The small forward in today’s NBA is arguably the most valuable position in basketball. Unlike in the past, players at the forward spot today can handle the ball and initiate their team’s offense, as well as guard almost every position on the floor.
LeBron James is the primary example of this change as he’s able to do everything for his team. Small forwards are generally asked to be the most well-rounded member of a team, and the best ones are versatile on both ends.
From Elgin Baylor to Scottie Pippen and now to James, the small forward is home to some of the most dynamic, exciting and lethal players ever. Here are how the top-25 small forwards of today fall into five tiers, ranging from role players superstars. If someone obvious is missing off the list, it’s probably because basketball-reference lists them at a different position.
Tier 5: Role Players
Danuel House Jr., De’Andre Hunter, Otto Porter Jr., Taurean Prince
These four are at the bottom of the top-25 small forwards of today. They all are starting-caliber players and can help their teams win on some nights. Others, though, they disappear or lose confidence in their jumpers, which usually limits their impact since none of them are two-way players.
House Jr. was a big part of the Rockets’ success this season as he demonstrated a consistent 3-point shot and high energy, but off-the-court antics forced him to leave the bubble early. Hunter was the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft and showed positive flashes throughout his rookie campaign, but as with most young players, he needs to work on his efficiency and strength.
Prince and Porter Jr. are worse players and seem to be regressing, so there’s a good chance they won’t be on this list next season. Moving to a new team might change things.
Tier 4: Solid
OG Anunoby, Miles Bridges, Jae Crowder, Joe Harris, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles
These five can be inconsistent, yet they each get extended minutes and responsibilities when they’re playing well are matched-up against a favorable opponent. They all can shoot in addition to providing another positive dimension or two, and it appears their teammates trust them to make the right decision more often than not.
Anunoby and Crowder were probably a tier lower before the bubble, but they both played extremely well during the playoffs. In separating supporting-cast members like these guys, it’s helpful to have strong performances in the postseason under one’s belt. Ingles also had some good moments in the restart, especially when playmaking, although his shot has failed him.
Harris, Hood and Bridges have yet to play well consistently on winning teams, so it’s hard to tell exactly how good they can be and if they’re simply putting up solid numbers on sub-par teams or not. Hopefully Hood returns to the player he was before his Achilles tendon tear.
Tier 3: Good
Will Barton, Bojan Bogdanovic, DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Jonathan Isaac, Kelly Oubre Jr., T.J. Warren, Andrew Wiggins
The “Good” group contains forwards who can score, defend, shoot, and/or make plays, and display glimpses of stardom on occasion. They’re not the flashiest bunch and can’t be counted on to consistently score 20-plus points or make plays in crunch time, but alongside star-caliber players, this tier can take a team to the next level.
DeRozan and Hayward were once stars but fell from grace in recent years due to age and injuries, respectively. Wiggins had all the potential in the world to be a franchise-caliber star, but his apparent lack of work ethic and competitiveness make him an underachiever.
Oubre Jr. and Warren can get buckets, yet they’re lacking in other aspects of the game. Barton and Bogdanovic took big leaps as players in the last couple of seasons. They fill gaps for their teams and provide much-needed scoring outbursts. Health, however, kept them out of the playoffs.
Isaac also suffered from injuries this season — he tore his ACL in the bubble — but before he went down he looked like one of the more versatile and talented defenders in the league today. If he regains the same athleticism he had, the sky is the limit for him as a two-way player.
Tier 2: Stars
Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Khris Middleton
As far as “Stars” go in today’s NBA, the small forward group is underwhelming. Butler is currently the top player on this list since he’s perhaps currently playing the best basketball of his career, but he’s not someone who dominates all four quarters or tallies eye-popping averages. He’s a star for his leadership and effort, and while that’s valuable, him being the best of this bunch says a lot about George.
George, once again, fell apart in the playoffs, this time as his Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the underdog Nuggets. He continues to appear disengaged and rattled in big games, and it’s gotten to the point where he can’t be counted on. Middleton suffers from similar shortcomings, yet bad games aren’t present throughout his entire career. If these two can play well in the playoffs more regularly, their teams may meet in the Finals as soon as next season.
Ingram only became an All-Star this season, so it’s unclear how good he really can be and if he’ll still average good numbers alongside a healthy Zion Williamson. It’s a bit troubling that the Pelicans looked so defeated near the end of the seeding games with Ingram asked to be one of the team’s leaders, but he’s young and should use that as a learning experience.
Tier 1: All-Timers/Superstars
Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard
These three are not only head and shoulders above the rest of the small forwards in the NBA, but Durant, James and Leonard are all all-time greats. They’ve each won multiple Finals MVPs and have had legitimate cases for the best player in the world at one point or another. It’s a pleasure to watch them work.
James is the top-dog simply based on his longevity and accolades. No player before him has been so great for so long. He’s the most well-rounded player of all time and got the best of both Durant and Leonard throughout his career, even meeting them in the Finals on numerous occasions.
Durant ranks second, mostly because of his scoring acumen and having won the MVP in 2014. He’s debatably the greatest scorer ever and is unstoppable when locked-in. His time on the Thunder ended controversially, but he made the Warriors so dominant because of both his talent and unselfishness. Everyone anxiously awaits his return from a torn Achilles tendon next season, especially because he’s now in Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving.
Leonard ranks third despite being the reigning Finals MVP and the most recent one to win a ring. He came up short in Game 7 against Denver, but Leonard has historically been one of the more clutch and playoff-ready performers in the NBA since he ascended to stardom in 2014. Some don’t like him for his robotic demeanor and constantly missing games for “load management,” but he’s one of the few players in the league who truly dominates on both ends.
What’s cool about these three is how often they’ve faced off in the playoffs. Fans always want to see the best players in the world go head-to-head, and basketball followers have been lucky enough to see these three clash on the game’s biggest stage multiple times. Let’s hope they continue creating timeless highlights against one another in the seasons to come.