The scent of the season openers is in the air, so we’re continuing to rank the top players at each position going into the 2016-17 schedule, based on numbers, past performance and just personal preference.
Down through the years, small forwards have often been the most versatile athletes on the court, dribbling to the basket, firing up jumpers, finishing fast breaks with spectacular slam dunks. And there’s no shortage of standouts today:
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers — Let’s face it. We’re not only talking about the best at his position, but still the best, most complete player anywhere on the court in the entire game. He’ll be 32 this season and everybody says all the games, all the years, all the miles will eventually take their toll. But you watched him pick his team up off the floor in The Finals and lead the charge to the championship and there’s absolutely no reason to think James can’t continue to rule the NBA. For evidence, there’s the 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game he averaged in series. There was also that 27-point, 11-assist, 11-rebound gem that made him only the third player to notch a triple-double in a Finals Game 7. He can still be the strongest, quickest player in any game and is usually the smartest in every game. It’s still LeBron’s world that we’re living in.
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors — Surrounded by so many other offensive weapons in the Golden State attack, the first thing everybody might notice is a drop in his nightly point production. It will not only save wear and tear on the splendid splinter’s body during the regular season, but also allow him to get noticed for some underrated parts of his game. Namely rebounding and defense. While it’s true that expectations have never been higher — and the nitpicking criticism of anything he does wrong will go through the roof — we often forget that, at 28, Durant is just entering what should be the prime of his career.
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs — For most players and most teams, spending the first five seasons of his NBA career becoming established as one of the greatest wing defenders of his era — and perhaps all-time — would be enough. But after winning Defensive Player of the Year honors back-to-back, that’s hardly enough as the Spurs enter Year 1 A.D (After Duncan). Now they really do need Leonard to live up to all of that “face of the franchise” talk coach Gregg Popovich has been spouting. He certainly appears up for it. Leonard has increased his scoring average every year and was up to 21.2 last season that included a stunning 44.3 percent on knocking down shots from behind the arc. At just 25, the ceiling to his game is still not in sight.
4. Paul George, Indiana Pacers — There wasn’t a better feel-good story in the league last season than the return of George from the horrible broken leg injury to once again become the foundation of the Pacers and one of the NBA’s elite. After an early spat with team president Larry Bird about playing the power forward spot, George got down to business and put up career-high numbers — 23.1 points, 7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game — across the board. He also doesn’t back down at the other end of the floor. He might not be quite the lock down defender that Leonard is on the wing, but will step up and take on any challenge. The Pacers have a new cast of supporting characters in Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young. But George is the one in the middle of the picture who will determine how far they go.
5. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks — There is change all around in New York with the arrival of Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Courtney Lee, to name a few. And it’s the second NBA season of Kristaps Porzingis, who certainly appears able to be grow into the star of the future. But it is hasty and unwise to shove Anthony off the stage too early. He’s long been one of the most relentless, unstoppable scorers in the league, but last had one of his best seasons last year when he concentrated on being more of a set-up man. He had a scoring average (21.2) that was second lowest of his career, but dealt 4.2 assists that equaled his best. And, oh yeah, played some defense. There might not be rings ahead as his career winds down, but 'Melo doesn’t have to take a backseat to many.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks — Coach Jason Kidd will put the ball into the hands of this nearly 7-footer and let him run the offense, which hardly makes him what anybody would call a traditional small forward. But the “Greek Freak” has been defying description, expectation and spell-checking since he arrived in the league and began leaving tongues hanging down to the floor from coast-to-coast. He can run, he can dunk, he can jump. He averaged 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, while shooting 50.6 percent from the field. If he can get that 3-point shooting percentage up from 25.7, there just might be no stopping him. Those arms? Well, they go from here to all the way over there, making him a defender that can get his hands into almost everything. He became a triple-double machine over the second half of last season. And, oh yeah, he’s only 21, so the best is yet to come.
7. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz — A broken bone in his left hand will keep him out of the lineup until mid to late November. The Jazz will be treading water until then, trying to make up for the 19.7 points, 5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. Those six free throws per game that Hayward averages shows how much he likes to attack the rim. If he can get that 3-point shooting above 40 percent, it could mean a jump up to the elite level. He isn’t on par with Durant as a shooter or Leonard as a defender, but when you put everything together it’s a solid package and the reason the Jazz will do everything they can to re-sign Hayward when he becomes a free agent next summer.
8. Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets — The season after Portland showed him the door, Batum touched down in Charlotte just in time to plug the hole on the front line when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was lost for the season. He was an all-around package averaging 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists and almost a steal per game. His role as a facilitator in the offense was invaluable. He ranked behind only James Harden, Draymond Green and LeBron James for assists handed out by a non-point guard. That turns Kemba Walker loose from playmaking duties occasionally to do his thing as a scorer. He's hardly what you’d call a defensive stopper. But those long arms enable him to be a pest on the wing and allow him to fit into an overall scheme.
9. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors — You don’t often find a bench player breaking into a top 10 ranking at a position. But you don’t often find many bench players like Iguodala, who has given up the ego part of the game in order to make the whole of the Warriors so much better. He’s a clever, effective passer, good finisher and can nail just enough of those jumpers to force you to come out and guard him. Don’t blame him for not being able to shut down LeBron in The Finals. After all, he’s LeBron and nobody else in the league could have done it. At 32, he’s still got enough run in those legs to make that Golden State second unit get up and go.
10. Jae Crowder, Boston Celtics — You’ve got to give a guy credit for systematically building his game one area at a time to become a valuable piece of a team that hopes to challenge at the top of the Eastern Conference. It started with the defensive end, where he is absolutely ferocious and can guard players who are bigger and smaller. Then it goes to the backboards, where he’s also constantly playing hungry and throwing his body around. He's a good finisher at the rim who needs work on his shaky 3-point shot. But averaging a career-best 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds. 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals last season made him a valuable all-around package and vital part of the Celtics.
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