The 4-Point Play: Positional Rankings – Small Forward

Let’s be honest here: The SF position is about LeBron James”¦.and then everybody else. He’s been the team’s best player (and savior) since the moment he was drafted and he’s made the Cavs a ton of money. However, I think I’m going to walk into some uncharted waters here when I say that, for me, he’s actually been a bit of a disappointment.

Now, before we continue on why he has been let me just say that much of the blame for this goes to the Cavs coaching staff and management for pushing LeBron towards being the player he currently is and for not surrounding him with the singular type of player that would have allowed him to be what I think he was set up to be when he joined the league. Let me also take a moment to point out that James is STILL probably the 2nd best player in the game and that even if he never made a change he’s going into the HOF.

So”¦what am I talking about when I say he’s been a bit of a disappointment? Well, in my opinion I think James had a chance to be Magic Johnson, with a jumpshot. Instead he turned more into Michael Jordan, with passing game.

That’s not to say Jordan couldn’t pass (he played PG a year or two), and it’s not saying Magic couldn’t score (he clearly could). What it IS saying is that James had the most unique skill-set I have ever seen and the only possible comparison I could make for him was Oscar Robertson.

Mike Brown deserves much of the blame here. While he has done a good job of treating James like any other player, and while James has taken that treatment well, the simple fact is that what passes for an offensive scheme to Brown is simply letting James do essentially whatever he wants on offense”¦.and then just assuming the rest if going to be ok. Does that mean that Brown doesn’t run plays? No. But as an offensive philosophy it’s clear Brown saw James as a primary scorer, and then put the team in positions for him to do just that.

James, because of his amazing talent, has thrived. And the team has done very well. However, Brown has turned a player with Magic-type passing ability, into a Jordan-like scoring threat. Obviously, bigger sins have been committed, but one wonders if the team wouldn’t have been better off developing James’ natural skills and putting less pressure on him to score 35 ppg. For a player of James’ ability his assists are way too low and his shot attempts too high. James could easily average 10 assists per game even if the team didn’t ramp up the running game or pace of the team. He could still take plenty of shots to get his scoring numbers because he holds the ball almost the whole game, however, his TEAM would be much harder to stop if he were given primary PG responsibilities and told not to score every time down the court.

Blame also goes to the management staff for not putting a primetime scorer on the team. A player less gifted overall than James, but who could be counted on to be a primary scorer. This would have allowed James to function as a more all-around player while not taking away the ability for the team to have a clutch scorer. The best they could do was Larry Hughes, who really in many ways is a LeBron-Lite. A versatile player who has never led a team as the primary offensive threat.

It will be interesting to see if this current trend continues. LeBron’s scoring rose and his assist totals dropped from 2 years ago to this year. Then in the playoffs his assist total dropped again (though this could be because the pace of games in the playoffs usually slows.) The question is what will happen this season? Will his scoring total rise? Will his assist total fall? It bears watching as we come to see exactly what KIND of player James turns into.

Make no mistake: James IS the 2nd most talented player in the league. All my rambling and theory doesn’t change that. However, letting James be James would make him THE most talented player in the league and easily the most versatile player offensive player since the Big-O.

1) LeBron James-

Has the talent to be in the discussion for greatest player to ever lace ‘em up. As long as his career lasts another 7 or 8 years I see no situation where he isn’t in the discussion. The most amazing aspect of his game is how he mentally takes over a game at such a young age. The leadership qualities are also topnotch and even on the Olympic team he seemed a leader among leaders.

As previously mentioned he has bags full of skills that even other great players (like Wade, Garnett, etc.) don’t have. However, he doesn’t use them all the time which is a function of the pressure put on him to score and because his coaches inability to look at his game long term. He could very easily be the greatest SF to ever live.

2) Tracy McGrady-

At one point this guy was better than Kobe Bryant; simply a fantastic defender and a versatile scorer who produced a ton of offense because he didn’t turn the ball over. His problem seems to be the health of his back and the games it forces him to miss with last year sorta being the worst of it.

3) Shawn Marion-

Marion is a fantastic player who allows the Suns to be what they are. In some ways he’s actually more important to the Suns than Steve Nash is because it’s HIS versatility that allows them to run the kind of small-ball they seem to thrive with.

Marion is a top-notch defender at the SF position and can still hold his own at the PF position”¦.which is not easy. His rebounding is really what prevents the Suns from being thoroughly exposed by bigger teams on most nights.

He led the Suns in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, and almost led them in FG%. Just a fantastic feat on a team with lots of other talented players. Raise your hand if you saw all this coming out of UNLV??!!

4) Andrei Kirlenko-

He’s sort of a Shawn Marion without the top-level scoring ability. He can play PF or SF and can dominate on the defensive end like almost no other wing player the game has seen in 20 years. I have him rated higher than last yea’s stats would allow because I believe last year was a bit of a fluke. He’s a much more efficient player than last year showed and his superhuman ability to block shots was blunted a bit last year because of his injury issues.

I expect a big step forward this season on a team that should be vastly improved all the way around. It wouldn’t shock me to see him start to edge out Shawn Marion in some ways simply because (like LeBron on offense) AK-47 has skills on defense that you just can’t manufacture or replicate.

5) Carmelo Anthony-

Lots of hype and such but I still feel he’s this generation’s Glen Robinson (and nobody has put forward a compelling argument to move me off that position). Solid rebounder, decent passer, very poised for his age. However, his real skill is scoring the basketball and he does have a hell of a lot of different ways of doing THAT.

I think his skill set is made more of than it is because of the marketing machine behind him, because he’s a young cat with a bright future, and because he was in the same draft class as LeBron and thus is compared to him all the time. It’s really unfortunate in many ways because Anthony is a great player who should never be compared to LeBron and who would look a lot better when put next to players he’s actually like”¦INSTEAD of LeBron.

This season is going to be a really interesting one for Anthony. Things seem to be in place for him to explode into the vaunted “Dominique Wilkins” category, leaving the “Glen Robinson” category behind forever. The question is going to be if he has the mental toughness to take his game up to that level”¦.and if his team construction/philosophy will allow it.

Playing real defense would be nice too.

6) Richard Jefferson-

Tough to know if Richard Jefferson built himself into the player he was, or if he opened the Willy Wonka door-to-the-goodies and simply became the player that was already inside. Certainly I don’t think one could have predicted how good he’d be upon graduating from college into the pro’s. (Or at least I didn’t).

His offensive game has really come around in recent years to the point that he could be a go-to guy on most teams. He’ll have to share that role with Vince Carter, for now, and it will be fun to see what this team is like when Vince moves on to Disneyworld and Jefferson is left behind as the only major scorer on the team.

I give Jefferson a ton of credit for finding a way to work with Carte’s game, and for becoming a much better offensive partner for Jason Kidd than I think could have been expected early on. Some players would not have handled Carte’s arrival very well”¦.either psychologically or in game-adaptation. Jefferson was able to do it and it’s real credit to him that he has.

7) Josh Howard-

This next grouping of players was really hard to rank. Josh Howard, Reshard Lewis, Ron Artest, Gerald Wallace, Teyshawn Prince. All of them are improving players (except Artest), and all of them are very big keys to their teams’ fortunes. Last year I would have ranked this group totally different than I did this season, but what I’m taking into account isn’t necessarily what they look like today”¦but how they are going to look by season’s end.

Josh Howard is clearly on a forward trajectory. Like Richard Jefferson, he has improved almost every aspect of his game since he came into the league. Unlike Jefferson, I’m more sure that Howard’s rise was because of hard work than because he finally found a game hidden inside him.

His move to the starting lineup was the single biggest improvement that the Mavs have made over the years because it provided the team with a player that gave it certain skills that nobody else on the team really had. He’s improved his offensive game because of a more consistent jumper, and his rebounding has always been way above average”¦especially considering he sometimes gets inconsistent minutes.

8) Ron Artest-

Today Artest is probably a better player than Howard. His defense everyone knows is fantastic; he takes opponents totally out of their game and the rule changes toward less contact don’t seem to have impacted him as I thought they would. That, of course, is a credit to Artest’s ability.

Obviously, he’s mentally unbalanced and that causes a problem for any team willing to have him because you never ever know where this kid’s head is at. There has GOT to be something unsettling about playing every day with a guy who is essentially the “Sonny Corleone” of the NBA.

9) Reshard Lewis-

I have to give credit to Reshard Lewis for one thing: he isn’t a sissy anymore. Early in his career the guy was squishy soft and his offensive game really highlighted that fact. His defensive game was no gem either but lots of guys hide on defense.

Lewis has really diversified his offensive game as the years have gone on and at this point I really view Lewis as an underrated player. He seems to be brining the disparate parts of his game together into an all-star caliber offensive threat. It’s going to be interesting to see how he fares this season. He’s surrounded by more talent than he has in awhile, but he’s also on a team that clearly doesn’t get that it isn’t as good as it thinks it is”¦.I’m talking about management at this point. Lewis was clearly frustrated by last season and how he internalized that frustration is going to be interesting to see.

I think it’s entirely possible that Lewis comes out on a mission this season to improve his teams’ fortune. Another level of aggression would serve Lewis well on a team that seems way too laid back to be a serious contender for much of anything at all. In a way Lewis is at the same career crossroads as Carmelo Anthony.

10) Gerald Wallace-

I don’t know whose rainbow Gerald Wallace pissed on, but this guy just can’t seem to stay healthy for any length of time. I’m putting Wallace at SF because while I THINK he’s going to play SG, he might not. It does count for something that he played SF last year.

It’s been nice to see Wallace’s breakout. I lived in Sacramento when he was on the Kings and you could tell that there was something special about this guy. Why the normally astute Geoff Petrie let him go in an expansion draft”¦.I’ll never know, but it was coup for Bernie Bickerstaff. During his Sacramento days all he showed off was an amazing ability to dunk the ball, however, you could see there was more there mold if only he cared to do it. Clearly he has cared.

As mentioned before what stands in the way of him taking off to the next level is his ability to get through a season without needed a full time medical team around him 24/7. I guess some has theorized that his injury problems stem from his aggressive style of play, but I don’t buy into that. I think it would be a huge mistake for him to alter his style in any way and I would instead look at ways to improve his strength and flexibility.

It’s a real shame this guy may never live up to his amazing potential, but I do really root for this kid because he’s made him (or found within himself) a hell of a player.

Thank you again for joining IP as we preview the upcoming season. I’ll be back soon with a preview of the top 10 PF’s heading into the 2006-07 season.