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Ranking The Best Small Forwards Of All-Time

Dr. J and Larry Bird: 2 of the best SF's everI did this a year ago with the centers right after Shaq retired, and now's as good a time as any to create some discussions for the other positions. Stats obviously don’t translate very well from era to era, but we can examine the basic attributes we know about the game’s best at the SF position. Keeping things as straight-forward and objective as possible, here’s my ranking of the NBA’s 6 best small forwards ever.


Obviously LeBron James is missing from the list, but he's tough to place with so much career still ahead of him. Assuming he follows a normal career progression, he'll ultimately end up somewhere between Bird and Baylor (2nd to 4th) on this list. Although third or fourth may seem low to fans who gawk at his stats and skills, it really wasn't until this last playoffs that LeBron seemed to “get it” in the post-season. It wasn't that James was bad at this before, it's just that the top-3 SF's on here all “got it” in terms of understanding how to best improve a team dynamic no matter what the situation far sooner. James could always make his teams very good, but that high-level IQ that allows the greats to maximize their club's success hasn't been present in him for long. We'll see what he does from this point forward, but for now...



1. Larry Bird

best passing non-PG ever
very efficient scorer from everywhere
arguably the best rebounding SF ever
extremely intelligent, one of the top 2-3 transcendent team players ever
super clutch in playoffs and late in games
his defense is underrated
lost years of production to late career start and bad back that could be treated today


lack of athleticism was exploited by speedier defenders late in his career
back problems derailed his last 4 years (but still...last season at 35: 20 ppg, 10 rpg, 7 apg)



2. John Havlicek

extremely clutch – great in playoffs for very long time
phenomenal athlete who outran and outhustled everyone
supremely versatile, guarded many positions at the highest level
smart and team-oriented style of play fit him in next to anyone
very good passer


OK rebounder
only average scoring efficiency



3. Scottie Pippen

arguably the best defensive non-center of all-time
extremely versatile to the highest degree – could pass, rebound, shoot, etc.
came up with some critically huge games, numbers, etc. at the perfect times
carried MJ-less '94 Bulls to Game 7 vs NYK, who went to Game 7 in Finals


short period of greatness for an all-time great
downfall was long and drawn out
other than defense, all his skills were B+/A- with a few peak moments or years


The rankings drop to 5 because LeBron clearly ranks above the rest of these guys, even if he stopped playing today.


5. Billy Cunningham


very smart and team-oriented
crafty, tough, and athletic enough to play multiple positions and fill tons of roles
great above-the-rim driver who got to the hoop with abandon
very good rebounder for position
strong scorer
good passer

major knee injury derailed career (mordern surgery would have helped significantly)

wasn't a take-over leader, worked best in cooperative setting
scoring efficiency was only average

6. Dave DeBusschere

arguably the greatest defensive non-center of all-time
used tremendous hustle to bang bigs inside - great rebounder
very contagious effort and defense
awesome outside shooter who would have benefited greatly with 3-pt line
really good second/third-option scorer
completely team-oriented

wasn't a take-over leader, worked best in cooperative setting
never helped Detroit improve before joining the Knicks (they were a mess, though)
could not be a #1 scorer


7. Elgin Baylor

scored a ton of points over a long period of time
very strong rebounder for a small forward
very good passer
invented the vertical, high-flying modern game
phenomenal driver to the hoop, plus a decent jump shot
would have benefited greatly from modern knee surgery


not an efficient scorer (career: 27 points/gm, 24 shots/gm)
more style than substance
below-average defense
recurring injuries
questionable value added to club - Lakers' ups/downs followed West



8. Rick Barry

great scorer, great shooter – would have thrived with a 3-pt line

second-best passing forward ever (Bird)
smart/crafty defender


humongous jerk – everybody hated him
extreme lack of loyalty killed prolonged team cohesion/success
career lacked rhythm due to self-centered choices



9. Julius Erving

most overpoweringly momentum-swinging highlight maker of all-time
one of three best fast break finishers ever (LeBron, Barkley)

decent rebounder
was reverently admired by fans, peers, and media beyond his value

huge ABA stats a result of being overly protected
peak in NBA was short and not particularly impressive
defense and passing weren't good
very poor outside shot
lacked killer instinct




Next group in approximate order
10. Dominique Wilkins
11. James Worthy
12. Paul Pierce
13. Alex English



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Reader Comments (13)

Solid list and I agree with the ranking: except I put Doctor J and Rick Barry ahead of Elgin Baylor.

Dr. J 's knees were worn down after 5 years of carrying the entire league in the ABA. By the time he joined the NBA he could no longer do the following: jump flat footed and dunk on seven foot centers, play animated denial defense, rejump after loose balls several times, cut without the ball sharply, etc.

Barry was all that- fundamentally sound in all phases. Too bad he was his own worst opponent on the court as well.

Baylor no doubt a great player, & possibly the best scorer at the position, had severe limitations:
His defense was atrocious. Many of his opponents had career highs in scoring. Plus he was a bad practice player. One reason why the 72 Lakers won 33 in a row after Elgin retired is cuz their practices became far more competitive and sharper as a result.

September 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOroboros

Thanks for the comment. All 3 had some pretty big limitations; Bird and Havlicek are the only gimmes at the very top.

September 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

I would rank LBJ above Havlicek, Pippen, Barry, Erving & Baylor if he continues to stretch his prime until 33, and wins 2 or more titles in the next 5 years. If he wins another MVP despite voter fatigue, continue to expand his low post game, transition well from a high flyer to a more versatile Karl Malone type, he will clinch the top spot.

At age 27 LBJ already has 3 MVPs, 3 finals trips and 1 title.
At age 27 MJ had only 1 MVP, 0 finals trips and 0 titles.

September 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOroboros

Good thoughtful post. I'm not sure what James would have to do in my mind to top Bird simply since Bird always "got it"; he had that hoops IQ from day 1 that allowed him to maximize a team's success, even under pressure. James hasn't shown this understanding in a continuous way (for longer than a game or two at a time) until this past year, his 9th. Very few guys enter the league like that, and Bird is one of them and James definitely was not.

September 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

It is true that Larry Bird arrived in the league far more of a finished product than LBJ, but you yourself pointed out that he lost years off his career.

Those years would've shown us a less mature version of the great Bird -- much like how an 18 year old man-child had much to learn, even though he was virtually the first high school to professional basketball player to arrive with a mature body.

You must be capable of envisioning possible future where LBJ eclipses even the greatest small forward of all time and be honest with yourself and the reader.
It seems to me that LBJ might've finally gotten over his Wilt Chamberlain complex.
Not that I think LBJ is destined to replace Bird, but remember where Jordan was at the time in 1991. We all thought he was one of the greatest ever who couldn't sublimate his game to win enough. Now after 6 titles that's all history and Jordan is the "G.O.A.T."

September 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOroboros

I see what you're saying, but this goes way beyond a player being a finished product. This has to do with the hoops IQ side of things where we start realizing we'd probably rather have Cunningham or DeBusschere on our team than Rick Barry, even though Barry is probably one of the top-10 best "finished products" in league history. Certain guys make the team better, as in everyone's level is raised (Russell, Magic). Other guys are simply good and skillful, but they try to raise the team's level simply by doing everything and assuming their awesomeness alone improves the team in the maximum way (Iverson and Wilt come to mind) - their presence often does make the team better, but it doesn't have the same level of effectiveness as the guys with true hoops IQ, not even close actually.

James did not understand what it took to do that in a pressure situation before rather recently. Sure his teams did some great things and won some pressure games (and his clutch stats have always been better than Kobe's), but you never really knew how he or his team would react in these situations...until about 6 months ago. Bird was doing it in the NBA from day 1. Bird was doing it for most of college. His method of destruction was more ninja to James' brute punching power. We see a player's super athleticism and super skill set and assume that's all there is. And those two things can certainly make a great player. But a legendary player requires an understanding of how to lead and improve each member of a group and not get in its way with hero ball or stat chasing; it takes players like Duncan and West who knew how to adapt their games to the specific situations their teams were in. At no point did we ever think players like Duncan or West were hurting their club by egotistically putting themselves or their view of themselves before the team. They made plays that gave their teams the best chances to win. James is just now figuring this out. In Cleveland he'd swing back and forth between hero ball and passive role player, unsure what to do when, and it always seemed like he was thinking ahead of the play to how it would be discussed on ESPN. He was consciously playing for his legacy or his brand. Bird wasn't -- that's the difference that goes beyond being a "finished product."

September 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

I agree with the analysis, but if you're arguing that no matter what happens, even if LBJ earns a couple more MVPs and 2 or more titles, and have a long prime, he won't finish higher than Bird, that your ranking is not open to revision no matter what, then we are done here. I don't find testing convictions an useful or interesting pasttime.

Incidentally: in Jerry West's biography, West by West, he claimed that the players he thought who had the same intuitive grasp of the game as he did - the ability to grasp a play before it took place - were Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson ...and Wilt Chamberlain.

Go figure.

September 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOroboros

"The perfect Team"

Center: Shaq

Power Forward: Dream

Small Forward: Larry Legend

Shooting Guard: $

Point Guard: Lebron James


Big Ticket (KG)

Ray Allen
Dirk Nowitzki
Gary Payton

For Good measure. And this oroboros has been my pastime for 12 years. figuring out what the perfect team is.

What's yours?

Ps. Zach's team's is from players that are from an era where they were Gods. I seriously doubt they would have been half as good in today's modern era.

September 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenteraxLe

Thanks for your comments. As for doubting if the best of the 60's would fit in today, keep in mind that old Wilt was still consistently outrebounding Kareem when the youngster was at/near his peak. Considering Wilt and Russell essentially had the same rebounding numbers for years, I'll go out on a limb and see at least these two would have held their own just fine today.

If you're only using players from the last 30 years for your team, then I can't argue too much with your picks.

September 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

If James retired today, I'd put him #2. If he even remotely maintains his current career, #1. James is just an all around better player than nearly anyone , let alone #2-5 on the list. Bird has him beat only because he had a full career. James can and has played every position, he's that good.

September 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGav

sad to say as someone who doesn't like lebron but you can't help but admire his game. lockdown defender who can defend just about every position and efficiently, absolutely dynamic passer, best finisher in transition in the game, good shot selection, unstoppable when attacking the rim larry's a legend but i think lebron is the best sf of all time or will be there soon

September 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterslim

I like your idea of a "perfect team" and I think that fits better to Zach's standards than him trying to fit his team breakdown into the arguments of greatest of all time or greatest all time at a specific position.
I agree with Zach that defense wins, and to a bigger extent it wins the most important wins, championships.
Along those lines, my version of the "perfect team" focuses on dominating defensively but with guys that are more versatile and athletic on both ends of the floor. My "perfect" team also focuses on the team system. The specific system is the triangle offense with bits of twin towers, and a WICKED transition game. The coach would of course be Phil Jackson.
C: Hakeem Olajuwan (Dominating 2 way player), backup: Shaq (comes in and abuses other teams backups).
PF: Tim Duncan (Dominating 2 way player, can stretch floor and 2 Towers),BU: Kevin Garnett (Defense!)
SF: LeBron James (Lock Down wing defender, super versatile), BU: Scottie Pippen (Versatile Defender/2 way player)
SG: MJ (he shoots, he scores), BU: Kobe Bryant (Good defender, high bb IQ, very quick in his prime).
PG: Magic (He does it all), Steve Nash ( Assists, Most efficient shooter ever, fast transition).
The bench would be filled with:
Bill Russell ( Defense, Rebounds), Dennis Rodman (Same).
Jerry West, Larry Bird, Ray Allen (Shooters)

A HUGE notable absence from my team is Kareem but I chose other players for my premise. That doesn't mean that Kareem isn't arguably a top 10 all time player, it just means that his blends of skills & talent weren't required on my dream team.

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRaViNuS

My "unbeatable" All-Time team -

PG - Magic
SG - Jordan (of course)
S. Forward - Pippen
P. Foward - Duncan
Center - Kareem

Bench -
Ardvidas Sabonis
Gary Payton
Dennis Rodman

Thats it. 5 starters, 3 bench. Any more and I think your loading too much fantasy into who would be "willing" to come off the bench.

May 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJD

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