GOTME (Part V): Power Forward

The Greatest PF Of the Modern Era: Tim Duncan

Player Top PER 5 Best PER Career #1 PER # of top 10 PER
Duncan 27.1 26.8 25.1 0 12
Barkley 28.9 27.3 24.6 0 14
Malone 28.9 27.5 23.9 1 13
Garnett 29.4 27.3 23.7 2 9
Dirk 28.1 26.4 23.8 2 8

Is it fair for us to use Championships, a team statistic, when measuring the greatness of an individual player? If we do, then we would have to conclude that of the five great power forwards of the modern era, Tim Duncan is the Greatest with a capital G. He sports four rings on his hand, to a combined one of the other three. And true, he’s done it with or without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and David Robinson on his side, but he’s also accomplished it without having to face Michael Jordan. Tim Duncan entered the league as a rookie the same year Jordan would clinch his second three-peat and leave it. So to make the case for Duncan, I’d like to put aside championships. Unlike Barkley and Malone who had to suffer inglorious defeats at the dunks of His Airness, Duncan’s hand he was dealt suddenly came from a fair deck—and what a hand he was dealt.

The Big Fundamental does it with defense. Until his Spurs stumbled in this past season to the 5th best defense, as measured by Defensive Efficiency, Duncan’s team finished in the top three for his first eleven seasons. His personal defensive efficiency metrics bore this out—he’s led the league three times (2005, 2006, 2007) and been in the top four in every season but last, when he fell all the way to sixth. He does it with both blocks and rebounds. Even though it is intrinsically a conflict of interest to both go after the block and set yourself in position for a rebound, Duncan is a regular league leader in both categories (18.4%, career rebounding rate; 2.3 blocks per 36 min). With those endlessly long arms and huge hands, he rotates to help in the lane, stands as straight as possible and lets the ball hit him in the hands. This doesn’t sound sexy, and it isn’t. But it works.

While his defense helps prevent the easiest buckets from being scored against his team, Duncan sets himself up in the low post and helps score them for his team. He’s never set the league on fire with his offense, but with a healthy True-Shooting Percentage (55.3%), a high Usage rate (28.2), and a low turnover ratio for his position (12.5%), Duncan is the strong base for an offense that has finished in the top ten half of his seasons.

Reserves: Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone

If Duncan is the #1 greatest of his time, then Garnett is more of #1A than a #2. Despite my earlier moratorium on judging them in the context of their teams, imagine if we could go back in time and swap their careers. It’s easy to imagine that Garnett would have accomplished everything Duncan did with the Spurs—and Duncan may have floundered with early first round exits, just as surely as Garnett did playing alongside such NBA luminaries as Trent Hudson, Michael Olowandi, and Wally Szcerbiak.

Garnett’s numbers have been just as good as Duncan’s at every stage of his career. He’s just as good a rebounder (17.1%, career), though he blocks less shots (1.6 per 36 min), but just as tough a defensive presence, as his Boston Celtics team proved. He’s a better passer (20.5% career assist ratio), with a comparable TS% (54.7%) to Duncan, and he’s led the league in PER twice (29.4 in 2004, 28.2 in 2005) —a feat Duncan never pulled off. I am at least refreshed to see Garnett earn his championship before the intensity of his game finally does away with his knees.

Unlike Duncan who is a center masquerading as a power forward, Malone perfectly fit the archetype of a Power forward. The prototypical bruiser, The Mailman hip-checked the competition right out of the way on his forays to the basket. Gliding lay-up after gliding lay-up, healthy dollops of free throws, and an understated proclivity for the open court, long the games most physically fit player was for a few years its second-best—that pesky Jordan again. He did lead the league in PER (28.9) in his first winning MVP season at the evergreen age of 33. That figure did drop to 25.4 for his second league MVP in the strike-shortened season.

To “round” out the top four, we turn to the offensive powerhouse and true mouth of the South, Charles Barkley. Sir Charles ranks sixth all-time in TS% (61.2%) , a feat he accomplished by out-“muscling” everyone under the basket, cleaning up the offensive glass, and throwing down bone-jarring dunk after dunk. What makes his rebounding dominance so impressive (24.4 on the defensive glass, and a world-breaking 12.5% on the offensive), is he had two things going against him: height and skill. The height should have held him back pulling in opponent misses. It didn’t. And most offensive rebound leaders are otherwise unskilled rotation staples, who are left uncovered on defensive rotations. Not Barkley. He was the best player on his team, everyone was geared to stop him, and he grabbed his misses anyway.

On defense, Sir Charles wasn’t exactly the sieve some make him out to be, but then again, with nary a defensive rating under 100, he wasn’t exactly shutting down the opposition either. Despite his so-called physical limitations, Barkley proved to be an effective player well into his mid-30’s, serving as a perfect example of Bill James maxim that unique players—and in Sir Charles’s case, we do mean unique—tend to age better.

Honorable Mention: Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk is probably the most skilled seven footer ever to play the game—he shoots like a guard, rebounds like a center—and even added a D to his name in recent years. We don’t think of Dirk as a reliable defender, nor do we remember Kevin McHale as a bit of a softie, but the big German actually has better Defensive Rating numbers than the Celtic stalwart. Nowitzki led the league in PER twice (28.1 in 2006, 27.6 in 2007). He does this by hitting every kind of shot he takes (47.2% FG, 37.8% on three-point attempts, and 87.2% on FTs), adding up to a robust TS % (58.1%). He just doesn’t stand and wait for the ball either. He uses 26.8% of his team’s possessions and gives the ball away a paltry 9.0%. But that being said, he’s already hit 30, and you can’t help but fear that his best years are now officially behind him. Has his opportunity for a championship passed him by, or will his career push out into his twilight years? After all, you don’t forget to shoot and he’s not getting any shorter.

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27 thoughts to “GOTME (Part V): Power Forward”

  1. “Unlike Duncan who is a center masquerading as a power forward”

    So why exactly IS Tim Duncan considered a power forward? Didn’t Popovich just call him that because he played next to David Robinson at first, and later so that he would not lose all star votes to Shaq?

  2. Dirk should age well precisely because his game is all over the floor. Whether his window is closed is mostly a function of what the front office does. In truth, this Dallas team with the additions of Butler and Haywood may be better positioned to defend than any of the previous incarnations. Also, unlike the teams with Dampier and Diop, Haywood isn’t going to blow wide open layups. He’ll force teams to guard him long enough to keep the floor spaced.

    I’m not a big Dallas fan, but this team seems like a guaranteed pain in the ass come playoff time.

  3. What about Kevin McHale? He certainly melds into the modern era, though his peak years pre-date. On a team where he was the focal point like Duncan/Mailman, he may have been able to make a claim.

    Who are there young guys that might potentially play their way into the conversation? (Alphabetical order.)

    Carlos Boozer? Probably will go down as very good, but just below HOF good.

    Pau Gasol? Outside shot perhaps, but seems Glavine-like in that you get consistent very goodness without the amazing peak.

    Amare Stoudamire? Without the ferocious rebounding or defense of some of the others hard to see him getting consideration without winning a title. Also, much of his game is in his legs and with one microfracture surgery down he may not age well.

  4. I think it’s a very good piece and agree with the rankings all-and-all.

    -If Dirk is on there (and I think he should be) I would also like to see a defensive specialst up there: Rodman probably. It’s true that statistics measure offense a lot better than defense, but defense is fully 1/2 the game. He was a very good defender and the greatest rebounder of all time. Rodman also finished with a .546 TS%, including 3 seasons over .600. He was very low usage on his career, it’s a bit odd that he was medium usage and just as effective his first two seasons then suddenly dropped off in usage for the rest of his career. TO hurt him too. I can understand and agree with valuing a guy who can carry an offense over a great defender, but I would have liked to see an honorable mention for Rodman.
    I commend the effort, but I find using defensive efficiency to rank individual defense similar to using errors and put-outs in baseball, it’s not inaccurate but it doesn’t capture nearly the whole picture. I don’t have a more accurate way to do it objectively in basketball, though, which makes it so hard to even discuss.

    -I agree with not putting McHale in the first group. He’s one of the top guys in the second group probably, though.

    -Dirk does not rebound like a C, on his career he barely rebounds like a PF. 18.5, 18.2, 16, 17.1, 13.1… which one stand out of that group? Those are the top 5’s career reb% in the order they’re listed in the table.

    -I find it unfair to call Duncan a 5 masquerading as a 4. Of course you still rank him as the greatest PF of the modern era, acknowledging that he was a 4, but I find it to be an unnecessary shot. He’s spent the vast majority of his career, until recently, playing the 4 with a true 5 next to him (Robinson, Rasho, Elson, etc.). If he’d been drafted by a different team or an earlier era maybe he’d have been a 5 and today he may be more of a 5, but he played the high-post and has consistently taken 55-60% jumpers (besides 06-07 when he took only 51%).

    -I commend your effort not to look at team success, which you really shouldn’t have to in evaluating individual players. However, why refer to Michael Jordan rather than the Bulls team with THREE Hall-of-Fame caliber players and a strong supporting cast??????

    -I think height is a bit overrated when it comes to rebounding. Space and skill are more important. You’re rebounding in a space mostly. The greatest rebounder of all time was 6-6 or 6-7. Millsap is 6-7, Reggie Evans 6-8.5, and Lee 6-9. I’m not saying size doesn’t help, just that it’s overrated. Big guys tend to be around the basket, thus the relationship between height and rebounding. When you’ve got a soft 7-footer who floats around the perimeter–take Bender–their rebounding is not special (even position adjusted).

  5. Ted if you think Dirks rebounding is weak, per se, then McHale’s is comparatively pathetic topping out at 14.2 and 14.0 and 13.2 career (admittedly he had to compete with Bird and Parish but still) which keeps him 2nd tier at best.

  6. DC,

    Good point in #2.

    re: #3

    -McHale played only in the modern (3 pt.) era, entering the league in 80-81. He put up a Win Share consistently around 10-11 with one season at close to 15. These other guys were mostly consistently in the 15 range. His poor rebounding and mediocre passing hurt him. You can argue that he would have put up better numbers without Bird, but you can also argue he wouldn’t be rated as highly without Bird. No one can say either way. All we have is what he did. Maybe defense put him in the conversation, but I have no idea.
    The fact that he won a championship as a rookie is why team success should barely be considered in the conversation.

    -I think Pau has to compete for the 2nd group, unless he ages amazingly well. He’s been too inconsistent. His rebounding and scoring efficiency both fluctuate pretty wildly from year to year. On his best seasons he’s an outside contender for the top group. He’s two years younger than Dirk, so not that young.

    -Boozer is not in the conversation, in my opinion. He has 4 seasons where he’s broken a Win Share or 9, topping out at 10.2. His career PER is 20.8. He’s missed a lot of games. If he ages well he might be in the second group, I guess, a back-door entrant.

    -Amare’s had two seasons where you could say he belongs on this list (04-05 and 07-08), but on his career not at this point. I would maybe put him on par with Webber at this point, higher peaks but Webber was a much better defender.

    -Other young guys:
    -Horford maybe, though he plays the 5 for Atlanta.
    -Bosh is a candidate for the 2nd team with McHale and some of the inconsistent guys by the end of his career. (He’s consistently All-Star but not All-NBA like McHale. McHale probably pulls way ahead on defense.)
    -Subjectivity aside, Lee is a candidate for the 2nd group if he keeps up his productivity from the past two seasons. His defense stinks, but same with Amare and Bosh.
    -Sheed is hardly young (older than 3 guys on the above list), but maybe he can get on the 4th team or so.
    -I assume Josh Smith is having a career year, but if it’s actually a break-out year he’s only 24… a real reach.
    -For a while it seemed like PF was one of the most abundant positions, but there’s been a serious lack of talent coming in there recently. Among really young guys only Kevin Love and DeJuan Blair are even outside contenders. Plus Blake Griffin. Beasley is maybe an outside contender too. Anthony Randolph and JJ Hickson WAY outside. Maybe Brandan Wright if he ever gets healthy and minutes. The last ones are really reaching, though.

  7. Nick,

    This is exactly what I said about McHale, copy and pasted word-for-word:

    “I agree with not putting McHale in the first group. He’s one of the top guys in the second group probably, though.”

    Never said he was first tier. How many guys are ahead of him in the second tier though?

  8. Nobody said I was disagreeing with you. :-)

    As far as the second tier I really hadn’t given it any thought and find what you wrote to be reasonable. Is it me or is there a drought up until recently? Oak comes to mind but of the top of my head it seems there were a lot of Kurt Rambis, Marc Iavaroni or even Sidney Green types in the 80s. Oh Horace Grant at least would merit a mention.

  9. I hate (in a not really hate type of way) Duncan, partly because he’s so good, and partly because he really lucked out to be in a near perfect system for him.

    But I love well rounded players, and defense, so yeah, Duncan and Garnett seem like THE guys for this exercise.

  10. I’m okay with him being considered a power forward because that is what he played for roughly half of his career (this is his thirteenth season and he definitely played the 4 for the first six seasons) and that’s what they say he’s played since then.

    But while Duncan definitely shoots from the outside more than a traditional center, he’s also been the main man in the middle since Robinson’s retirement when it comes to defense (heck, the Spurs built their amazing defense since then around Duncan being around to clean up intruders), not Rasho/Elson/whoever, which is very center-like.

    Also, the other team’s center has generally guarded him and he typically guards the opposing team’s center.

    For instance, when he plays Yao, he guards Yao and Yao guards him.

    But since half of his career has been as a 4, I’m fine with him being classified as a 4.

  11. “I find it unfair to call Duncan a 5 masquerading as a 4. Of course you still rank him as the greatest PF of the modern era, acknowledging that he was a 4, but I find it to be an unnecessary shot. He’s spent the vast majority of his career, until recently, playing the 4 with a true 5 next to him (Robinson, Rasho, Elson, etc.). If he’d been drafted by a different team or an earlier era maybe he’d have been a 5 and today he may be more of a 5, but he played the high-post and has consistently taken 55-60% jumpers.”

    I really don’t understand what makes Duncan a PF. The “modern era” has seen a blurring of positions that make terms like “power forward” and “center” lose a lot of their meaning. To me Duncan plays like a center in the Ewing, Olajuwon, Robinson mold of the 1990s. The offense is run through him in the post, and on defense he is the last line of defense at the basket.

    Is the PF position defined by # of jumpers? Is it defined by size? By the size of the other players on the team? Was Rik Smits a PF because he took more jumpers than Dale Davis? Was Hakeem Olajuwon a PF because he was 5 inches shorter than Ralph Sampson? Was Charles Smith a PF because of his size or a SF because of his softness?

    I think Duncan is just as easily compared to the centers of the modern era, if not more so. The only reason he plays with “true centers” is because Popovich is as adamant about playing two big men as much as D’Antoni is adamant about playing no big men.

  12. Nick,

    Sorry, read your post with the wrong tone.


    I think that’s a fair analysis of Duncan. If Boston wins the lottery in ’97 we’re probably talking about him as a 5. In the ’80s or early-to-mid ’90s he’s probably a 5. One thing that’s so special about him, though, is that he transcends position a little. The fact that he could probably be a top 5 GOTME center sort of puts him at the top of this list in a totally subjective way when you consider that center has probably historically been the most valuable position.

    The whole position, era thing is interesting in terms of bigmen. In the mid-to-late ’90s the top bigmen–“7 footers” whether they’re actually 6-10 or 7 foot plus–to come into the league were perimeter oriented to a greater or lesser extent and pretty mobile: especially KG in 95, Duncan in 97, and Dirk in 98 but also guys like Jermaine O’Neal in 96, Sheed in 95, Rashard Lewis in 98, Odom in 99. Some of those guys would have been 4s in the 90s too, but the only real All-Star 5s to come in were Z and Camby. Most of the big less-mobile, “back-to-the-basket” types were flops. In hindsight I’m tempted to say it was just the talent that was coming into the league at the time (possibly driven toward the perimeter by a league that was dominated in these player’s youth largely by first Magic and then Jordan), and less so the “this is an era where true centers cannot succeed” explanation I (and a lot of others I believe) thought made sense in the moment. I mean now a days any bigman 6-9 or over plays center again, granted a lot of them are not the traditional centers from the 90s and earlier eras. But the top youngish “7 footers” mostly play the 5: Howard, Bynum, Horford, Yao, Lee, Amare (a lot of years), Pau some years and x mpg for the Lakers, even Bosh to some extent, to a lesser extent (because they wouldn’t be good PFs) Chandler, Dalembert, Haywood, Diop, etc. Sort of interesting the way the movement between 4 and 5 has gone, and how much they are a product of their times vs. create the paradigm of their times.
    I can see Caleb’s point about a lot of good centers in the league right now, though I still think in the context of that conversation (the Bulls had no plus center in the golden era of centers) I was right: today’s centers are half hybrid 4/5s half of whom are knocked for their lack of D and the Bulls did have no plus C in the age of the dominate Cs.

    It’s been pointed out a lot, but Ralph Sampson broke the mold early. His career was derailed by injury and follows a straight downward slope, but he might make the 2nd group had he followed a typical career arc.


    I don’t think your analysis is wrong, and you raise some very interesting points about what defines position.
    However, Duncan actually played PF for a lot of his career which I think justifies putting him at PF in these rankings. A lot of if-ands-or-buts could change these rankings around, but what we have to go on is what happened. He could be a top 5 C probably, but he is also the top PF. His position has been defined largely by his offensive role, I think, where he’s played the high-post, hit jumpers, and passed very well for a big. LeBron, for example, could be top 5 GOTME at PG, SG, and SF I would argue. Why is Garnett a PF? Because he played PF. He also plays the high post on offense and his teams are built around him on defense. If Minnesota was hell-bent on making him a C or he came into the league after 4 years in college with a more mature body, he probably could have been a damn good 5. If Boston acquired him by trading Perkins, maybe he’d be their 5 right now.

  13. With regard to Career PER, I think the numbers could mislead a bit given that Malone played 19 seasons. It will be interesting to see if Duncan can maintain his high level of play for another six or seven seasons. My guess is that he will not. Additionally, I personally have to give the slight edge to anyone that continually refers to himself in the third person.

    Oh, and who had March 29th in the pool guessing the day that Curry would be ruled out for the season?;headlines

  14. Along with the how good and how lucky Duncan is, I also want to point out how extremely lucky Duncan and the Spurs were with Robinson’s injury and their tanking strategy.

    I’m not sure where a try hard to win Spur season would have landed them in the draft, but it is what it is.

  15. If Boozer got to play against Lee every game he would be the greatest PF ever. Funny I say that alot when other PF’s go up against Lee who usually gets his numbers too but honestly C’s or PF’s it doesnt matter if they are decent they will score a will against Lee.

  16. I must say, with so many Knicks having bad offensive games, that was actually a fairly impressive loss.

  17. I agree BC. Considering how bad the shooting was, we played pretty good defense after the first quarter. We really need to take higher percentage shots though. I think Bill Walker only had taken 3 pointers by halftime which is not cool. And then there’s Al: I really can’t tell if he’s keeping us in games or losing us games.

  18. Al Harrington: 26 points on 20 shots. “Player of the Game.” Will the infatuation with scoring volume ever end?

  19. BBA @ 13 I just took a look at Webber and if you go by PER he’s not in these guys league. He tops out @ 24.7 and only from 99-00 through 01-02 is he over 23 with the exception of a 15 g season in 95-96. For his career he averages 20.9 PER with a TSP of 51.3. If you like WS he tops 10 twice. So I’m not sure where he would fit but its a clear step below the Duncan, Malone, Barkley, KG and Dirk.

  20. @17 and 18 Wasn’t a good shooting night for the team, but only 3 guys had bad nights: House (surprise, surprise… doesn’t take a genius to realize you make more shots when you set your feet and don’t have two hands in your face), Gallo, and Douglas. Of course, that’s worrying because two of those are our “core” guys and one is D’Antoni’s best-bud.
    Another troubling thing is that Walker only took 3-pters. Maybe either he is trying to be or D’Antoni is telling him to be the Raja Bell/Bruce Bowen of the team. The guy is way too athletic not to get to the basket, though. Bell and Bowen don’t/didn’t camp-out outside because they wanted to, but because they couldn’t do anything else. His defensive versatility is nice.

    @ 19 I hear you on scoring volume, but not sure who else you would make the player of the game… Harrington had 17 rebounds, played 39 minutes, and was +6 on the game (only other + on Knicks for game was Rodriguez). 1 ast, 1 stl, 1 blk, 1 TO, 1 PF. His TS% for the game was 53.3%, which isn’t very good but also isn’t terrible.
    Douglas and Gallo had more shots than points. Rodriguez only got 19 minutes. Lee got out-rebounded by Toney Douglas (who played 7 fewer minutes), had 4 TOs, 5 PFs, got eaten up by Boozer, and was -8. Bill Walker was solid, but I would say not player of the game. T-Mac is the only other real candidate, but I would give Harrington the nod.

    @20 I’m with you, Webber is second or third tier.

  21. I didn’t pay careful attention but I heard Gallo was covering Deron Williams after the first quarter (when Williams was on fire and being guarded by Douglas). Was that really true and did it have anything to do with anything or did Utah just cool off of their own volition and well randomness for lack of a better word?

  22. I just brought up Webber cause I was curious since I knew he had some big seasons but not enough of them.

    Im not a fan of Harrington at all but he was clearly the best player for the Knicks last night.

  23. Webber is an interesting case – no way does he fit with those top 5 but I think I would put him in the 2nd group. Partly because I am biased toward “peak performance” instead of longevity. Totally arbitary, it’s just that when we talk about “the best” players, in my mind it’s “imagine this guy on the court, at his best.”

    Second 5 is interesting – I would probably put Rodman as the closest – just a huge, huge impact player. Hard to measure, but you might make a case that he was as valuable as Dirk.

    I think I would throw in Oakley. Also underrated, without great offensive numbers, but a major impact player on defense – IMO he was clearly the best defender in the league at PF for a few years. Also led the league in rebounding. The Knicks were a contender for many years, and aside from Ewing – a legit superstar – the rest of the team was mediocre, at best. SOMEONE was getting them to 55-60 wins. Another measuring stick: Horace Grant was good – really good – but if you look at the #s from their head-to-head matchups in the playoffs (huge # of games) Oak just ate him alive.

    Aside from those two, I’d probably throw in Webber & McHale…. would have to pore through Basketball Reference to decide who fits..

  24. I guess if you’re interested and energetic Caleb, Terry Cummings and Shawn Kemp might fill out your second tier among retired players. Hard to know what to do with the Oakley/Maurice Lucas style of PF, their game isn’t geared towards PER since that relies favors, to some extent, high usage types.

  25. I would feel good with Oakley in the 2nd group. Not only did the Knicks win a lot, but had the best defenses of all-time. I think McHale has to be clearly ahead of Webber. McHale topped 10 in Win Share 7 times; Webber, twice. McHale topped out at 14.8 WS and 24 PER; Webber, 11 WS and 24.7 PER. Webber missed a lot of games in his career. I would also make a case for Shawn Kemp over Webber. Terry Cummings would be more like 4th team to me, maybe 3rd. Probably take Bosh or Amare over him given that they should just be entering their primes now.

  26. What about Buck Williams? It’s hard to give Oakley serious consideration without mentioning Buck. Same rebound rate as Oak, better scoring (highly efficient, leading the league in TS% a few years).

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