Occupying neither the post nor the perimeter, the small forward position contains within itself all of basketball’s latent possibilities. Just observe the sheer diversity of those who’ve operated on the wing: from scoring machines (Durant, Nique, English, Melo, Dantley, King, Aguirre, etc.) and defensive mavens (Artest/World Peace, Dandridge, Prince, Bobby Jones, etc.), brilliant Renaissance Men (Bird, LeBron, Baylor, Havlicek, Pippen, etc.) and one-dimensional specialists (Bowen, (Mike) Miller, Korver, etc.), the position is characterized by a liminality relatively absent from the center, power forward, and guard spots. If the “positional revolution” envisioned by the Free Darko crew were to ever actually materialize, small forwards would undoubtedly be the first to storm the Bastille.
Contrasting the skill-sets of this season’s MVP frontrunners (i.e. LeBron James and Kevin Durant) provides an apt illustration of the position’s seemingly infinite possibilities. LeBron is the consummate polymath, fantastic in nearly every category, and weak in scant few (crunch-time heroics being the most prominent example); Durant, meanwhile, is a dominant and rangy scorer, cast in the same mold as prolific forwards of yesteryear (though his game is vastly more versatile than is some times acknowledged). That both are enjoying dominant seasons, but in completely divergent ways, is yet another testament to the position’s singular uniqueness.
How they finish the year will determine how their accomplishments stand in comparison to the work of their legendary forebears. Will we ultimately remember LeBron and Durant’s 2012 seasons as two of the best ever submitted at their position? It will not be an easy task, as can be deduced by examining the most iconic campaigns ever authored by the greatest of small forwards.
Paul Arizin (1956) – Playing in the league’s equivalent of the Stone Age has rendered Arizin an unknown entity for even the most ardent of NBA fans. Yet his ’56 campaign manages to impress even today; he averaged 24 ppg on 45 FG% (no mean feat in an era not exactly known for its marksmanship) during the regular season, leading (along with fellow Hall-of-Famers Neil Johnston and Tom Gola) the Warriors to the league’s best record. The postseason saw no drop-off in his play, as he averaged 29 points and 8 rebounds per game en route to capturing the Warriors’ second title, a triumph which several newspapers attributed to Arizin’s impressive string of Finals performances (he netted 27 ppg in a 5-game series against a talented Pistons squad).
Alex English (1985) – Despite finishing the 1980’s as the decade’s leading scorer, English has flown slightly under the radar historically, most likely as a result of his team’s location (Denver) and an unostentatious style of play. Out of his remarkably consistent body of work (from 1982 to 1989 he never failed to average at least 25 ppg or shoot 49% or higher from the field ), his ’85 season appears the most impressive: he scored 28 a game on 52% shooting during the regular season, then subsequently carried his team (30-6-4 on 53% shooting in 14 games) to the Conference Finals, where it bowed out in 5 to a superior Lakers squad.
John Havlicek (1972) – I’m likely committing heresy by excluding Hondo from the top 5. But however remarkable his ’72 campaign (27-8-5 while playing 45 minutes per game(!) during the regular season, 27-8-5 while playing 47 minutes per game(!) during the postseason), his team’s early exit (eliminated by the Knicks in 5 games in the Semis) precludes comparison with those players who managed to make the final cut (all of whom carried their teams to the Conference Finals or better).
Bernard King (1984) – A striking vision of what could’ve been had his knees withstood the cruel twists of fate, King’s absurd ’84 season (26 ppg on 57% shooting in only 34 minutes per game) earned him Sporting News‘ MVP award (along with a second-place finish for the actual prize), an SI cover, and a memorable playoff run in which he averaged 35 ppg (again on 57% shooting) and almost single-handedly derailed the eventual champs (the Celtics) in a classic 7-game Semifinals matchup.
Scottie Pippen (1994) – His signature season, Pippen led his team in virtually every statistical category, finished 4th in MVP voting, carried the Bulls to 55 victories (sans Jordan, and only two shy of the ’93 Bulls’ record), authored one of the greatest (as well as one of the more meaningful) dunks in Playoff history, and almost toppled a Knicks team that came within a whisker of winning a title. Not too shabby.
Dominique Wilkins (1988) – In an era replete with talented small forwards, Nique was arguably the best not named Larry Bird. And, fittingly enough, his greatest moment involved the Legend. Indeed, their Game 7 duel in the Semis would ultimately come to represent the pinnacle of the Wilkins Era in Atlanta, and served as a perfect cap to a season in which Dominique averaged 30 a game and posted the highest PER of his career (23.7).
Others: Mark Aguirre (1988), Adrian Dantley (1984), Grant Hill (1997), Chris Mullin (1991), Paul Pierce (2008), James Worthy (1986), George Yardley (1958)
The Top 5
5.) LeBron James (2009)
A disappointing final chapter (upset by the Magic in the Conference Finals) has marred an otherwise brilliant and historic year, one that allowed LeBron to capture his first MVP and solidify his position atop the NBA hierarchy. And while some would claim 2010 as his most impressive season (30-8-7 on 50% shooting and a 31.1 PER), his disgraceful no-show in the latter half of the Celtics series that postseason immediately precludes its inclusion on this particular list.
For whatever his failures in 2009, few could take issue with his effort, particularly in the playoffs. In that Magic series, for instance, he averaged a 38-8-8 and hit an impossible, iconic last-second shot that (temporarily) staved off disaster for his beleaguered Cavs. And that’s to say nothing of a regular season in which posted the fourth-highest single-season PER in league history (31.6), and garnered the sort of hyperbolic praise that’s usually been reserved for guys with names like Jordan, Bird, and Magic.
4.) Elgin Baylor (1962)
It’s nearly impossible to determine Baylor’s most impressive season. Is it 1962, in which he played only 48 games (due to military obligations), and yet still posted a 38-18-4 in the regular season and (along with Jerry West) carried the Lakers to within a Frank Selvy miss of winning the title? Or is it the following season, in which he again submitted All-Universe numbers (34-14-5), and again came tantalizingly close to derailing the Celtics juggernaut (losing in six games by a combined 16 points)?
After much deliberation (i.e. ten minutes of perusing the SI Vault and Basketball-Reference.com), the former emerges as the most appropriate example of Baylor’s singular genius. Not only for the reasons listed above, but also because he averaged 40.5 points per game in that Finals series and, of course, submitted one of the greatest displays of scoring prowess in league history, with his (pardon the word) epic 61-point performance in Game 5.
3.) Rick Barry (1975)
Barry earned his one and only title in as spectacular a fashion as the NBA will likely ever see. Despite a weak supporting cast (his second-best teammate: rookie Jamaal Wilkes), he somehow lead the Warriors (averaging 30-5-7 and a league-leading 3 steals per game) to a decent regular season record (48 wins), then proceeded to rip through the postseason as Golden State trounced the Sonics in 3, upset a tenacious Bulls team in 7, and then swept a favored Bullets squad in the Finals (posting a 29.5-4-5 and capturing Finals MVP) in an incredibly tough series (average margin of victory: 4).
Though ABA numbers are automatically suspect for a variety of reasons, I’d be remiss if I excluded Dr. J’s signature season from a list pertaining to the topic at hand. Besides, carrying a relatively green Nets squad (average age: 25) to the league’s second- best record while posting otherworldly numbers (29-11-5 on 51% shooting, along with 2.5 steals and 2 blocks per game and a PER of 28.7), then single-handedly (playoff averages: 35-12-5 on 53% shooting, including a staggering Finals line of 38-14-6) toppling the Iceman’s Spurs (in the Conference Finals) and David Thompson’s Nuggets (in the Finals) should impress even the most obstinate of skeptics.
1.) Larry Bird (1986)
Not to beat Bill Simmons’ well-worn drum, but Bird’s ’86 campaign is virtually beyond reproach. Maybe Dr. J’s ’76 season is more impressive statistically, and maybe Rick Barry’s title run was more memorable, but Larry Legend’s third and final championship year serves as the standard by which the work of all other small forwards should be judged. There’s a reason Jack McCallum was moved to write this near the conclusion of the ’86 season:
“There has never been a basketball player quite like the Celtics’ Larry Joe Bird, in whom talent and tenacity rage a daily wire-to-wire battle for supremacy. Owing to the extraordinary importance of the giant pivotman in the game, it is probably impossible to declare that, in his seventh season, the 6’9″, 220-pound Bird, a forward, is greater than Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that is, the greatest player of all time. Or maybe it isn’t.”