Top 5 Small Forwards in the NBA: The King Reclaims the Throne

Finally, we reach the small forward position! Before you toss and turn [or agree] with my rankings, be sure to check out Lineups’ rankings for the other four positions:

Top 5 point guards
Top 5 shooting guards
Top 5 centers
Top 5 power forwards

The small forward in the NBA has become more of a mesh of guards and forwards, and determining a player’s position as a wing is the hardest distinction these days. Lineups and positions are in constant turnover in the age of position-less basketball. Traditional guards are now forwards, and bigger wings are finding themselves on the block more often.

Positional categories are according to Basketball-Reference, and players’ primary positions are subject to change as teams’ depth charts transform. In my rankings, injured players are allowed, but rookies are excluded since it’s hard to evaluate a player’s game off of one season.

1LeBron James6025.77.910.61.649.834.969.7269.5
2Kawhi Leonard5126.97.351.846.936.688.926.77.6
3Kevin Durant (*injured 2019-20)849277.
4Jimmy Butler5420.
5Brandon Ingram5624.

5. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

We all knew the type of talent Ingram possessed when the Lakers drafted him second overall in 2016. He showed flashes of his massive potential with the Lakers but failed to meet expectations consistently. Some nights he looked like the best player on the floor, and on others, one that was just an average NBA player. That’s certainly not the case this season.

As a centerpiece of the trade that sent Anthony Davis to Los Angeles, Brandon Ingram has looked like a future superstar for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019-20. He’s having a career year in his first season with the team, putting up averages of 24.3/6.3/4.3. Ingram is third in scoring among small forwards and made his first All-Star selection this season.

Along with career-highs in scoring, free-throw percentage, and rebounds, Ingram is averaging the most assists per game in his career (5.4). Ingram has been elite from three in 2020, shooting around 39% from deep while hoisting a career-high 6.3 shots from three per night. On defense, Ingram has been more than serviceable, as he’s blocking around one shot and registering one steal per night. Given his height (6’7”), Ingram has excellent size for his position, and his defensive abilities come as no surprise at all.

Part of Ingram’s progression has been his fit with New Orleans. He’s been the Pelicans’ primary scorer all season long, has also been given more ball-handling duties than ever before. He’s a perfect fit behind a defensive-minded backcourt in Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday, who both play off the ball as well. A part of Ingram’s inconsistency in LA might have been his fit alongside LeBron James, as both players need the ball in their hands to be effective.

Ingram is in a contract year, and in my opinion, has done enough to garner a max contract from teams in the offseason. He’s the total package on offense, as he has shown he can handle the ball and make plays at the small forward position and can fill up the scoring department on a nightly basis. As my pick for Most Improved Player this season, it’s only a matter of time before Ingram creeps into the top three at his position.

4. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Heading into the season, Jimmy Butler and the Heat looked like the perfect match on paper. Through 65 games in the regular season, that statement seems more than true. Butler and the Heat have surprised NBA experts and fans everywhere, as the Heat currently stands as the four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Butler’s leadership has transformed the Heat into fringe title contenders this season, and they are one of the most underrated teams heading into the playoffs later this month.

With the Heat’s performance in 2019-20, Butler made his first All-Star team in nearly three seasons. He’s averaging 20.2/6.6/6.1 and is in the midst of one of his most efficient seasons to date (23.4 PER). Butler’s 6.1 assists are the highest in his career, and his unselfishness and toughness have been contagious on a gritty Miami Heat team.

Butler isn’t quite the scorer of his peers on my list, but he’s among the best defenders in the NBA and certainly an elite defender at his position. Already a 4x All-Defensive Team member, Butler is a lock to make a Defensive Team again this season, having averaged 1.7 steals and 0.5 blocks per game. His defensive prowess has helped the Heat obtain a 109.2 defensive rating, which ranks 7th-best in the NBA.

Butler’s place on this list is not so much his numbers but more his intangibles and leadership that makes him so valuable. He hasn’t yet made into superstar echelon, and probably never will. Still, he’s an All-Star player with the alpha leadership qualities that can push a team to championship contention any given year.

3. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

Despite an Achilles injury that has kept Durant off the court since the NBA Finals in 2018-19, Durant’s resume alone makes a case for the top three at the small forward position. Before his injury, I had Durant ranked as the best basketball player on the planet. Durant is a two-time Finals MVP and NBA Champion. He has one MVP award to his name as well as multiple scoring titles. Many around the league regard Durant as the best scorer in the NBA, and he is undoubtedly amongst the greatest of all time.

Before the injury, KD was playing at an MVP-caliber level, averaging 26 points, 6.4 rebounds, and a career-high 5.9 assists per game. Keep in mind he was putting up these numbers while playing alongside All-NBA players like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. I believe Durant’s play should have garnered him consideration as the NBA’s best overall player, as he was improving in all facets of the game.

Compared to the two players ranked ahead of him on this list, Durant is a more efficient and potent scorer than LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. He’s at 6’11” and has the fluidity and ball-handling skills of a guard. Durant can get his shot off from just about anywhere on the court and is an elite three-level scorer. He wasn’t just a juggernaut on offense wither.

Since joining the Warriors in 2016, Durant’s defense was considerably better than it had been in Oklahoma City. He often found himself guarding the opposing team’s best player, and was at one point the Warriors’ best rim protector.

He’s not the defender than Kawhi is or the passer that LeBron has always been, but he’s better than those two in just about every other facet of the game. Had he been healthy or even played a few games this season, his place on this list would be higher. I’m not sure he’ll ever get back to the Kevin Durant of old, but if he’s even 80-90% of his former self, that’s more than enough to secure him a top three position at the small forward slot.

2. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

In last year’s playoffs, Kawhi etched his name among the game’s elite. Leonard had a postseason for the ages and led the Raptors to the first championship in franchise history. In 24 games, Kawhi averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game. He also capped off an NBA Championship while winning his second career Finals MVP award. This season Leonard joins LeBron James for a chance to become the first player in NBA history to win Finals MVP awards with three different teams.

In 2019-20, Leonard joined the Los Angeles Clippers with Paul George, forming one of the best duos in the league. Leonard started the season off slow and has been limited to 51 of the team’s 65 games (load management). He’s putting up a career-high 26.9 points per game, along with 7.3 rebounds and a career-best 5 assists. He ranks first in scoring per game among small forwards and is taking the most threes per game in his career (5.7 3PA) while hitting them at a 36.6% clip.

Defensively, Leonard will always be an elite option, regardless of position. He has two DPOY awards, five All-Defensive selections, and a steals title to his name. He’s averaging just below two steals per game this season and has more career steals than fouls.

Leonard gets knocked for his lack of playmaking, despite averaging five assists, and he isn’t the passer that LeBron James is. He’s improved drastically in the assist department, but he’s known more as a defender and scorer than he is a playmaker. He’s not too far behind LeBron for contention as the best small forward in basketball. Another epic performance in the playoffs this season could aid Leonard’s case for the number one spot heading into the 2021 season.

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Since entering the NBA in 2003, James has always been listed as a forward and has been one of the leaders in usage his entire career. For the sake of this article, we’re still going to classify James as a small forward, although his position is more point forward.

At age 35, James has defied father time, and is having one of the best seasons in his career. His most impressive stat is in the playmaking department, and LeBron leads the league in assists with 10.6 dimes a night. Although the Lakers have three great bigs in Dwight Howard, Javale McGee, and Anthony Davis, James still collects around eight boards per game. He’s second on the Lakers in scoring and has somehow carried the oldest team in the league to the best record in a strong Western Conference.

When LeBron is off the court, the Lakers look like a completely different team. With him on the court, the Lakers have a 112.9 offensive rating. Without LeBron, their rating drops nearly nine points with a 104.3 rating. James also holds the best RPM Wins (Real plus/minus wins) in the NBA, which estimates the number of wins a player has contributed to his team’s win total for the season. Additionally, LeBron holds the second-best real plus/minus (9.80) in the NBA behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He has quickly reminded fans and players around the league who the best player in basketball is (sorry Giannis, sorry Kawhi), and he has the Lakers primed for their first NBA Championship since 2010. Before the season being shut down, James was averaging 30/9/10, with wins over the Pelicans, Celtics, Nuggets, Clippers, and Bucks.

More importantly, James showed up huge against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard and had many around the league believe he is the MVP front-runner. When LeBron should be declining in his career, he seems to have gotten better, and this season might be one of his most impressive to date.

Diehard Laker and Seahawk fan. I unfortunately witnessed the Seattle Seahawks passing the ball on the 1 yard line. I hope that sports can unite people and bring them closer together. Current student at Chapman University.

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