Do positions even matter anymore? They feel arbitrary. Shooting guards and small forwards should be wings or swingmen. Power forwards and centers should just be bigs. Most of the time, those are the terms people within the sport use. But for fans and the media, having specific one through five positions help to make sense of it all.
That’s how the NBA made news earlier this week when they said they were getting rid of the center spot on the All-Star ballet. The game perhaps isn’t changing, but people believe it is. As for the small forward spot, it’s home to some of the best individual talent in the league, and probably the two best players.
As part of our five-part series we’re running this week, we’re counting down the top 20 players in the NBA at each position. Today, I’m running through the 20 best small forwards in the world. I think you can guess the top three, but after that, there are some surprises…
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20. CARON BUTLER, Los Angeles Clippers
I nearly threw Chase Budinger in here, but he played just 22 minutes a night last year, and rang up solid advanced statistics going against second teamers and backups. Then, I nearly threw Michael Beasley in here because he has top-ten talent, and during a brief period in Minnesota, he looked like he’d eventually develop into a great sixth man who could come in off the bench and provide big scoring numbers on a playoff team. But he’s also terribly inefficient, doesn’t do much else besides score, and really, who knows what he’s going to give on a night-to-night basis? Metta World Peace is in shape, but he’s crazy. Trevor Ariza isn’t who we thought he was. Derrick Williams has been a bust so far. And Shane Battier played well for all of like 10 games last year.
Butler’s time in the NBA will be over soon, but the 6-7 swingman can still give you 12 points a night while shooting the long ball at a decent clip (1.5 a game last year at around 36 percent). Last season, his PER dropped all the way to 11.75, and playing with Chris Paul caused his usage rate to drop nearly 20 percent. You can argue he’s now just the third-best small forward on the Clippers roster, but come opening night, he’s probably still going to start.
19. TAYSHAUN PRINCE, Detroit Pistons
Prince has had a weird career. Through his rookie season in 2002-03, he rarely played, and then took center stage when he shut down the game’s top scorer (Tracy McGrady) in the playoffs. From there, Prince was incredible for a few years as a shutdown defender, using his outrageous wingspan to play an extra step off, which helped him make up for his lack of quickness.
But once Detroit’s title-contending teams started to fall off, so did Prince, and now he’s an inefficient role player on a bad team in a terrible situation.
Incredibly, per 100 possessions, the Pistons were actually 7.4 points worse with Prince in the game in 2011-12. Was it a lack of effort? A drop in athleticism? You can place the blame on a number of different areas, but more than likely, it had more to do with the Pistons as a group than anything else. They were dysfunctional, a complete mess. I wouldn’t necessarily blame Prince for that (especially when you look at his career history). It feels fluky.
What isn’t a fluke is his shooting. Among small forwards who played 30 games last year while averaging at least 25 minutes a night, Prince was dead last in true shooting percentage (47.1), way below the league average. He doesn’t make triples. He never really did. He doesn’t get to the free thow line, drawing fouls on just 5.2 percent of all his shot attempts. And last season, his shooting percentage, which had been higher than 47 percent over the last two seasons, dropped to a career-low 42 percent.
18. MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST, Charlotte Bobcats
He’s only a rookie who has never played in a real NBA game before, but I’m inclined to believe MKG will change at least one thing in Charlotte this year: he’ll get fans excited.
What he brings is intensity, and Charlotte needs a lot of it. Last year, the most intense person was sitting on the sidelines (Paul Silas). Kidd-Gilchrist won’t make triples, and I think he’ll struggle to break down NBA-level defenses off the bounce. Yet he’s always found ways to be effective.
I remember watching him in high school when he was a junior. Playing on the same team as Kyrie Irving, there were many taking Michael Gilchrist (as he was known at the time) as the best player in high school basketball, regardless of class. He wasn’t all that impressive: his jumper was super flat, he was a solid athlete but didn’t stand out, and he looked like he was near his peak as a player.
But he ended up scoring more than I anticipated, rebounding more than I anticipated, and he’s been doing that ever since. I think he’ll be the same way in the NBA.
17. JARED DUDLEY, Phoenix Suns
In order to get the most out of Dudley, he needs help. He needs a guard to get him the ball in his shooting pockets, and a defense that’ll back him up when he’s taking on the challenge of a high-scoring swingman. Basically, if you want the best from Dudley, put him on a good team. His destiny is as a role player on a great team, perhaps the four or fifth option. In Phoenix last year, even though it was probably the best year of his career – starting full-time, scoring nearly 13 points a night and having a major impact on the team’s offense – the Suns were average.
This year without Steve Nash, they’ll be even worse, although it’s hard to say the offense won’t at least be decent (last year they were still tied for eighth in offensive efficiency). Dudley played three different positions, and was pretty successful at all of them (although defensively, he was AWFUL at the four, giving up a PER of 31.1). He’ll continue to make shots, continue to draw fouls at a pretty high rate for someone with no game off the dribble whatsoever, and people will continue to overlook him.
16. WILSON CHANDLER, Denver Nuggets
During last year’s lockout, Chandler was one of the few who took the bait and ended up playing in China. Luckily for him, he was able to get out of the contract in time to at least contribute something to the Nuggets down the stretch and in the playoffs. It wasn’t much.
Chandler was virtually non-existant in the playoffs, scoring just 4.8 points a night through five postseason games. But even during the final weeks of the regular season, he wasn’t much help either, finishing with a single-digit PER and a true shooting percentage of 44.5, well below the league average and completely pathetic for a swingman who normally shoots it pretty well.
Considering he only played in eight regular season games with the Nuggets, and also that Denver sports what’ll likely be one of the top three offenses in the league this year, I highly doubt Chandler falters again. After being traded from New York to Denver during the 2010-11 season, he averaged 12.5 points a night, and made nearly two triples a game. While his PER was still below average (11.66) that year, it was better than his disastrous finish in 2012. Chandler isn’t as good as his talent suggests, but you can do worse.