinformation.
Relative to his shot quality, Tatum has actually outperformed expectations, according to PBP Stats.
Among everyone attempting at least three pull-up triples per game, only Damian Lillard and Caris LeVert are downing theirs at a better clip. Nikola Jokic is the lone soul who has converted more looks inside four seconds of the shot clock, and Tatum's 55.7 effective field-goal percentage in these situations ranks first out of 104 players who have 50 or more relevant attempts under their belt.
Having another scorer, aside from their point guard, so comfortable creating something out of nothing is a boon for the Celtics offense. They've more than doubled his pick-and-roll volume accordingly. And in recent months, he's parlayed that additional responsibility into more volume around the hoop.
Tatum's playmaking does still trail expectations for someone in his role. He has the lowest assist rate of anyone with his usage. But the feel for throwing less obvious passes is there, and he's proved capable of carrying league-average offensive units without Kemba Walker. His assist totals should approve with repetition.
Through it all, Tatum has maintained the seamlessness of his offense. He hits a ton of self-created threes, but almost half of his overall shots come off assists. He dominates with his escape dribble and step-back three; he preserves his fit next to everyone else with his spot-up touch and opportunism in transition.
This says nothing of his defense, which is borderline All-NBA-caliber. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart streamline his workload by chasing around the glitziest assignments, but his help around the basket and free-safety gambles are one of the Celtics' most precious defensive devices.
It is no accident Tatum owns their largest net-rating swing (plus-10.9). His two-way impact is their foremost building block.
4. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks need a second star.
Scant few takes have become more outdated than this one. Reductive disclaimers haven't aged much better.
Khris Middleton isn't a traditional No. 2 option.
What in the what does that actually mean?
Maybe the influx of superteams and superstar free-agency pairings over the past decade has restricted the criteria for sidekicks on championship contenders. That's fair enough and perhaps a legitimate problem for the Bucks given the teams they most likely must get past in prospective Finals matchups.
Except, well, it shouldn't be considered an issue right now. If Middleton didn't qualify as a genuine star before—and that's a big if—he does this season.
Middleton is tied with Damian Lillard for the highest true shooting percentage among everyone averaging more than 25 points per 36 minutes, a list populated almost exclusively by, you guessed it, consensus superstars. But it isn't just these numbers. It's the method by which they come.
Misrepresenting Middleton's place in the league usually begins with the assumption that he's the benefactor of Giannis Antetokounmpo's world domination and the Bucks' floor balance. Who wouldn't thrive playing next to the NBA's reigning MVP, inside four- and five-out lineups? Milwaukee's environment no doubt glitters up Middleton's role, but it hasn't made him in full.
Self-creation is ingrained into his game. He runs pick-and-rolls into pull-up jumpers. He shoots over mismatches in isolation and from the post. Tough fadeaways are business as usual. His off-the-dribble three is deployed in small doses but remains effective. He is the secondary playmaker everyone's waiting for Jayson Tatum to be (which, for now, gives him a clear, albeit slight, edge over Boston's fast-rising linchpin).
In fairness to his critics, Middleton lacks a certain preponderance. His game still stalls out inside the arc, where he's neither strong nor explosive enough to live at the basket. A career-low 15 percent of his looks are coming at the rim this season (7th percentile).
Beyond that, Middleton has all the trimmings of an offensive nerve center. The Bucks aren't the Bucks without their capacity to navigate minutes sans Antetokounmpo. Middleton is central to that independence. Milwaukee outscores opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions during his solo stints with an offensive rating that ranks in the 94th percentile.
3. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Ebbing offensive efficiency is a threat to Jimmy Butler's place in this exercise. His 24.8 percent clip from three is the second-lowest of his career, and among 111 players attempting at least three pull-up jumpers per game, his 33.8 effective field-goal percentage ranks...110th.
To his credit, Butler has supplemented struggles from the perimeter with relentless assaults on the basket. A staggering 43 percent of his looks are coming at the rim, his highest share since 2012-13. Defenses are still inclined to overreact when he gets going downhill, and he is an expert at both creating and finishing through contact. He ranks in the 100th percentile of shooting foul percentage.
Butler has further counteracted his spiraling outside clips with additional playmaking. His 6.1 dimes per game are a career high, and he places inside the top 25 of potential assists. The Miami Heat are at their scariest when he's captaining fast breaks.
Even in a down shooting season—his crunch-time splits aren't pretty—Butler has proved to be more than essential. The Heat need every ounce of the pressure he puts on defenses off the dribble. Goran Dragic and Kendrick Nunn are the closest they come to face-up alternatives, which won't cut it. Miami's offensive rating takes a nosedive whenever Butler is on the bench.
And more so than anyone else, Butler deserves credit for keeping the Heat afloat on defense.
They started fizzling by December but have stayed above board when he's in the game—no small ask given how much time he spent in lineups with three negative defenders prior to the trade deadline. Playing beside Bam Adebayo, Mr. Happy Feet himself, barely qualifies as a luxury under those circumstances.
This season was always going to be a test of Butler's stardom—of whether he, at age 30 and independent of another top-25 player (Adebayo isn't there...yet), guaranteed his team a playoff spot. It turns out he does.
2. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard's best-player-in-the-league case keeps receiving convincing bumps.
Winning a second title and Finals MVP last year was the peak of his argument. That he wound up leaving the Toronto Raptors partially added to the intrigue. This wasn't him emerging from the shadows of his Hall of Fame teammates. It was him spearheading an entire championship push in a one-off situation while playing through a left knee injury that became progressively worse as the postseason soldiered on.
Not that he needed it, but Leonard's second title legitimized him in a way 2013-14's banner year never needed to, a measuring stick for just how unfathomably far his offensive game had come. The Raptors put him at the center of their universe, and it worked.
Leonard's performance this season, on yet another new team, has amplified his cause, resetting his career peak once more. The Los Angeles Clippers opened the year leaning on him for extreme pick-and-roll usage. That volume has come down from its initial high, but it still makes up roughly one-third of Leonard's offensive possessions, by far and away the largest share of his career.
Cooking more initiation into his routine has given way to the long-anticipated playmaking surge. Leonard doesn't toss the same fancy-schmancy passes James Harden and LeBron James do, but he's successfully leveraging the chaos he inflicts into gimme opportunities for his teammates.
Defenses regress into ataxic clutter when he maneuvers inside the arc, and so many opponents are predisposed to show double-teams as soon as he catches the ball outside the rainbow. The attention he draws, verging on panic, is the turbine Los Angeles uses to power its offense. Leonard is averaging a career-high 5.6 assists per 36 minutes, and the Clippers are scoring 116.8 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) when he plays without Paul George and Lou Williams.
Driving an entire offense as the primary facilitator is Leonard's final frontier, the last step in his quest, be it deliberate or incidental, to become the NBA's most complete player.
His progression as a scorer already gave him a stake in that conversation before now. He swishes pull-up mid-rangers on autopilot, and his bullish drives to the basket render defenders who aren't built like houses mostly helpless. His off-the-bounce three is on the come-down, but teams still respect it, and he remains lights-out off the catch.
That someone can be so utterly assertive on offense—30.0 points per 36 minutes on 58.5 percent true shooting—while guarding at an All-NBA level is beyond comprehension. Leonard doesn't exhaust his defensive stores on every possession, thus creating negligible separation between himself and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the engagement and resolve he's sustained for the latter half of this season are truly, totally terrifying.
1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James' will should be showing signs of erosion at age 35—something, anything, that suggests he is exiting his prime.
So much for that
For whatever reason—and there are many—he seems further away from his twilight than last season. Whether it's the arrival of Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers' proximity to a title, a disdain for the push to inaugurate Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard as the league's best player or some combination of everything, LeBron is carrying himself with a renewed sense of purpose and swagger.
That fresh approach is most evident on the defensive end. He isn't checking fellow superstars every night, but he's openly more engaged in the half-court. His close-outs on shooters have more pep, in that he's actually closing out on shooters, and he's fighting through screens with intent, enough to help Los Angeles coax ball-handlers into long mid-range jumpers and keep them from working the corners.
Much is made of the Lakers offense in LeBron's absence, and correctly so. They are short no fewer than one ball-handler. But the defense has, statistically, suffered more when he's off the court. That's not telltale of anything groundbreaking. It also isn't purely a function of his spending so much time beside Davis and Danny Green.
On offense, meanwhile, LeBron still emits inevitability. What he wants to do gets done.
Just as he developed a post game in Miami and added a step-back three into his ammunition depot last season, he has decided that now, in Year 17, is the time to win the league's assist crown. It is this added influence over the offense that allows him to hold off the stars most closely at his heels—namely Kawhi Leonard.
Players have rarely churned out 25-point, 10-assist detonations so regularly, much less at LeBron's age. He has six years on anyone else who maintained those averages for an entire season. What he's doing now isn't natural. Yet watching him, it looks and feels organic.
In truth, that's LeBron's career arc in a nutshell. He has normalized, even numbed us to, what isn't. Someday, he'll cease contending for MVPs and best-player-alive honors. That time isn't now. What's more, it doesn't appear to be on the horizon, either.