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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Greatest Power Forwards of All-Time

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 4/12/07; it has been updated to include statistics from the 2006-07 season

NBA fans may very well be watching the greatest player to ever play his position. No, this is not another log on the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant fire--this is about Tim Duncan, who is building an impressive case to be considered the greatest power forward of all-time. One contender for that title recently threw in the towel. Near the end of last season, TNT’s Charles Barkley conceded that, although he does not like to admit that anyone is better than he was, Duncan will probably go down as the greatest power forward of all-time. Barkley rates himself and Karl Malone next in the pecking order.

Duncan just completed his tenth season and he turned 31 on April 25, so if he avoids a serious injury he could play at a reasonably high level for several more years--and his resume already compares well with the great power forwards from previous eras. Other than free throw shooting, it is hard to find fault with Duncan’s game: he scores, rebounds, passes, shoots a good percentage from the field, has won two MVPs, has been on the All-Defensive Team every season of his career and has led his team to four championships, winning the Finals MVP three times. For most of his career he has been paired with another 7-footer who guarded opposing centers, but Duncan is big enough and skilled enough to defend centers--even Shaquille O’Neal from time to time. Duncan can score on the block with an array of moves but he also has a good face up game.

Duncan’s combination of individual statistical achievement with team success is very reminiscent of what Bob Pettit did during his career. Pettit averaged 26.4 ppg and 16.2 rpg, the third best rebounding average of all-time, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He led the St. Louis Hawks to the 1958 championship--beating Russell’s Boston Celtics, the last team to do so before Boston won eight straight titles--won two MVP awards and made the All-NBA First Team 10 times. Pettit was the first NBA player to score more than 20,000 points. He did not weigh nearly as much as modern power forwards do but his accomplishments speak for themselves; put the 1950s Pettit in a time machine, give him six months or so to put on some weight and he would still be a great player.

Dolph Schayes was the NBA’s first great power forward. He held the NBA’s career scoring record before Pettit broke it. Schayes was an excellent all around threat who could score, rebound, pass and bury outside shots long before the advent of the three point line. He led the Syracuse Nationals to the 1955 title and earned six All-NBA First Team selections during his career. Like Pettit, Schayes did not weigh nearly as much as today’s power forwards do. Schayes and Pettit set the standard at the power forward position for many years, though, and for that reason alone they will always rank among the all-time greats, just like George Mikan--undersized by today’s standards--has to be on the short list of all-time great centers based on his performance against his contemporaries.

Jerry Lucas and Dave DeBusschere entered the NBA in the 1960s, retired after the 1973-74 season, won a title as teammates with the 1972-73 New York Knicks and scored exactly the same number of points during their NBA careers (14,053). Lucas was a tremendous rebounder--his 15.6 rpg average ranks fourth all-time--who could also nail outside shots. He twice averaged 20-plus ppg and 20-plus rpg in the same season; Chamberlain (10 times), Pettit (once) and Nate Thurmond (once) are the only other NBA players to average 20-20 for an entire season. DeBusschere was a fine scorer and rebounder but his calling card was his tremendous ability as a defensive player. He made the All-Defensive First Team six straight times and that total would have been larger had the award been presented during the early part of his career.

Elvin Hayes was much maligned during his career for his shot selection and for allegedly disappearing in clutch moments, but he won a championship in 1978 with the Washington Bullets and a glance at his numbers shows that he belongs on any list of great power forwards: 21.0 ppg and 12.5 rpg in 16 seasons. An incredibly durable player, he only missed nine games and he held the career record for minutes played when he retired. Blocked shots were not officially recorded until his sixth season, but Hayes ranked among the league leaders for eight straight years. Hayes won the scoring title as a rookie and led the league in minutes played four times.

Kevin McHale’s scoring and rebounding numbers do not look overwhelming when compared to the other great power forwards; he spent some of his early years as a sixth man and was limited by injuries in the latter part of his career--but in the mid-1980s McHale was virtually unguardable. In 1987 and 1988 he led the league in field goal percentage, shooting .604 both times, but he also shot .836 and .797 from the free throw line during those seasons; there is not much that can be done defensively against someone who shoots that well from both the field and the free throw line. McHale teamed with Larry Bird and Robert Parish to form perhaps the greatest frontcourt in NBA history, winning three championships in a six year period.

Charles Barkley is the freak of nature among the great power forwards--listed at 6-6 but in reality barely 6-5, he was able to consistently score against and outrebound opponents who were much taller. His career numbers are actually equal to or better than Duncan’s in many categories--but the difference between Barkley and Duncan is the impact that Duncan has on the defensive end of the court, which then translates into the ability to lead a team to a championship. Barkley has stated that if he has one regret about his career it is that he did not focus enough on defense. Of course, even if he had done so he still could not have had the impact as a shot blocker and intimidator that the much taller Duncan has had.

Karl Malone is second to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time scoring list and he won two MVPs. His numbers, his amazing durability and the fact that his career only recently ended probably make him the choice of many fans as the greatest power forward of all-time. Certainly, a compelling case can be made on his behalf based on his statistics—but two numbers argue powerfully against him: 0 and .463. The first number is how many championships he won and the second number is his career playoff field goal percentage. Field goal percentages tend to go down in the postseason because the competition is tougher but Malone’s drop is staggering. He shot .516 in the regular season. Pettit shot .436 in the regular season and .418 in the playoffs (shooting percentages were lower overall in those days). Duncan has shot .509 and .507, which is quite remarkable and goes a long way toward explaining why Duncan has won four titles and Malone did not win any.

Duncan’s contemporaries Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki also deserve to be mentioned among the great power forwards of all-time. Garnett has won an MVP and has captured four straight rebounding titles; statistically, his game is impeccable but unless he leads a team to a title his numbers will seem somewhat tainted--every other power forward in this group made at least one trip to the NBA Finals and most of those players were the dominant force on their teams. Garnett, despite all of his accomplishments, has not been able to use his individual skills to lift his team into contender status. Perhaps he is a victim of circumstance, but every other great power forward before him has a better track record in this regard so Garnett’s lack of postseason success cannot just be ignored. He is now paired with All-Stars Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in Boston, so Garnett will have an opportunity to complete the one blank space on his resume.

Nowitzki seems to be just moving into his prime. He led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2005-06 and won his first MVP last season. Nowitzki is not quite the rebounder that his great predecessors were but he is a very unique offensive threat because of his ability to handle the ball and drain three point shots. Defense will never be his strong suit, but under Coach Avery Johnson’s tutelage Nowitzki has shown an increasing willingness to use his height and length at that end of the court; he is also a very good defensive rebounder.

Greatest Power Forwards of All-Time

Player.. Points.. PPG..Reb. .. RPG..Ast. .. APG.. FG%.. FT%.. NBA Titles.. MVPs
All-NBA 1st Team

Dolph Schayes* ..19247.. 18.2.. 11256 ..NA.. 3072 ..NA ..NA.. .843.. 1 ..0
Bob Pettit.. 20880.. 26.4.. 12851.. 16.2.. 2369..3.0.. .436.. .761.. 1..2
Jerry Lucas..14053..17.0..12942..15.6..2730..3.3.. .499.. .783.. 1..0
Dave DeBusschere..14053..16.1.. 9618.. 11.0.. 2497.. 2.9.. .432.. .699..2..0
Elvin Hayes..27313..21.0..16279..12.5..2398..1.8.. .452.. .670.. 1..0
Kevin McHale..17335..17.9..7122..7.3..1670..1.7.. .554.. .798..3..0
Charles Barkley..23757..22.1..12546..11.7..4215..3.9.. .541.. .735..0..1
Karl Malone..36928..25.0..14968..10.1..5248..3.6.. .516.. .742..0..2
Kevin Garnett..19041..20.5..10542..11.4..4146..4.5.. .491.. .780..0..1
Tim Duncan..16288..21.8..8865..11.9..2365..3.2.. .509.. .680..4..2
Dirk Nowitzki..15173..22.3..5842..8.6..1784..2.6.. .470.. .869..0..1

Players listed in chronological order

* Statistics for Schayes are incomplete because rebounds, assists
and field goals attempted were not tracked during every season
of his career

posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 PM



At Sunday, September 30, 2007 8:24:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Strangely enough, it seems to me that the Power Forward position is much more thin when it comes to All-Time players than the Small Forward position.

I'm guessing you're counting Bob McAdoo as a C rather than a PF.

How would you rate some other PF's who didn't accumulate the amount of honors and stats that the guys on your list did, but may have stacked up well in their peaks? I'm thinking of Gus Johnson, Maurice Lucas, George McGinnis, Spencer Haywood, Dennis Rodman (arguably a SF).

At Monday, October 01, 2007 2:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The question of position designation reminds me of one of my favorite anecdotes from the 1970s. After his Bullets lost a playoff game, Elvin Hayes said that the team needed more production from the center position. When Wes Unseld, the target of Hayes' barb, heard that, he retorted that Hayes would know since Hayes was the team's center! We see a similar kind of discussion today about whether Duncan is a power forward or a center--but he is designated as a forward and the team always has started a 7-footer alongside him who could not be considered anything but a center.

McAdoo's best days came when he was in Buffalo. He played center for that team and that was how he was listed on the All-NBA squads during those years. Yes, when he played for the Lakers he swung between forward and center but when he put up superstar numbers he was without question playing center.

Johnson, M. Lucas, McGinnis, Haywood and Rodman were all high quality players. My list consisted of the three top current power forwards, each of whom has won at least one MVP and each of whom will eventually be inducted in the HoF (I'm not as high on KG as some other people are but I realize that he is going to be inducted in the HoF). The seven retired players that I selected for comparison purposes are all HoFers and/or members of the 50 Greatest Players List. Perhaps one could make a case that one or more of the players you mentioned should be ranked higher than the guys on my list. Johnson was a super talent and elsewhere on this site you can find my article about his great rivalry with DeBusschere. Injuries prevented him from having the sustained run as an elite player that some of these other players did. Maurice Lucas was tremendous but I honestly would not take him over anyone on my list; he would be in my next group of 10 power forwards. McGinnis had the talent to be an all-time great but his prime was pretty short and once his physical skills diminished a bit he declined quickly because he never really worked on his game to the extent that the most elite players do; when he was young and physically powerful he was great but he had no "plan B," unlike other players who were able to adjust and adapt as age set in. Haywood's another guy whose prime did not last very long. "Unique" is an overused word but Rodman was truly a unique player; he almost disdained scoring but he was a very useful offensive player because of his offensive rebounding, his underrated passing and his understanding of how to be effective without the ball (cutting, screening, etc.). At his peak he could guard any position on the court, though he spent most of his time guarding forwards. We all know about his uncanny ability as a rebounder. Rodman's personal winning percentage during his career is fantastic and might even exceed MJ's (I don't have those numbers handy at the moment). Still, I don't think that you could really build a team around Rodman the way that you could around most if not all of the guys on my list. Granted, Jerry Lucas and Dave DeBusschere were never the focal points of their teams, although they both scored much more than Rodman while also being excellent rebounders--but the other eight guys on my list either won MVPs or clearly played at an MVP level at some point during their careers. Rodman was, as I said, truly unique. He has to rank among the top power forwards of all-time but it is not easy to figure out exactly where to place him because of his total lack of interest in scoring. Maybe he should be 10B from this group or 11B in the next group of 10.

At Thursday, February 02, 2012 1:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that Karl Malone is the best PF of all time. His career averages are higher, his best season is better, and he was all around the better player. You point out that his teams never won a championship, but that is because of one reason: Michael Jordan. Tim Duncan has never had to compete against Michael Jordan, nor did he ever compete against Malone in Malone's heyday. If Malone has been in his prime in the years that Duncan was in his, we would have seen the Jazz winning four rings.

At Thursday, February 02, 2012 4:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


There are plenty of reasons to doubt that Karl Malone is the greatest power forward of all-time. Malone's field goal percentage declined precipitously in postseason play and he did not have nearly the same impact at the defensive end of the court as Duncan. Malone was a highly productive regular season player but I would not take him over Duncan.


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