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Ranking the NBA: LeBron Still on Top Among the Small Forwards, Kawhi Leonard #3

Back again for more punishment, we grade the SF position!

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, to much fanfare, our own Jacob Padilla broke down his letter grades and rankings of players at each of the positions in the NBA. This year, I'm going to do the same thing, but with two twists.

The first rankings, of the Center position, can be found here, while the rankings of Power Forwards can be found here.

First, I am going to introduce a slight empirical element to this grading system. Instead of going entirely by the gut, I will base at least part of my grades on a composite ranking scale that takes into account a players ranking on four aggregate statistics from the 2013-14 season that all have slightly different emphases: Win Shares per 48 (from, ESPN's Real Plus/Minus, PER, and PoP48 (from This hopefully adds a little objectivity to the analysis. (Note: because there are players who didn't play last year, the rankings cannot be entirely based upon this.)

Second, I am taking a cue from the great Bill Simmons, who invites commentary from the infamous Cousin Sal in his NBA rankings columns, and inviting commentary from my friend and Suns junkie Gottlieb. Whereas I rely on statistics to inform my grades, Julian Gottlieb will provide gut check evaluations.

The grading system will remain roughly the same as last season:


S: Best in the Game (LeBron James)

A+: Second Best in the Game (Kevin Durant)

A: Top 5 Player

A-: Top 5 at the Position

B+: All-Star Caliber

B: Above Average Starters/Fringe All-Star Caliber

B-: Above Average Starters

C+: Average Starters

C: Fringe Starter/Bench Player

C-: Good Bench Player

D+: Average Bench Player

D: Fringe Rotation Player

D-: Fringe NBA Player

F: Soon to be Puerto Rican League All-Star!

NOTE: Order within the grades is arbitrary.

Please keep the comments civilized - this is a family friendly community and differences of opinion are to be expected.

I am evaluating the Small Forward Position today (link takes you to the publicly viewable Google Sheets page for all position raw rankings).

S: Best Player in the Game

LeBron James (1.5)

The total game of LeBron, in conjunction with the injury KD suffered this off-season, keep him in the top spot for me. The gap has certainly narrowed, but if I had to pick a player to win with right now, its LeBron.

A+: Second Best Player in the Game

Kevin Durant (1.5)

Durant has managed to close the gap with LeBron more than I would have expected three seasons ago. He came into this season poised to be considered the best player in the game, coming off of the MVP performance in the 2013-14 season. However, I think the combination of his injury, plus the changed dynamic of a team that will have been KD-less for the formative first 6-8 weeks of the season, keeps him below LeBron again this season.

A: Top 5 Player

Outside of LeBron and Durant, I don't view any of the other Small Forwards in the league as Top-5 talents. A few are close (Paul George, Kawhi), or used to be in the group (Pierce, Carmelo), but at this exact point in time they just aren't good enough to fall in this higher tier.

A-: Top 5 at Position

Kawhi Leonard (4); Paul George (6.25); Carmelo Anthony (7.25)

I think Kawhi benefits from the Extremes effect (discussed in the Power Forwards article), and his overall ranking is likely skewed due to playing on such a hyper-successful team. That being said, he is pretty undeniably a Top-5 player at this position, with his overall versatility as a player and emerging confidence and assertiveness. While Paul George's team was really good, fewer of his teammates fall far higher than the eye test would place them, so I don't think he is benefiting the same way as Leonard. George has the best claim to be in the Top 5 overall discussion, but his injury precludes him from that discussion. Carmelo is clearly a great player, but I have serious concerns about his ability to adjust to the Triangle offense. Of the three,  he might have the greatest potential to move into the Top 5 players discussion, but I just don't see it happening.

B+: All-Star Caliber

Nicolas Batum (13.5); DeMar DeRozan (20); Rudy Gay (21.5)

If you look at the spreadsheet, you'll notice that all three of these guys are graded higher than their aggregate ranking. DeRozan and Gay I expect to perform better this season than last: both saw their metrics go up following the Gay-to-Sacramento trade, and with a full season of playing in their new systems, I expect the improvement to be fully realized. Plus, if Toronto continues to improve, and Sacramento manages to surprise people a bit, both players will be credited with being integral to that success, which might result in All-Star consideration. Batum I have here because I really feel like this is a breakout season for him. Batum had arguably his most efficient season last year, putting up a career best TS%. However, this came with a significantly reduced usage rate. If this rebounds, given his defensive chops, I expect him to get strong All-Star consideration in the West, especially since Durant won't be playing for much of the first half of the season.

B: Above Average Starter/Fringe All-Star Caliber

Chandler Parsons (12.5); Luol Deng (19.25); Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (20.5)

Chandler Parsons is perhaps not that controversial of a placement here. Given the strong interior scoring preferences of Dirk, Chandler and Monta, I expect Parsons to get the same kind of looks he was getting in Houston. The only potential thing that could hold him back is that the offense that has been run the last few years in Dallas has not strongly featured the Small Forward in the offense, instead relying on them for staunch defense and transition buckets, skills that are not a regular part of Parsons' repertoire. Luol Deng saw his production decline with the Cavaliers. However, I expect him to return to prime Bulls form with a Heat team that is really going to ask him to do more than he has traditionally been asked to do. This might be a last hurrah year for him as a fringe All-Star candidate, but the potential is there for him to put up the numbers. Finally, I'm gambling a bit on Kidd-Gilchrist. While his offensive skills are still definitely a work in progress, his defense and transition skills started to blossom last year. With more pressure being put on him with the departure of Josh McRoberts, it might be a bit of a sink or swim year for Kidd-Gilchrist. I'm betting on him swimming and improving that mid-range jumpshot to something vaguely resembling a proper shot.

B-: Above Average Starter

DeMarre Carroll (11); Trevor Ariza (12); Gordon Hayward (26.75);

DeMarre Carroll was quietly one of the most effective players in the game last season. He graded out in the top 20 in every single metric. He is likely to see some reduced playing time this year as Al Horford returns, but realistically the Hawks should make room for him in the rotation. Ariza falls below where his numbers would put him because of his history of performing to get a contract, and then disappearing. Gordon Hayward was a tough call. There is some evidence that Jazz players suffered from the Extremes effect, but it wasn't as strong as it was for Orlando, Philadelphia and San Antonio. Since last season was such a departure from form for him, and since the cardboard cut-out of a coach that was Ty Corbin was replaced by someone who I can only hope is more competent, I'm going to give Hayward the benefit of the doubt.

C+: Average Starter

Paul Pierce (12); Mike Dunleavy (16); CJ Miles (17.25); PJ Tucker (18.25); Chris Douglas-Roberts (24); Shawn Marion (25.75); Corey Brewer (26.5); Andrei Kirilenko (27); Jae Crowder (28); Danilo Gallinari

Pierce and Dunleavy are both downgraded, despite strong seasons last year, due to age and the high likelihood that they will lose minutes this season in order to facilitate the growth of young players. CJ Miles graded out well last season, and is likely to see increased minutes with the loss of Stephenson and George, but I'm just not convinced he is any better than an average starter. Tucker, despite how much I love his game, isn't really better than average. He's a great fit for the team, but just an average overall player. Douglas-Roberts, Brewer, Kirilenko and Marion are all defensive specialists, and currently aren't slotted to play starters minutes, despite their strong seasons. For Marion and Kirilenko, like Pierce and Dunleavy, this is tied to age. Crowder has improved each year in the League, and I expect him to continue to improve. I also expect him to benefit from a Dallas team that is likely going to revert to giving him minutes at the 2, 3 and 4 positions, just to try to get him and his defensive energy on the court. Finally, Danilo is a wild card. If he comes back and plays like he did the previous two seasons, he will have a strong case for being in the B- or B discussion. However, I'm expecting cob-webs and synergy issues, plus perhaps minute restrictions early in the season.

C: Fringe Starter/Bench Player

Marcus Morris (22.25); Matt Barnes (24); Thabo Sefolosha (26.75); Martell Webster (29); Al-Farouq Aminu (31); Kyle Singler (35.25); Tyreke Evans (36); Wilson Chandler (38.25); Josh Smith (39.25); Nick Young (40); Giannis Antetokounmpo (47); Jabari Parker

It pains me to acknowledge that Josh Smith has some value, but I have to admit that, at least last season, he was a better than average offensive talent at the small forward position. However, his defense and energy oriented metric scores are terribly bad. Compare him to Swaggy P, and the problem emerges: both players are similarly skilled on one-side of the ball, but Josh Smith is paid tremendously more; this is true with Tyreke Evans as well, but Evans is younger, more versatile, and a better offensive weapon. Speaking of Nick Young, he manages to skip up a grade here because of the high likelihood that, on a Lakers team that is going to be desperate for scoring, he is going to be given the green light to gun, likely improving his 12th ranked PER number from last season, given the improved play that should be coming from the PG position with the acquisition of Jeremy Lin. Barnes, Sefolosha, Webster, Aminu and Singler are all 3 and D guys who would start on a number of teams, or who will start, but who could just as easily serve a 6th man role on a good team, as Aminu is likely to do this season. Giannis and Jabari are both sleeper picks here. Their team is going to be terrible, but under the guidance of new coach Jason Kidd, who says all the right things about experimenting with young players and letting them establish their play style, I expect both of them to play to this grade.

Gottlieb's Gut Check

Tyreke Evans has been on a tilt the last couple of years, probably suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Sacramento Disorder), but I think he'll bounce back this year in the Big Easy. The balance on that team is good and they have the right mix of veterans and young talent. The franchise is hungry in the post-Chris Paul era. Evans uses his court vision to feed the Brow and he's gonna score in bunches if the 'cans go uptempo.

C-: Good Bench Player

James Jones (14.5); Dorell Wright (34); Omri Casspi (34); Robbie Hummel (34); Perry Jones III (36.75); Gerald Wallace (37); Danny Granger (37.25); Kyle Anderson; Cleanthony Early; Bojan Bogdanovic; James Ennis; Doug McDermott

James Jones was the beneficiary of the Extremes effect, plus a small sample size. These massively over-inflated his value, leading to him being the "11th" best player according to the aggregate model. In reality, at 34, he is a good bit player. Omri Casspi has been a criminally underrated player during his time in the NBA, and I'm glad that he was able to land a contract with the Kings. The walking corpse of Danny Granger performed much better than most commentators would have you believe, though in a somewhat limited minutes sample; I expect him to thrive this season as a bench three point shooter, taking over a good chunk of the minutes vacated by James Jones and Mike Miller. Of the rookies, I'm going to gush about James Ennis, who I think has the highest potential to perform above his grade due to the high potential for injuries among the Heat's aged wing rotation. The only guys definitively ahead of Ennis on the wing rotation are Granger, Wade and Deng. The likelihood of injuries, minutes restrictions, etc. stripping those guys of minutes is pretty strong, and so far in his young professional career Ennis has looked fantastic everywhere he has been. Given the opportunity, I could see him being this decade's version of Michael Redd - a second round talent who far exceeds expectations due to work ethic, energy and a lights out jump-shot.

Gottlieb's Gut Check

The Knicks face three burning questions:

1) Can Cleanthony Early be a legit backup for Melo? Yes.

2) Is his name a combination of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra? Nate Silver calculates a 64% probability with a +/- 3% margin of error.

3) Will pictures of his high school bun provide good team building banter at least through February when the Knicks are already out of playoff contention? Doubtful.

D+: Average Bench Player

Solomon Hill (40); Jordan Hamilton (43.5); Maurice Harkless (43.75); Jared Dudley (46.25); Lance Thomas (46.667); Khris Middleton (47); Chase Budinger (48.25); Harrison Barnes (50.25); Hollis Thompson (50.25); TJ Warren

A note of caution: while Maurice Harkless grades out this low, at least part of that is the fact that he played on such a bad team, another occurrence of the Extremes effect. However, that being said, he was pretty universally disparaged by the metric stats. I expect Solomon Hill to get more playing time this year, and to improve this grade, but I'm not sure how. I've never seen a player who, in his time on the court, is so unable to impact the box score yet grades out as positively impactful. I envision him becoming a slightly bigger, more versatile version of Thabo Sefolosha for the Pacers this season. Chase Budinger never looked healthy last season; if he can manage to get his body in shape, I fully expect him to move back up into the C-/C discussion. Harrison Barnes is the lowest graded projected starter at this position. Barnes only stands out slightly in the PoP48 metric, which seems to benefit energy guys. If Barnes doesn't show improvement this season, I fully expect him to lose minutes to Draymond Green. TJ Warren falls here because, by all indications he has been fairly impressive in the pre-season. On a less stacked team, he might get more chance to showcase his talents, but since he is going to have to fight for every minute he gets, and since most players tend to perform better with more minutes, I expect him to grade out as only an average bench player this season.

Gottlieb's Gut Check

Well, its official: JMZ (copyright pending) is a journeyman. He said he was thrilled to go to the Clippers to play for a winner and be close to home (San Diego). Now he's in Milwaukee. One is reminded of Dogma, when Metatron (Alan Rickman) is asked whether the fallen angels Bartelby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) were sent to Hell as punishment from God, to which he replies, "No. Worse. Wisconsin. For the entire span of human history. And when the world ends, they'll sit ouside the gates for all eternity." Poor Dudley.

D: Fringe Rotation Player

Landry Fields (39); Chris Johnson (40.33); Francisco Garcia (46); Cartier Martin (47); Victor Claver (48.5); Richard Jefferson (49.25); Caron Butler (50); Shabazz Muhammad (50.5); Evan Turner (51.75); Otto Porter Jr (63.75); Bruno Caboclo; Jerami Grant; Rodney Hood; Damien Inglis; Kostas Papanikolaou

Some of these guys are older guys that are rounding out relatively successful careers (Garcia, Jefferson, Butler), while a few are young guys who haven't really lived up to their draft potential (Evan Turner, Shabazz). Turner is particularly lowly graded for a guy who played so many minutes last season, but again, part of that is the stain of the extremes effect. The problem is, I think Turner ended up in nearly as toxic a situation, particularly if the Celtics trade Rondo, which means Turner is going to continue to grade out poorly. Otto Porter Jr never looked like he was comfortable on the court last season; if Paul Pierce can help instill enough confidence in the young player to make him look even remotely like the player that was drafted, I expect him to get solid rotation minutes, though he might not produce like a rotation player this season. Of the new guys, I actually think Caboclo, the infamous '2 years away from being 2 years away' phenom out of Brazil, is the most likely to perform beyond his grading. While not individually impressive in any one thing in the pre-season and summer league, he is such a unique talent that the Raptors, who aren't particularly deep at Wing, are likely going to feel pressured to play him this season.

D-: Fringe NBA Player

Wesley Johnson (52.25); Tayshaun Prince (53.75); Austin Daye (54.75); Glen Rice Jr (61.25); Sergey Karasev (68); Joe Ingles; Roy Devyn Marble

Wesley Johnson is going to get big minutes this season with the Lakers, but he remains an enigma of a player. Affable on and off the court, he's hard not to like, until he puts out the all too frequent 8 turnover game. Prince has declined far enough that I really don't think he plays all that much for Memphis this season. Daye, despite his poor play last season, managed to land a spot with the Spurs, and I fully expect him to grade out higher than this ranking this upcoming season as a result of the Spurs system. Karasev has been moderately impressive in the pre-Season, and I still think he has potential to be a sharpshooter off the bench. Roy Devyn Marble was one of the more impressive guys in the Summer League, and while Summer League usually doesn't mean much, I think he'll do enough to warrant some playing time.

F: Future Puerto Rican League All-Star!

John Salmons (54.25); Alonzo Gee (57.5); Quincy Miller (57.75); Luigi Datome (58); Jeffery Taylor (66.5)

Salmons is a rare combination: a player who is both objectively terrible by NBA standards and someone who played pretty large numbers of minutes. For New Orleans fans hoping to make a playoff run's sake, I hope that trend does not continue. Gee, Miller, and Taylor are all guys who so far just haven't managed to convince anyone that they are NBA caliber players, and the latest news is that Quincy Miller has actually been cut.

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