If anything that the 2021-22 season proved, it’s that there is tremendous talent spread out across all positions in the NBA. Despite the dominance of big men like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, there were plenty of small forwards who rose to the top of the league as well. Small forwards are invaluable to a team’s success, having to possess the ability to be as versatile as possible on both ends of the floor. They have to be able to guard both the perimeter and the post in some cases while also being able to be an offensive weapon from those spots as well. When building the perfect small forward out of players from this past season, the player pool is vast and abundant.
LeBron James’s team did not have a good year as the Lakers missed postseason contention, but LeBron found himself having another season for the record books. DeMar DeRozan found himself a new home and flourished because of it. Jayson Tatum had another stellar season in his young career, leading the Celtics to the NBA Finals. Jimmy Butler continued his excellent two-way play en route to the Heat, finishing with the top seed in the Eastern Conference. There are a lot of players who get a ton of love and attention today, but the small forwards are still alive, well, and thriving.
Here is the perfect small forward built on players who played the position in the 2021-22 season:
Basketball IQ - LeBron James
It is no secret that LeBron James has one of the highest basketball IQs of all time. His official position may be small forward, but he runs and commands an offense like a superstar point guard. Heck, LeBron can go out there and command an offense from any position on the court, from point guard right on down to the center position. His mind is just as valuable on defense, constantly calling out switches and directing teammates to their assignments. The man simply knows basketball like the back of his hand.
The 2021-22 season was no different. The Lakers struggled mightily during the season, but it was LeBron who tried to take charge and reel them in. With the acquisition of Russell Westbrook, the Lakers hoped to take some of that pressure off of LeBron, but we saw how that worked out and how LeBron had to step it up even more in that department. Not only did the Lakers face performance issues, but health issues arose throughout the season as well. Regardless of his team's record, LeBron still showed why he’s the smartest man in basketball.
Scoring - LeBron James
As he gets prepared to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leader in points, LeBron James is coming off one of his most impressive scoring seasons yet. For the 3rd time in his career, LeBron averaged more than 30.0 PPG. He finished second to Joel Embiid for the scoring title and, with each passing bucket, made history in one way or another. In 2022, James became just the 3rd player in NBA history to surpass 36,000 points while shattering every scoring record that starts with “oldest player to”. In March of 2022, James had back-to-back 50-point games becoming the oldest player to do so and the first Laker to do it since Kobe Bryant back in 2008.
For much of his career, LeBron has made a living off of getting to and scoring at the rim. At 37 years old, he had to rely slightly more on his perimeter game. The majority of his attempts came from beyond the arc, where he shot a more than respectable 35.9%. That doesn’t mean that James couldn’t get to the rim when he had the opportunity. James took 32.5% of his shots from the 0-3 foot distance and tied a career-high, finishing 79.6% of the time. James finished the year shooting 62.0% overall from inside the arc. Even at 37, LeBron is still one of the guys you want most with the ball in his hands when your team needs a bucket.
Shooting - Jayson Tatum
Some may be shocked to see that we would like to build our small forward with Jayson Tatum's shooting considering his less than satisfactory performance in the 2022 NBA Finals. In the Finals, Tatum shot just 36.3% from the floor overall, but the regular season was where he shined. Tatum buried the 2nd most 3-pointers by a small forward on the year, draining 230 threes. His efficiency was down to a still very respectable 35.3%, but the way we are building our player, it is Tatum’s shot-creation leading to solid opportunities that we treasure.
Tatum’s shot creation is some of the best in the business. Whether it be his patented stepback, sidestep jumper, or mid-range fadeaways, Tatum can create whenever and from wherever he wants. In 2022 he ranked in just the 26th percentile in shot quality and dead last in shot-openness. Despite those tough opportunities, Tatum still finished the year in the 95th percentile in shot-creation and the 92nd percentile in shot-making. Some may have higher efficiency from three, but no small forward possesses the ability to create a shot he likes and make it on a tough defense as Jayson Tatum can.
Passing - LeBron James
As basketball and IQ go hand in hand, our small forward will have LeBron James’s passing. LeBron James recorded 6.2 APG in 2022, his 18th straight season with 6.0 APG or more. Simply put, LeBron James is one of the best passers in NBA history, and that has not slowed down one bit as he has gotten older. This season looked pretty bad all around for the Lakers, but it glared at times as James did his best to get his teammates involved and get some of the weight off of his shoulders.
LeBron didn’t have many-high efficiency shooters around him in 2021-22, which we all know he thrives as a playmaker when he does. The scary thing about LeBron is that he can control an offense from any position of the floor, including at center, where he played 35% of his minutes in 2021-22. His turnovers per game numbers were even the lowest they have been since going to Los Angeles. Even as the team struggled to win and playoff chances faded, LeBron still got his teammates involved and continues to show why he is one of the best playmakers/passers to ever lace them up.
Handles - DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan has a knack for making defenders look lost, and it was on full display in 2021-22. DeRozan created any shot he wanted from inside the arc and out with his dazzling display of dribbling skills that created the perfect opportunities for him. Spin moves, hesi’s, and a seemingly intimate relationship with the ball in his hands, the highest mid-range efficiency of his career at 51.1% 10-16 feet away from the basket. He also did this on the highest mid-range volume of his career. To create the opportunities, DeRozan had to create for himself with playmakers like Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball suffering lengthy injuries. The way DeRozan moved with the ball and blew by defenders or rose above them was poetic, and it is that which separates him from the other small forwards' handles.
Defense - Jimmy Butler
Over the past few seasons, Jimmy Butler has established himself as one of the most relentless defenders in the game. He’s physical, swarming, and his on-ball presence is downright maniacal. Things were more of the same in 2021-22. After leading the league in steals in 2021, Butler came back this season and averaged 1.6 SPG in 57 contests. He had a defensive rating of 107.7. While Jayson Tatum had the best defensive rating among small forwards in the league, he also had a slightly better overall defense in Boston than Butler did in Miami.
Miami as a team was great also. Thanks to Butler’s perimeter defense, Miami ranked 4th in points allowed, 4th in assists allowed, 5th in turnovers, and 1st in opponent 3-point percentage. Butler is often the first line of defense, often matching up with the opposing team’s best player any given night. The way he can press his weight on a perimeter player while keeping up with them laterally is something that only those that have mastered defense can accomplish. If he isn’t disrupting the passing lanes by getting his hands on the ball, he’s making entry passes so difficult that teammates can read the lanes. There are a few great defenders at the small forward position, and none are better than Jimmy Butler.
Athleticism - Anthony Edwards
As far as players who are must-watch basketball, Anthony Edwards is towards the top of the list. This is due largely in part to his freakish athleticism. At a stocky and stout 6’5” 225 pounds, Edwards possesses a 39.5-inch vertical that makes your jaw drop nearly every time he takes flight. He has a perfect blend of speed and strength that make it tough for defenders to both stay with him on the perimeter or stop him when he’s coming down the lane. Combine all of that with an insane burst and lightning-fast acceleration. The trajectory for Edwards as he turns just 21 years old is scary to think about.
Finishing - Jayson Tatum
There is no small forward in the NBA that is a more aggressive and dangerous finisher than Jayson Tatum. On the season, Tatum shot 74.1% from the 0-3 foot range, where he attempted 22.0% of his total shots. What makes Tatum’s finishing abilities is the lack of consistent shooting that is on the Boston Celtics Team.
A lack of shooting allows defenses to fall back and dare opposing players to drive in the lane. Tatum took on that challenge full bore. Tatum has shown the ability before to be nearly unstoppable when he turns the switch on to a downhill mentality driving to the hoop. He has a deeper skill set than most when it comes to creating opportunities to drive and either dish it out or finish for a layup, dunk, floater, or short jumper. Each season his efficiency at the rim has improved, and in 2021-22, it was at a career-high of just over 74.0 %. As a true three-level threat on the floor, he is most lethal when in attack mode.
Hustle - Jimmy Butler
If any one player embodies the words hustle and heart in the NBA, it’s Jimmy Butler. The man simply does not stop moving on either side of the ball. We have seen Butler sacrifice his body for the betterment of the team, especially in the playoffs. On offense, Butler either has the ball in his hands and is wearing defenses down by making them work or chasing him around without the ball. Butler’s game is all about constant motion. On defense, forget about it. Whether he is in isolation, gets switched off, or is simply trying to disrupt passing lanes away from the action, Jimmy Butler never stops forcing an offense to change its game plan.
Mentality - LeBron James
To go out there on the court every night and do the things LeBron James has done on a nightly basis for the past 19 years has been incredible to watch. The beauty of the way LeBron has done it has been the way he has handled extreme criticism despite being a Top 2 player ever. The scrutiny was elevated in 2021-22. All LeBron did to respond was have the second-highest scoring season of his career and pull within striking distance of Kareem. Yes, the Lakers struggled. No, it was not from lack of effort on LeBron’s part. LeBron has heard all the criticisms of his game despite being great and doing anything he can to win. If one thing is for certain, it’s that he will always respond in a big way.
Clutch - DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan’s clutch numbers were not only the best among small forwards, but they were among the best clutch numbers in the league. His biggest clutch moments came as the calendar flipped from January into February. DeRozan became the 1st player in NBA history to end back-to-back games on a game-winning three in the final ten seconds. He also scored 157 points in the clutch, which led all small forwards but also finished just second in the league, 2 points behind Joel Embiid.
DeRozan was also extremely efficient during clutch situations. He shot 50.0% from three and 53.5 % overall from the field in clutch situations, again the best among small forwards. DeMar’s clutch heroics led the Bulls to a 23-15 overall record in clutch games while they finished in the 6th spot in the Eastern Conference. It is probably safe to say that without his clutch numbers, the Bulls may not have been in postseason contention.
This Small Forward Has The GOAT Potential
Combining the very best attributes of the best small forwards from the 2021-22 season, we have built a superstar that has true Top 5 of all-time potential. Offensively, he just might be the greatest offensive option ever. With Jayson Tatum’s shot creation, Edwards’s athleticism, and LeBron’s basketball IQ, there would be no ceiling on his potential. This player is someone you can turn to in big moments to create and make big plays game after game. The potential stat line of a player like this would be 43.0 PPG, 12.0 RPG, and 12.0 APG.
Defensively, it is more of the same. Again with James’s IQ, Edwards’ speed, and Jimmy Butler's instincts and defensive abilities, this player would be a potential DPOY candidate. I could see this small forward with the ability to average 3.0 SPG and 2.0 BPG at a minimum. The way our player has been built, he would rival the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Michael Jordan, and Gary Payton as far as two-way players go. Is this player a threat to the title of G.O.A.T.?