The small forward position is the most dominant position in the league today. With the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard winning NBA titles, superstar players at this position have the most impact on today’s game. Skilled small forwards can defend multiple positions, and have the size to completely dominate the game offensively.
Even if most small forwards are versatile and impactful, not all have the ability to score the ball like shooting guards or even be primary ball handlers for their squad. As a result, only a handful of small forwards can be selected as the greatest to ever do it.
Here are all the NBA’s greatest small forwards in Tiers.
Grant Hill, Paul George, Glen Rice, Chris Mullin, Bernard King, Jack Twyman, Peja Stojakovic, Billy Cunningham, Marques Johnson
The Tier 5 small forwards are all Hall of Fame worthy but do not possess the natural ability and skillsets of the higher tier small forwards. Still, these guys are All-Star quality with exceptional stats and awards to back their careers as sidekicks or number two options for their teams
Grant Hill is the biggest what-if if NBA history. If he kept healthy and progressed in his career similar to what people expected, he might actually be the greatest to ever do it. Instead, Hill was very serviceable after his unfortunate injuries but still gets the nod at Tier 5 because he was unbelievable when he was healthy and in his prime.
George is a perfect example of a great player who doesn’t quite have the impact great enough to win titles as the man. There isn’t anything wrong with that, as George is currently one of the best players in the world right now. PG can shoot it from range and has amazing perimeter defense, making him a top 25 SF of all time.
Glen Rice was a former 4th pick in the draft who managed to have a very successful NBA career. He ended his career with a ring as part of the Shaq and Kobe Dynasty but was also a very good player making 3 All-Star teams and averaging 18.3 PPG. Over his career, Rice made a total of over 1,500 3-point FG over his career which spanned 15 seasons.
Chris Mullin probably should have an NBA title, but thanks to Michael Jordan that didn’t happen. Still, Mullin is a Hall of Famer having made 5 All-Star teams and 4 All-NBA teams. Mullin was a very good scorer, averaging 18.2 PPG for his career and had his most memorable moments with the Golden State Warriors and the Indiana Pacers later on in his career.
The great Bernard King had his best season in the 1984-1985 season by putting up a monster 32.9 PPG, leading to a scoring title. While averaging 22.5 PPG for his career, King was the prototype All-Star forward who could score in bunches at a very consistent rate. King is mostly loved by Knicks fans, who cherished all the moments’ King gave them on the basketball court.
Many might not know who Jack Twyman was, but he was a Hall of Famer and 6-time All-Star as a member of the Royals. Twyman averaged 19.2 PPG and 6.6 RPG over an 11-year career lasting throughout the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. Twyman later became a broadcaster and is one of the legends of the game dating back to 1955.
Peja Stojakovic is known, for one thing, shooting the basketball at a very efficient rate. Peja averaged from three for his career and had his best years with Sacramento by averaging PPG. Stojakovic might not have been a superstar player, but he was a bonafide All-Star and terrific shooter.
Billy Cunningham was a legitimate Hall of Famer, who averaged 21.2 PPG and 10.4 RPG over his career which includes 5 All-Star appearances, 4 All-NBA teams, the 1972-1973 MVP Award, and the NBA title in 1966-1967. “The Kangaroo Kid” was a heck of a player and a legend in the city of Philadelphia.
Finally, Marques Johnson was the number three pick in the 1977 draft who averaged a career 20.1 PPG and 7.0 RPG playing mainly for the Milwaukee Bucks. Johnson made 5 All-Star teams, 3 All-NBA teams, and managed the All-Rookie team in 1977. He is one of the best players to ever play for Milwaukee and the final man on the Tier 5 group.
Paul Pierce, Dominique Wilkins, Adrian Dantley, Paul Arizin, Rick Barry, James Worthy, Carmelo Anthony, Alex English
The Tier 4 small forwards are All-Star players who can easily be the number one option on their teams. These guys have what it takes to be the main guy to take the big shots, make the big plays, and win multiple individual achievements.
The Truth, Paul Pierce, is one of the most consistent scorers of the modern era. He can get it done from the perimeter, and even on the inside. Perhaps the greatest attribute of Paul Pierce was his ability in the clutch. He never feared big moments and that is a reason he is a former Finals MVP and NBA champion.
When you think of the Atlanta Hawks, you think of Dominique Wilkins. He is a legend of the sport and one of the greatest dunkers we have ever seen. Dominique could soar through the air with ease, but he was also a terrific player. He never won an NBA title, but he has a case for being a top 50 player ever.
Adrian Dantley was a scary offensive player, averaging 24.3 PPG and 5.7 RPG over his career. Dantley won the scoring title twice, made 6 All-Star teams, and won the ROY award during the 76-77 season. Dantley had his best years with the Utah Jazz, where he is one of the very best to ever play in the great basketball city.
Paul Arizin was a superstar for the Philadelphia Warriors, and his resume backs him up in every way. Arizin made 10 All-Star teams, is a 2-time scoring champion, and even won an NBA title in 1955-1956. Arizin averaged 22.8 PPG and 8.6 RPG despite standing only 6’4″ and weighing 190 lbs. He truly played bigger than he actually was.
Rick Barry was a superstar, and there is absolutely no question about that. He made a whopping 12 All-Star teams, made 6 All-NBA along with 4 All-ABA teams, won the 1965-1966 ROY, and was the Finals MVP for the 1974-1975 Warriors. Barry had what it took to win an NBA title as the main man on the team, and has a solid case for being a part of Tier 2.
Big Game James Worthy truly shined in the biggest moments, winning a Finals MVP in his career and being a part of the Showtime Lakers Dynasty that so many people loved. Worthy was a stud at the small forward spot, defending the ball very well and also scoring the ball thanks to his athleticism and sharp mid-range game. Worthy is easily a Tier 3 player and one of the best small forwards ever in terms of the overall impact on a winning team.
Carmelo Anthony is the only top tier talent out of the 2003 draft class to not win an NBA title. While it isn’t entirely his fault, this is one mark on the otherwise illustrious career of Carmelo Anthony. As a matter of fact, Melo should be in a higher tier but his postseason success is very average. Still, Melo is a superstar offensive player and easily one of the best scorers of all time. He averaged PPG for his career and was simply one of the best scorers in the league throughout his career.
Alex English was definitely a superstar player, thanks to his scoring ability. English was the main man during the 1980s, scoring the ball at will and leading the Denver Nuggets to the postseason 9 straight times. He was very consistent as well, averaging over 23 PPG for those 9 straight seasons. English is a member of the Hall of Fame and amassed a total of 25,613 points scored over his great career.
Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor, Kawhi Leonard, Scottie Pippen, John Havlicek, Kevin Durant
The Tier 3 small forwards were the superstar players who are among the very best to ever do it. These six men are either capable of carrying a team to the Finals or impacting the floor at an extremely high level in order to win countless times during the regular season and playoffs.
Dr. J, Julius Erving, is probably many old heads’ favorite NBA players. He revolutionized the game with his swagger, scoring ability, and pure grace on the court. Nobody really moved like him on the court, and he has created countless memories for the NBA that will never be forgotten. He averaged 24.2 PPG for his career that lasted 16 seasons and is one of the greatest dunkers of all time.
Elgin Baylor is a scorer of the highest order, averaging a career 27.4 PPG which ranks third all-time. Baylor was a scoring machine with only one knock on his career: he never won an NBA title. That is the only thing holding him back from being mentioned among the best ever because he had everything else in the bag. Baylor was the original dominant scorer similar to the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant and a worthy consideration for Tier 3.
Quite impressively, Kawhi Leonard is already in Tier 3. He earned this spot by winning an NBA title last year in one of the most historic runs we have ever seen. Leonard won an NBA title with the Spurs and also won Finals MVP, but he wasn’t the superstar he is now which is astonishing. Kawhi led the Raptors to their first-ever title and he once again captured Finals MVP. If he managed to win a third with the Clippers, Kawhi just might have an argument for fighting for the top two tiers.
Scottie Pippen is the most accomplished superstar on this Tier, having won 6 NBA titles as Michael Jordan’s sidekick in Chicago. Make no mistake, Michael or the Bulls would have 0 titles if it wasn’t for Scottie Pippen. Pip was arguably the best perimeter defender of all time, a sensational passer, and an athletic freak who could impact the game at the highest level. Even if Pippen reached this level of play thanks to Michael Jordan, he deserves credit for getting there.
John Havlicek is one of the best Celtics ever and is probably the third-best SF ever when you look at his longevity and consistency in his scoring numbers. Havlicek averaged 20.8 PPG for his career playing for the Celtics for his whole career. Havlicek made 13 All-Star teams, 8 All-Defensive teams, 11 All-NBA teams, and won a whopping 8 NBA titles. His resume speaks for itself.
Current superstar Kevin Durant is already in Tier 3 and just might have a chance to fight for Tier 2 if he can win some titles in Brooklyn. KD might be the greatest scorer ever at the small forward spot if you consider all the ways he can get it done at the highest efficiency. KD won two NBA titles by forming a superteam, but his scoring numbers and efficiency are alarming enough to place him in Tier 3. Only time will tell if he can maybe have a chance to move up.
This next tier contains only one player, and it is Larry Bird. Bird was the face of the league before Michael Jordan took over, and is one of the most competitive athletes in sports history. Bird wanted to win at all costs and made sure all his opponents knew and heard it from his mouth.
Bird was a phenomenal passer, rebounder, and shooter that enabled him to completely control the pace of the game in his team’s favor. Bird didn’t have a weakness on the floor beside his average athleticism, which did not even hinder his game one bit.
He won 3 NBA titles with the Celtics, staying his whole career and consistently made his case as the greatest SF to ever play until we saw the rise of a special player who currently grasps Tier 1. Bird was the epitome of success, competition, and pure dominance in an era that includes some all-time great players including Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
3 NBA titles, 2 Finals MVPs, and 12 All-Star appearances make him the second-best small forward ever and it is not close.
Best of the Best: LeBron James
The fact that anybody could be greater than Larry Bird is one example of how dominant LeBron James has been since he came into the league.
4 MVPs, 3 NBA titles, and 3 Finals MVPs don’t even do LeBron James justice as a great basketball player. He has consistently been at the top of the league for at least a decade, and he can carry any team to an NBA Finals appearance. He is dominant on both a physical and intangible level.
There isn’t anything for LeBron James left to prove, and he only has to catch up to Michael Jordan in order to be considered the greatest player of all time. Many place him there already because he has been the superstar and most dominant player for this decade. There is no doubt that LeBron is the greatest small forward of all time.