In a league full of extraordinary athletes, the small forward is often the most exceptional of all. Demanding a uniquely versatile blend of scoring, defending, rebounding and ball-handling, the three-spot has been home to some of the biggest names in NBA history. But at a position littered with basketball luminaries such as Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkins, Rick Barry and John Havlicek, where does LeBron James rank? Let’s the debate begin!
5. Scottie Pippen
Scottie Pippen may be best known for playing Robin to Michael Jordan’s Batman, but the Hall of Famer was far more than just a sidekick to the Caped Crusader. Over a 17-year NBA career, Pippen averaged 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. More importantly, Pip’s well-rounded offensive game, rebounding prowess, ball-handling and passing skills made him one of the game’s most versatile players.
On the defensive side of the ball, he was one of the best wing defenders in the history of the sport. Capable of locking down the one through four spots with his cat-like quickness and absurdly long frame, Scottie led the league in steals in 1994-95 and finished top ten in career steals per game. His tough defense, knock-down shooting and ability to handle the ball and run the offense as a point-forward was an integral piece of the Bulls’ six championship runs.
4. Julius Erving
Julius Erving is probably best known for his otherworldly aerial displays – taking flight from the free throw line, rocking the cradle or laying up a silky-smooth finger roll – but Doctor J was much more than a highlight reel. With explosive athleticism, an assortment of moves and excellent defensive ability, the Doctor possessed an effortless, well-rounded game that led him to three scoring titles and three Most Valuable Player awards in the ABA.
Erving was clearly the best player in the game by the time the ABA merged with the NBA, and he would go on to take home the MVP hardware again in 1981. He was also no slouch on defense, averaging 2.0 steals and 1.7 blocks per game over his career. With 16 All-Star selections, a career average of 24.2 points and 8.5 rebounds and a highlight reel as long as any player in the game, The Doctor was among the most talented and exciting small forwards ever to don a jersey.
3. Elgin Baylor
Before Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins and LeBron James, there was Elgin Baylor. The first overall pick in the 1958 NBA Draft, Baylor immediately revolutionized a game that had previously been played mostly below the rim. His explosive, high-flying style took the league by storm, capturing Rookie of the Year and All-Star MVP honors and leading his Lakers from last place all the way to the NBA Finals.
In fact, he led his team to eight Finals appearances in all, losing seven times to the Bill Russell-led Celtics and once to the Knicks. Baylor’s extraordinary athleticism, shooting and ball-handling skills led a 1966 issue of Sports Illustrated to hail him as “probably the best all-round player in the sport’s history.” Baylor still holds the record for points in an NBA Finals game, putting up 61 points while grabbing 22 rebounds in 1962. Over his career, he boasts an exceptional 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds per game.
2. Larry Bird
The Hick from French Lick has long been considered the greatest small forward to ever play the game, and with good reason. Credited with saving the NBA thanks to his unforgettable rivalry with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird possessed one of the most unstoppable offensive repertoires the Association has ever seen. Bird was a lethal shooter with virtually unlimited range, but it was his intelligence and craftiness that allowed him to dominate the competition.
Despite his less-than-impressive athleticism, Larry leaned on a seemingly endless variety of cunning up-and-unders, fadeaways, turnaround jumpers, bank shots and other logic-defying moves to fill it up almost every night. Beyond his scoring, he was also an exceptional rebounder and passer. With a career average of 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists, it’s hard to argue against Larry Legend.
1. LeBron James
No player has ever entered the league with more hype than LeBron James, yet The King has managed to exceed even the loftiest of expectations over the course of his 11-plus seasons. With an unprecedented combination of size, athleticism, skill and instincts, LeBron has managed to work his way into the conversation among the greatest players to ever lace ’em up. His traditional averages of 27.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.9 assists are impressive, but advanced statistics really drive home just how exceptional he’s been.
James ranks second all-time in career player efficiency rating, trailing Michael Jordan by mere percentage points. He’s sixth in win shares, and he ranks in the top 25 in assist percentage. Add that to his excellent defense, uncanny instincts and passing ability, off-the-charts athleticism and ever-improving shooting touch, and LeBron has a strong case for being the greatest small forward in the history of basketball.