This offseason we’re breaking down the top 10 greatest at each position, and for this edition we’ll be focusing in on the league’s best ever small forwards.
Before we start I want to be clear that I count ABA and BAA/NBL accomplishments because those leagues merged into the NBA.
No top ten list is complete without some healthy debate, so give us your thoughts on Twitter at @hoop_social and let us know how your list compares!
1. LeBron James
6’9 Cavs, Heat, Lakers (#3 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
4x Champion, 4x Finals MVP, 4x MVP, 18x All-Star 18x All NBA, 6x All-Defense, Scoring Title, Assist Title, ROY, 75th Anniversary Team
LeBron should have 1 more MVP (Rose), and a DPOY (Gasol), but voters kept that from happening. He also could have had another ring if D-Wade didn’t freeze him out in 2011 (Thank you, Wade, one of the few nice things this Mavs fan will say about him). Still, LeBron has 4 rings (which is one more than the number of times MJ quit basketball) and had more All NBAs than anyone else.
His overall statistical brilliance is hard to match, and his finals performances (the 2011 freeze-out aside) are incredible.
No one can do the things LeBron can. His biggest thing is his durability.
King James spends over $1 million a year on his body, while Wilt Chamberlain’s career earnings adjusted for inflation were $1.7 million. That dedication by LeBron shows, having made the finals as his team’s best player 9 times so far over 12 years, Larry Bird played 13 seasons.
LeBron is the only player active right now with a shot at the ultimate GOAT.
2. Larry Bird
6’9 Hall of Fame, Boston (#7 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
3x Champion, 2x FMVP, 3x MVP, 12x All-Star, 10x All NBA, 3x All-Defense, ROY, 4x FT% Title, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.
Larry Legend was a fantastic player.
First off, I want to address the morons who say Bird couldn’t play in today’s NBA. Look, if Luka Doncic is an All-NBA player The Hick From French Lick would be MVP.
Bird was the single greatest basketball mind to ever play the sport. He was a chess grandmaster manipulating the defense and his own teammates into the perfect positions for him to control the game. He knew when to kill the momentum of a game with a dagger 3, how to fake even the greatest players with a pass or a pump fake, and how to out-hustle anyone on the court at any moment.
Bird was a fantastic leader, and probably the best all-around player ever.
The only thing keeping Bird lower on this list is how short his career was.
Larry Bird is the first of 7 players I will hear arguments about for being the GOAT. His argument, I will admit, is the weakest but I will hear it.
3. Julius Erving
6’7 Hall of Fame, Squires, Nets, Sixers. (#8 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
3x Champion, 4x MVP, 16x All-Star, 12x All NBA/ABA, All Defense, 3x Scoring Title, ABA All-Time Team, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.
Dr. J saved the ABA, and in doing so he saved the NBA. While Kareem was the better player the writers and Kareem hated each other. The writers loved Doc.
As impressive as his stats are, I have a few ‘what ifs’ to go over. 1- The Doctor agrees to go straight to the NBA and pairs with Kareem, Oscar, and Dandridge to make a dynasty. 2- The NBA, and more accurately, the Hawks and Bucks come to an agreement allowing him to pair with Bellamy, Bridges, Hudson, and Pistol in actual games, not just the amazing pre-season spectacular that happened. 3- the Knicks don’t do the dumbest thing ever and accept the Nets offer of waiving the fee they would get for the Nets would have for joining the NBA in exchange for The Claw’s contract pairing him with Frazier, Monroe, Haywood, Reed. 4- the Squires don’t blow up a team of Charlie Scott, George Gervin, and Baby Hawk, therefore, making the NBA when the leagues merged.
Doc was one of the most influential players of all time, who was only a fraction of what could have been. His style made the NBA infinitely more watchable. Doc is someone the NBA didn’t deserve, someone who is somehow forgotten as just a dunker even though he was so much more.
His passing was underrated, his Defense was good, and his scoring was electric.
Dr. J is the most underrated player in NBA history.
4. Kevin Durant
6’10 Thunder, Warriors (Nets) (#22 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
2x Champion, 2x FMVP, MVP, 11x All-Star, 9x All NBA, ROY, 4x Scoring Title, 75th Anniversary Team.
The Slim Reaper is probably the greatest single offensive player in NBA history. His size, shooting, passing, and length make him unstoppable. His defense is underrated, and he probably deserved at least one All defensive team if not more.
KD is known for leaving more champion-competing teams than actors leave marriages. He’s even forcing his way out of a team that let him pick all the teammates and the coaches and he still isn’t happy.
KD is this generation’s Rick Barry, and his horrible ability to get in his own way is going to drop him all time. Yet, you can’t tell the story of the NBA without one of the greatest players of all time.
5. John Havlicek
6’5 Hall of Fame, Celtics (#23 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
8x Champion, Finals MVP, 12x All-Star, 11x All NBA, 8x All-Defense, 35th Anniversary Team, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.
Hondo had more stamina than most players do in a lifetime. He just kept going and never, ever slowed down. The all-time best scorer for Boston had actually been a 3 sport athlete in high school. In fact, the Browns drafted him even though he didn’t play football in college— having given up his QB career to focus on Baseball, Basketball, and his studies— which is the most ‘Browns’ thing I’ve ever read. Hondo actually reported to the browns camp and was the last cut from the team, something the city of Boston probably should be extremely grateful for.
The slowly aging Celtics needed John to come off the bench and provide a spark for Sharman, Ramsey, and Jones on the wing. He filled this role, even being second on the team in minutes until he became the starter and slowly began to improve into a starter, then a star, then the best player on the Celtics who were still winning titles.
Hondo just didn’t quit.
Hondo is known for many things but one moment stands out the most. 5 seconds left in game 7 of the eastern conference finals. Celtics up one, Hal Greer tried to inbound the ball when Jonny Most begins to scream, “Havlicek steals it. Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!”
6. Rick Barry
6’7 Hall of Fame, Warriors, Oaks, Capitals, Nets, (Rockets) (#24 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
2x Champion, FMVP, 12x All-Star, 10x All NBA/ABA, ROY, Scoring Title, Steals Title, ABA All-Time Team, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.
The Miami Greyhound was a great all-around forward. He could do a little bit of everything and his shooting made it to where his off-ball gravity created open driving lanes for himself and others. His passing was incredible.
The only player to lead the NCAA, NBA, and ABA in scoring, he was individually brilliant, and a fantastic team player on the court. Off-court- kind of a jerk.
In the 78-79 season Barry averaged 5 free throws a game, he missed 9… in 80 games… 160/169… That’s incredible.
He averaged, AVERAGED, 40 points a game in the Finals. Barry is one of the forgotten greats of the past.
7. Scottie Pippen
6’8 Hall of Fame, Bulls (Rockets, Blazers) (#26 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
6x Champion, 7x All-Star, 7x All NBA, 10x All Defense, Steal Champion, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.
Pip was the best number 2 in NBA history. Hands down, not even close. His all-around game, great ability to set up teammates, and his otherworldly help defense. That’s something I want to touch on.
If Kawhi is the best perimeter defender ever, Pippen is number 2. He also might have been better on help defense. Pippen deserved a DPOY. Probably one of Dikembe’s 47 they gave him.
A lot can be said about Pippen, who had to walk on at a barely Division-I school in Arkansas and actually started out as the manager, to becoming my 25th best player of all time.
I’m not going to get into it, but he was so much fun to watch dominate opponents. The defense of MJ, Grant, and Pippen was insane, and with Rodman, it was also good.
Scottie was someone every single fan wanted on their team, a glue guy who was also a superstar.
8. Elgin Baylor
6’5 Hall of Fame, Lakers (#38 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
11x All-Star, 10x All NBA, ROY 35th Anniversary Team. 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.
Let me explain to you how we got Michael Jordan. Jordan patterned his game off of Dr. J and David Thompson, who patterned their games off of Connie Hawkins, who followed Elgin.
The first modern wing.
His head fakes and change of direction layups were legendary (he invented the Euro Step that was later brought back). His jumping ability was insane. Once in college, he tore his armpit on the rim, HIS ARMPIT!
A fantastic shooter and good passer, a great defender, and insane rebounder “Rabbit” hooped his way to being one of the best players in the league.
Elgin lost in the finals 8 times, and retired because he refused to come off the bench… his Lakers won the title that year.
Baylor was one of the all-time greatest players most casual fans have never heard of.
9. Kawhi Leonard
6’7 Wing Spurs, Raptors Clippers (#41 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
2x Champion, 2x FMVP, 5x All-Star, 5x All NBA, 7x All-Defense, 2x DPOY, Steals Title, 75th Anniversary Team.
Kawhi is the best perimeter defender in NBA history.
He’s one of the most clutch players ever who completely goes to a different world in the playoffs. He’s the closest thing the modern NBA has to Michael Jordan. Watch the clips of LeBron cussing when Kawhi enters the finals games and realize how good he is when totally locked in.
When entering the NBA, the biggest knock on him was his shooting, but he locked in with the Spurs shooting coach and his career 3FG% is .381 on almost 4 attempts a game.
Turning strengths into absolute strengths and weaknesses into strengths is how The Claw rolls.
This year for the Clippers, he’s averaging a career-high 5.5 assists per game! If his body holds up (not a guarantee at this point, unfortunately) Kawhi will Skyrocket up this list.
10. Paul Pierce
6’7 Hall of Fame, Boston (Nets, Clippers, Wizards) (#56 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)
Champion, FMVP, 10x All-Star, 4x All NBA, 75th Anniversary Team.
The Truth was the second-best player on the overrated Celtics Big 3 of the late 00s and early 10s. Also, PP was way more team first than Ray and way less fake than KG. He also was an actual leader, unlike Rondo who thought he was. Pierce was the heart of those teams even if KG was the Soul. While KG was the better player, Pierce was the more likable one.
He was never the best player in the league, probably only the best player at his position for 2-3 years max, wasn’t the best player in his draft, but he was awesome.
Larry Bird said he was the best Isolation Scorer in Celtics history. His legend even proceeded him even in his old man years, “I called Game!” Is still one of the best lines ever, and one I used any time I won a pick-up game.
His old man game let him age gracefully. I loved Pierce and in case it’s not obvious it’s not a sentiment I share with his teammates in that Trio.
Pierce was one of the 75 best players ever and that’s The Truth.
RELATED: Check out our NBA top 10 all-time lists at each position!