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Power ranking the 50 best small forwards in the NBA

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The Nuggets just lost Danilo Gallinari. How do he and his replacement, Wilson Chandler, rank among their peers at small forward?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Stiffs Power Rankings Series

Top 50 Point Guards Top 50 Shooting Guards

Player rankings are some of the most divisive conversations in the NBA. Every fan wants their player to rank highly, and every fan will question why their player isn’t ranked as highly as they want. Positional rankings are also difficult due to the blending of roles and position-less basketball.

But I’m going to do it anyway.

These rankings will consist of the top 50 players at each of the five widely accepted positions in the NBA: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. There are different ways to classify it, but this is the best way to break down the talent into multiple categories.

Each list will be released on Wednesday of that week, starting with point guards and finishing with centers. A top 100 players in the NBA list could follow if the lists are well received.

Small Forward Criteria:

First, players that qualify for this list had to play predominantly small forward, based on their categorization on Basketball Reference. They will also play predominantly small forward next year.

Here are some primary players eliminated based on this criteria, as they play either shooting guard or power forward instead:

  • Andrew Wiggins
  • Marcus Morris
  • Sam Dekker
  • Nemanja Bjelica
  • Nicolas Batum
  • Andre Roberson
  • Iman Shumpert
  • Jonathon Simmons

Second, only players that played 1,000 minutes in the NBA this past season were considered, which eliminates three parties: injured players, foreign players, and rookies.

Here are some noteworthy players eliminated based on this criteria:

  • Taurean Prince
  • Chandler Parsons
  • Paul Zipser
  • Mario Hezonja
  • Justise Winslow
  • Jayson Tatum
  • Josh Jackson
  • Justin Jackson

Methodology:

Selecting criteria for wing players has been very difficult, much more so than criteria for point guards. With a point guard, the position has changed to fit more of a scoring and high usage role. You basically either have a guy like that, or you don’t. With a small forward, they are the multi-tools of basketball, asked to do everything from pass, rebound, create off the dribble, defend the perimeter, defend the interior, and above all, shoot from the perimeter. With so many different roles, it is hard to quantify impact when impact can be felt in so many different ways.

With that in mind, I focused again on weighting efficiency, usage, and defense the heaviest of all categories, taking the true shooting percentage, usage rate, and ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus as benchmarks for each category. Please understand that defense is incredibly hard to quantify, and that DRPM is an imperfect system, but it’s one of the most objective ways to quantify impact in a statistical ranking. A variety of players are judged more harshly due to extenuating circumstances, like team performance and past years of data.

I also took assists, rebounds, and minutes into account, both in total and in how many games played/started. This helps adjust for super subs on various teams. I have a single number generated for all shooting guards that will rank the 50 best players to play the shooting guard position this past season. Remember, this is statistically generated, and it’s not etched in stone that this is where these players should rank, nor how I would rank this list due to subjective biases.

Without further ado, let’s jump right into it:


Honorable Mentions (didn’t quite make the cut on the top 50):

  • More players qualified as shooting guards than small forwards, and only two players were up for honorable mention: Corey Brewer and Stanley Johnson. Both guys had similar profiles of low minutes and small role, along with incredibly poor efficiency. It’s hard to crack the list when the true shooting percentages are 49.1% and 43.6% respectively. Johnson in particular still has potential, but he just can’t shoot as poorly as he did this past season.

Tier 1: The LeBron tier

1. LeBron James - Cleveland Cavaliers

If anyone told LeBron it was time to start slowing down, he didn’t hear them. The cyborg posted the fifth highest TS% on the second highest usage. He also had the best assist rate, the fifth best rebounding rate, and the seventh best DRPM. Combine that with the fourth most minutes played and the most minutes averaged per game, and nobody could match what LeBron James did this past season.

Tier 2: Contextual Megastars

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo - Milwaukee Bucks

3. Kevin Durant - Golden State Warriors

4. Kawhi Leonard - San Antonio Spurs

5. Jimmy Butler - Minnesota Timberwolves

Ordering this group was next to impossible, but it’s unquestionable that these players are in the Contextual Megastar tier.

People will be surprised by the ranking of the Greek Freak. He’s only 22 years old, but he’s at the head of this tier for a reason. He did absolutely everything for the Bucks last season. His only weakness is outside shooting, but it didn’t stop him from posting the ninth best TS% of the group. That’s all he needed to combine with his top five finishes in every other category except DRPM, in which he ranked ninth as well. Antetokounmpo is certainly benefitting from the lack of talent around him in comparison to Durant and Kawhi, but he deserves this ranking for sure.

Durant of course was the most efficient player in the entire NBA among players that took 10 field goal attempts per game (Nikola Jokic was second). That combined with his all-around excellence and renewed energy on the defensive end help him edge out Kawhi Leonard. Leonard had the highest usage among all small forwards, but he was knocked down by a DRPM score that doesn’t reflect his abilities on that end. If it were up to me, he’d have the highest DRPM score instead of where he currently ranks (19th). Finally, Jimmy Butler had an excellent season, enough to elevate him into the Contextual Megastar ranks. The only category he struggled with was rebounding, but the Bulls were one of the best rebounding teams in the league. The Timberwolves, Butler’s new team, are going to be really good this year because of him and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Tier 3: The Rest of the Elite (the movers)

6. Paul George - Oklahoma City Thunder

7. Gordon Hayward - Boston Celtics

Only two players make up this category, and they both happen to have changed teams during the offseason.

Paul George wasn’t happy with the Indiana Pacers, and it looks like he’s on the fast track to Los Angeles. Still, he’s making a pitstop in Oklahoma City to be the beta to Russell Westbrook’s alpha. It should be a really interesting fit, and one that will likely cause drama throughout the season. Still, the talent is undeniable, and the Thunder are going to be good, maybe even great, with George on the roster.

The Utah Jazz already were good with Gordon Hayward, but that wasn’t enough for Hayward to stick around. Not only did he make the right decision competitively (the East vs the West), he has the opportunity for offense to come much easier in Boston than it did in Utah. The floor will be spaced with the Celtics’ many small forwards playing in small ball lineups. It’s likely that Hayward spends a lot of time at shooting guard as well. Still, he’s an incredible talent, and I’m sure Brad Stevens is already drawing up insane ATOs involving him, Isaiah Thomas, and Al Horford.

Tier 4: Above average starters

8. Jae Crowder - Boston Celtics

9. Danilo Gallinari - Los Angeles Clippers

10. Otto Porter - Washington Wizards

11. Rudy Gay - San Antonio Spurs

12. Carmelo Anthony - New York Knicks

Would you look at that? Another Boston small forward.

Jae Crowder is severely unappreciated in Boston by many who pined for Gordon Hayward. All he did was post an elite TS%, above average rebounding and defensive marks, and stay on the floor for the entire season. It makes up for his average usage and assist rate, especially because the Celtics have enough creators on their roster. Danilo Gallinari recently left the Nuggets, and it will be interesting to see how he fits next to two bigs that operate inside the arc in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. He had the fourth best TS% among all small forwards, right between Andre Iguodala and LeBron James.

Otto Porter was on a different level of efficiency though. Among players who played the necessary minutes and attempted four 3-point field goals per game, Porter’s 3-point percentage of 43.4% was second to only Kyle Korver, who shot 45.1%. Add in above average rebounding and minute load, and Porter earned his top 10 ranking. Someone who also earned his ranking was Rudy Gay, surprisingly. Even though he played the least total minutes of any qualifying player (1,013) due to injury, Gay posted above average to borderline elite marks in every category. He had a forgotten beginning of the season in Sacramento, and if he returns healthy to the Spurs, look out.

Finally, Carmelo Anthony is an inefficient chucker, but his assist and rebounding rates are above average. His minute load pushed him over the top, as he posted top 10 marks in both total minutes and minutes per game.

Tier 5: Average starters

13. Wilson Chandler - Denver Nuggets

14. Tobias Harris - Detroit Pistons

15. Harrison Barnes - Dallas Mavericks

16. Robert Covington - Philadelphia 76ers

17. Andre Iguodala - Golden State Warriors

18. Trevor Ariza - Houston Rockets

19. Bojan Bogdanovic - Indiana Pacers

20. Joe Ingles - Utah Jazz

It’s welcoming for Nuggets fans to not only see Wilson Chandler at the top of this tier of players, but to see him in this tier at all. After letting go of Gallinari, Chandler has been put under the microscope as a legitimate starter at small forward. This will be the first time in Denver that the job is his alone, and not just as Gallinari’s placeholder. His usage rate will likely go down as a starter, but don’t be surprised if both his average true shooting percentage and poor DRPM rise this year next to Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic full time.

Right behind him is a very comparable player in Tobias Harris, who played all 82 games for Detroit but just over half as a starter. The Pistons were a major disappointment last year, but with Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gone, the Pistons are placing a lot of faith in Harris, who only just turned 25 within the last two weeks. Another young gun is Harrison Barnes, who performed surprisingly well in a high usage role. He’s average to below average in every category except usage and minute load though, so it’s fair to question whether his ranking is fair. Robert Covington is another matter though: Covfefe is the leader in DRPM for good reason, and his usage rate and rebounding rate were surprisingly high. This coming season, he will fill more of a niche role next to Markelle Fultz, J.J. Redick, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid though, and I expect him to have an Otto Porter-type season for the Sixers.

There’s not much to be said about Andre Iguodala at this point. He has the lowest usage rate of the group yet a top 10 assist rate and the third best TS%. The perks of playing with the Warriors. Trevor Ariza was another player who took advantage of his low usage situation by staying on the floor, shooting efficiently, and being an above average defender. Bojan Bogdanovic was an interesting character, moving from Brooklyn to Washington and not missing a beat. He’s going to Indiana to fill in for Paul George as the starter, and I question whether his strong efficiency and usage will translate in a starting role there. He’s a sieve on defense, so that won’t help him. Finally, Joe Ingles rounds out the top 20, and he would be higher if DRPM correctly graded his defense as above average. We will see how his ranking changes in a higher usage role with more minutes next season.

Tier 6: Below average starters and above average reserves

21. Maurice Harkless - Portland Trail Blazers

22. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - Charlotte Hornets

23. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson - Brooklyn Nets

24. Joe Johnson - Utah Jazz

25. Matt Barnes - Free agent

26. Jared Dudley - Phoenix Suns

27. James Ennis - Memphis Grizzlies

28. Evan Turner - Portland Trail Blazers

29. Terrence Ross - Orlando Magic

30. T.J. Warren - Phoenix Suns

31. Kent Bazemore - Atlanta Hawks

This tier is the largest in number for small forwards, as there are a lot of players who make great rotation players due to versatility of skill sets and position. Starting it off is Mo Harkless, who’s just solid all around except for his assist rate, a natural occurrence due to playing with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the poster child for defensive role players that struggle on offense, and his numbers reflect it. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was pegged as a Kidd-Gilchrist type, but he has already passed MKG in terms of offensive potential turning to production.

Joe Johnson, Matt Barnes, and Jared Dudley can be talked about in the same breath because they each filled the veteran role on young(ish) teams this year until Barnes was picked up by Golden State. Johnson and Dudley were both more efficient than Barnes, who made up the gap by being an elite rebounder during his minutes. All of these guys are trending downward, and don’t be surprised if Barnes retires altogether.

James Ennis was asked to fill in for the injured Chandler Parsons, and he did about as well as one would expect. His efficiency, rebounding, and defense were above average, but it’s hard to excel when the usage and assist rates are so low. Evan Turner was the opposite, as his assist rate made up for a bottom five efficiency among all small forwards. Terrence Ross was so hit and miss this year. He was average to below average in everything but usage rate, which isn’t surprising regarding a gunner. T.J. Warren was extremely similar, though he’s younger and has more room to improve. Finally, Kent Bazemore had a down year after earning an inflated contract during 2016 free agency. We will see whether the Dwight Howard effect is real with his numbers.

Tier 7: Average reserves

32. Vince Carter - Sacramento Kings

33. P.J. Tucker - Houston Rockets

34. DeMarre Carroll - Brooklyn Nets

35. Caris LeVert - Brooklyn Nets

36. Shabazz Muhammad - Free agent

37. Justin Anderson - Philadelphia 76ers

38. Jaylen Brown - Boston Celtics

39. Luc Mbah a Moute - Houston Rockets

40. Kyle Anderson - San Antonio Spurs

41. Thabo Sefolosha - Utah Jazz

This tier involves players who would be a part of an average team’s rotation as a 15 to 20 minute per game substitute. Vince Carter will fill such a role with the Sacramento Kings, and while his creation for others has remained above average, none of his other traits have stuck around. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute will fill similar roles on the Houston Rockets as defensive minded forwards to make up for Ryan Anderson. Their individual creation skills are dreadful, which knocks each of them down, but that’s not what they are in Houston to do. DeMarre Carroll has had a major fall from grace, and it earned him a trade to Brooklyn where he can hopefully rehab his value around the league. Caris LeVert will likely block him from doing so, as the young wing from Michigan has some solid offensive skills and will play a larger role this year. Shabazz Muhammad is rightly a free agent. It’s amazing for such a solid scorer to be such a dreadful passer, defender, and fit in the NBA at this point.

Justin Anderson was traded to Philadelphia during the middle of the year, and the only reason he ranks as high as he does is because of his usage and rebounding rates for the position. Jaylen Brown will eventually shoot up this list, but as of now, his efficiency, assist rate, and defense are all subpar. Kyle Anderson grades very well with DRPM, but it’s unclear whether that pertains more to the Spurs’ system or his personal skill. His assist and rebounding rates are also above average, which truly showcase how ghastly the efficiency, usage, and minutes load was. Finally, Thabo Sefolosha will give Utah more of what they already have: defensive skill and limited shot creation.

Tier 7: Below average reserves and end-of-bench guys

42. Brandon Ingram - Los Angeles Lakers

43. Solomon Hill - New Orleans Pelicans

44. Richard Jefferson - Cleveland Cavaliers

45. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot - Philadelphia 76ers

46. Doug McDermott - Oklahoma City Thunder

47. Luol Deng - Los Angeles Lakers

48. Mindaugas Kuzminskas - New York Knicks

49. Kelly Oubre - Washington Wizards

50. Jerami Grant - Oklahoma City Thunder

Starting out with Brandon Ingram is interesting. I believe he will continue to rise up this list as he continues to fill out. His usage and assist rates are average level, but his efficiency and DRPM obviously dropped him down. Solomon Hill was below average to awful at everything except DRPM and his minute load, and the Pelicans can’t be happy paying him $13 million a year. Richard Jefferson was below average in everything except TS%, so to each their own. TLC didn’t really have any true weaknesses except for his rebounding and low minutes. He didn’t have any strengths, but it’s a good sign as a young player that only rebounding was a major struggle. Doug McDermott however, has a ton of weaknesses, namely his position-worst DRPM score and third worst rebounding mark, though part of that has to do with playing on strong rebounding teams.

Luol Deng may be one of the three worst contracts in the NBA right now. He rebounds and defends, but making up for a 47.0 TS% is very difficult. Mindaugas Kuzminskas played a fringe rotation role on the Knicks, which is basically all anyone needs to know. He’s a good passer, but that’s it. Kelly Oubre was surprisingly bad in pretty much everything outside of rebounding at small forward, which says a lot about the Wizards’ bench since he was the best guy until Bojan Bogdanovic came along. Finally, Jerami Grant fills a niche role with Oklahoma City and is a better player than his ranking; however, he’s bad in everything except efficiency. DRPM grades his defensive contributions unfairly in my opinion, and I would personally have him at the top of this tier or the bottom of the last one.


So, that wraps up this week’s power rankings list. Make sure to comment down below with thoughts about how the list came out, as well as any thoughts on lists going forward.

Poll

Is Wilson Chandler ranked in the correct tier?

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  • 75%
    Yes (average starter)
    (303 votes)
  • 10%
    No (above average starter)
    (41 votes)
  • 13%
    No (below average starter)
    (55 votes)
  • 0%
    Other - comment below
    (3 votes)
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