Take a look at Sekou Smith’s most recent MVP Ladder at NBA.com. Obviously, Stephen Curry is at the top, but a bunch of the guys who fall directly behind him have something in common: they’re listed as small forwards.
Kawhi Leonard is No. 2, Paul George is No. 3, LeBron James is No. 4 and Kevin Durant is No. 7. That group doesn’t even include Jimmy Butler, who’s officially a shooting guard but plays 28 percent of his minutes at the 3 and has a 6’7″, 220-pound body and skill set common to the small-forward position.
Aside from the current MVP candidates, there a few tiers of guys in that general position group (players either listed at small forward or who play a bunch of minutes there) that show just how deep it’s become:
All-Star Caliber Guy: Carmelo Anthony (31 years old)
Future MVP Candidates: Andrew Wiggins (20, Giannis Antetokoumpo (20), LSU’s Ben Simmons (19)
Upper Middle Class: Gordon Hayward (25), Rudy Gay (29), Andre Iguodala (31), Khris Middleton (24), Evan Fournier (23), Nicolas Batum (26), Danilo Gallinari (27), Harrison Barnes (23), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (22)
Solid Players: Tobias Harris (23), Chandler Parsons (27), DeMarre Carroll (29), Luol Deng (30), C.J. Miles (28), Trevor Ariza (30), Robert Covington (24), Mike Dunleavy Jr. (35), Kent Bazemore (26), Wilson Chandler (28), Al-Farouq Aminu (25), Jeff Green (29), Jabari Parker (20), Otto Porter Jr. (22), Jae Crowder (25), Doug McDermott (23), Thabo Sefolosha (31), T.J. Warren (22), P.J. Tucker (30), Evan Turner (27) Tony Allen (33), Nick Young (30), Joe Johnson (34), Jared Dudley (30)
Promising Rookies: Justise Winslow (19), Stanley Johnson (19), Mario Hezonja (20), Kelly Oubre Jr. (19), Sam Dekker (21), Justin Anderson (22), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (20)
First-Round 2016 NBA Draft Prospects: Duke’s Brandon Ingram (18), California’s Jaylen Brown (19), France’s Timothe Luwawu (20), Baylor’s Taurean Prince (21), Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon (20), North Carolina’s Justin Jackson (20)
Just scanning that list, it’s abundantly easy to tell that the position is stacked and in great position to get even better. Leonard, George and Durant figure to be staples in that MVP conversation for at least the next five seasons, and James should be for at least a few more. After them, guys like Wiggins, Antetokounmpo and Simmons are very good now, and their athletic tools put each of them in ideal position to be top 10 players by about 2020.
Aside from them, I listed a whopping 26 players age 25 or younger in the above tiers. Some of these guys are excellent players already (Hayward, Middleton and Fournier, for example) and many are just average or above-average, but it’s reasonable to expect most of them to improve during the next few years. I didn’t even list guys projected to go in the 2017 draft and onward, but we’ll undoubtedly get some nice 3s entering the league in the next few years, as well.
What does that mean for the NBA? Well, since the small-forward position is so stacked, it now has a strong argument as the most top-heavy AND deepest position in the league, when point guard was previously considered to have those titles.
Curry is the best player in the league and should remain so for the foreseeable future, and Russell Westbrook is a monster. But that core four of LeBron, Durant, George and Kawhi (and kind of Butler) isn’t being touched by the point guards. Chris Paul and one of Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, John Wall or Eric Bledsoe make up the top four along with Curry and Westbrook, but that top group is definitely a class below what the small forwards have to offer.
In terms of depth at the 1 position, there are actually a lot of teams starting point guards who aren’t starting-level players right now, and that doesn’t seem to be as big a problem with small forwards. Some of these 1s are Jarrett Jack, Derrick Rose (sorry, Bulls fans), Emmanuel Mudiay, Patrick Beverley, D’Angelo Russell, Jose Calderon, Isaiah Canaan/T.J. McConnell and Raul Neto.
The field of young, potential-filled point guards in the league is also surprisingly thin, as Dan Favale and Jonathan Wasserman discussed over at Bleacher Report. So the gap between the positions will only get wider.
Bu why are small forwards rising to prominence in favor of point guards? It’s all about versatility.
The rise of the point guard coincided with the rise of pick-and-roll-heavy offenses. Teams wanted smart, skilled floor generals who were comfortable making plays for themselves and others in those sets. Now, teams are looking for versatile guys who can defend those pick-and-rolls and shoot off the ball.
Enter small forwards.
Most effective 3s are in that 6’6″ to 6’9″ height range, weighing between 200 and 240 pounds and providing solid quickness and strength. With 3 being the midpoint between 1 and 5, small forwards are naturally the guys who have the best combination of size and athleticism to succeed against players of other positions on both ends of the floor.
When these players are engaged defensively, they can switch on all screens and guard positions 1 through 5 at least decently. If they’re truly elite on that end of the floor, like Leonard, coaches can place them on positions that aren’t small forward for long stretches of time and feel good about it.
On the offensive side of the ball, the emphasis on spacing in today’s NBA makes small forwards with outside strokes even more tantalizing. If a guy is a versatile defender AND can make threes, he can be placed in almost any lineup at a variety of positions. Although Draymond Green is officially a power forward, this is what makes him so effective for the Golden State Warriors.
Ball-handling is just a bonus here, as it can make tall, athletic guys like James, George, Durant and Anthony a nightmare matchup offensively for pretty much anyone. Their teams have all used them as power forwards from time to time to further exploit the shooting and ball-handling advantages they have.
A truly position-less NBA is looking more and more like it could become reality, especially with the versatility so many small forwards offer.
But for now, while we still label players with a number 1 to 5, 3 has become king.