The small forward position carries more responsibilities than any other on an NBA floor. A small forward's size, skill, and speed allow the best ones to handle the ball when needed, pick up the slack on the boards, and typically guard the other team's best player, even if they are out of position. Small forwards represent the Swiss Army knife of players on the basketball court, and they have revolutionized the game repeatedly through the years.
These are the 22 best small forwards in NBA history!
1. LeBron James
LeBron James could be argued to be a point guard, but we're going to say he's the best small forward ever because there's usually another floor general on the court with him. James possesses supernatural intelligence and rare athleticism, commanding every team he's on and leading them to four NBA championships. Entering his 21st season, LeBron still can be the best on certain nights, a testament to his greatness.
2. Larry Bird
Larry Bird may have looked goofy and unathletic, but underneath the farmer's exterior was a true hoop artist. Bird may be the best passer from the small forward position, and his gritty rebounding and all-court scoring ability turned the Boston Celtics into an instant contender when he was drafted. The only thing stopping Bird from moving up all-time lists even further is his lack of longevity, as back injuries curtailed his career. Still, not many have a prime like Larry Bird's, which included three consecutive MVP awards.
3. Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant can get a shot off anytime, over anybody in the world. He makes scoring look so effortless, that some people think he's the best bucket-getter in the league 15 years running. Durant should have spent more of his career focusing on improving his defense and passing, but his natural shooting abilities have covered up for any flaws in his game.
4. Julius Erving
Julius Erving operated above the room and on the fast break throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a revelation during a much more immobile, center-heavy period. Dr. J astounded fans with never-before-seen dunks and acrobatic finishes around the basket, making it virtually impossible to predict where to cut off his lanes to the rim. He topped his career with a title in Philadelphia in 1983, but his time with the New York Nets in the ABA (American Basketball Association) should never be forgotten.
5. Elgin Baylor
Elgin Baylor didn't do a lot of talking, rather letting his game speak for him. With more tools than any other forward of the 1960s, Baylor elevated the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals almost yearly alongside Jerry West. Baylor innovated by shooting with a modern touch rather than the era's typical set shot, and only a devastating knee injury prevented him from winning a title with the team he was so dedicated to in 1972.
6. John Havlicek
John Havlicek did something incredibly rare amongst NBA legends: he started out as a role player. Playing with Bill Russell and Sam Jones, he fit many needs and applied his intangibles to get the most out of his star teammates at the end of the Celtic dynasty. After Russell and coach Red Auerbach's retirement, Havlicek took on more responsibilities and led the team in his own way. They won two more titles in the 1970s.
7. Scottie Pippen
Scottie Pippen remains challenging to evaluate amongst NBA stars due to his role next to Michael Jordan. It takes a lot of ego-checking to step aside and admit someone is better than you, something Pippen constantly did with MJ. Once Jordan went to play baseball in 1994, Pippen proved how much he'd been holding back and was a prime MVP candidate for the Bulls. He never went to an NBA Finals as the best player on his team, but his defensive skills and timely scoring should be lauded forever.
8. Rick Barry
Rick Barry pioneered so much more than just the underhanded free throw attempt. Barry was supremely skilled on both ends of the court, displaying many modern talents others in his era couldn't replicate. Barry possessed unique court vision for a small forward and the size to score over defenders of every position. Before Steph Curry, Rick Barry was perhaps the best player in Golden State Warriors history.
9. James Worthy
Big Game James often supported Magic Johnson on the fast break in an ethereal fashion. Every instance Showtime came charging through, Worthy would be on the receiving end of the pass for an athletic dunk or layup. Worthy also started to assert himself more in the Laker offense once Kareem Abdul-Jabbar aged, and won NBA Finals MVP in 1988 when the team won a hard-fought battle with the Detroit Pistons.
10. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard started out his career with a laundry list of accomplishments unmatched by most of his small-forward peers. He extended the life of the Big Three in San Antonio, winning Finals MVP in a thrashing of the Miami Heat in 2014. He was traded to the Toronto Raptors and brought Canada their first NBA championship in 2019. Since these moments of legend, Leonard has struggled to stay on the floor due to injuries in Los Angeles, and therefore his career isn't living out the trajectory it was: to be one of the five best small forwards ever.
11. Paul Pierce
Paul Pierce toiled away for years on the Boston Celtics without many co-stars in the early 2000s, putting up 20 point-per-game seasons and pushing the C's into playoff contention. After Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived, Pierce shined on the NBA Finals stage and won MVP of the series against the Lakers. Pierce was always a fun interview and a cocky personality that helped make the NBA the entertaining league it is.
12. Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony's bag of tricks ranged from mid-range fadeaways to three-point daggers trailing in transition. Melo's refined triple-threat variety made him a multi-time All-Star and one of the most popular players in the league. If Anthony had committed himself to defense and more unselfish play earlier in his career, we could have been talking about someone who competed with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to be the best player in his draft class.
13. Dominique Wilkins
Dominique Wilkins, aptly nicknamed the Human Highlight Reel, jumped and dunked in ways that players today don't even do. He also delivered a scoring punch to the tune of three seasons, averaging 29 points per game and a career average of nearly 25 points per game. The Atlanta Hawks routinely competed with teams well above their talent level, such as the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, due to Wilkins' exploits.
14. Luka Dončić
Luka Dončić powers a prodigious attack in Dallas, carrying on the legacy of Dirk Nowitzki and reimagining what a point forward can do. Some people feel Dončić is the point guard of the Mavericks, but Luka is moved all over the floor by his coaches on offense. His heliocentric style may need more off-ball variety to leverage the team's ability completely, something Dončić should be willing to learn as he matures.
15. Alex English
Like his successor Carmelo Anthony, Alex English provided points in large swathes for the Denver Nuggets with little playoff success. English provided impressive consistency with a 21 PPG average, a scoring title, and the most points of any NBA player during the 1980s. A tall frame and silky smooth jump shot served as a preview of what players like Kevin Durant would do in the future.
16. Grant Hill
Grant Hill was on pace to become one of the very best small forwards ever. Chronic ankle injuries and a plethora of surgeries manifested diminishing returns on the back end of his career. Hill was a walking triple-double on the Detroit Pistons before the term became so famous. He deserves credit for securing a solid tenure as a role player next to Steve Nash on the Phoenix Suns in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
17. Adrian Dantley
Adrian Danley sometimes gets mistaken for a power forward because he operated out of the low post for most of his career. Danley averaged at least 30 points per game in four straight seasons with the Utah Jazz, one of the only players to ever accomplish this feat. He proved to be a difficult person to play with though, as he demanded a trade out of Detroit right when the Pistons were poised to win the NBA championship in 1989.
18. Paul Arizin
Paul Arizin implemented the jump shot into his arsenal at a time when so many players relied on the set shot to score points. Playing for the Philadelphia Warriors during their primitive years of the 1950s, Arizin showed the world what small forwards would be capable of with more creativity and athleticism in their games.
19. Chris Mullin
Chris Mullin has the most beautiful left-handed jump shot in NBA history. Five straight seasons of 25 points per game was a highlight of the Run TMC era of Golden State Warriors basketball in the 1980s and 1990s. Mullin had an underrated handle that allowed him to drive to the rim with reckless abandon when defenders hugged up on his deadly jumper.
20. Bernard King
Bernard King had a short prime, but it featured some otherworldly production from the small forward position. Four All-Star appearances and two All-NBA First Team recognitions during the mid-1980s helped make the New York Knicks an Eastern Conference contender. Personal troubles littered his life in the early parts of his career, therefore King's ability to clean up his drug problems let him realize his full potential.
21. Paul George
Paul George started his career as a megastar with the Indiana Pacers, delivering impressive playoff showings against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Trades to the OKC Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers turned out to be better fits, allowing George to fit in with players more suited to be first options on their teams. PG-13 capitalizes on his massive wingspan and talented shooting touch to burn defenses in many different ways.
22. Bob Dandridge
Bob Dandridge won a championship with Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, then he took his talent to the nation's capital and won another title with the Bullets in 1978. Dandridge did everything asked of him, scoring, rebounding, and defending depending on the situation. He was finally inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame decades after his retirement.
Shawn Laib is a writer who has loved all things pop culture from a young age. Growing up playing classic Nintendo games and being introduced to a variety of movies and shows, he always enjoyed analyzing and getting to the bottom of the point of a story. As he went into high school, basketball and sports in general became a main focus. Shawn decided to put his skills in English class to good use and majored in the subject area at the University of Washington, graduating with a B.A. in 2020. He began his freelance writing career after college with sites like SUPERJUMP, Den of Geek, and Quote.com. He now remains a fixture with publications like The Manual and Wealth of Geeks.