After looking at the best big men of all time, now it’s time for the wings. These are the guys that most plays are run for and, in general, their job is to score. To also pass? Yes. To play defense? If they can.
1. MICHAEL JORDAN
This is a slam dunk. He wasn’t a world-class shooter, except when a game was on the line. MJ picked his spots to play defense, but when he did, he was a stopper. Jordan was also such an intense competitor that he practiced harder than many of his peers played in the playoffs.
2. LEBRON JAMES
He’s an incredible combination of size, speed, strength and talent. It’s simpler to enumerate what he’s unable to do at a top-of-the-line level than what he can do there.
LeBron doesn’t really have a consistent stroke, so opponents would much rather see him shoot than drive. It’s also understandable that he lacks the warp-speed to contain super-quick guards and wings.
In the last year or so, LBJ has lost perhaps a half-step, but he’s still a virtually unguardable monster from baseline to baseline.
3. LARRY BIRD
Even though Larry Bird couldn’t run as fast or jump as high as his peers, he was one of the most confident players ever. So confident that, on several occasions, he’d unleash a win-or-lose shot at the buzzer and — as soon as the ball left his hand — would turn and run off the court, laughing and taunting his opponents. He could shoot, pass, rebound and find driving lanes where none seemed to exist. Bird also compensated for his relatively inferior athleticism by exercising his genius-level basketball IQ.
He was also a world-class trash talker. “You can’t guard me,” he’d say to an opponent. Then demonstrate why this was true.
4. KOBE BRYANT
For sheer, unadulterated talent, only MJ surpasses Kobe. A great scorer, clutch shooter, finisher, ad infinitum. His most meaningful shortcoming was his reckless gambling on defense.
5. JOHN HAVLICEK
Hondo never stopped running, hustling, diving for loose balls — anything to exhaust opponents and destroy their will to win. For 82 games, from baseline to baseline, Havlicek never took a play off. He was the motor that kicked the Celtics dynasty into high gear. An All-NBA First-Teamer from 1971-74, Havlicek’s all-around game was verified when he was also voted to the All-Defensive First Team from 1972-76.
6. SCOTTIE PIPPEN
Pippen was the jack-of-all-trades and master of most of them. Driving, hitting pull-up jumpers, finishing on the run and in crowds, he could do it all on offense except avoid forcing quick treys. But Pippen earned his salary, All-Star status and Hall of Fame plaque by playing defense. Often, Phil Jackson would ask a player why he had zigged on defense instead of executing the required zag, and he’d merely nod when the answer was this: “Because Scottie told me to.”
7. JULIUS ERVING
“Dr. J” was a joy to behold. Smooth, intense and incredibly creative, some of his dunks are still shown on timeless TV replays. One of the delights of watching Erving play was to know, and to anticipate, that game after game, he’d do something with the ball that nobody had ever done before.
When I once asked him why he wasn’t a terrific perimeter shooter, this was his answer: “Because I don’t need to be one.”
Otherwise, he could jump out of the building, throw pin-point passes and clean the glass.
When he was the young end-all-and-be-all of the ABA, Erving also played excellent defense. But his knees were chronically aching when he entered the NBA, so his decreased lateral quickness diminished his defensive prowess.
Above all, Julius Erving was also a Hall of Famer off the court as well as on it.
8. RICK BARRY
His arrogance was often overbearing, but his scoring and passing supported his better-than-thou attitude. He could score on the run or in half-court sets, and in 1966-67, he led the NBA with 35.6 PPG.
Barry was also one of the last NBA players to shoot his free throws underhanded, doing so with remarkable success: leading the NBA six times in this category and shooting 90 percent for his career.
Barry was also the NBA’s first ever point forward. Using basic bounce- and two-hand chest-passes, Barry initiated (and completed) most of the offense that led the Golden State Warriors to an NBA title in 1975.
His defense was likewise fundamental. Quick hands and uncanny anticipation were reasons why Barry led the league in steals (2.85) in 1975-76.
Because he could routinely back up his boasts, Rick Barry was a gamer.
9. ELGIN BAYLOR
Elgin Baylor had a facial tic that served as a fake left, but he always drove right. Even so, he was strong, creative and talented enough to be the most prolific scoring small forward ever. Play him for the drive, and Baylor would hit mid-range jumpers all game long. That’s why the “Man of a Thousand Moves” finished his 14-year Hall of Fame career averaging an even 27 PPG. When he couldn’t find a shot, “Tick Tock” could also make accurate passes. Moreover, he was also a monster board-man, averaging 13.5 rebounds for his career.
However, besides an almost useless left hand, Baylor had two serious deficiencies. His defense was so bad that opponents always felt they could match his scoring point-by-point. Plus, Baylor would always loaf his way through practice sessions. He was forced to retire nine games into the 1971-72 season, whereupon the LA Lakers embarked on a 33-game winning streak on their way to the championship. The presence of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich were major factors, but several teammates also credited their success to the ferocity of the team’s practice sessions.
If Elgin Baylor was never a complete player, and never won a championship, he could always make the net dance to his own tune.
10. EARL MONROE
With elbows and hips whirling, “The Pearl” was a master at creating shots. Easily the most creative scorer ever. His fancy passes were usually in the mark, but it wasn’t until he joined the Knicks in 1971 that he began to play above-average defense. Monroe was the player his peers would gladly pay to see play.
11. SIDNEY MONCRIEF
The most accomplished two-way player of his contemporaries, Moncrief wasn’t a terrific shooter but he scored his points by slashing to the rim. His lockdown defense remains the standard for every wingman since.
12. GEORGE GERVIN
Gervin was an incredible scoring machine, leading the NBA in point-making four times. But what he couldn’t do was shoot from long range, pass, rebound or play defense. Despite heating up a scoreboard, “The Iceman’s” deficiencies ensured that his San Antonio teams were never serious championship contenders.
13. BILL SHARMAN
Sharman was second to only Moncrief as an outstanding scorer and defender. He was strong, quick, determined and detail-oriented. In the early dynastic seasons of the Cousy-Russell teams, it was Sharman who took the clutch shots and was also responsible for guarding the bad guys’ most explosive scoring wing.
Indeed, Sharman tops the list of the most underrated player in the Hall of Fame.
14. SAM JONES
King of the bank-shot, Jones used screens to the max, could make difficult passes, had a super-quick shot release and played effective defense. If Bill Russell leads all players with 11 championship rings, Jones is second with 10 gold rings.
15. HAL GREER
Only 6’2”, Greer had the strength of a power forward. From 18 feet, his jumper was automatic, he rebounded like a big man, played aggressive defense and made on-the-money passes. Speaking of money, Chamberlain was always Philadelphia’s headliner, but it was Greer who took the money shots.
HONORABLE MENTION: JOE FULKS, whose radical jump shot led Philadelphia to the championship in the NBA’s (then called the Basketball Association of America) first championship in 1947. During that season, Fulks averaged an astounding 23.2 PPG, while the runner-up, Bob Feerick, only tallied 16.8. In an early-season game against Toronto, Fulks astounded the sports world by scoring 41 points! Passing was what his teammates did to get him the ball, which is why Fulks averaged only 0.4 APG.
The following season, Fulks suffered various injuries but still led the league with 22.1 PPG. Then in 1948-49, George Mikan made his presence known in the pivot and became the league’s dreadnaught point-maker — but Fulks still managed 26.0 PPG.
After the BAA absorbed the NBL and formed the NBA (1949), the competition got tougher, the small forwards got bigger and the jump shot became a routine weapon. Fulks remained an effective scorer (14.2 PPG in 1949-50, then 18.7, 15.1 and 11.9 before retiring on the heels of another injury-plagued season in 1953-54.)
Looking back, no other small forward ever dominated the league as totally as did Joe Fulks in the fledgling years of the NBA.
NOT MAKING THE CUT
BILLY CUNNINGHAM because “The Kangaroo Kid” was a sub-par shooter and defender.
DOMINIQUE WILKINS because of his erratic shooting and his mystification when required to defend screen/rolls.
CLYDE DREXLER because his shot was iffy, his defense was worse and there was not enough substance.
Also ALEX ENGLISH, CARMELO ANTHONY and BERNARD KING — all one-dimensional, defenseless scorers. PAUL ARIZIN and GEORGE YARDLEY — scorers and defensive duds.