GOTME (Part IV): Small Forward

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
LeBron 31.7 29.1 26.8 3 6
Bird 27.8 26.1 23.5 2 7
Erving 22.5 (28.7) 24.5 (26.8) 22.4 (23.9) 1 (5) 5 (10)
??? 23.2 21.9 18.6 0 2

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.

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Mike Kurylo

Mike Kurylo is the founder and editor of His book on the 2012 Knicks, "We’ll Always Have Linsanity," is on sale now. Follow him on twitter (@KnickerBlogger).

31 thoughts to “GOTME (Part IV): Small Forward”

  1. Hey– if PER is the base standard by which to get into the conversation, doesn’t Dominique Wilkins deserve to get in there? He and Pippen have the same career TS%, but his PER is 3 points higher, his usage is way higher (over 30 for his career, leading the league some years), and he scored over 10 points a game more/36 than Pippen. In fact, Pippen only averaged over 20 points/36 the years(s) Jordan was hitting weak grounders to 3rd.

  2. Thanks, Z – was going to say that Dominique looks like an oversight. He’s a tough comparison to Pierce, Erving, Pippen et al – in that he carried such a huge, one-man scoring load. But I might put him as high as #3, especially if we’re skipping over Dr. J’s pre-1980 years.

    Much as it pains me to say, I have to agree with the vote for Pips over Pierce. Defense is often overlooked he was a dominant, game-changing defender – as I noted the other day, the Bulls’ defense didn’t miss a beat for the two years that Jordan was away.

    I think in a 3 or 4 years we’ll have to make room for Kevin Durant.

    James Worthy is an interesting footnote. Maybe not enough great seasons to make the list, but he was Jordan-like in raising his game for the playoffs – James’ May & June numbers are comparable to our #3-6 guys.

  3. I think Pippen is a good choice. What Payton was to PG defense, Pippen was on the wing. He also did a lot to create the modern paradigm of an athletic wing playmaker. No one has actually lived up to it, but every year for a while every tall, athletic wing player who could handle the ball was compared to Scottie Pippen.

    Pippen also played into his late 30s. If you leave Pierce in the league 6 more seasons (till he’s 38), his PER is likely to fall by 2 or more points.

    His TOs did shoot up and usage down as soon as he joined Hakeem and Barkley in Houston. A bad sign. That also came the season after he missed half the season in the Bulls last champiosnhip season, so maybe his goose was cooked at that point by the injury? In fairness to Jordan and the Bulls defense, their D didn’t suffer at all when Pippen missed 1/2 the season. Just as it didn’t when Jordan left. Their offense did fall from 1st to 9th (I didn’t remember that Pippen missed half that season in my earlier discussion with Caleb about their offense vs. defense, so I suppose they probably always were a better offense).

    When you consider defense and playmaking, Pippen is every bit as deserving as Wilkins. Not to say Wilkins isn’t deserving.

    By the way, Z, the East has been varying degrees of terrible since the late 90s, but how many totally undeserving teams have won 55 games?

  4. “By the way, Z, the East has been varying degrees of terrible since the late 90s, but how many totally undeserving teams have won 55 games?”

    I take it you are continuing our conversation from five threads ago. And the answer would be zero. But keep in mind that by the late 90s rules changes made the defenses the Hawks, Bulls, and Knicks played in 1994 illegal. Those rule changes were made so that the better basketball teams would win more games and the better rugby teams would enjoy more suspensions.

  5. Mike no Bernard King?? Even as a best that ever played for a two week stretch?? :-) Alex English might be someone to get mentioned for #4 or at least the next tier. 19.9 PER and 55.0 TSP. Adrian Dantley of the crazy 61.0 TSP 21.5 PER including 5 straight @ 24 and the guy known as “teach” to the Pistons crew because he taught them to win when he came over (or so it went).

  6. Z,

    Whether those things are illegal now or not, they weren’t then. My point is not about which style of basketball is a purer form of the game, it’s about how good the Bulls supporting cast around MJ was.


    I threw up in my mouth reading the Lakers Yahoo article you linked to in the last thread. Truly one of the worst articles I have ever read. Makes Bill Simmons look like a totally objective, real journalist.

  7. Nick C. to paraphrase the song “so many SF – so little time”

    It’s funny in my list I had AD & ‘Nique – just brain farted when I was coming up with the reserves. King had 6 seasons where he played 79 games or more. Too bad they came early/late in his career. From age 28 to 31 he missed 185 games. Wonder what modern medicine could have done for him.

  8. “My point is…about how good the Bulls supporting cast around MJ was.”

    Like I said a few days ago– I’m irrational in my conviction that the Jordan Bulls were a one man team.

    And since this is a thread dedicated to the perceived greatness of Scottie Pippen, I’ll continue my nonobjective review of history by saying that without the exposure of playing on Jordan’s Bulls and the pleasure of wearing his rings, Scottie Pippen would be considered nothing more than a better passing Thurl Bailey…

  9. At first I thought LeBron was being prematurely included, but 7 years is the bulk of a career. Bird would never win a ring after 7 years and within a year or two would be reduced to lying on the floor when he wasn’t in the game. Which, brings up the next point, if Mike will indulge me for bringing up yet another canidate. Where’s ‘Melo? (or at least where might he fit in)

  10. Okay wow. I think there are about 4 people on the planet that can truly appreciate this article: Hollinger, Pelton, Caleb, and Prof John Frink.

    Frink: “Ahem, yes well, normally I am not interested in the sports type inforMAYtion with the passing and the throwing and ‘ouch that hurts my glavin!’ But I can truly appreciate this work with the bar graphs, and the R2=0.528, and the staTIStical analysis type things.”

    I know you’ve worked on this for a while and now I see why. The depth of this is jaw dropping. I just wish I was smart enough to appreciate it.

  11. “I’m irrational in my conviction that the Jordan Bulls were a one man team.”

    Fair enough, I just have a hard time letting it go.

    Thurl Bailey’s a weird comparison.

    I’m a big Pippen fan. I will incite a riot by saying that without Pippen, Jordan would not be wearing nearly as many rings today… if any. Sure MJ was more valuable to Pippen than vice versa, but you don’t win more than one or two rings all by yourself. I could accept that Jordan maybe takes a team on his back to one or two rings, but if you replace Pippen with–for whatever reason–Thurl Bailey I don’t think he wins more than that. Grant and Rodman and the shooters and Kukoc and Harper were all big helps too, but I would put Pippen at #2 in value on those teams. Jordan’s rings without Pippen… zero.

    Jordan was the greatest closer of all time (and also the greatest player maybe but for this analogy I’m focusing on clutchness), but without a great team around him he’s not in position to pull out saves. Sort of like Mariano Rivera, who might be the greatest closer of all time on the Pirates, too, but wouldn’t have the rings to show for it. (In basketball Jordan has a bigger role than Mo, but that’s a given not part of the analogy.)

  12. I know Bird is considered a SF but he was just as much a PF as he was a SF. For the first few years of his career Cedric Maxwell started instead of McHale and he was the SF and Bird PF. Just curious how Bird would compare to the PF’s. Bird averaged 10 rebounds per game for his career (averaging over 10 per game in his first 6 seasons including 11 per game and 10.9 per game twice), the only thing he naturally cant compare with PF’s are in blocks.

    Lebron though really is a freak of nature.

  13. @ 11,

    Personally, I would put Melo in the second group right now. If he stays healthy/productive at the end of the day maybe he’s about as good as Pierce. Even that would require another step forward though. At 25 that’s possible. If he doesn’t, though, maybe he’s actually behind Pierce. Sort of surprises me based on hype, scoring volume, etc.

    Mike, where do Dantley and Wilkins figure into your rankings, by the way?

  14. By the way, I agree completely with the analysis in the article. Good stuff. Interesting work with the projections. If he hung them up this offseason, I still think I would argue for LeBron.

    “Here’s an indictment against Air Canada/Jersey/Orlando: he’s on only 2 All-NBA teams, and was never a first teamer. ”

    Or a team firster, coincidentally. Maybe not so coincidentally, actually: All-NBA is about rep as much as anything, and being a prima donna drama queen doesn’t win too many votes. Quitting on his team in Toronto pretty much takes VC out of the discussion in my mind.

  15. “without Pippen, Jordan would not be wearing nearly as many rings today… Jordan’s rings without Pippen… zero.”

    Cool. I’ll go with the other extreme:

    Let’s say the draft lottery was instituted a year earlier and the Clippers won the #2 pick in the ’84 draft and selected Jordan. I’ll say the Clippers would have won numerous championships, Larry Brown would have more titles than Phil Jackson, and you’d be arguing “Jordan’s rings without Ken Norman… zero”.

  16. I’m fine with saying Larry Brown is as good a coach as Phil Jackson. I find Jackson to be overrated. Great at what he does, but still overrated. I don’t know if he’s a better or worse coach than LB, but I will bet that if you give LB all the talent Jackson has coached he’s got close to as many rings, the same number, or more.

    There’s no comparing Ken Norman to Scottie Pippen, though. If you replace Kobe with Jerry Stackhouse, do the Lakers still 3-peat too? If you replace Gasol and Bynum with Darko and Frye, does Kobe’s “greatness” magically get them a title last year? Has LeBron failed to win a title because he’s not very good?

    My position is not particularly extreme. I’m not saying that Jordan wasn’t an amazing player with as good a case for GOAT as anybody. I agree that Pippen has his rings thanks mostly to Jordan. I’m just saying basketball is a team game, and that Jordan had an amazing supporting cast. And, for what it’s worth, a great coach.

  17. Carmelo Anthony should be somewhat mentioned as well. His career is on an even better path than Pierce at the moment.

  18. Ah another great idea. But also.. has anyone been watching the actual games lately? Toney Douglas has been playing great now that he’s getting minutes. He’s also been getting plenty of dishes, i think 7 of them tonight. He’s looking like a pretty decent pick personally. Gallinari also played very well.

  19. “I don’t know if he’s a better or worse coach than LB, but I will bet that if you give LB all the talent Jackson has coached he’s got close to as many rings, the same number, or more.”

    Only mentioned Brown because he was the coach of the Clippers at the time. It could have been Bill Fitch. Anyone. The premise is Jordan was winning the rings regardless of who was along for the ride.

    “Has LeBron failed to win a title because he’s not very good?”

    It took Jordan seven years too figure it all out. I guarantee LeBron starts winning them, whether with the Cavs or Knicks, and when he does it will be solely because of him, not because of some other guy fortunate enough to play on the same team as him.

    “My position is not particularly extreme.”

    My bad. I thought you were saying if Jordan never played with Pippen he’d be ringless, which is an extreme position.

    “There’s no comparing Ken Norman to Scottie Pippen”

    They both made money bouncing a round ball on a hard floor. (ps– don’t take everything so seriously. It’s bad for your health!)

  20. Larry Brown only coached the Clippers for half of the 1991-1992 season and all of the 1992-1993 season.

  21. “It took Jordan seven years too figure it all out.”

    I guess by that logic it only took Tim Duncan one year to “figure it all out” and then he forgot what it was for 3 years, then figured it all out again. Gosh it’s amazing how that works, we only have to look at a great player’s championships to learn when they figured it all out.

    You see I just look at Jordan’s numbers, and figure he was dominant in ’87, but basketball-reference doesn’t have a column for “figured it all out” (FIAO). I also thought Jordan won his first championship because Pippen was starting to hit his peak, had a good supporting cast, and the NBA is a team game. A player great enough to put up 4 straight years of 31+ PER and he doesn’t “figure it all out” until the middle of that run.

    Why gosh darn it if basketball analysis was that easy, I don’t know why I spend hours making an excel chart of LeBron’s career path, when all I need is this: LeBron FIAO: 0

    (Now that’s sarcasm! :-)

  22. Carmelo is a nice player, but I wouldn’t put him past Pierce at this point.

    AD is one of those guys that my brain always recalls him to be injury prone, much more than he actually was. His TS% and PER were really good (led the league in PER in 1984), but his other numbers aren’t that great. Detroit won a championship replacing him with Rodman/Aguirre. Coincidence? Perhaps. Maybe it’s my 80s brain at play, but I always thought him to be a bit overrated and one-sided. But I’m open to other interpretations.

    ‘Nique’s TS% was bad until he hit 30. Had he put up that TS% for the first half of his career it might have been a different story.

  23. Mike on AD @ Detroit you could spin it that they didn’t get real good until he got there (think back to their battles with Boston he was the man for Detroit). But I still never would have put him much if anything above the other SFs of his era English, Kings, Aguirre or ‘Nique unitl I looked at the numbers.

  24. Dennis Rodman was a pretty spectacular player so it’s not really a knock on AD to say the Pistons got better after swapping him for Rodman AND Aguirre. Not that you meant it that way.

  25. “basketball-reference doesn’t have a column for “figured it all out” (FIAO).”

    Good one. If they did, Phil Jackson would be the career leader.

    And looking at Dantley’s career stats, they do line up surprisingly well. He wasn’t flashy, and was never marketed as a superstar, but he may be just the kind of player that quietly did everything he needed to do to qualify for greatness. Those stats, plus a championship, certainly seem to get him into the upper tier.

    And not that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Larry Bird and LeBron James but Kiki Vandeweghe had a run of seriously productive (offensive) years. High TS%, low turnover, (low everything else). Faded pretty quickly (as most people traded to the Knicks tend to do), but still had seven or so really strong seasons.

    Also, I mentioned Chris Mullin in the SG thread, but as Caleb pointed out on it he really played more as a SF. He too had a really nice career, even if not quite nice enough to be considered a great.

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