The Greatest Small Forward of the Modern Era: LeBron James
|Player||Best PER||Avg 5 Best PER||Career PER||#1 PER||# of top 10 PER|
|Erving||22.5 (28.7)||24.5 (26.8)||22.4 (23.9)||1 (5)||5 (10)|
Here’s an interesting question: if LeBron James had to hang them up tomorrow would he be the best SF of the modern era? Consider that he led the league in PER the last 3 seasons, has been in the top 10 every year but his first, and he’s only 25 years old. Looking at what LeBron James has done up until this season, you could make the argument that he is better than Larry Bird. Larry Legend led the league in PER only twice and was in the top 10 PER 7 times, and LeBron has pretty much already equaled that. One critique of PER is that it doesn’t account for individual defense, an area where James has an advantage over Bird.
You could argue that Bird won more championships, but look at the supporting cast. Larry Legend played along 3 Hall of Famers for the early 80s in Nate Archibald, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale (although Archibald was past his prime) and had much stronger teammates than LeBron. This year will be James’ best team, and he only has one Hall of Fame caliber player, Shaq, who is well past his peak.
My intention of stating these facts is not to prove that James is absolutely better now than Bird was over his entire career. Instead I think there’s an argument for either side. And with that in consideration, you have to give the edge to James because he’s got a lot of basketball ahead of him.
Barring a injury-plagued future, LeBron is on track for a spectacular career. Even if James does suffer such a fate, he’ll still be the modern era’s best small forward. I took two career arcs and applied them to LeBron’s current production rate. In the chart below of PER by age the red triangles are Michael Jordan, the blue squares are Grant Hill, and the brown circles are LeBron James. The yellow triangles are LeBron’s projected career using Jordan’s arc and the orange squares are James’ career with Hill’s arc, both adjusted for LeBron’s production.
By either projection, he’s got about 5 more seasons with a PER over 25, even accounting for a Hill-esque tragic arc. So by a conservative estimate, James will still have a lot of highly productive seasons. And although it’s possible that LeBron suffers from a worse fate than Grant Hill, it’s reasonable to think that missing multiple season is a pessimistic view. It’s more likely that he proceeds on a normal career path.
And should James continue on a standard progression, he could rival Jordan for the GOTME captaincy. As I outlined in Part III, James will need a lot of luck to match Jordan’s string of championships. However LeBron will have one avenue where he could fall short on championships and still surpass Jordan. If James plays to his late 30′s or even early 40s, he could be close enough to Jordan in peak and surpass him longevity. If you’re questioning LeBron James’ place here at thie time, consider that he could end up as the three point era’s most productive player.
Reserves: Larry Bird, Dr. J, and ???
There have been a lot of good small forwards in the league since the 1980 season, but none come close to Bird and Erving. Although the pair are icons of different styles and eras, their numbers were amazingly similar. They are nearly identical in career PER (23.6 to 23.5), PTS/36 (23.9 to 22.8), and TS% (56.4 to 55.8). Bird has an edge in rebounds, assists, and turnovers, while Erving was better in blocks and steals. Of course this includes Dr. J.’s pre-1980 and ABA numbers. Two reasonable people could argue all day which player was better. I think a more fruitful debate would surround the fourth best SF.
There are 4 guys that are in the conversation: Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, and Scottie Pippen. Compared to LeBron, Bird, and Erving these guys are clearly riding in coach. So how to assess them? McGrady led the league in PER in 2003, and totaled four times in the top 3. However his TS% is the lowest of the bunch (52.0%), and he averaged nearly 17 missed games a year due to injuries (which doesn’t include this season where’s he’s sat out 30+). Secondly McGrady’s playoff record is just abysmal. Carter is next on the list by career PER, but only cracked the top 10 twice. Here’s an indictment against Air Canada/Jersey/Orlando: he’s on only 2 All-NBA teams, and was never a first teamer.
So it’s down to Pierce and Pippen. Pierce has the offensive edge with 2 points of PER (20.8 to 18.6), nearly 30 in TS% (56.4% to 53.6%), and 5 pts/36 (21.7 to 16.6). Pippen is the better passer (5.4 to 3.7 ast/36) and defender earning 10 All Defensive Team awards. Normally I’d take the numbers and go with Pierce, but there’s one interesting thing to note. In Jordan’s absence, Pippen took on the main load and increased both his scoring volume (20.5 pts/36) and his efficiency (55.5% TS%). The 1994 team won 55 games, which is more than Pierce’s teams ever won with him as the centerpiece. So I’m inclined to add Scottie instead, because perhaps playing alongside Jordan stunted his numbers (although enhanced his legacy). In either case his body of work is sufficient enough to give him the edge as the fourth SF.