Our journey through the NBA’s top players entering the 2019-20 season’s completion resumes again, this time at the power forward position. Let’s rank the top five at the power forward position. If you aren’t familiar with this process, be sure to check out my previous installments:
Per usual, positions are determined by Basketball-Reference but are subject to change as teams reorganize their depth chart during the season’s resume in Orlando. Injured players qualify to make the positional rankings, but rookies fail to make the exception. Alluding to the power forward position, yep, that means no Zion. Don’t worry; he’ll make this list for the next decade or so.
As for players on this list, positional changes are bound to happen since the whole idea of interchangeable basketball gains more and more traction. Take these [positional] decisions with a grain of salt. What’s more important than a player’s position is their ranking in comparison to players on the same list. A player’s ranking relative to the field will say much more about their value than their time at a particular position.
5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Before the season’s start, Simmons was classified as a point guard. His position has now been changed to power forward. Head coach Brett Brown announced last week that the 76ers plan to utilize Simmons in a lineup that features him at the 4, and that Simmons will still take on most of the ball-handling duties. Coming into the league, we knew what kind of talent Simmons had, but there were a few skeptics as to if he could put his physical tools and basketball smarts together.
Coming off an All-Star appearance in 2019, Simmons made his second All-Star selection in 2020. He’s averaging 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists per contest. Simmons’ vision is other-worldly, and much of the 76er’s success on offense runs through the play of their star point-forward. He hasn’t taken that next step on offense yet, but it’s hard to argue against the numbers Simmons is putting up. He’s one of three players this season to average at least 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists per game. The other two are LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.
Given his lack of shooting and somewhat awkward fit in the half-court, Simmons isn’t yet an elite option on offense. He thrives in the open court and pick-and-roll situations, but I can’t put him in that upper tier of offensive geniuses until he proves he can be a viable shot creator on the offensive end. Where Simmons truly makes his mark is on defense, and this season he’s one of the best in the NBA on that side of the ball. He leads the NBA in steals per game (2.1 STL/G) and has the versatility to guard positions 1 through 4. Simmons’ versatility is super valuable in today’s position-less basketball.
Simmons’ versatility was on full display during last year’s playoffs, as he often found himself matched up against Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference Finals. Many remember Leonard for the final shot he hit against the 76ers, but few remember his struggles with Simmons as his primary defender. According to NBA.com, Kawhi shot only 40 percent from the field and 235 percent from three when guarded by Simmons. Simmons also forced Leonard into six turnovers and allowed only five assists in the possessions when defending the Raptors star.
His defensive prowess has certainly garnered Defensive Player of the Year attention this season, and I believe Simmons should be a finalist for the award. He probably won’t win the award, Giannis and Anthony Davis look like the front-runners, but Simmons will surely earn a place on one of the All-Defensive Teams.
4. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Since entering the NBA in 2016, all Pascal Siakam has done is improve his game. In his first two seasons, Siakam jumped from the G-League to the NBA back to the G-League numerous times. His first taste of success came in the G-League in 2017, when he led Toronto’s affiliate, Raptors 905, to a championship. Siakam earned finals MVP honors and officially made the jump to the NBA level the following season. In 2018-19 started only five games and was not yet a huge part of Toronto’s rotation.
The following season, Siakam put the league on notice as he was awarded as the NBA’s Most Improved Player. In 2018-19, Siakam’s minutes increased from 20.7 to 31.9 per game. As a result, Siakam averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 assists per game and shot just below 55 percent from the field. Siakam upped his play during the postseason, averaging 19 points, 7.1 rebounds, and a steal per game. He helped the Raptors to the first championship in franchise history and gained consideration as one of the best players at his position.
MOST IMPROVED!?!? Pascal Siakam went off for a career HIGH 44 last night!!! Here’s the highlights 🔥 pic.twitter.com/9KzVCI7qVS
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 14, 2019
In 2019-20, Siakam got even better. With the departure of Kawhi Leonard, Siakam’s role was predicted to increase, and he has relished that opportunity. His usage rate has climbed from just over 20 percent to 28.5. He’s upped his scoring to 23.6 points, and his free-throw shooting has hit the 80 percent mark for the first time in his career. If there were questions about his three-point shooting, he’s put those to rest. Siakam has increased his volume to six attempts per game while maintaining a 35.9 percent mark from deep.
As the Raptor’s number one option, Siakam has found the ball more in his hands. His career-high usage percent resulted in his first All-Star appearance this season and a new contract extension.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Not only has Tatum made the jump from All-Star to franchise cornerstone, but the Celtics forward has joined the conversation as a future all-time great. Coming into the league, Tatum was regarded as an NBA-level prospect, but I certainly didn’t think he could be this good this early into his career. Tatum followed up a rookie regular season with a tremendous showing in the 2018 playoffs. Tatum led the Celtics in scoring during the postseason, who were one game away from making a trip to the NBA Finals. Tatum followed up his impressive rookie season with a more than disappointing year two.
Experts predicted the Celtics as Championship contenders following the additions of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from injury. Since then, Irving has departed to Brooklyn, and Hayward has become a clear 4th option for the C’s. In year three, Tatum’s role increased with the addition of Kemba Walker, who is more of an ideal fit alongside Tatum than a ball-dominant player like Irving.
Jayson Tatum Highlights. pic.twitter.com/01gdOfxClK
— Alex 👋 (@Dubs408) July 8, 2020
Tatum made his first All-Star selection this season, compiling averages of 23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game. His numbers are almost identical to Siakam’s, but I’m willing to give Tatum the edge here based on his trajectory. Tatum is also the better shooter between the two, and unlike Siakam, I believe Tatum is an MVP-caliber player.
Following Kemba Walker’s absence due to injury, the Celtics called upon their young star as the number one option. Tatum made the jump from star to superstar after his scorching display in February. Tatum averaged 30.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 49.4% from the field, 48.1% from deep and 76.9% from the free-throw line. He joined elite company as one of four players to average 30 PPG on 48 percent shooting from the deep in the last 35 seasons (min 10 games, 50 3PA). The only other players to do so are Larry Bird (Mar 1986), Michael Jordan (Feb 1998), Stephen Curry (Feb 2016).
For Boston to make a legitimate run in the East this postseason, Tatum will have to continue his stellar play, even with Walker back in the lineup. Tatum has taken his game to another level this season, and the sky is the limit for the young Celtics star.
2. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
At number two, Davis is the most established player on this list. He’s a walking double-double and can give you thirty points on any given night. Add in his defensive abilities, and you have yourself quite the franchise player. Before the 2019-20 season, we knew what to expect from Davis, and he has more than met our expectations.
In his first season in Los Angeles, Davis has been every bit of the superstar he was billed as. He leads the Lakers in almost every statistical category except assists and should finish in the top 5 in MVP voting. He’s averaging 26.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game. In a league where the power forward position has meshed into more of a wing-like position, Davis’s versatility and skill set have allowed him to adapt tremendously to the small-ball lineups of the modern NBA. Standing at 6’10”, Davis has the size to dominant smaller wings down low as well as the agility and length to disrupt players on the perimeter.
Davis is used to being the primary option on offense, and this season is no exception. He’s arguably LeBron James’ best teammate in his career and has the numbers to back it up. This season, his PER is 28.2, which is second on this list behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo. Davis is not a shooter by any measure, but he’s not a non-shooter. He’s making and hoisting the most threes per night in his career (1.2 3PM, 3.5 3PA) and making them at a 33.5% clip. Davis doesn’t need to be an elite shooter, but he’s good enough from three to garner respect from any defensive scheme.
Anthony Davis highlights vs. his former team Pelicans:
• 46 PTS
• 13 REBS
• 3 STLSpic.twitter.com/LJ0FHU2HZv
— Lake Show (@LakeShowFamily) January 4, 2020
Coming into the season, Davis’ teammate, LeBron James, emphasized running the Laker offense through Davis. The fit has been seamless, and the two stars have some of the best chemistry between two teammates in the NBA. James’ IQ and passing ability combined with Davis’ rim rolling have made the duo the top pick-and-roll tandem in the league, and I expect a heavy dose of that when the season resumes in Orlando later this month. Davis could very well become the best player in the NBA someday, but it’s hard to come to that conclusion based on AD’s playstyle.
It’s a guard driven league, and indeed, AD is not a guard. For now, he’s a great number two at the power forward position, and unless Giannis gets injured or has any significant setbacks, Davis will likely stay at number two for the rest of his career.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
As if there was any doubt in my mind that Giannis shouldn’t be number one. Last year’s MVP continues to get better each year, and if everything works out, Antetokounmpo may find himself winning both the MVP and DPOY awards this season. There simply isn’t another player in the NBA quite like Giannis. He’s a monster in the paint and is the most dominant force in basketball. There’s just something different about the Buck’s star. His unmatched will for greatness is seen on virtually every play, with an all-out style of play. There may not be another superstar in the NBA with Giannis’ drive and hunger to win.
Every season, Antetokounmpo just seems to get better. It’s hard to imagine he could improve off an MVP-winning season in 2018-19 when he averaged 27.7/12.5/5.9. Giannis did just that. In 2019-20 he was putting up averages of 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists. Oh, and he’s putting up better numbers despite playing fewer minutes per game than last season. The only player in history that came closest to matching Antetokounmpo’s MVP output was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar did it as a center, and Giannis is not that. The Greek Freak straddles the margin between guard, forward, and center. He’s in a class of his own.
The one glaring flaw in Giannis’ game has been his shooting. He’s not shooting it the best from three this season, but the fact that he was taking about five threes per game in 2019-20 is convincing. At least he has the confidence to hoist a respectable number of threes per game, even if he’s only hitting them at a 30.6 percent clip. Giannis is so dominant that he doesn’t need to shoot it from deep, although an added jump shot is the only thing that Giannis needs to add to his game. With or without a one, Antetokounmpo makes a case for the best in the game.