Of all the positions in basketball, small forward is seen as the most versatile and unique. They are the jack of all trades position in basketball. In the 60s and 70s, wings were used to complement the power of an all-time great guard and/or big man. Small forwards weren’t the stars of the show as often as they are today, because only recently has the sport of basketball placed a larger priority on putting unique versatile players in the best possible situation to succeed. Since small forwards have the most well-rounded blend of size, athleticism, and skills, they can be put anywhere and do just about anything. The capabilities of wings haven’t changed but their role and value to a team has. It’s for this reason that this list is perhaps the toughest to order of them all.
- John Havlicek | Years: 1963-1978 Teams: Boston Celtics
John Havlicek is most famous for his game-clinching steal in game seven of the 1965 ECF against the 76ers. That play truly marked the beginning of his peak. Havlicek joined the already dominant Bill Russell-lead Celtics teams in the early 60s and began as a role player. Slowly but surely Havlicek became the number two player on the back half of the Celtics’ 60s rings. After Russell faded away into the sunset and retired, Havlicek was the main man. From 1967-74, Havlicek averaged 24 PPG, seven RPG, and six APG on 44% from the field. Hondo brilliantly transitioned from a complimentary piece into the primary creator for Boston. This was most evident by his stark increase in minutes during the 1970-72 seasons. In that two-season time frame, Havlicek played 45 MPG and took nearly 25 shots during those minutes. Predictably, his scoring volume ballooned 28 points, but his efficiency also showed a slight uptick to 45%, two percent higher than his career average. The rises in his production proved how Hondo could thrive in many different roles and be a versatile NBA great.
- Rick Barry | Years: 1966-1980 Teams: San Francisco/Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets
The king of the underhand free throw, Rick Barry had far more than an awkward but effective routine at the foul line. He lit the league on fire in his first two seasons, with 30 PPG and 10 RPG on 44.6% shooting. This included a league-leading 35 points a night in the 1967 season. Then Barry transferred to the ABA where his scoring greatness continued. He produced two 30 PPG seasons out of four in the ABA, and was arguably at the peak of his powers. Like other greats, Barry’s stats took a bit of a dip when he shifted back to the NBA for the rest of his career in the early 70s. However, in the following six seasons Barry was still a 24 PPG scorer on 45% shooting. The Miami Greyhound also averaged 6 rebounds and assists in his prime NBA years. His free throw routine got results – Barry is one of the top shooters from the charity stripe in league history. He led the league in free throw shooting percentage and shot over 90% seven times. Barry is also in the record books for the second highest NBA Finals PPG average of 40.8 in 1967 and won Finals MVP in 1975.
- Dominique Wilkins | Years: 1983-1999 Teams: Atlanta Hawks, LA Clippers, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic
Few players have reached the heights (literally and figuratively) that Dominique Wilkins did on the basketball court. Wilkins was first and foremost a beautiful dunker. His vertical explosion off of either one or two feet was special as he regularly took off from uncanny angles and still dunked the ball with authority. He was called the human highlight film for a reason. But cool dunks were just the start of his skills. Wilkins combined special vertical athleticism with a massive frame. He had enough speed with the ball in his hands to be an unstoppable force attacking downhill. All this resulted in Wilkins sustaining elite levels of slashing and finishing ability which powered his crazy numbers. Over a 10-year sample size from 1985-94, Wilkins averaged 28 PPG and seven RPG on 54% TS. This production is extremely impressive for a player like Wilkins whose main trait was his athleticism, a trait that declined over time. Wilkins sustained excellent production into his mid 30’s. This shows how he developed high-level skills to pair with his once-in-a-generation athleticism.
- Elgin Baylor | Years: 1959-1972 Teams: Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers
One of the NBA’s first superstar players, Elgin Baylor was a statistical beast and a player ahead of his time. Baylor dominated from the first time he stepped on an NBA floor in 1959. In his first game, he put up 25 points on 10/21 from the field and added 13 rebounds. His rookie campaign saw Baylor average that much, 25 PPG and 15 RPG. To say Baylor took the league by storm was an understatement – he was one of the best players in the league right away. Motormouth went on to tear up the early NBA even more in the next four seasons, averaging an astonishing 34 PPG and 17 RPG on 43.5% shooting. This was Baylor’s peak and it’s one of the more impressive four-year pure box score stat lines in the league’s 75-year history. Baylor was seen as a “playoff choker” because he went 0-8 in the NBA Finals but the evidence doesn’t support this false narrative. In reality, The Big Hurt produced over 30 PPG points in four playoff runs from 1960-63 and averaged 38 PPG in two of those runs. He was a playoff riser in most years and an absolute scoring machine before the modern game arose.
- Scottie Pippen | Years: 1988-2004 Teams: Chicago Bulls, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets
Look into any of Batman & Robin’s victories together and you will see that, while the bulk of the credit and fame goes to Batman, the job wouldn’t get done without Robin. The same can be said for the adventures of the 90’s Bulls in which Scottie Pippen served as the Robin to MJ’s Batman. Pippen made a difference right away for the Bulls, becoming their top defender and assister while being the second-best rebounder and scorer on the team. On offense, he averaged 20 PPG, seven RPG, and six APG on 55% TS for his roughly eight-year prime. Not exactly superstar status offensively, but we all know that’s not where Pippen’s best talents lie. Pippen has a case to be the best non-big defender ever. Truly a nightmare for his own position, Pippen was a word-class wing stopper while actively shutting down guards and bigs too. He had the light feet to shadow his man matched with the flexibility and reach to snatch any ball or steal any pass. More than anything it was his off-ball defensive instincts on help rotations at the rim that elevated his value on that end to unusual heights for a wing.