Updated: Oct 9, 2021
Welcome back to Five-by-Five! Every Thursday, I will be ranking the top five NBA players at each positions, including small forwards in this installment. The small forward, or the 3, is typically the most versatile player on the hardwood. They shoot threes and cut to the basket, but they also rebound and defend bigger players down low. Often small forwards are jacks of all trades and masters of none. But the best at their position act as the glue that binds the rest of their teammates. Let's take a look at the five best small forwards with the 2021-22 season less than a month away.
5. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
If you want a definition of “Heat culture,” Butler is it. He’s one of the best all-around defenders in the league, sticking to ball-handlers and mucking up passing lanes. His steal percentage of 3.1 sat second in the league last season behind T.J. McConnell and is the highest average in his 10-year career. It seems like his defensive impact is only heightening as he approaches his age-32 season.
His offense—specifically his shooting efficiency—is another story. Butler shot a slightly-below-league-average percentage of 33.3 from deep over his first eight seasons. Since signing with Miami, however, his average has plummeted to 24.4 percent. It’s a fascinating trend considering that he’s one of the Heat’s offensive focal points. At the same time, his effective field goal percentage of 51.4 last year was the best in his career. Butler’s unsightly numbers from deep do raise some concern, but it’s become increasingly clear that he’s simply more comfortable inside the arc.
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Tatum has been marketed as an offensive virtuoso since his days at Duke, and he’s only improved every season he’s been in the pros. When he dropped 50 points in Game 3 of the first round of last year’s playoffs, Tatum lived up to that pitch. He can rack up points in a hurry, both in the midrange and from deep. He’s also become a much better finisher as he’s put on a good amount of muscle since entering the league. In terms of areas to improve, Tatum can certainly refine his shot selection. The late Kobe Bryant was his idol, and it shows in his game to this day. Tatum has an affinity for tough shots, including fadeaway jumpers from midrange and 3-pointers off the dribble. No one’s doubting his ability to make these shots, but they’re simply not conducive to efficient offense. This was prevalent in last year’s playoffs; despite his stellar Game 3, Tatum converted just 44 percent of his 2-point attempts. He’s slowly developing some playmaking skills as well, as evidenced by his career-high 4.3 assists per game in 2020. Tatum will only become more dangerous as he continues to improve his court vision.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
This was an extremely tough decision to put James at third. Nonetheless, I think it’ll make sense to most as to why he’s a bit lower than anticipated. First, James is turning 37 years old in December. His longevity throughout his career has been a sight to behold, but there have been warning signs in recent years that it might be getting more difficult for the King to stay on the court. In his three seasons in Los Angeles, James has suited up for just 167 out of 236 possible games, just over 70 percent. His body could very well limit his explosiveness and playing time in 2021. Second, James’s touches will be cut into with the offseason addition of Russell Westbrook. This should be a good thing for James’s wear-and-tear throughout the season, but we’ll likely see less gaudy offensive numbers than in previous years. Not only will his points per game shrink, but Westbrook will also take some assists out of James’s hands. Once again, not a bad thing—spreading the ball between the core of James, Westbrook, and Anthony Davis should keep them relatively fresh for a title run next spring. One thing remains clear: James will try to fend off Father Time for as long as he can.
2. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
With Kawhi Leonard out for most of the coming season with a partially torn ACL, it’s George’s show in Los Angeles. We’ve seen what he can do as a team’s focal point—he played an MVP-caliber 2018-19 season in Oklahoma City. George averaged 28.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and a career-high 2.2 steals over 77 games. And that was with Russell Westbrook getting his fill. George will likely attempt over 20 shots per game, more than you’d like from a player with a history of injuries ranging from hamstring pulls to an open tibia and fibula fracture. But the Clippers really have no choice. Point guard Reggie Jackson needs to bottle some of that postseason magic if he wants to cement himself as a solid second option. George is stepping into a season with big expectations for his team, and anything less than his best would render the Clippers’ year a disappointment.
1. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Oh Kevin, if only your foot was two shoe sizes smaller. The Nets would have scraped by the Bucks in Game 7 to advance to the Finals, and they very well could have beat the Phoenix Suns. But that’s in the NBA dreamscape—the reality is that it’s been time for Brooklyn’s Big Three to win it all. Durant has certainly given it his all to achieve that goal, as he averaged 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 5.6 assists while almost adding his name to the 50-40-90 club for a second time. Durant is one of the best scorers in basketball history, and his game is continuing to age like fine wine. His 7-foot-5 wingspan renders his buttery pull-up jumper almost unstoppable, even against the league’s elite defenders. When he cuts to the rim, it’s a near-guaranteed bucket with James Harden often putting the pass on the money. He’s also a vital piece of Brooklyn’s defense, as he averaged a combined 2.0 steals and blocks last season. The Nets enter the 2021-22 season as title favorites, and the Slim Reaper will lead the charge toward his third ring.