The NBA doesn’t feature as many superstar small forwards as one might think. LeBron James’ name certainly stands out, but beyond that is a list of young rising stars who haven’t necessarily made quite as much of a mark in the league as James has. As a result, this list might look very different in a couple of years. Not counting guards who sometimes slide into small forward roles because of team needs or to create matchup dilemmas for opponents, here are the top five small forwards in the NBA.
“King” James of the Cleveland Cavaliers is an easy pick to top this list. His freakish size (6-8 and about 245lbs) combined with dazzling handles and passing ability, impressive scoring prowess and an understanding for the game that goes beyond his years makes him an elite player in the NBA. James is often criticized as being nothing more than an athletic player who uses his size and speed to bull past defenders. Yet, such a claim is naive and cheapens what he truly brings to his team. He’s the type of player whom opposing coaches must change their defensive scheme for. He’s the type of player who makes teammates better, by drawing defenders and getting them wide open looks with his point-on passes. Sharp shooter Sasha Pavlovic practically owes his career to James.
LeBron has also been criticized for not being a leader or a clutch player. Yet, without James, the Cavs’ lineup wouldn’t dream of even making the playoffs, let alone contending for the Eastern Conference title. Regarding his lack of clutch player, James hit two buzzer-beating shots against the Washington Wizards in deciding games of a seven game series. He’s hit plenty of buzzer-beaters during the regular season, as well. And, he’s only 31 years old! Just because a player has missed some shots in the clutch does not prove or disprove that the player is or is not clutch. What makes James clutch is that despite those misses or shortcomings, he still has the courage to want to have the ball in the closing seconds of a game. LeBron James is nothing short of a superstar.
Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets sneaks into second. It’s difficult to place him here, too, because his game is so far behind James’ game, despite what some fans might want to believe, and because Anthony has many components of his game to work on still. He is one of the worst turnover prone players in the league, not because he’s a selfish player, but because he’s not a very skilled passer and doesn’t seem comfortable when searching for teammates. He plays with his head down too often and lacks confidence passing out of the double teams on the block. Moreover, for a player his size, he could stand to improve his rebounding ability and defensive ability. He sometimes disappears at the defensive end. All that being said, Anthony is a tremendous scorer, with a consistent jump shot and quick slashes to the hoop. He’s considered one of the most clutch players in the league and should only get better.
The Phoenix Suns’ Shawn Marion holds the third spot on this list. His numbers are very impressive and he has the ability to fill a stat sheet. He’s the ultimate garbage player, with insane athletic ability and a toughness beyond compare. Marion does what he needs to to help his team win and is a very underrated defender. Marion’s shortcoming is that he has trouble creating his own shot and has struggled in the playoffs. He will never be much of a first option on offense, but might be the best role player in the league.
At this point it gets tricky. A number of players could round out the fourth and fifth spots of this list, but the fourth spot goes to Dallas Mavericks forward Josh Howard. He was a first-time All Star this season and has been nothing but stellar in the last couple years of the playoffs, despite the Mavericks’ shortcoming in this year’s playoffs.
The Seattle Supersonics’ Rashard Lewis gets the fifth spot. His defense is suspect, but improving, but he is a gifted offensive weapon whose skills improve every year. Lewis is known for his three point shooting prowess, but his post game might actually be the most dangerous tool. At 6-10, Lewis can shoot over most opponents and because he has tremendous range, forcing him off the block a bit won’t phase him. On top of that, Lewis’ athleticism makes him a great finisher around the basket.
Some might place Gerald Wallace of the Charlotte Bobcats ahead of Rashard Lewis. The argument certainly could be made to do that. However, Wallace’s injuries the past couple seasons put him at fifth on the list. Still, he’s a better defender than Lewis, racking up blocked shots and steals, and is an improving offensive force.
There are several other small forwards who deserve consideration, such as the LA Lakers’ Lamar Odom, the Chicago Bulls’ Luol Deng, Washington Wizards’ Caron Butler and Atlanta Hawks’ Josh Smith. Ron Artest of the Sacramento Kings would surely make the list if not for his off court baggage that reduces his opportunity to play.