Hashtag Basketball 5x5: Best Small Forwards in the NBA

Part three of our five-part series on ranking the five best players at every position in the NBA. Today we showcase the NBA's top-5 small forwards.

In a league where wing play feels like it's becoming the only thing that matters, a surprisingly small number of small forwards dominate the landscape. While a couple of yesterday's shooting guards are dominant on the wing and can switch positions on the fly, most people think of guys like LeBron James when they hear "wing." While James isn't perfect, he's pretty close, and he's what every team wants on the wing or as a small forward. 

As luck would have it, this is the only one of the five positions that we (Kevin Nye and Jeremy Stevens) agreed on our top-5 on our first try. Just like the other days, we'll count down from 5-1, with some cleanup work and notes at the end.

We now present to you...the Hashtag Basketball 5x5: the best small forwards in the NBA.

Number 5: Gordon Hayward

It's hard to predict how an injury will affect a player long-term, but Hayward was probably better than you remember before the injury. In his final year in Utah, Hayward was an all-star, but he was also the best player on the league's 3rd ranked defense and 12th ranked offense. They played with the slowest pace in the league, which suggests that his 23 points per game seems much lower than it actually is. His 33 points per 100 possessions is right in line with what DeMar DeRozan put up last season.

Putting Hayward on another team full of young studs should have him looking like a top-15 player in no time. Hayward's preseason performance has alleviated concerns about his comeback. Physical defense, a chase-down block, and some great passing showed that he hasn't lost any of his athleticism or coordination since shattering his ankle and tibia five minutes into last season. His reputation as a mini-LeBron has mostly been a meme, but it isn't the worst comparison. He's a playmaking, pass-first forward who can take his defender on in isolation if nothing opens up. Brad Stevens is capable of hiding a player's flaws as well as anyone, so there's a chance Hayward could try to inch up this list before season's end. A career 37% three-point shooter on a team full of offensive weapons? Look out.

Number 4: Paul George

While Hayward might inch up this list, it's hard to imagine him getting any higher than this spot. When you forget about the bizarre ESPN saga of watching Paul George re-sign with Oklahoma City, you can start to remember all of the things he does well. Looking back at last season, had DeMarcus Cousins not torn his Achilles tendon, George would have been an inexplicable All-Star snub after the Thunder faltered a bit early in their season (And the middle of their season.) (And the end of their season.). Perhaps the most important thing that George does well is play alongside Russell Westbrook without (publicly) getting mad.

Really though, Paul George is shooting 39% on three-pointers over the past four seasons combined while also maintaining a reputation as one of the league's 2-3 best wing defenders. That shooting number last year was a career high of over 40% on three-pointers, unless you count the six games he played in the 2014-2015 campaign (shout out to broken legs).

Despite these things, Paul George has a weird aura about him when it comes to how people rate him. On the one hand, he was the leader of multiple Pacers teams that were pretty solid (although, oh boy, can we talk about that one year that Gatorade was running commercials with him making a game-winner and then he missed the rim on a game-winner against Cleveland? That was incredible and deserves its own wing in the basketball hall of fame) and he was a major player on last year's dangerous/pretty decent Thunder team. On the other hand, the Pacers traded him for Victor Oladipo and everyone expected them to get worse, then they won six more games than the prior season when George was there. It's confusing. That's why he's 4th.

Number 3: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo could legitimately be #1 on this list by February. However, he isn't there yet. While some sports-writers and talking heads (I'm looking at you, Giannis, Inc.) are on the verge of naming him MVP this season, he still has enough question marks to stay at #3 here. If Giannis continues his upward trend in 3PA%, he'll still be below league average this year, although getting near that mark would make him an unbelievably difficult guy to go against in any situation. He's just unlike any other player in the league with his (approximately) 12-foot wingspan and his point guard/forward/there's-no-sense-pretending-he-fits-into-positional-limitations style of play.

(Note: the following paragraph contains a spoiler for the 1996 film Space Jam)

He probably doesn't dominate like LeBron, and he can't shoot as well as a Paul George, but the sky is still the limit with this guy. Trying to dribble past Giannis must feel like the 20-year-old ESPN "Big Buddy Program" commercial. Watching him breakaway for a dunk feels like when Michael Jordan stretches his arm from half-court to dunk at the end of Space Jam. He's a real-life create-a-player.

Number 2: Kawhi Leonard

It's hard to put Kawhi Leonard as #2 when he hasn't played meaningful basketball in well over a year. However, the last time he was playing meaningful basketball, he was incredible. Kawhi Leonard was - arguably - the correct choice for MVP the year that Westbrook won it for averaging a triple-double. While win shares per 48 minutes isn't the end-all-be-all statistic, it deserves mentioning that Kawhi was ahead of both Harden and Westbrook that season (he actually trailed Durant, but if you say Kevin Durant should've won MVP in his first year in Golden State, you can do me a favor and catch these hands).

Kawhi Leonard can score on anybody and can probably guard anyone who isn't a center - and that's probably only because he's never had to. While he's not known to be the best player in the league, he's earned the right to be called the best two-way player. He's got all the tools on offense - spot-up threes, those shifty up-and-under moves in the paint, midrange step-backs and all - and now he'll have a very good point guard in Kyle Lowry to enhance his play. Kawhi could be back in a big, big way.

Number 1: LeBron James

Are you shocked? The only note we had on why LeBron James might not be the #1 was "he's not great at free throws."

Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about LeBron James and how great he is. Heck, the two of us have probably written several thousand words about him ourselves. 

However, it'll be interesting to see how this season plays out. LeBron James has never been good at losing or waiting for other guys to catch up to his level of intensity, ability, or commitment. The Lakers could be good, but they could also have JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Rajon Rondo surrounding LeBron James in spring of 2019 when they're trying to make a playoff run. Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart are all going to be pretty solid NBA players (Kuzma already is), but has LeBron ever had patience for that kind of thing? No, of course not.

This team is two injuries away from Lance Stephenson as a starter, and they're STILL BEING PICKED TO FINISH IN THE TOP-5 IN THE WEST. That's how good LeBron James is, despite being in his 16th season with roughly 11 billion minutes-played under his belt.

Notes about the list

There wasn't a lot of debate on this list at all. Jayson Tatum is a year away from knocking Hayward off, which is scary, you know, since they're teammates and all. After Tatum you're looking at guys who are either a couple of years away, are slightly above average, or are punch-lines: Andrew Wiggins received zero first-place votes.

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