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Who Are the NBA’s Top Forwards?

The list of generational superstars and up-and-comers continues.

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The king of the NBA in the 21st Century has been Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, but what other forwards are worthy of a seat at his round table? Today, that question will be answered in our running series where we rank current NBA players into three tiers: Generational superstars, superstars, and stars.

Here’s a refresher on the ground rules:

Tier I, Generational Superstars: Players whom front offices couldn’t trade for if they tried. Statistical juggernauts who can vault teams into contention and dramatically alter the league’s landscape when moved.

Tier II, Superstars: Similar to Tier I, they put up fantastic numbers and could be a franchise cornerstone, but not quite good enough to warrant the top-billing of “generational” talent.

Tier III, Stars: Players who put up All-Star numbers and can be a main piece, but don’t carry nearly enough impact to be a top banana on a title contender.

The loose criteria used to assemble these tiers:

Offensive Production: Is this player an elite three-way scorer? Does he have the total package or is he elite in certain areas? Maybe most important on the “generational superstar” checklist: can the ball be put in this player’s hands down the stretch and can he carry his team to a win?

Defense: This category won’t knock a player down too far, but it can be a major plus if the player has elite defensive abilities or he’s caught in between two tiers and has some defensive acumen.

Playoff Success: Integral roles in deep-playoff runs or championships will be looked upon fondly. However, this one-person ranking committee understands that playoff success can be dependent on opportunity and quality of teammates. A player who elevates his roster well-beyond expectations but may not have a big playoff resume won’t be knocked out of contention.

Icon Status: Star power can be enhanced by personality, swagger, patented moves, signature celebrations, and shoe sales.

NOTE: I also want to issue two important corrections on the last post ranking power forwards:

First, as several commenters pointed out, Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant is a power forward and he was incomprehensibly absent from the list. To make up for this mistake, Durant’s placement will be included in this post.

Second, I am demoting New Orleans Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson to the “Superstar” tier. As one commenter pointed out, I was wrong to call Williamson “Generational” based on the very criteria I created. The original placement was more of a projection into the future and based on his generational physical attributes, but until he becomes dominant or at least leads a team to the playoffs, he can’t be given such high status. I was blinded by the sauce and the powerful dunks. Forgive me.

Now to the small forwards! (And Kevin Durant)

TIER 1, GENERATIONAL SUPERSTARS: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard

From the abundance of reasons and statistics that declare LeBron James a generational talent, which ones do you want me to choose? Is it his four NBA Championships and NBA Finals MVP trophies? His eight straight Finals appearances from 2011-2018? The fact he’s third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, ninth on the league’s all-time assists list, and the only player ever with more than 9,000 career points, 9,000 career assists, and 9,000 career rebounds? Horrible “Space Jam” sequels aside, James has had one of the most impressive and decorated careers of any player ever. He has four regular season MVP trophies and should probably have a lot more if the NBA didn’t find that narrative so boring. Nearly two decades in and at age 36, he’s still putting up MVP-like numbers on a championship contender. Whether James is a generational superstar isn’t even a debate at this point. A better debate is whether he’s the greatest to ever play the game.

James may have one or two more championships on his resume if it weren’t for Kevin Durant, the next generational superstar on this list. Durant, who will go down as one of the coldest scorers in league history, is the industry standard for offensive production with four scoring titles to his name. His smooth shooting touch at six-foot-ten (career averages of 88.2% from the free throw line, 49.4% from the floor, and 38.4% from deep) makes him worthy of double teams even in practice. Yes, his move to join the Golden State Warriors in 2016, a team which had the league’s best regular season record in history, was rather lame. Yet, as a part of that all-time great dynasty, it was Durant who won NBA Finals MVP during their back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018. In Brooklyn last season, with no Kyrie Irving and an in-and-out James Harden, Durant demonstrated his case for the title of world’s best player with virtuoso playoff performances: 49 points, 17 rebounds, and 10 assists in a Game Five win and 48 points in an overtime loss against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In that Game Seven, if his game-tying shot at the end of regulation was just an inch further, Durant may be sitting with three championship rings today.

It feels strange giving a man with a New Balance endorsement deal the billing of “Generational Superstar,” but here we are. Aside from icon status, Los Angeles Clippers small forward Kawhi Leonard excels in every category reviewed for this list. Leonard is a three-level scorer capable of leading his team to victory in isolation, but with a defensive pedigree that includes back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2015 and 2016, he can also shut down the opposing team’s best player to secure a win. On a legendary San Antonio Spurs team in 2014, Leonard at 22 became the third youngest player ever to win an NBA Finals MVP, locking down LeBron James en route to the title. He had a legitimate shot at taking down the Warriors dynasty in the 2017 playoffs until Zaza Pachulia took him out (darn you, Pachuliaaaa!). Then in the 2018-2019 season, his first in Toronto, Leonard carried the Raptors to their first NBA title in a playoff run that saw him average 30.8 points per game, stop league MVP Giannis Antetekoumpo, and hit this legendary shot in a Game Seven.

Although the Clippers have lacked postseason success during Leonard’s tenure, his track record before Los Angeles shows he’s a proven winner who can play best when it matters most.

TIER II, SUPERSTARS: Jayson Tatum, Paul George

Clear the runway, Boston Celtics small forward Jayson Tatum is about to take off. It feels like an eternity has passed since the 2018 NBA Playoffs. Tatum had a coming-out-party, scoring the second-most postseason points by a rookie in NBA history and posterizing the King with an audacious dunk and stare in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.

One can forget that Tatum is in his fifth NBA season at just 23. The six-foot-eight swingman is primed to become the league’s next elite scorer. Each year his game has taken steady leaps. Last season Tatum posted a career-high 26.4 points per game and shot the ball from deep at 38.6% on a high volume, but he was heating up at the end. In the Celtics’ final 25 games of the 2020-2021 season, including the postseason and play-in game, Tatum went for 50 or more points four times. Building off that momentum, look for Boston’s franchise cornerstone to have another coming-out-party in his fifth season, this time announcing his superstardom.

Tatum put the league on notice with his dunk over LeBron in 2018. The next player on this list also announced his ascendance with a monster dunk over a LeBron-led team in an Eastern Conference Finals game.

As Reggie Miller said back in 2013, “We are seeing a superstar in the making here with Paul George.” Since that game, despite battling numerous injuries, George has lived up to Miller’s proclamation. In the six seasons since his return from a gruesome leg injury suffered in 2014, George has averaged 23.6 points per game and shot three-pointers on a high volume at 39.6%, all while taking on the toughest defensive assignments each night. In the 2018-2019 season with Oklahoma City, George averaged 28 points per game and finished third in MVP voting. The “Playoff P” memes are funny and they have some merit, but George was much better in the playoffs this past season, even though the Clippers fell short. That narrative stampeded by Twitter largely misrepresents a player who has seven All-Star appearances, along with four All-Defensive Team selections

TIER 3, STARS: Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Brandon Ingram

From one premier two-way player, we go to another: Miami Heat small forward Jimmy Butler. Butler’s offensive limitations and inefficiency as a shooter keep me from giving him “Superstar” status. I don’t think he’s capable of producing the type of offensive outbursts that can will his team to a championship the way I think George and Tatum are capable of unleashing. Still, Butler is a five-time All-Star with four Second-Team All-Defensive selections who may be the best leader in the Association. His hard work ethic and intensity is almost fabled at this point, especially after his infamous 2018 in-practice tirade in Minnesota. Although he may not be the conventional top dog, as he is committed to affecting the game through dirty work most stars won’t do, he was the best player on a Miami Heat team that took the Lakers to Game Six in the 2020 NBA Finals. Butler could prove me wrong and lead the Heat to a championship in the future, but until then or the Heat at least replicate their 2020 postseason success, I will keep him at the upper-end of the “Star” tier.

This next player on the list knows a great deal about proving haters wrong. Milwaukee Bucks small forward Khris Middleton has put up solid numbers. He’s averaged over 20 points, six rebounds, and four assists per game in three of the last four seasons, but it was doubted whether Middleton was a good enough Robin to Antetekoumpo’s Batman if the team was serious about a title. Then the 2021 Playoffs happened and Middleton had big-time performance after big-time performance on the Bucks’ way to the championship.

Middleton averaged 23.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists over a 23-game span that saw him go for over 30 points four times, including a monster 38-point eruption in an elimination Game Six against the Nets. The title run gave the two-time All-Star the recognition he deserves as one of the best players in the league.

Last on this list is New Orleans Pelicans small forward Brandon Ingram. Ingram may have missed out on a 2021 All-Star selection last season, but he put up almost identical numbers to his 2020 All-Star campaign. The young forward has blossomed since leaving Los Angeles, winning the 2020 Most Improved Player Award and averaging 23.8 points and 4.5 assists per game in his two seasons in the Big Easy. Last season, Ingram knocked down 38.1% of his triples on 6.1 attempts per game. Standing at six-foot-eight with a slender build and long wingspan, Ingram at 24 possesses the physical attributes and shooting stroke that make him, along with Tatum, a part of the NBA’s next class of elite scorers.

What do you think of the list? Anybody placed too high, too low, or missing altogether? Let us know below!