The Road To To Today's Power Forward | Part II
Karl Malone (left) and Kevin Garnett (right) dominated play at the power forward position over the past three decades. The position has evolved a lot during that time. (Photo credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
Editor’s Note: Power forwards continue to evolve, but it's still arguably one of the deepest positions in the NBA. In Part II of this NBA All-Star series, Mark Remme looks at how the position has evolved over the past three decades into the style of play this era primarily features today.
Kevin McHale made a Hall of Fame career for himself in the 1980s with the Boston Celtics. He was an incredibly important part of the Celtics’ three NBA titles during that decade, teaming up with Robert Parish in the paint to create a 1-2 duo down low that could match up with anyone.
McHale retired as one of the most difficult players to guard in the low post in NBA history. He shot 55.4 percent for his career and shot above 60 percent for two consecutive years in 1987 and 1988. He was smooth getting to the rim with his bevy of back-to-the-basket moves—his post play is sometimes overlooked today but was a major factor in the Celtics’ dominance during his career.
Today, McHale coaches the Houston Rockets and sees a new style of power forwards in this league. The days of McHale and Charles Barkley and Karl Malone are gone, and there is a new era of power forward that in many ways takes a different approach to the game. Much more pick-and-pop, and much more importance being placed on the Stretch 4 mentality.
It’s not a bad thing, by any means. But it’s a little different than it was 25 years ago at the Boston Garden.
“I think [Kevin] Garnett and [Dirk] Nowitzki had a huge part in that, and they started playing out on the perimeter and they got harder to guard, spread the floor more,” said McHale, who drafted Garnett in Minnesota in 1995. “You know, the Karl Malone-type power forward doesn’t exist much anymore. It’s ever-evolving, but it will get back to that. There’ll be two big, legitimate, 6-11, 265 [pound] power forwards that can move their feet a little bit and then they’ll beat the hell out of all these guys that like to stretch it out. And then everybody will go, ‘We need another bigger guy.’ It comes and goes.”
For now, the power forward position is in good hands with the young crop of All-Stars—particularly in the West—that are beginning to form a new era. Kevin Love comes to mind most when you think stretch 4 (he'll show that at the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest during All-Star Saturday Night at 7 PM on TNT), but he also has the ability to play inside with his moves to the hoop and his increasingly lethal baby hook in the paint. Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge can both hit a midrange jumper, as can Anthony Davis, and Dirk Nowitzki—now in the tail end of his career—is still able to hit his un-defendable fadeaway.
Dating back to McHale’s era, the power forward spot has always been well-represented. The 1980s had McHale, James Worthy, Ralph Sampson and Buck Williams. The 1990s had Malone, Barkley, Dennis Rodman and Shawn Kemp. The 2000s had Garnett, Duncan, Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Rasheed Wallace.
All of those groups brought a little different collective dynamic to the league, and all of them were extremely effective and successful.
“It seems like as long as I’ve been in the league, going back to my days in Seattle (beginning in 1992) with Shawn Kemp and Karl Malone for years, Barkley—then you’ve got Duncan and Nowitzki—it’s been a very strong position in the West for a number of years,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “Throwing Garnett into that other era, Garnett was in the West as well. I think that position has been very well-represented as long as I’ve been in the league. And today it is as well.”
Former shooting guard Dell Curry overlapped with three of those eras as he played for five teams from 1986 through 2002. Essentially he saw McHale play first-hand as a 22-year-old rookie and saw Garnett and Duncan in their primes as a 37-year-old in his final season. This weekend, he’ll watch his son, Stephen, make his first All-Star appearance alongside this new crop of Western Conference power forwards who are making their mark in this new age at the position.
That’s nearly 30 years of power forward evolution that he’s seen firsthand.
“Kevin Love is the typical guy—the stretch 4,” Dell Curry said. “When I was in the league, we didn’t have a lot of those stretch 4s. It was 4-men who got into the lane, who beat, who banged, who fought for a rebound. Now the stretch 4 has developed the 3-point shot, they’re able to stretch the defense. And not only take them but make them. Kevin, he’s a wonderful player. For him to be able to do what he’s doing on a consistent basis night-in and night-out is tremendous.”
Nowitzki was a main pioneer for the type of game Love and other power forwards play today—meaning he was able to hit those outside shots during a time when power forwards didn’t necessarily step out. He credits Don Nelson for that—if Nelson hadn’t been his coach right away, he questions whether or not he would’ve become the player he is. Other coaches might have followed conventional wisdom on what power forwards should be. Nelson, as usual, thought more unconventionally about Nowitzki’s talent.
The rest is history.
“There are a lot of great power forwards coming in and dominating,” Nowitzki said. “Athletes being able to shoot, put the ball on the floor. Now when I first got into the league, 4s were a lot of back-to-the-basket guys, you know? There were a lot of pounding and not much excitement going on. But now, you know, all the 4s have to be able to spread the floor and put the ball down, even lead the break sometimes. Finish above the rim. So it’s been exciting to watch, and really in the West every night there is a new challenge on the power forward spot.”
This weekend, the NBA will get a chance to see a new era of power forwards in the West join together on this All-Star team. Where will the position go from here? Who is watching this group of power forwards today, and who will help change the position again down the line?
“I looked up to guys like Karl Malone, guys like that but I mean now you see so many power forwards that can really shoot the ball,” Griffin said. “And obviously K-Love shooting 3s, LaMarcus mid-range is as good as anybody’s. Dirk is good as well. It’s really become a stretch 4 but at the same time guys that can also post up.”