The small forward position may just contain the most talent of any position group in the NBA. There is at least one player seriously in the GOAT conversation, with several others just on the outside looking in. We have arguably the greatest offensive threat of this generation of ballers. There is perhaps the best perimeter defender of his era. Of course, there is a 23-year-old swingman coming off his first NBA Finals appearance.
This is a unique list in a few different ways. First, several players on this list spend time at other positions on the floor, namely the power forward spot. We chose to rank these guys at small forward because that is their signature position, and the position they have played the large majority of their careers. They are all going to spend time at the three this season as well.
Also, this is just such a competitive group you could probably rank these five names in any order and have a decent argument to make. That said, taking individual statistics, winning pedigree, and 2022/23 expectations into account, this order just made the most sense.
Without further ado, let’s dig deeper and examine the top-five small forwards in the NBA today:
5. Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler is a bad, bad man. He is widely known as one of the toughest, most wildly competitive players in the NBA, and his approach to the game has been a perfect fit in Pat Reilly and Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat culture. As a result, it is no surprise that Butler has led the Miami Heat on several deep playoff runs during his three years in Miami, including a trip to last year’s Eastern Conference Finals once again, pushing the Boston Celtics to seven games.
Butler averaged a solid 21.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals last season, earning his sixth All-Star appearance. That said, Butler’s impact on the game and on his teammates goes far beyond the box score. He is an intense defender and a fiery leader who sets the tone for the Miami Heat in every game he appears in.
Butler may be the most underrated player on this list, as he just doesn’t put up the glossy statistics of some of the names to follow. However, he is a truly elite NBA player and should be considered a superstar.
4. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers could be a sleeping giant set to terrorize the league in 2022/23. Leonard missed the entire 2021/22 season with a torn ACL, but lest we forget he was in strong consideration as the heir apparent to Lebron James as the best player in basketball during the prior few seasons. He is arguably the best wing defender in the entire league.
Leonard finished his last healthy season with solid averages of 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.6 steals per game while shooting nearly 40% from the floor. He is a two-time champion, two-time finals MVP (winning one on two different teams), a five-time All-Star selection, a three-time All-NBA First Team selection, and a former Defensive Player of The Year. There are just a handful of players ever who have achieved such a resume.
Kawhi could easily jump to the top of this list depending on how he bounces back from his year-long injury hiatus. However, until we see him back on the court, it is very difficult to put him above the other guys on this list who put up incredible performances during the 2021/22 season.
3. Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant, turning 34 this month, is still arguably the most dangerous scorer in the NBA. He is a four-time scoring champion, a two-time NBA champion, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, a former league MVP, and a 12-time NBA All Star.
While his Brooklyn Nets had a very disappointing, dysfunctional 2021/22 campaign, Durant played at an MVP-caliber level through most of the season. He rose above the chaos of Kyrie Irving’s vaccine controversy and James Harden’s trade demands and produced outstanding numbers, with averages of 29.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.4 assists while shooting 38% from three-point range. Unfortunately, his Nets were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics.
Exactly what the Brooklyn Nets will look like in 2022/23 is still up in the air, though Durant has reportedly rescinded his trade request. Regardless, it is safe to assume Durant will once again be among the league’s leading scorers and best players, wherever he suits up.
2. Lebron James
Not unlike the previous player on the list, the great King James also put up incredible individual statistics and performances despite the struggles of the team around him, though the Lakers ended the season in even worse shape than the Nets.
The Lakers finished just 33-49 in a competitive Western Conference as Anthony Davis missed the majority of the season due to injury and Russell Westbrook had a brutal season. The Lakers missed the playoffs completely.
That said, James continued to put up truly elite numbers as he attempted to drag his team to relevance. He averaged 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 36% from three-point range. By the way, Lebron is 37 years old. While he occasionally shows his age with a lack of focus on the defensive end, he can still do anything on the basketball as well as anyone in the league when motivated to do so.
King James is still right smack in the middle of the GOAT conversation, and incredibly still playing like it. He is a four-time NBA champion, four-time NBA Finals MVP, four-time NBA MVP, 13-time All-NBA First-Team selection, and an 18-time NBA All Star. While time has to take its toll someday, it has not affected him enough to prevent him from being one of the best small forwards and players in the NBA heading into the 2022/23 season.
1. Jayson Tatum
2020/21 was the season that Jayson Tatum cemented himself as one of the most elite players in the NBA. His Celtics defeated Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jimmy Butler’s squads on their way to the NBA Finals, where they would ultimately fall to the Golden State Warriors. Tatum proved himself to be the reigning alpha dog of the Eastern Conference, and the top small forward in the NBA heading into the 2022/23 season.
Tatum put up rock-solid averages of 26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 35% from three-point range. He made his third-straight All-Star appearance and was named First-Team All-NBA at just 23 years old.
He is one of the best wing defenders in the NBA and is still getting better on both sides of the ball every season. The scary thing is, that he will probably only be better in 2022/23 as the Boston Celtics enter the season as a clear favorite to return to the finals.