The Greatest Small Forwards of All-Time

By Chris Le

(Original post on 3/9/07)

  1. Larry Bird – Not the most physically gifted athlete—he has been described by his former teammate, Bill Walton, as not being able to jump over two pieces of paper—but made up for his lack of athleticism with a keen sense of anticipation and an unparalleled basketball IQ. “The Hick from French Lick” was always in the right position at the right time and never failed to execute, particularly in the clutch. His sixth sense for the game made him one of the best all-around players in history, as he averaged 25-10-6 for his career, including three consecutive MVPs (sandwiched by four 2nd place finishes), joining Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to accomplish this feat. But more than that, his arrival to the league along with Magic Johnson and their budding rivalry, revitalized interest in the NBA.
  2. Julius Erving – Few players, if any, were as dangerous as Dr. J in the open court. You can ask Michael Cooper who got rocked to sleep (check out the video here). After Elgin Baylor displayed basketball’s high-flying potential, Erving fully pushed the game above the rim, ushering in the modern era. But let this be clear: Dr. J was as much substance as he was style. He didn’t win an MVP in 1981 and the NBA championship in 1983 just by being exciting. As impressive as his career averages of 22.0 pts, 6.7 rebs, and 3.9 asts are, they belie his true worth as a player. Those who saw him in action realize he combined ungodly athleticism and a creative imagination with hustle and grit. Always the consummate professional yet utterly cool, Dr. J was a perfect ambassador of the sport. And to think, his best years weren’t even spent in the NBA but the ABA, where by all accounts, he was visibly better. Now that’s just scary.
  3. John Havlicek – Whenever anyone talks about Hondo, they always bring up his unbelievable motor. He could run up and down the court at full speed for 48 minutes and still have enough wind to beat a fish in a breath-holding contest. His energy along with his versatility was a huge part of his Boston Celtics’ eight championships. Granted, you can attribute six of those rings to Russell, but Havlicek continued the dynasty, winning two after Russell retired. As a nightly triple-double threat in his prime, there really wasn’t anything Hondo couldn’t do. But among his abundant skills, it was his defensive and passing ability for a player of his size that stood out. It’s a testament to Havlicek’s unselfishness and versatility that he has the second most assists (6,114) among non-guards. Few can match his eight selections to the All-Defense team or his eleven to the All-NBA squad.
  4. Rick Barry – He wasn’t the most well-liked player in his day, but the NBA isn’t a popularity contest. It’s about playing the game of basketball, and few did that better than Rick Barry. Like Erving, Barry spent a good chunk of his better years in the ABA, where he garnered four All-ABA First Team selections compared to his five All-NBA First Team selections. For evidence of his greatness, look no further than the 1975 season, when Barry put the Golden State Warriors on his shoulders and won the championship. He simply went crazy in the playoffs, dropping 28.2 pts, 5.5 rebs, and 6.1 asts a night, on his way to upsetting a Celtics team led by Havlicek and Dave Cowens, and sweeping Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld’s Washington Bullets in the Finals. Oh yeah, did I also mention that Barry shot his free throws granny-style? Hey, it worked—he shot .900 from the line for his career, the second best mark in history. Maybe Shaquille O’Neal should have taken Barry up on his offer to teach him the granny technique.
  5. Scottie Pippen – Anyone could look great playing alongside Michael Jordan, right? Probably, but Pippen was great with or without His Airness. He was Havlicek reincarnate but with better defense, and that’s saying something seeing how Hondo was an 8-time member of the All-Defensive team. Having to consistently defend the opponent’s best offensive player, Pippen could shut down anyone under 7 feet tall, and he did so while running the Chicago Bulls’ all-important triangle offense. I don’t think there are many 6’7” players that could handle and dish the ball as well as Scottie did. His passing ability amassed him the most assists of any non-guard in history with 6,135. Pippen is a major reason why MJ has six rings—don’t let anyone say otherwise.

Honorable Mentions: James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins, Paul Arizin.


5 responses to “The Greatest Small Forwards of All-Time

  1. Nice list, finally somebody gives pippen the credit he deserves,
    however, i would have replaced havlicek with bob pettit, other than that good job

  2. Hey Troy, SportsCouch is always glad to receive readers’s comments. Keep ’em coming. As for Bob Pettit, I view him more as a power forward than a small forward. In fact, I see him as the second greatest power forward ever behind only Tim Duncan. You can check out the rest of my list here:

  3. 1.elgin baylor 2.julius erving 3.larry bird 4.dominique wilkins 5.alex english.

  4. where’s laBron

  5. >i would have replaced havlicek with bob pettit, other than that good job.

    Pettit was a power forward. In fact he’s usually credited with inventing the power forward position. At 6’9″ 205, he would certainly be a small forward today, but back then that was the size of a center.

    I assume this list is counting Elgin Baylor as a power forward right? Otherwise there is certainly no excuse to put Pippen ahead of him. At 6’5″ 225, he was kind of the Charles Barkley of his day, but I guess it depended on whether Jerry West was playing guard or small forward.

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