Projects Small Forward Rankings: 2013/2014

LeBron James.  Projected Ranking: First.  Current Ranking: First.

Miami Heat's James sits with the Larry O'Brien trophy and the NBA Finals MVP trophy after his team won the title by defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA basketball finals in MiamiThere is no doubt that James is the best player, not only at his position, but on the planet.  He is the best play maker at the small forward position.  He is the best rebounder at his position.  He is the most versatile defender at his position, and there is likely no player at his position who is better at man-to-man defence (though a few are perhaps on a par with James).  He is also, very likely, the best scorer at his position (though Durant is my first pick, I think the gap between the two is minuscule).  The reigning MVP and two-time champion has even improved his game, shooting a career best .406 from behind the arc.  He also shot a career best .565 from the field.  Durant is the better shooter of the two, clearly, even as good as James’s shooting is, but James simply does everything else better and shows signs of improvement.  There is no argument to suggest that there is another player in the league today who is better than James.

Kevin Durant.  Projected Ranking: Second.  Current Ranking: Second.

kevindurantJust as it is clear that James is the first pick, it is equally clear that Durant is a very close second and that no other player is in the conversation for that ranking.  Durant’s shooting was at historic levels last season as he posted percentages above .500, .400 and .900 from the field, the arc and the free-throw line respectively, leading the league in free throw percentage.  He also pulled off something which few point guards can do, let alone small forwards: He increased his assists whilst decreasing his turnovers.  He is also neck-and-neck with James in the rebounding category and like James is continuing to improve his game each year, and at only 24 years of age, Durant seems like he’s got room to grow yet.  The only question is: Will the Thunder continue to improve with Durant?  They lost James Harden and then let his replacement, Kevin Martin, walk in free agency.  Missing that third elite scorer on the team will hurt unless Ibaka and Sefolosha can step up and Lamb can start shooting like a guard who is supposed to be in the NBA. 

Paul George: Projected Ranking: Third.  Current Ranking: Fourth.

paulgeorgePaul George’s playoff performance was fantastic this season, as was his personal progress as a player.  It may seem like a jump to suggest that George will be better than Melo as soon as next year, but bigger surprises have happened.  Last season say George outperform Melo when it came to assists, rebounds, steals, personal fouls and assist-to-turnover ratio as well as steals-to-fouls ratio.  Most will agree that George is the better defender, hands down, and this should count for something since half of the game is played on that end of the court.  Melo, last year, posted better percentages, but the gap between the two players was not so far apart that George shouldn’t be able to close it this year.  The only question is whether or not George will even be a small forward this season.  An injury to Danny Granger created the necessity of George moving to small forward.  The development of Lance Stephenson, though, doesn’t leave much room for George at shooting guard.  The Pacer must decide who to play where.  Can Granger come off the bench and play small forward and shooting guard?  It seems George might be better suited for that role, despite the fact such a move would mean the Pacers’ best player would be coming off the bench.  George could also play minutes at point guard considering his burgeoning play-making skills.  What is more likely is that George will start at small forward and move to shooting guard or point guard when Granger hits the floor, unless the Pacers work out a trade involving Granger, which at this point might be premature.  What is clear is that George is growing as a player and will be among the best all-around players in the game this season.

Carmelo Anthony: Projected Ranking: Fourth.  Current Ranking: Third.

carmeloLBJIt is true that Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring, but this was the case because he took more shots than anybody not named Bryant or Westbrook.  Despite taking 56 more shots than Durant, he finished with 360 fewer points.  Both LeBron James and James Harden took fewer shots and finished with more points as well.  He was huge for the Knicks this past season and worthy of MVP consideration.  He is among the best rebounders are his position, but he is not among the best play makers at his position, nor is he among the best defenders.  What is troubling is that Melo’s game has actually regressed recently despite the fact that he should be putting up the best numbers of his career, considering his age.  At 28, Melo’s assists were actually down from last season, as were his steals.  His rebounding numbers were far better when he was in Denver where he average over 7 rebounds a game three times, and though his shooting percentage increase last season, his FG% is still not as high as it was during his early 20’s when he shot .481, .476 and .492 in consecutive seasons (though his increased number of 3pt shots attempted figure into this trend).  He also hasn’t been getting to the line as well as he used to, though again, last season was an improvement on the season before.  It is certain that Melo will again be among the league leaders in scoring, but with the rest of his game receding, it’s not clear that he will hold his standing as the third best small forward in the NBA.

Nicolas Batum.  Project Ranking: Fifth.  Current Ranking: Ninth.

batumLast season the Minnesota Timberwolves tried to lure Batum away from Portland.  The restricted free agent signed an offer sheet, but Portland matched.  This past season, Batum delivered on that perceived potential recording the first 5X5 game in almost ten years (Andrie Kirilenko did it twice in 2003).  His defence is stellar, his play making improved greatly (he almost tripled his assist numbers this season whilst not even doubling his turnovers) and he remains a good shooter, though increased usage has diluted his percentages a bit.  Portland has a thin bench though, and the departure of JJ Hickson will mean the Trailblazers will need a little more help on the glass from other players.  An increase in rebounding can be expected from Batum, as well as an increase in points and assists as he continues to improve.  Some didn’t even have Batum in their top ten this past year, but it seems clear to me that this unique talent will continue to improve and have a far greater impact than forwards like Danilo Gallinari or Rudy Gay.

Luol Deng.  Projected Ranking: Sixth.  Current Ranking: Sixth.

luol-dengDeng was one of the most underrated players last season.  He was an iron man, playing a league high 38.7 minutes a game, and his defence and rebounding were integral to the Bulls success in the absence of MVP Derrick Rose.  Deng is a decent play maker, doesn’t cause a lot of turnovers, commits few fouls despite being such a strong defensive player and can shoot as well as most small forwards.  The recent signing of Mike Dunleavy Jr., however, leads one to believe that the Bulls may see Deng as a trade piece or that he will at the very least be getting far fewer minutes this season.  If traded, Deng could be the difference maker for a contender, or a solid veteran leader for a team building itself into a playoff team.  If he stays with the Bulls, his minutes will likely be greatly reduced and so his production will likely fall off.  His all-around game, though remarkable, is not as statistically as impressive as Batum’s.  The two are likely equals defensively, but Batum generates more possessions via steals and blocks.  It is hard to gauge where a player like Deng will rank considering a looming trade and/or reduction in minutes, but it is clear that Deng remains and elite defender with a great all-around game.

Andre Iguodala.  Projected Ranking: Seventh.  Current Ranking: Fifth.

Andre+Iguodala+DenverIguodala is in a similar situation with Deng.  He is joining a team where he will likely see a reduction in minutes, and also, considering how deep the Warriors are, a reduction in usage, which will certainly lead to a reduction in production.  Iggy though, is also an elite defender and is a much better play maker than Deng (though Deng is the better rebounder and shooter).  Playing for the Warriors should open things up for Iggy as his last two stops saw him become the focus of opposing defences.  Like Kevin Martin, who was relieved of first option duties upon arriving in OKC, Iggy will likely be a third option on offense while defences focus on Stephen Curry and David Lee.  This will open things up for Iggy, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes.  Either Iggy or Barnes are capable of playing small forward and shooting guard, though Iggy may be the better option.  Like George, Iggy may end up playing many minutes at a position other than small forward, but since small forward is the position he has traditionally played, I’m listing him as a small forward for the upcoming season. 

Paul Pierce. Projected Ranking: Eighth.  Current Ranking: Seventh.

paulpierce1Ranking Paul Pierce this low may be unfair.  Despite his age, he was still among the best small forwards in the league last season.  He posted per36 averages of close to 20/7/5 in points, rebounds and assists respectively, and, as he has done for the entirety of his career, averaged over a steal a game.  His defence does not seem to have diminished, despite getting his ankles broken by his new teammate Joe Johnson, and his shooting percentages were not far off from his career averages (his 3pt percentage was actually higher).  At 36 years of age, however, Pierce will see a reduction in minutes this upcoming season, much as he did last year.  Coupled with this, he will also now be playing for a team that has three other quality ball handlers in: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Jason Terry, and so may see much less time with the ball in his hands.  As for scorers, he will have to share the ball with an immensely talented starting lineup that features Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez, Johnson and Williams, and Pierce will also be backed up by the most talented small forward he’s ever played with: Andrie Kirilenko.  Piece’s level of play may not fall off much, but his production certainly will.  As a result, it will be hard to gauge his impact and level of play, so he may end up warranting a much higher ranking than his current one, but such subjectively has been unfair to great talents who are humble enough to put team first in the past. 

Kawhi Leonard. Projected Ranking: Ninth.  Current Ranking: Tenth.

Kawhi LeonardOther than James and Durant, there may not be a better shooter at the small forward position than Leonard, and when it comes to rebounding, Leonard manages to hold his own in that department as well, grabbing 7.2 per36 on his career.  Under the tutelage of Greg Popovich, and in playing alongside consummate professionals like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, Leonard’s continued improvement is fair to expect.  He defence, as is the case with anybody who has been coached by Popovich, is above average to say the least and Leonard may soon be in elite company in that respect.  The only statistical category in which Leonard seems to be trailing other small forwards is assists, but considering that he plays on a team that features ball handlers and play makers like Parker, Ginobili and Duncan, it is fair to expect that Leonard might not set up too many plays.  His averages will likely not be as impressive as some other small forward who have not made my top-ten.  Gallinari, Granger, Gay, Parsons and others will likely have higher scoring averages, but they will also have much lower percentages and won’t have to share the ball with future Hall of Famers like Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, and other emerging players like Danny Green, Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter.  His level of play though will be as high as any small forward who fails to make the All-Star team, and may be as high as some that do. 

Rudy Gay.  Project Ranking: Tenth.  Current Ranking: Eighth. 

Rudy Gay, dunking on a team that looks like it was coahced by Mike 'Antoni.

Rudy Gay, dunking on a team that looks like it was coahced by Mike ‘Antoni.

I’ve been a big fan of Gay for a while, and have felt that he warranted a spot on the All-Star team a couple of times.  In recent years, his FG% has taken a bit of a hit, however, and so I’m inclined to rank him a little lower than I would have in years past.  Gay claims his poor shooting may have been the result of a recently-diagnosed eye-sight problem that has been corrected, so hopefully he returns to form.  If he does, he may make me look like a fool for only fitting him on my list at the tenth slot.  He’s been a solid rebounder throughout his career, getting close to 6 boards a game, and a decent play maker, though his assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t as good as some other small forwards.  Statistically, he gets as many steals as most other small forwards, but his reputation as a defender isn’t where the reputations of Tayshuan Prince, Deng or Iggy are at.  In Toronto, Gay will likely get a high usage, unless the coach looks to develop young talent, and the new General Manager may look to move Gay to clear cap space and bring in young prospects of draft picks.  Things are up in the air for Gay.  He could have a career year, or could struggle.  I expect something in the middle though.

Honourable Mention:

Danny GrangerDanny Granger:  An injury to Granger allows the growth of Paul George and Lance Stephenson.  Granger, who was among the best small forwards in the league, may find himself coming off the bench now, but the fact that the Pacers have become deeper takes a burden off of his shoulders and will allow him to play against defences who can no longer double-team him.  I expect an increase in efficiency even if his averages drop quite a bit from his last full season.

danilogallinariDanilo Gallinari:  A lot of other people are high on Gallinari. I am not, though I do respect his ability.  The departure of Iggy from Denver means a heavier load will be on Gallinari’s shoulders, but a coaching change could impact Gallinari’s role as well.  For a forward whose primary focus is offence, I’d like to see better percentages across the board and for a guy his size I expect more rebounds as well. 

shawnmarionShawn Marion:  Marion continues to be grossly underrated.  He is one of the elite defenders at his position, but his usage will continue to drop in Dallas, and whatever numbers he puts up will be ignored due to the fact that he is posting them on a lottery team.  If the Mavs decide to go into full re-build mode, Marion would likely be the first piece to end up on the trading block and could serve as an important addition on a contender. 

MWPAK47Andrie Kirilenko:  He will be coming off the bench for the first time in ten years, but his defence and all-around game will be crucial to Brooklyn’s title hopes.

Metta World Peace:  Like Kirielnko, MWP will be coming off the bench for the first time in many years, but his defence will play a big role.  New York wasn’t able to upgrade as much as they’d like due to salary cap restraints, but MWP is a great addition. 

Guys to watch out for:

Chandler-ParsonsChandler Parsons:  The arrival of Dwight Howard and his demands for a bigger role on offence will likely reduce the potential growth for Parsons, but he is a great young talent who can shoot the lights out, pass the rock well, rebound the ball and play some defence.  The success of the Rockets may be greatly influenced by how well Parsons plays, and if last season was any indication, his influence will be for the betterment of the team.

harrinsonbarnesHarrison Barnes:  The high level of play from rookie sensation Harrison Barnes had some Golden State fans cringing at the thought of moving Barnes in a sign-and-trade for Dwight Howard.  The arrival of Iguodala may mean a reduction in growth for Harrison, who plays the same position, but coach Mark Jackson should be able to create a rotation that allows Klay Thompson, Barnes and Iggy to 30+ minutes apiece and allow Barnes room to develop. 

Michael-Kidd-GilchristMichael Kidd-Gilchrist:  The Bobcats were awful last season, but less awful than the year before.  Part of the reason for that was the arrival of MKG.  His stats as a rookie were not dissimilar to that of HOF forward Scottie Pippen (though Pippen is clearly more inclined to play making).  MKG’s rebounding numbers were considerably better than Pippen as a rookie, and his defensive stats rivalled Pippen’s rookie season.  His overall shooting percentages were also better than Pippen in his rookie season.  Though it is perhaps unfair to expect the same level of development from MKG, the potential is there.  I wouldn’t expect him to be able to bring the ball up as well as Pippen ever did, but MKG has the ability to match or exceed Pippen in other aspects of his game.

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