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The 25 greatest small forwards of all time

The term "traditional small forward" may, for readers of a certain age, generate memories of that scene from the 1990s movie "Renaissance Man" in which Danny DeVito attempts to teach slow-witted soldiers about, among other things, oxymorons. OK, so it's admittedly not a perfect comparison, but it can't be denied that LeBron James vastly differs from Kevin Durant, and neither play as did Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen or John Havlicek. Basketball evolves, and with it evolve player positions. 

Ranking athletes from varying generations is a fascinating exercise if only because we in the sports world are both prisoners of the moment and also willing to admit that current greats essentially compete with ghosts who don't possess the physical traits of today's players but shouldn't be shunned for dominating those they faced decades ago. Basketball royalty reigns as the greatest small forward of all time. He's also the overall G.O.A.T. for a plethora of analysts, fans and observers who rate him ahead of a certain Sir Altitude

Andre Iguodala
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Before Andre Iguodala joined the Golden State Warriors in July 2013, there wouldn't have been any thought of mentioning his name among the greatest small forwards of all time. Winning often changes things. The three-time champion won NBA Finals MVP for the 2015 series victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he willingly molded his game to become the perfect role player for the league's reigning dynasty. According to Reuters , Golden State coach Steve Kerr told reporters his Warriors would've toppled the Houston Rockets in the 2018 Western Conference Finals in five games instead of seven "if Iggy played," a comment that speaks to how highly Kerr views the forward. 


24. Shawn Marion

Shawn Marion
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We're not going to try to convince you that Shawn Marion deserves to be in the Hall of Fame or rewrite history and suggest he proved he could be the No. 2 guy in a championship offense. It's worth something, though, that he made history in December 2014 when he became the first player to total 15,00 career points, 10,000 career rebounds, 1,000 career blocks and 500 career three-pointers. Sure, Marion was largely a compiler, but longevity shouldn't go completely ignored. 


23. Ron Artest/Metta World Peace

Ron Artest/Metta World Peace
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When you think of Ron Artest, you probably think of the "Malice at the Palace" brawl, his other unfortunate in-game incidents or the fact that he changed his name to Metta World Peace. In November 2015, World Peace told ESPN's Baxter Holmes he believed he could've been a Hall of Famer, "if I would've been a more stable player." The 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year earned four All-Defensive appearances, and he's 24th in career steals (1,721). 


22. Bob Dandridge

Bob Dandridge
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It's possible Bob Dandridge is the most underrated two-way small forward of the bunch. While injuries cut Dandridge's prime short, the four-time All-Star was an integral part of two championship-winning sides, once with the Milwaukee Bucks (1971) and later as a member of the Washington Bullets (1978). As Curtis Harris of ESPN wrote, no player scored more Finals points in the 1970s than Dandridge. 


21. Marques Johnson

Marques Johnson
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Between 1979 and 1986, Marques Johnson was a five-time All-Star with three All-NBA appearances on his resume and ranked first in offensive box plus/minus for the 1978-79 season. Unfortunately, a neck injury he suffered at the age of 30 essentially ended his career. As Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explained earlier this year, the Milwaukee Bucks officially retired Johnson's jersey in March 2019. To this day, Johnson holds the franchise record for offensive rebounds. 


20. Bernard King

Bernard King
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Bernard King was a four-time All-Star, but a brutal knee injury that, according to Newsday's Andrew MacDougall, included "a torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn knee cartilage and a broken bone in his leg" halted his momentum at the height of his powers in the spring of 1985. King led the league in scoring that season, averaging 32.9 PPG, and his ultimate return to the court and to All-Star status was heroic and defied the odds. King is a Hall of Famer, but he could have been so much more. 


19. Paul George

Paul George
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Perhaps had Paul George not suffered a gruesome leg injury in the summer of 2014, he wouldn't just now be enjoying the best season of his pro career. The six-time All-Star with three All-Defensive appearances is an MVP candidate for the 2018-19 season along with Giannis Antetokounmpo  and James Harden, and George could also win Defensive Player of the Year for the current campaign. In February,  The Ringer's Dan Devine wrote about how George is a "perfect" type of player for the modern game. 

Kawhi Leonard
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Kawhi Leonard will never be the most exciting presence, on or off the court, nor will he be the league's best overall player. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP could win a second title with the Toronto Raptors in the spring of 2019, and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is the best two-way player at the position in the Eastern Conference at the moment. At just 27 years old, his place on the list isn't yet cemented. 


17. Chris Mullin

Chris Mullin
Photo credit should read JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP/Getty Images

Chris Mullin wasn't paid for his defensive skills, so it's a good thing he could shoot the rock. An All-Star every year from 1989 through 1993, Mullin shot nearly 51 percent (50.9) from the field, and his three-point shooting dramatically improved during the second half of his career. He's 30th all time in true shooting percentage (.5938). 


16. Grant Hill

Grant Hill
Photo by Jeffrey Porter/Dallas Morning News/MCT/Sipa USA

What if? It's the question that will always hover over Grant Hill's legacy and career, and one we'll never answer. We got only six seasons of Hill at his physical best before injuries plagued the remainder of his career, but he nevertheless retired a seven-time All-Star who tallied over 17,000 points. It's easy to forget a healthy Hill played no fewer than 70 games in non-lockout seasons his first six years in the league, and the only time he averaged fewer than 20.2 points over that period was in his rookie campaign (19.9 PPG). 

Adrian Dantley
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After winning Rookie of the Year for the 1977 campaign, Adrian Dantley was traded twice until he found a long-term home with the Utah Jazz for the start of the 1979-80 campaign. The Jazz had no regrets about making that transaction even if "defense" was a foreign word to the forward. Dantley became an all-time efficient scorer for the Jazz — one named to six All-Star teams, one who won a pair of scoring titles and one who led the NBA in converted free throws five times and is 10th all time in buckets scored from the charity stripe (6,832). As of March 2019, he sits 14th overall in career offensive box plus/minus (4.52) and ninth in career true shooting percentage (.6166). 


14. Paul Arizin

Paul Arizin
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The reason Paul Arizin wasn't more than a 10-time All-Star was because the Philadelphia Warriors legend missed the 1952-53 and 1953-54 campaigns serving in the Marines during the Korean War. Even more amazing, via the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, is that Arizin didn't try out for his high school's basketball team until senior year, and he failed to make the squad. Good thing he stuck with the sport while attending Villanova. Arizin won a pair of league scoring titles in the 1950s, and he helped lead the Philadelphia Warriors to the championship in 1956. "Pitchin' Paul" is also credited for introducing his line drive jump shot to the pro game. 

Carmelo Anthony
Photo by Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/TNS/Sipa USA

Bored and want to have some fun on a slow weeknight? Head to your favorite social media platform and either bash or praise Carmelo Anthony, and then just wait for the responses. Anthony's detractors will claim he made a living and a boatload of cash scoring empty points that meant nothing in the grand scheme of things, that the story of the NBA throughout the 2000s could be told without mentioning his name a single time and that the pitiful end of his tenure with the Houston Rockets after 10 games was a fitting conclusion for somebody who proved there's no "I" in "team." Fans will say he's a 10-time All-Star who won the 2012-13 scoring title and who is one of only 26 people to score over 25,000 career points

Alex English
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Alex English wasn't just the league's leading scorer for the entire 1980s with 21,018 points. As Andre Key of Clutch Points explained, the eight-time All-Star also was named All-NBA three times during the decade, notched more points during the '80s than Kobe Bryant scored in the 2000s, and English did so in fewer minutes. Per, he was the seventh-leading scorer in league history when he retired from the NBA in 1991. 


11. Dominique Wilkins

Dominique Wilkins
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We know Dominique Wilkins as "The Human Highlight Film " and potentially the best in-game dunker before Vince Carter arrived via the 1998 NBA Draft. That somewhat discredits Wilkins' overall offensive talents. Starting in the fall in 1984, Wilkins averaged at least 25.9 PPG for 10 straight seasons, and he won the scoring title for the 1985-86 campaign. His career PPG average is 24.83, higher than marks belonging to Rick Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Julius Erving. To compare, Kobe Bryant retired on a 24.99 PPG average. 

James Worthy
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The nickname "Big Game James" may lead one to believe James Worthy built his reputation mostly on his postseason appearances. A three-time champion named MVP of the 1988 NBA Finals, Worthy was a seven-time All-Star who shot over 54 percent from the field in each of his first eight seasons. Once referred to as always "easy to overlook" by ESPN's Sam Smith , Worthy ran the floor as well as Magic Johnson, and he had no problem being a selfless member of the famous "Showtime" offense. 

Paul Pierce
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Like others in the list, Paul Pierce was never the best player in the league. He was merely consistently tremendous for well over a decade. A 10-time All-Star, Pierce formed a "Big Three" along with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen who guided the Boston Celtics to a championship in 2008, and it was "The Truth" who was named Finals MVP for that series. Pierce sits 18th in career points with 26,397. His spot in the Hall of Fame awaits him. 


8. Rick Barry

Rick Barry
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History and highlights teach younger fans that Rick Barry is largely remembered because of his underhand technique that helped him become one of the greatest free-throw shooters in history. Yes, Barry shot over 89 percent (89.31) from the charity stripe, good for seventh on the all time list. But the eight-time NBA All-Star and six-time All-NBA selection was so much more. Barry led the league in steals for the 1974-75 campaign, and he won the scoring title for the 1966-67 campaign when he averaged 35.58 PPG. If James Harden tops that mark in 2018-19, he'll be only the third person to average a higher PPG for an entire season. 

Elgin Baylor
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Any conversation about the greatest player to never win MVP must include Elgin Baylor. The forward who revolutionized dazzling and acrobatic aerial maneuvers, Baylor was an 11-time All-Star with 10 All-NBA First-Team nods who, simply put, wasn't winning MVP over Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain. He's still 27th overall in career rebounds, which is astounding considering he last played in the fall of 1971. 


6. John Havlicek

John Havlicek
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Back in 2014, a post on Celtics Blog referred to Boston Celtics great John Havlicek as "the most underappreciated superstar in NBA history." There's something to that notion in that you rarely hear his name mentioned in discussions about the greatest players in franchise history. Havlicek remains one of only three players to go a perfect 8-0 in the NBA Finals, as Seth Berkman of The New York Times wrote, and Hondo was also a 13-time All-Star who made 11 All-NBA and eight All-Defensive appearances. The MVP of the 1974 NBA Finals still holds the franchise records for points, field goals, minutes played and games played. 

Scottie Pippen

Scottie Pippen probably wants to be remembered as more than arguably the greatest sidekick in the history of North American pro sports. The six-time champion who serves as the two in a one-two punch alongside Michael Jordan will never escape the shadow of His Airness, but Pippen wasn't merely along for the ride with those Chicago Bulls teams that dominated the 1990s. One of the greatest defenders to ever play the position, Pippen was named NBA All-Defensive First Team eight times and NBA All-Defensive Second Team on two occasions. As of March 2019, he's sixth all time in career steals


4. Julius Erving

Julius Erving
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Just as Johnny Unitas is no longer one of the three greatest quarterbacks to ever play the position, Julius Erving is no longer in the top three among small forwards. This certainly isn't a knock on Dr. J, who "redefined the forward position," per the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. A 16-time All-Star, ABA included, Erving was named ABA MVP three straight seasons (1973-74, 1974-75, 1975-76), he won NBA MVP for the 1980-81 campaign and he sits eighth all time in career points. The undisputed godfather of the slam dunk made human flight seem both majestic and effortless. 

Kevin Durant
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Before voicing a hot take about this, remember there's a difference between legacy and personal opinion. Kevin Durant is the reigning two-time NBA Finals MVP, as of the typing of this sentence, who is probably headed toward a third ring and, potentially, a third MVP trophy. K.D. is a 10-time All-Star with eight All-NBA appearances, the Rookie of the Year award and a spot in the famed 50-40-90 club to his name. In August 2018, teammate Andre Iguodala told Ben Golliver of The Crossover Durant is "the most talented scorer of all time. Hands down." Complex's Spencer Lund agreed. 


2. Larry Bird

Larry Bird
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From the fall of 1983 through the spring of 1986, nobody outperformed Larry Bird, the MVP for all three of those seasons who thrice was the runaway winner of the award. Yes, the three-time champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP and 12-time All-Star was the pre-eminent shooter of his era. His basketball IQ, vision and ability to produce magic in the clutch made him the greatest small forward of all time until the 2010s. Bird could also talk trash right along with the game's elite gabbers. 


1. LeBron James

LeBron James
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Twenty years from now, pockets of basketball fans from around the country will feel downright silly they didn't appreciate LeBron James because he didn't match Michael Jordan accomplishment for accomplishment. As argued by staff , James probably should have been MVP every year from 2010 through 2018, and the three-time champion would own a fourth ring had both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love not fallen to injuries during the 2015 playoffs. Whether or not King James is the G.O.A.T. is irrelevant here. He's unquestionably the greatest small forward of all time. 

Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink

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