20 greatest small forwards ever: The HoopsHype list

Mary Raleigh
13/10/2023

LeBron James

Top accolades: Four NBA titles, four Finals MVPs, four MVPs, 13 All-NBA 1st Team selections, 19 All-Stars, five All-Defensive 1st Team selections

NBA rank: 1st in scoring, 4th in assists, 9th in steals, 32nd in rebounds, 90th in blocks

LeBron James came into the NBA with unreal expectations and somehow managed to surpass all of them – and then some. James is clutch, he can score at a ridiculous level despite that not being his best attribute, rebounds well and is a fantastic playmaker, his most impressive trait. Few players have ever matched James’ absurd basketball IQ, one that he’ll use to continue to dominate for the next few seasons as his career winds down.

Larry Bird

Top accolades: Three NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, three MVPs, nine All-NBA 1st Team selections, 12 All-Stars

NBA rank: 36th in scoring, 39th in steals, 48th in assists, 56th in rebounds, 161st in blocks

Larry Bird may not rank super high in the stat department – a byproduct of a shorter career than normal for NBA superstars and being part of a star-studded team – but there’s no questioning his status as an all-time great, as the legendary swingman filled the stat sheet and possessed a terrific all-around game, as a shooter, overall scorer, rebounder and playmaker.

Kevin Durant

Top accolades: Two NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, one MVP, six All-NBA 1st Team selections, 13 All-Stars

NBA rank: 13th in scoring, 80th in blocks, 100th in assists, 116th in rebounds, 151th in steals

Scoring comes so easy for him it’s almost ridiculous, as Kevin Durant is a 7-footer with ballhandling, quickness and a pristine jumper that he can hit from legitimately anywhere on the floor. Durant’s also an impactful defender when he needs to be, moving his feet quickly and blocking shots at pivotal moments.

KD is currently on a title contender and was still at an All-NBA level last season so there’s a chance he can still move up this list.

Julius Erving

Julius Erving, Philadelphia 76ers

Top accolades: One NBA title, one MVP, five All-NBA 1st Team selections, 11 All-Stars

NBA rank: 50th in steals, 51st in blocks, 75th in scoring, 196th in assists, 221st in rebounds

He was 26 by the time he made his NBA debut after years in the ABA, so Julius Erving would rank far higher in the statistical categories had he spent his whole career in the Association. Erving was the most spectacular player to date at the time thanks to his unreal athleticism and ability to fly down the floor in transition to hammer in dunks… and he was a winner, too. Often considered Jordan before Jordan (just without a jumper), Erving was an All-Star every season he played (ABA or NBA).

5

Elgin Baylor

Top accolades: 10 All-NBA 1st Team selections, 11 All-Stars

NBA rank: 27th in rebounds, 33rd in scoring, 156th in assists

With ridiculous scoring and rebounding numbers, especially for a non-big man, Elgin Baylor was one of the first players who would awe fans with impressive athleticism from the wing. He never got the championship he deserved, however, and the Celtics are largely to blame, as out of his seven Finals losses, six came against Boston. Baylor finished his career with as many All-NBA 1st Teams as Abdul-Jabbar, which is crazy to consider. Baylor was one of the best wings ever and considering the era he did it in, that made him one of the most important players in NBA history, as he opened the door for many of the elite wings that came later.

Scottie Pippen

Scottie Pippen

Top accolades: Six NBA titles, seven All-NBA selections, seven All-Stars, eight All-Defensive Teams

NBA rank: 7th in steals, 35th in assists, 65th in scoring, 91st in rebounds, 110th in blocks

Arguably the greatest Robin in league history, Scottie Pippen was a fierce defender with freakish physical attributes, including long arms and extremely quick feet, who would absolutely stifle opposing stars. Pippen was at his best as a slasher and transition scorer but could also create for teammates at a high level, making him a point forward ahead of his time.

John Havlicek

John Havlicek, Boston Celtics

Top accolades: Eight NBA titles, one Finals MVP, 11 All-NBA selections, 13 All-Stars, five All-Defensive 1st Team selections

NBA rank: 18th in scoring, 37th in assists, 76th in rebounds

One of just four players in league history with eight championships, John Havlicek was a great scorer on the wing, a player who could hit mid-range jumpers or get buckets in transition, and who was always willing to do the dirty work, as evidenced by the legendary “Havlicek stole the ball” moment from the 1965 Eastern Finals.

Kawhi Leonard

Top accolades: Two NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, five All-NBA selections, five All-Stars, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, seven All-Defensive selections

NBA rank: 136th in steals

Kawhi Leonard once owned the distinction of having the highest winning percentage in NBA regular-season history but that is no longer the case. Leonard was a secondary character in his first title run (until the 2014 Finals, at least) but led the Raptors to the mountaintop on his back. Always steady, even in the highest of pressure situations, and the King of Load Management, which might get tricky with the NBA’s new rules curbing the practice.

Regardless, he’s an all-timer based on accolades, production and impact as one of the best mid-range scorers and defensive wings ever, one with a clutch gene, too.

Rick Barry

Rick Barry

Top accolades: One NBA title, one Finals MVP, five All-NBA 1st Team selections, eight All-Stars

NBA rank: 73rd in scoring, 120th in assists, 130th in steals

An excellent scorer on the wing, Rick Barry may be best remembered these days for his granny-style free-throw shooting, but he was so much more than that, as he could handle the ball at 6-foot-7, shoot off the dribble or around the rim and do a bit of everything else well, including rebound and create for others. One of the first do-everything wings the NBA ever saw, Barry would rank even higher statistically in league history if he didn’t go to the ABA for four seasons in his prime.

Dominique Wilkins

Dominique Wilkins

Top accolades: Seven All-NBA selections, nine All-Stars

NBA rank: 15th in scoring, 65th in steals, 106th in rebounds, 203rd in blocks

One of the most explosive players of all time, Dominique Wilkins was more than just a dunker. He could score with the best of them, using his physical advantages and unreal athleticism to torture opponents in the deep-to-short mid-range area. Wilkins was legitimately one of the best in-game dunkers ever, one of the scariest players to face when he had a head of steam and was heading to the basket. He could also hit jumpers from the midrange and was an absolute menace scoring the basketball. Wilkins had some legendary playoff battles with Bird in his prime that will be remembered forever.

James Worthy

Top accolades: Three NBA titles, one Finals MVP, one All-NBA 3rd Team, seven All-Stars

NBA rank: 108th in scoring, 161st in steals, 216th in blocks

A 3/4 hybrid, James Worthy had the quickness to get by larger, slower defenders and the size to score over small opponents. Worthy was especially terrific in transition as a member of the Showtime Lakers. A three-time NBA champion, Worthy was even a Finals MVP one of those years and a vital part of the dynasty Lakers of the ’80s.

Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony

Top accolades: Six All-NBA selections, 10 All-Stars

NBA rank: 9th in scoring, 79th in rebounds, 91st in steals, 176th in assists, 201st in blocks

One of the smoothest scorers in the wing the league has ever seen, Carmelo Anthony became renowned for his jab step in the mid-range, but he had many more moves than that. Anthony also liked to bully smaller defenders and hit them with turnaround fadeaways, putting up a historic amount of points thanks to his well-rounded ways of scoring. There were times in his prime when it felt like once Anthony would get it going, he was impossible to defend. The numbers reflect that, too – after all, ranking Top 9 ever in scoring is almost hard to fathom. It’s unfortunate Anthony wasn’t able to have more team success in his career, which would have helped him move up this list.

Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce

Top accolades: One NBA title, one Finals MVP, four All-NBA selections, 10 All-Stars

NBA rank: 17th in scoring, 22nd in steals, 79th in assists, 89th in rebounds, 169th in blocks

Paul Pierce was a beastly scorer in his prime, one who could fill it up from all three levels and score on even the most elite of defenders. Pierce was also quite clutch, hitting a ton of big shots in his day, actually ranking as the player with the most buzzer-beating game-winners in NBA history. Young fans might not know it today but Pierce was a monster in his heyday, one of the best one-on-one scorers in the league and a solid-enough defender on the other end. He had some huge battles with Kobe Bryant in the playoffs, too, only adding to the Celtics-Lakers lore.

Alex English

Top accolades: Three All-NBA 2nd Team selections, eight All-Stars

NBA rank: 21st in scoring, 96th in assists, 144th in blocks, 148th in steals, 149th in rebounds

The highest-scoring player of the ’80s, Alex English was ahead of his time as a 6-foot-8 swingman with an elite nose for scoring the basketball smoothly around the rim. Even without a reliable three-pointer, English averaged 26.0 points in the 1980s, all as a member of the Denver Nuggets.

Paul Arizin

Paul Arizin

Top accolades: One NBA title, three All-NBA 1st Team selections, 10 All-Stars

NBA rank: 112th in scoring, 173rd in rebounds

A champion with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1955-56, Paul Arizin was one of the first players to use the jump shot to his full advantage, becoming a very effective shooter from that area during the NBA’s infancy.

Bernard King

Top accolades: Two All-NBA 1st Team selections, four All-Stars

NBA rank: 52nd in scoring

Injuries in his prime really hurt his place on this list, as Bernard King blew out his knee the year he earned the second 1st Team All-NBA of his career, missing the entire following season and never regained his explosiveness after that. Even so, King, the NBA’s leading scorer in 1984-85, was one of the smoothest high-scoring wings of his era.

17

Adrian Dantley

Adrian Dantley, Utah Jazz

Top accolades: Two All-NBA 2nd Team selections, six All-Stars, Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year

NBA rank: 31st in scoring, 234th in rebounding

One of the greatest scorers of the 1980s, Adrian Dantley led the league in scoring twice, both times at over 30 points per game. He did so as a slippery wing with great slashing ability and finishing around the basket, though without any semblance of a three-point shot, making his scoring all the more impressive.

18

Paul George

Top accolades: One All-NBA 1st Team selection, five All-NBA 3rd Team selections, eight All-Stars, two-time All-Defense 1st Team selection, two-time All-Defense 2nd Team selection, Most Improved Player

NBA rank: 69th in steals, 107th in scoring

Already boasting a borderline Hall-of-Fame resume with plenty of his prime remaining, and with a lot of missed time due to a devastating leg injury, Paul George will undoubtedly finish even higher on this ranking once he does call it a career. An elite two-way player, George can score at a high level from three, the midrange and around the cup.

Jimmy Butler

Top accolades: One Eastern Conference Finals MVP, five All-NBA Team selections, six All-Stars, five All-Defensive 2nd Team selections

NBA rank: 85th in steals

One of the best two-way swingmen of his generation, Houston native Jimmy Butler has already led two undermanned Heat teams to the NBA Finals and is making a run at our HoopsHype77 ranking with his play over recent years. Butler, despite lacking much of a three-point shot, is an analytics darling and a highly efficient player not only for his defensive impact but also because he’s been so good at drawing fouls and sinking free throws at a high rate. It also helps that Butler is so adept at scoring out of the midrange, possessing an old-school flair in this three-point-crazed era of the sport.

20

Billy Cunningham

Billy Cunningham, Philadelphia 76ers

Top accolades: One NBA title, three All-NBA 1st Team selections, one All-NBA 2nd Team selection, four All-Stars

NBA rank: 140th in rebounding, 199th in scoring

One of the most energetic players the sport had seen in his heyday, Billy Cunningham was known for crashing the glass and going all-out defensively. He played with a lot of strength attacking the rim, could space the floor and was a fantastic rebounder for his size.

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