Top 10 best small forwards in NBA history

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Ryan Murphy

April 20th, 2020

Is there a greater misnomer in basketball than "small forward"? Many of the players who man the position are 6-foot-9 or taller, and their contributions are anything but small. Their immense value has been especially evident lately, as the last three All-Star Game MVPs have all been small forwards. "Threes" have also captured the NBA MVP award five times since 2009.

Join us now as we rank the top 10 small forwards in NBA history.

10. Grant Hill

Grant Hill’s career is classic case of what might have been. The graceful 6-foot-8 forward was a two-time All-American and co-Rookie of the Year who made the NBA All-Star team five times in his first six seasons. The future looked bright for Hill, before a series of catastrophic injuries caused him to miss 357 games during a particularly disastrous six-year stretch. Those setbacks robbed Hill of much of his explosiveness, but they didn’t take away his will to compete. He remade himself as a savvy role player and stuck around the NBA for nine more productive seasons.

9. Carmelo Anthony

Few superstars have been more maligned during their prime than Carmelo Anthony, whose limited range and lackadaisical defense briefly led to his exodus from the league at age 34. Melo’s game is certainly far from perfect, but he deserves credit for being one of the greatest scorers of his generation. The 10-time All-Star is second among all active players in career points and is USA Basketball’s all-time scoring leader. His efficiency may be questionable, but his credentials are not.

8. Dominique Wilkins

Wilkins is best remembered as a dunker, and that’s a shame, because he could do far more than stuff a Spalding through a net. The Georgia alum was also a spectacular scorer and underrated jump shooter who averaged 30 points per game twice in the late 1980s and finished with a career 46% shooting percentage. Sure, Nique never won a title, but his scoring prowess was a key reason why the Hawks made the playoffs in eight of the 11 seasons he played in Atlanta.

7. Scottie Pippen

Pippen is often dismissed as being Robin to Michael Jordan’s Batman, but the seven-time All-Star was capable of being far more than just a sidekick. That became evident during MJ’s baseball sabbatical in 1993-94 when Pippen led the 55-27 Bulls in points, assists, and steals and finished third in NBA MVP voting.

6. John Havlicek

The NBA is full of world-class athletes, but John Havlicek stands apart because of his remarkable motor. Hondo averaged over 45 minutes per game in back-to-back seasons in the early 1970s and had an uncanny knack for getting faster and stronger as the game wore on. His extraordinary endurance paved the way for 13 All-Star game appearances, 11 All-NBA selections, and eight NBA championships.

5. Elgin Baylor

Just how good was Elgin Baylor? The Lakers legend averaged 38.3 points per game during the 1961-62 season despite the fact that he never practiced with his team and was only available to play on weekends due to a commitment as a U.S. Army Reservist. “Mr. Inside” would be higher on our list were it not for the fact that he failed to win an NBA Championship during his otherwise illustrious 14-year career.

4. Julius Erving

There are plenty of All-Stars and MVPs on our list, but only one player can claim he helped keep two leagues afloat. That honor belongs to Julius Erving, whose electrifying play and highlight reel dunks kept the ABA alive longer after the league should have been put on life support. The good Doctor also reignited interest in the NBA at a time when the league was plagued by drug scandals and massively declining ratings. Without Dr. J, the NBA as we know it, may not exist.

3. Kevin Durant

The difference between good players and great players is how they perform on the biggest stages, and by that measure few can compare to Kevin Durant. The 10-time All-Star and four-time scoring champ has saved his greatest moments for the playoffs, where he has averaged 29.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.0 assists over 139 games. His otherworldly production has resulted in two NBA Finals MVP awards and a little piece of basketball immortality than not even his many Internet trolls can take away.

2. Larry Bird

Has there ever been a less physically imposing superstar than Larry Bird? The French Lick native could barely jump over a phone book and had zero definition, translucent skin, and a wispy blonde moustache that looked like it belonged on a 16-year-old gas jockey. And yet, despite his many physical limitations, Bird was a 12-time All-Star and three-time MVP who became the unlikely face of the league during the NBA’s golden years.

1. LeBron James

With all due apologies to Magic Johnson, no one in NBA history has ever been better equipped to play – and defend – all five positions than LeBron James. The four-time MVP entered the league as a small forward, but has mastered every role on the court during his brilliant 17-year career. That was especially evident this season, when he switched to point guard and ended up leading the NBA assists by a wide margin. King James ranks among first among all active players in minutes, points, assists, and player efficiency rating, and will likely lay siege to nearly every record in the books by the time he finally hangs up his size 15 Nikes.

Honorable mentions: Rick Barry, Alex English, Kawhi Leonard, Paul Pierce, James Worthy