Basketball Insiders continues its series of ranking the top 10 players at each position. So far this week, we’ve looked at the top 10 point guards and top 10 shooting guards. Without further delay, here are our top 10 small forwards entering the 2016-17 season:
1. LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
You may love LeBron James or you may hate him, but there’s no debate: he is currently the top small forward in the NBA. Nearing the age of 32, James has a ton of miles on his body. With some nagging injuries over the years, some suggested that he has lost a step, isn’t the same player he once was or can’t dominate the way he used to. Well, James sent a big statement to his doubters in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, when he averaged an incredible 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game over the seven-game series. James led his team back from a 3-1 deficit and in Game 7, he logged 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocks and two steals to become just the third player in history to post a triple-double in a Finals Game 7. He also had a key block on Andre Iguodala with less than two minutes to go and the game tied that was instrumental in the Cavaliers pulling out the win.
It’s true that James can’t put out the same level of physical dominance as consistently as he could earlier in his career. But James proved that when his team needs him to be the best and most dominant basketball player on the planet, he can still deliver. Whether he is chasing down a block on the break, locking down a perimeter scorer, guarding someone in the post, working as a top-level playmaker or zoning in as a scorer, James is still a one-man force and the best small forward, if not the best basketball player, on the planet.
2. Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors
Yes, Kevin Durant now has to share the ball with three other All-Stars, which could bring down his box score averages. It doesn’t matter; he is still the second-best small forward in the NBA. Durant is probably the still the best pure scorer in the NBA and is a matchup nightmare. The question now becomes how well he fits with the Golden State Warriors.
Under head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors run a pass-happy, motion-based offense where players consistently pass up open looks for even better scoring opportunities for teammates. Durant now steps into the starting small forward position in place of Harrison Barnes, who mostly was looked to for spot-up shooting and the occasional drive to the basket. Durant is capable of much more in terms of scoring, shooting and playmaking. Durant may ultimately score less in isolation and rack up more assists with elite shooters around him. Whatever Durant’s role ends up being, he will still be the most talented small forward in the league aside from James and will make an already dominant Warriors team even better. This is especially likely if he can build off of his impressive defensive performance throughout the playoffs last season, where he looked like a light version Draymond Green.
3. Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs
Over his five seasons in the NBA, Kawhi Leonard has turned himself into one of the most well-rounded and best players in the NBA. Leonard has earned back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, edging out defensive savant Draymond Green and the league’s elite defensive centers. Leonard’s dominant defense is instrumental for his team’s success, and he is eager to lock down the best opposing scorer each and every night. Whether it’s jumping a passing lane that leads to an open layup in transition, forcing an elite scorer into a poor shooting night or guarding bigger players in the post, Leonard is the most versatile defender in the league aside from Green.
In addition to his defense, Leonard is a handful on offense and last season turned himself into an elite shooter from three-point range. Leonard had never shot better than 37.9 percent from distance until last season, when he shot an impressive 44.3 percent from beyond the arc. The Spurs’ offense generates open looks from deep consistently, so Leonard surely benefits from getting plenty of open catch-and-shoot opportunities every night. However, Leonard has also improved his ability to score off the dribble and is now a threat to take the ball into the midrange area and do damage from there as well. The next step for Leonard is becoming a better playmaker for his teammates, which may happen now that the Spurs will need to adjust their offense with the retirement of Tim Duncan. If Leonard improves that area of his game this season, he will take another significant step forward and could start pushing Durant and James for one of the top two spots in these rankings.
4. Paul George – Indiana Pacers
NBA fans were happy to have Paul George back on the court last season after he battled back from his devastating leg injury in 2014. Then, not only were they thrilled just to see him healthy, they were amazed to see him playing the best ball of his career. Over 81 regular season games, George averaged 23.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.9 steals, while shooting 37.1 percent from distance and 41.8 percent from the field. George’s efficiency dropped in some areas, but that’s partially because he had to shoulder so much of the responsibility on offense, acting both as a primary scorer and playmaker.
George took things to another level in the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors, where he averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and two steals, shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three-point range. George couldn’t lead the Pacers to a series victory, but he proved that he is still one of the best overall players in the game. Additionally, his defensive impact continues to be one of the best of any player as he consistently locks down opposing scorers. George may not be on Leonard’s level as a defender, but he isn’t too far off either. With more talent around him for this upcoming season, George may be able to lead the Pacers to a deep playoff run in the Eastern Conference.
5. Carmelo Anthony – New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony has been one of the best scorers in the NBA since entering the league in the 2003. However, last season Anthony focused less on scoring and became a better playmaker, averaging a career-high 4.2 assists per game. This is a significant development for Anthony and the New York Knicks, especially now that he will be surrounded by several talented teammates like Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings. Anthony may never be a LeBron James- or Paul George-level playmaker, but it is important for him to continue expanding his game as he enters his 15th NBA season at 32 years old.
However, despite his age and the miles on his body, Anthony can still produce in a big way. Last season he averaged 21.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and almost one block per game, while shooting 33.9 percent from deep and 43.4 percent from the field. Anthony will need to bring his shooting percentages up, which seems likely to happen considering he generally shoots better after playing with Team USA (as detailed by Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal) and he now has more talent around him.
It should be noted that Anthony has played significant minutes at power forward and could continue to do so. However, the league continues to move toward position-less basketball and small forwards are playing power forward in certain situations more often than ever before. Anthony may be better-suited to play at power forward at this point in his career, but he will still play significant minutes at small forward this season and he’s still one of the best all-around players at the position in the NBA.
6. Gordon Hayward – Utah Jazz
Over his six seasons in the NBA, Gordon Hayward has established himself as one of the best all-around small forwards in the NBA. He may not be the defender that Leonard is, the shooter Durant is or the physical specimen Giannis Antetokounmpo is, but he does everything really well and has no glaring weaknesses in his game. Last season, Hayward averaged 19.7 points, five rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game and shot 34.9 percent from beyond the arc and 43.3 percent from the field. Like Paul George, Hayward’s shooting percentages and efficiency stand to improve, but that deficiency comes as a result of shouldering such a big responsibility for running his team’s offense. A strong ball-handler, underrated passer and skilled scorer, Hayward is arguably the Jazz’s most important player.
Hayward is primed for a big season as he has reportedly spent the offseason working hard to improve his conditioning, strength and overall game. If the Jazz have some better luck with health this season, they could surprise a lot of people and make some noise in the Western Conference. If they do, it will likely be in large part because of Hayward’s considerable nightly impact.
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo is only 21 years old, but is already one of the most talented, versatile and unique players in the league. Entering just his fourth season, we have only seen glimpses of what ‘The Greek Freak’ is fully capable of. Last season, Antetokounmpo averaged 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, while shooting 25.7 percent from three-point range and 50.6 percent from the field. Antetokounmpo clearly needs to significantly improve his shooting to take another step in his development, but don’t let that shortcoming overshadow the other impressive parts of his game.
As I detailed in this article, Antetokounmpo has already become a very good playmaker from the small forward position. Antetokounmpo was particularly good after the All-Star break and registered several triple doubles throughout the season. Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd reportedly plans on using Antetokounmpo as a primary playmaker even more this season, so we should see him continue to run his team’s offense from the small forward position. If Antetokounmpo can continue improving as a playmaker, shooter and all-around team defender, he could become of the best overall players in the league sooner rather than later.
8. Nicolas Batum – Charlotte Hornets
There’s a reason why the Charlotte Hornets agreed to give Batum a five-year, $120 million contract this offseason. Like Gordon Hayward, Batum isn’t particularly elite in any single facet of the game, but he is a strong all-around contributor who can impact both ends of the court. Last season, Batum averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists and nearly one steal per game, while shooting 42.6 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from three-point range. Batum became only the fourth player in the franchise’s history to notch over 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 400 assists in a single season (Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn did so in 2000-01 and Anthony Mason did so in 1996-97).
Batum may be somewhat overrated as a perimeter defender at this point, but he is still a very good defender. His length and defensive instincts make him a tough matchup for most wing scorers in the NBA and provides Charlotte with a go-to defender for the toughest opponents. Now Batum can share that duty with all-world defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed the vast majority of last season with shoulder injuries. Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum should make a dynamic defensive duo for the Hornets, though Batum will have a bigger load to carry on offense since Kidd-Gilchrist is still working on his shaky shooting mechanics.
9. Andrew Wiggins – Minnesota Timberwolves
Andrew Wiggins is oozing with natural talent, but needs to make the move from volume scorer to all-around contributor. Wiggins averaged 20.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, two assists and one steal last season, while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range. Wiggins’ averages are solid for a 21-year-old, second-year player and they are likely to improve moving forward. Specifically, Wiggins needs to hone in on his shooting percentage from three-point range.
With Karl-Anthony Towns likely to draw double-teams consistently, Wiggins will need to knock down catch-and-shoot three-pointers consistently. He also will need to continue improving his game off the dribble. While Wiggins has the athletic ability to execute impressive plays going to the basket, too often he plays out of control and throws up difficult shots. Despite these criticisms, Wiggins has shown an evolving game over his short NBA career, including the ability to score in isolation, in the post, in transition and in cutting to the basket. He also was elite at drawing fouls last season, as he averaged seven free throw attempts per game.
Wiggins also has all the physical tools to be an elite wing-defender. However, Wiggins too often loses focus on defense, misses rotations or looks to make a home run play rather than focusing on smaller things like proper footwork or properly funneling his opponent into a weak side defender. That should change this upcoming season with Tom Thibodeau taking over as the team’s head coach. Thibodeau demands top-level effort and execution from his players, so Wiggins should make strides on the defensive end moving forward.
Once Wiggins adds some more experience and polish to his game and couples that with his elite athleticism, he should become one of the toughest matchups in the NBA.
10. Jae Crowder – Boston Celtics
Jae Crowder makes his way into this top 10 list after putting together a strong 2015-16 season for the Boston Celtics. Crowder averaged a career-best 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds. 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals last season and was instrumental in the Celtics earning a 48-34 regular season record. Crowder only shot 33.6 percent from beyond the arc last season, but defenses respected him enough to close in on him when he had an open look on the perimeter.
Where Crowder makes his biggest impact is on defense. Crowder is able to hold his own against the best scorers in the league and isn’t afraid to mix it up with opposing big men either. He is the quintessential Celtic as he does everything he can to help his team win, even if that means playing out of position or playing within a limited role. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has created a culture of discipline and effort in Boston and no one embodies those things quite like Crowder. Crowder may never overtake some of the more naturally talented players on this list, but he certainly deserves recognition for the significant impact he’s had for the Celtics over the last two seasons. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s locked into a bargain five-year, $35 million contract.
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