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Ranking the 50 most valuable small forwards in the NBA from 2017-18

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Where did the now Philadelphia 76ers player Wilson Chandler check in on the statistical player rankings at small forward?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone loves player rankings, so let’s rank small forwards, a position that has quickly become one of the weakest in the NBA.

Click here for the top 50 most valuable point guards of 2017-18.

Click here for the top 50 most valuable shooting guards of 2017-18.

In order to remove bias from my own ranking, I have decided to put together a formula to generate a new ranking. The list below isn’t my personal opinion on who’s better than who. Rather, it shapes my opinion on who provided the most value last season. For example, I know that Trevor Ariza is better than C.J. Miles or Thabo Sefolosha, but for a variety of reasons, Ariza will rank lower than the latter two.

First, let me explain my logic and reasoning in crafting this list:

Methodology and Criteria

Going into the exercise, I knew I wanted to rank the most valuable players from last season, rather than the best players. I decided to rank the following six components of a small forward’s game to varying degrees:

  • Scoring and facilitating, i.e. how effective the player was at generating points with the ball in hand.
  • Number Production, i.e. how many points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks the player accumulated.
  • Offensive Efficiency and Role, i.e. how frequently did a player score, and what level of volume did the player score with.
  • Defensive efficiency and role, i.e. how frequently was the player tasked with defending opposing shot takers, and how frequently did they force a player to miss.
  • Team Impact, i.e. how well did the team perform when the player was on and off the floor.
  • Advanced Metrics, i.e. how effective do the advanced metrics say the player is in the moment and over the course of the season.

In order to turn each of these categories into a single number, I acquired per 100 possession data, point creation data, efficiency and usage data, defensive numbers, net ratings, and advanced numbers for all small forwards to appear in 30 or more games. A giant thanks to Jacob Goldstein of The BBall Index, Adam Fromal of NBA Math, and Jeremias Engelmann of ESPN for their metric data.

The ranking is entirely statistical, but it doesn’t rely on just advanced metrics or basic points and assists numbers. It blends the above concepts into a composite ranking and adjusts for a player’s role and minutes played.

Let’s get into it.

Notable Omissions:

  • LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo primarily played power forward last year. Generally, they are considered small forwards, but for this exercise, they aren’t. If they were, they’d likely rank 1 and 3 respectively.
  • I also consider Michael Beasley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Davis Bertans power forwards.
  • Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Danilo Gallinari, and others didn’t make the game threshold to be ranked in this group, which absolutely weakens the position beyond repair. Those three, LeBron, and Giannis were all in the top 10 of last year’s rankings. Gallo will likely move to power forward if he qualifies next year.

Just Missed the Cut:

  • Dante Cunningham was the first player left off. He’s debatably a power forward, but he has gone between both forward spots on the Pelicans and done a reasonable job spacing the floor for Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis.
  • Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Justin Jackson, Wesley Iwundu, and Dawyne Bacon were the next four left off. Each player is young and has something left to prove. I’m highest on TLC, who will play for Oklahoma City this year and may take off playing next to Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Jackson still has a decent opportunity with the Kings, but he needs to bulk up. Iwundu and Bacon were second round picks and play in the Southeast conference and have potential. That’s all that needs to be said.
  • Again, the small forward position looks very weak right now. Given the downsizing at the position over the last five years and the transition of many traditional small forwards to a small ball power forward role, having a solid starter at the 3 is a luxury.

Average Backups (player - 2017-18 team)

50. Shabazz Muhammad - Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks

49. Evan Turner - Portland Trail Blazers

48. Justin Anderson - Philadelphia 76ers

47. James Ennis - Memphis Grizzlies and Detroit Pistons

46. Doug McDermott - New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks

45. Darius Miller - New Orleans Pelicans

44. Sam Dekker - Los Angeles Clippers

43. Wesley Johnson - Los Angeles Clippers

42. Jared Dudley - Phoenix Suns

41. Jae Crowder - Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz

This tier of small forwards is filled with players good enough to fill a backup small forward role but can be upgraded upon. Also, an above average level shooting guard backup usually slides to small forward off the bench for many teams. Marco Belinelli, Allen Crabbe, and Wayne Ellington are good examples here.

Shabazz Muhammad, Justin Anderson, Sam Dekker, Wesley Johnson, and Jared Dudley are good examples of this. Muhammad wasn’t cutting it in Minnesota, and he had limited minutes there and in Milwaukee. Anderson wasn’t in the forward rotation in Philly for good reason. Dekker and Johnson played behind guards and wings in Los Angeles off the bench, but they have solid qualities. Dudley was the elder statesman in Phoenix, and while he knows how to contribute to a team, the Suns didn’t need that.

Evan Turner isn’t good. He doesn’t fit with the Trail Blazers in any way, in the starting lineup or off the bench. If he played defense or shot well from the perimeter, he would provide more benefit. James Ennis and Doug McDermott, in my opinion, are secretly good. Both are efficient, and while neither grades well in defensive metrics, Ennis defends his man well, McDermott does a good job of protecting the three-point line. Darius Miller is what he is, a three-point specialist who’s a decent positional defender but doesn’t generate turnovers.

Jae Crowder is an interesting test case. Going from Boston to Cleveland, many expected him to be what Jeff Green was, a solid starting caliber forward to play next to and without LeBron James. When he went to Utah, he was one of the best five man lineups in the NBA with Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Rudy Gobert. All are above average starting players, and Gobert is a certified star with Mitchell on the way. If Crowder rediscovers his Boston-level efficiency playing in Utah, look out.

Above Average Backups

40. Maurice Harkless - Portland Trail Blazers

39. Stanley Johnson - Detroit Pistons

38. Kelly Oubre - Washington Wizards

37. Cedi Osman - Cleveland Cavaliers

36. OG Anunoby - Toronto Raptors

34t. Josh Jackson - Phoenix Suns

34t. P.J. Tucker - Houston Rockets

32t. Jonathon Simmons - Orlando Magic

32t. Chandler Parsons - Memphis Grizzlies

31. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - Charlotte Hornets

29t. Dillon Brooks - Memphis Grizzlies

29t. Royce O’Neale - Utah Jazz

28. Wilson Chandler - Denver Nuggets

27. Mario Hezonja - Orlando Magic

26. Denzel Valentine - Chicago Bulls

25. Omri Casspi - Golden State Warriors

The next two tiers are the largest among small forwards, which shows just how much the position has suffered from injuries and position switches from stars. These are the players who should always be in a rotation, whether they stick at small forward or move up or down a position based on the matchup.

There are some veterans in this tier who have been around for awhile. Maurice Harkless would be far better in Portland’s rotation as a decent shooting and defensive small forward. P.J. Tucker’s reputation is starting to get a bit ahead of him. He’s a good defender of most players, but he doesn’t generate a ton of value offensively given the role Chris Paul, James Harden, and Eric Gordon hold. Jonathon Simmons and Chandler Parsons were decent on bad squads last year. Parsons had the 10th best efficiency score offensively, and he still has the ability to contribute, though the contract is obscene. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a productive defender, but his inability to space the floor and play with the ball in his hands will always limit his ceiling. Royce O’Neale was an elite defender for the Jazz this year, who were filled with a ton of above average defenders to help as well. The efficiency was good enough, and he has a decent opportunity to grow that role if he plays better than Crowder.

Now, Wilson Chandler is in this tier, and when looking more at his scores in depth, it’s easy to see why. He was average to below average in every single category except facilitation and minute total. He ranked exactly 34th out of 59 in total production, offensive efficiency to role ratio, and defensive efficiency to role ratio. Playing in between Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic, it’s easy to see why Chandler took a backseat offensively. Still, the goal for a fifth option is to improve efficiency while taking better shots overall and become the glue defensively. Chandler generated few steals and contested few shots on that end, which is usually a bad sign. He got up for the big boy match-ups like Kevin Durant, LeBron James (when he played more SF), Giannis Antetokounmpo (same) and others, but a lot of less talented small forwards performed well against Denver in big moments. That was a big issue.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As far as other players go, there’s a gaggle of young guys here. Stanley Johnson, Kelly Oubre, and Mario Hezonja were in the 2015 draft. All three are in prime positions to become important in the NBA, but if none of them hit, it’s more bad news for the SF position. I’m still #TeamHezonja. Cedi Osman and Denzel Valentine were in the 2016 draft, and both look to have brighter futures than previously thought. I still like Valentine. He had the fourth best assist mark at the position with 5.7 assists per 100 possessions. That should get better in the coming seasons. OG Anunoby, Josh Jackson, and Dillon Brooks were rookies this past year, and all provided reasons to be excited. Anunoby and Jackson were my two favorite forward prospects, ahead of soon to come Jayson Tatum. Whoops.

Below Average Starters

24. Harrison Barnes - Dallas Mavericks

23. Andre Iguodala - Golden State Warriors

22. Trevor Ariza - Houston Rockets

21. C.J. Miles - Toronto Raptors

20. Justise Winslow - Miami Heat

19. T.J. Warren - Phoenix Suns

18. Thabo Sefolosha - Utah Jazz

17. Taurean Prince - Atlanta Hawks

16. Bojan Bogdanovic - Indiana Pacers

15. Brandon Ingram - Los Angeles Lakers

14. Kyle Anderson - San Antonio Spurs

13. Jeff Green - Cleveland Cavaliers

12. DeMarre Carroll - Brooklyn Nets

11. Rudy Gay - San Antonio Spurs

10. Andrew Wiggins - Minnesota Timberwolves

This tier has a large range of players, and I wish I could break it into two groups. Consider an artificial division between Thabo Sefolosha at 18 and Taurean Prince at 17. The first group is below average starters, and the second group is closer to average but not quite there.

In the true below average tier, high volume scorers Harrison Barnes and T.J. Warren were first and second options on poor teams. They have similar profiles as well. Top five in points per 100 possessions, top 10 in minutes per game at the position, clearly important to their respective teams but clearly not valuable in the big picture. I still have hope for Barnes to grow into a third banana role in a good situation.

Bench players Andre Iguodala, C.J. Miles, Justise Winslow, and Thabo Sefolosha fall into this tier as well, all for different reasons. Iguodala has a solid team level impact on the Warriors and passes extremely well for the position. Miles is a productive scorer off the bench on the shoulders of his outside shooting, and he contributed nicely to the Raptors’ bench unit. Winslow played more power forward this year, but I still consider him a 3. He’s also a solid passer for the position, but he earns this spot based on a top five defensive mark. Finally, Sefolosha’s season was cut short by injury last year, but he was productive, efficient, solid defensively, and impactful on the Jazz. If the Nuggets are looking for wing defense help later in the year, he’s a good option.

Trevor Ariza surprised me here. He seems like he would do reasonably well in this setting, but here’s why he didn’t: low production and worse than advertised defensive marks and efficiency in an off-ball role. It’s hard to be productive when next to James Harden and Chris Paul, but Ariza had an opportunity like Wilson Chandler to maximize his efficiency and defense playing next to those guys. It just doesn’t show up in the numbers though, as his efficiency is above average but not exceptional.

Next is the average tier. Young players Taurean Prince and Brandon Ingram should give fans a lot to be excited about in the coming years. Both benefitted from low team impact scores, but they were better statistically with those removed than some players in this tier. Prince in particular is a good candidate to surprise people with how solid he is in coming seasons. Kyle Anderson is also young. He just shifted from the Spurs to the Grizzlies and will likely start in Memphis, a surprising move by San Antonio for a player that does everything well but score.

Taurean Prince is efficient, effective, and versatile, just like the three players above him.

Two surprises in this tier are Jeff Green and Rudy Gay, two players I expected to show up far lower. Green particular is astounding, but as Cavaliers fans can attest, he was what they thought Jae Crowder to be: a versatile, productive, and efficient player with few weaknesses and part of some solid lineups. Gay also surprised me. I knew he could score, but his defensive scores were surprising. While the minutes weren’t there, he contested a ton of shots while he was out there, forced more misses than the average player, and accumulated steals and blocks on a defense that finished 4th in the NBA playing small much of the time. He gets some credit for that in my mind.

Bojan Bogdanovic and DeMarre Carroll also performed well. Bojan finished with the third best efficiency mark, which showed in the playoffs. Carroll was a versatile contributor who finished no higher than 12 and no less than 29 in any category. Solid.

Finally, Andrew Wiggins. Some would have him lower than this. He tops this tier because he’s not quite a solid starter and benefits massively from playing with such a strong starting unit in Minnesota. His defense score, as surprising as this may sound, is pretty good. Again, he shares the floor with Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, and he’s helped out statistically by their presence. That being said, it’s too early to write him off. He will likely never live up to his dollar amount, but it doesn’t mean he can’t be a top 10 for awhile.

Solid Starters

9. Josh Richardson - Miami Heat

8. Joe Ingles - Utah Jazz

7. Tobias Harris - Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Clippers

6. Jayson Tatum - Boston Celtics

5. Robert Covington - Philadelphia 76ers

4. Otto Porter - Washington Wizards

Let’s get into the good stuff. Six players here, showcasing all types of skill sets. Josh Richardson is a sublime defender. He received the very best grade for defense in my calculations, and it’s well warranted. While Robert Covington, Joe Ingles, and Paul George benefit from being surrounded by A+ defenders, Richardson is very nearly an A+ defender in his own right. Combine that with solid off-ball offense, and he makes the cut here.

Ingles is one of my favorite players in the NBA because of his IQ, and it shows up in him tying the top assist mark with Kevin Durant. He gets a top five efficiency score, and it would be higher if he used more possessions. For two other players in Robert Covington and Otto Porter, that is a similar story. Off-ball aces, one defensive-minded, one more versatile. Porter nearly made the cut for All-Star Caliber, but his defensive grade was merely average and held him back. Covington’s reputation as an outside shooter is bolstered by his attempts. In order to maintain that rep in the playoffs, he has to perform better than this past season though. Jayson Tatum undressed him.

Speaking of Tatum, he played the majority of the season at just 19 years of age, not that any Celtics fans ever mentioned that. The one weakness in his game offensively is passing, but it didn’t really hurt him in the playoffs, in which he was spectacular. Celtics fans expect the growth for him to be linear. It’s definitely possible, but I have some doubts if Brad Stevens isn’t his coach. Stevens is though, which means he will be the next great Celtic.

Jayson Tatum is way past his development curve at just 20 years old.

Finally, Tobias Harris is under-appreciated. Only four small forwards were top ten in point production on top ten efficiency scores, Harris and the four players above him. Combine that with solid passing, production, and defense scores, and it’s clear that Harris belongs in the top 10 small forwards.

All-Star Caliber

3. Khris Middleton - Milwaukee Bucks

The only three players that justified placement in this tier or higher are Middleton, Paul George, and Kevin Durant. With the injuries and movement to power forward, Middleton deserves some love for being a stable, versatile player. His passing helps the Bucks offense stay afloat, his floor spacing helps Giannis be a even better player, and he’s a good enough defender to be a major factor in playoff games. Against the Celtics while matched up with Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and others, Middleton averaged nearly 25 points per game and shot 61% from distance. This coming season, I predict he makes an All-Star game as a more efficient version of himself. He definitely deserves it.

All-NBA Candidates

2. Paul George - Oklahoma City Thunder

1. Kevin Durant - Golden State Warriors

Finally, the two top dogs. Kawhi Leonard would almost certainly be here if healthy, but for now, Durant was the clear best small forward and George was the clear number two. George posted top 10 scores across the board except in team impact. My guess: Carmelo Anthony being gone will help his two-way production continue to be impactful. As he becomes more comfortable playing next to Russell Westbrook, and with Andre Roberson hopefully back to take on the opposition’s best scorer, George should be the most optimized version of himself next year, a scary thought for many teams.

Finally, Kevin Durant. What more can be said about the player I believe will be the greatest scorer of all-time when it’s all said and done? He leads the position in point production, assist production, and efficiency, which is absurd. Combine that with excellent rebounding and rim protection for the position, and it’s no wonder he’s number one. He may end up being the best player in the NBA once I finish power forwards and centers, but one thing’s for certain, no one came close to Durant this year at the 3.


Here’s how I see the top 10 rankings playing out next season:

  1. Kevin Durant
  2. Paul George
  3. Kawhi Leonard (return from injury)
  4. Khris Middleton
  5. Jayson Tatum
  6. Otto Porter
  7. Tobias Harris
  8. Robert Covington
  9. Gordon Hayward (return from injury)
  10. Josh Richardson

Tatum and Hayward (on top of Jaylen Brown, Kyrie Irving, and Al Horford) will likely cannibalize each other’s production next year, even though all five are awesome. Leonard will be awesome, but below George due to rust. Hayward will also show rust, but likely less in a smaller role.

One must remember that these rankings are about total value, not total skill or highest potential. If there are any questions on the formulation, please comment below or start the conversation on Twitter (@NBABlackburn).

Power forwards next week.

Poll

Is Wilson Chandler ranked too high or too low?

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  • 59%
    Just right
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