Recently, we examined the best power forwards ever to play NBA basketball. Today, the TickPick Blog is shifting its focus to the wing with our list of the top five small forwards in league history. Needless to say, there is nothing “small” about any of them, as the hoops legends that populate this list are among the most versatile and intriguing athletes in the annals of the sport.
A word of warning for those of you full of ire from the recent discussion over whether LBJ or MJ is the best player ever to step onto the court… prepare to be angry!
The top five list breaks down as follows–
5.) Scottie Pippen
When you’re playing with the man who is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, it’s probably easy to fade into the background while His Airness does his thing. Chicago Bulls small forward Scottie Pippen did the opposite in becoming one of the best all-around talents in NBA history. Before Pippen came in and hit his prime, the Michael Jordan-led Bulls had hit the wall in a tough Eastern Conference with teams like the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons stymieing their efforts. Without question, it was Scottie (and coach Phil Jackson) that helped MJ turn the tide.
Pippen was a seven-time NBA All-Star, a perennial All-Defensive Team selection and an Olympic gold medalist and original member of the 1992 Dream Team. He was never the best player in the league and may have never even been the best player on his own team, but Pippen’s versatility and work ethic still made him a generational player.
4.) Elgin Baylor
While Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West starred in a multitude of championship runs for the Los Angeles Lakers, one could make the case that the best player ever to suit up for the franchise was Elgin Baylor. The No. 1 pick of the 1958 NBA Draft was one of the top five players in the league for a decade, averaging better than 27 points, 13 rebounds and four assists per contest over the course of a 13-year career. During that span, Baylor played in ten All-Star games and also set a playoff record by scoring 61 points in a single game.
Despite his incredible accomplishments, Baylor is on that list of players like Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing who were never able to capture championship gold. Nonetheless, the forward helped lay the groundwork for the Lakers dynasty and remains one of the most impactful players ever to lace up the sneakers in the Association.
3.) Julius Erving
While he comes in at No. 3 on this list, Dr. J is unquestionably No. 1 in my heart. By the time I was a living, breathing human on this planet, Julius Erving’s career was already winding down. That said, Erving’s greatness transcends generations, just as his unique skill set transcended and forever changed the game. He was Michael before Michael was in the league. He was the ultimate icon and poster boy for both the ABA as a member of the New York Nets and the NBA while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. He was circus shots and dunks from the free throw line before anybody knew what those things were.
Between his time in both leagues, Erving was a 16-time All-Star, a two-time MVP and a three-time World Champion. His 30,026 points place him fifth all time on the combined ABA/NBA list. Also–guy can still throw down in his mid-60s. Without question, Dr. J revolutionized the sport and remains one of the most intriguing personalities to do his thing on the hardwood.
2.) Larry Bird
For some (mostly Boston Celtics fans), the thought of putting Larry Bird anywhere but No. 1 on this list is sacrilege. He was never the quickest or the strongest player on the court, but his natural instincts, basketball IQ and ability to rip the net were mutant-like. I mean, there’s a reason he was tasked with defeating Air Jordan himself in a one-on-one battle. His battles with Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers were legendary and his efforts restored the C’s as one of the vanguard franchises in the league. He truly earned his Larry Legend moniker.
Bird led the Celtics to three championships during the 80s and was voted regular season, All-Star Game and NBA Finals MVP at various junctures. His Celtics squads were arguably the best in team history and among the most fabled in the annals of the NBA. He may have looked like a small-town boy from Indiana, but Larry Legend was unquestionably a killer on the basketball court.
1.) LeBron James
Don’t hate, just accept it–LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers is well on his way to G.O.A.T. status and has already had the kind of career to place him atop the league’s Mt. Rushmore of small forwards. Take a moment to consider the following: King James is playing in his FIFTH consecutive NBA Finals. The teams have changed and so have the supporting casts. The one constant–LBJ, A Voltron-like beast combining the size and strength of Karl Malone, the speed of Tim Hardaway, the hops of Vince Carter and court vision that hearkens back to Magic.
Does that sound hyperbolic? Perhaps, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. There has never been a player like the King. His 44-point effort against the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of this year’s Finals is just another feather in a cap that is quickly starting to look like some kind of ceremonial headdress. You can try to argue against LeBron, but the numbers don’t lie; 27 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, 1.7 steals and nearly one block per contest for his career. I would ask, “Who does that?!” but the answer is easy. LeBron James does. No one else.