Top Five Power Forwards of All-Time

Top Five Power Forwards
SAN ANTONIO, UNITED STATES: Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs takes off upcourt after grabbing a rebound in first half of NBA action versus the Sacramento Kings at SBC Center in San Antonio, Texas, 08 December 2002. AFP PHOTO/Paul BUCK (Photo credit should read PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)

USA Basketball defines the power forward position as an excellent rebounder, careful with the ball, ability to hit open shots and a “spark who’s capable of making a big play for the team” (USA Basketball). The position has evolved from when William R. Chase scored the first and only basket in the inaugural game to Karl Malone scoring 36,928 career points to the stretch-fours in today’s NBA. Yet, with all of this evolution, the position has maintained those main components making it possible to rank the top five power forwards of all time.

In addition to defining the position, defining the metrics to compare players across generations is imperative. There will five main categories each player will be graded from – scoring, playmaking, defending, rebounding, and impact – with subset categories to attempt to give an all-encompassing evaluation. Of these subset categories, they will be split into the regular season and playoff statistics with the playoff statistics holding more weight due to the elevated play.

The Greatest Power Forwards of All-Time

Players Being Considered

Firstly, the players being considered for this are Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Kevin McHale, Dolph Schayes, Dave DeBusschere, Elvin Hayes, and Bob Pettit.

Top Scoring Power Forwards

Mastering the ability to put a ball into the hoop is an important skill. The difference in being a good scorer and an all-time great scorer often lies in the efficiency and different ways in doing so.

Karl Malone cemented himself as not only one of the best scoring power forwards, but as one of the best scoring players of all-time. Currently, he sits at second all-time with 36,928 points (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ranks first with 38,387). Malone scored it efficiently from the low block and from the free-throw line. Charles Barkley was more efficient (Barkley shot 54 percent overall, had a true shooting percentage of 61 and a 56 effective field goal percentage compared to Malone’s 52 percent, 58 percent, and 52 percent) but simply didn’t have the shot attempts nor the longevity. Barkley played 403 fewer games than Malone and took 10,605 fewer shots. If Barkley played as long as and took as many shots as Malone he would have finished his career with roughly 39,900 points, which would make him the highest-scoring player ever.

In complete contrast to Malone and Barkley, a seven-foot power forward from Germany revolutionized how a big could play offensively. Dirk Nowitzki mastered the ability to score at all three levels – meaning around the rim, in the midrange, and from the three-point line. His unique training style and pace of play made it a nightmare for defenders. His unique ability is what brings him to a close third to Malone and Barkley, with Tim Duncan in his sights.

Top Five Scoring Power Forwards

  1. Karl Malone
  2. Charles Barkley
  3. Dirk Nowitzki
  4. Tim Duncan
  5. Bob Pettit/Kevin McHale

Top Five Playmaking Power Forwards

Scoring is typically the first place a fan will look to determine a player’s ability. However, the skill to make the players around you better can be a far more difficult skill to master. The evolution of the position has led to more playmaking opportunities, giving the more recently retired players the advantage.

Unsurprisingly, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan finished in the top three of playmakers. Garnett’s time with the Minnesota Timberwolves found him running the entire offense through him giving him plentiful opportunities to be a playmaker. Duncan landed in a continuity offense that is predicated on player movement and ball movement, which leads to a lot of assists from a lot of different players. Both Garnett and Duncan have very high basketball IQs to allow for such playmaking ability.

A somewhat of a surprise in the playmaking ranks was Charles Barkley. He led with a career average of 3.9 assists per game and second in assist rate (17 percent). Barkley built a reputation as a strong, powerful player that grabs every rebound and finishes with authority around the rim. In reality – all of that is true – he was a player that could make teammates better through his playmaking.

Top Five Playmaking Power Forwards

  1. Kevin Garnett
  2. Charles Barkley
  3. Tim Duncan
  4. Karl Malone
  5. Dirk Nowitzki

Top Five Rebounding Power Forwards

The traditional staple to an effective power forward. Less of a skill and more of the desire to go get the ball. A couple names the casual basketball fan may not know but were dominated in rebounding, are Bob Pettit and Elvin Hayes. Pettit played from 1954 – 1965, where he accumulated 12,849 rebounds (18th all-time) and ended with a career average of 16.2 rebounds per game. He was ahead of his time with size and athleticism, helping him dominate the glass.

Elvin Hayes’ longevity (16 seasons) and rarely ever missing a game (played in 82 games eight seasons and never played less than 80) assisted him in reaching 4th all-time in total rebounds (16,279). His length and power dominated the 1970’s and early 80’s. Hayes finished his career having won rebounding champ twice and averaging 12.5 rebounds per game over 1,303 games.

Despite the dominance Pettit and Hayes showed during their respective eras, two names remain untouched in the ability to rebound the ball on both sides of the floor. Tim Duncan and Charles Barkley. Duncan rebounded 26.5 percent of available defensive rebounds in his career, meaning one out of every (less than) four shots were falling into Duncan’s hand in every game he’s ever played. Barkley dominated the offensive side of the glass, grabbing on average four offensive rebounds per game.

Top Five Rebound Power Forwards

  1. Tim Duncan
  2. Charles Barkley
  3. Bob Pettit
  4. Elvin Hayes
  5. Karl Malone

Top Five Defensive Power Forwards

Starting in the 1973-74 season, blocks and steals were officially recorded as stats. Admittedly, with limited film and statistics, it is difficult to give a fair evaluation for Bob Pettit, Dave DeBusschere, Dolph Schayes, and to a lesser extent Elvin Hayes. Factoring in defensive win shares – a formula to credit a player’s defensive impact based on the team’s success with them on the court – defensive rebounds, and personal fouls, the top defensive power forwards are Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.

Duncan and Garnett anchored their respective teams on the defensive end. Both could protect the rim (Duncan – 3,020 career blocks, Garnett – 2,037 career blocks) and step out to the perimeter when called upon. Their ability to navigate ball-side action, while also creating a shot-blocking presence from the weak side puts them in a tier above every other power forward to play the game.

Top Five Defensive Power Forwards

  1. Tim Duncan
  2. Kevin Garnett
  3. Bob Pettit
  4. Dave DeBusschere
  5. Charles Barkley

Top Five Most Impactful Power Forwards

Quantifying impact through the lens of statistical analysis across seven decades is imperfect and difficult. However, the utilization of statistics like win shares, offensive win shares, defensive win shares, and win shares per 48 minutes allows for a consistent evaluation tool. The variation of the win share statistic measures how impactful a player was offensively, defensively, overall, and if they were to play an entire game. Offensively, it examines points produced through scoring or assisting in relation to possessions. Defensively, it examines points given up both while playing and not playing. Overall combines the two and win shares per 48 minutes extrapolates out their average minutes to 48.

As the theme has been throughout this article, Tim Duncan led in essentially each category and ranked first in every playoff category. His impact on both sides of the floor was transcendent. Karl Malone and Dirk Nowitzki weren’t far behind. Malone and Nowitzki’s greatness offensively made up for any average impact defensively.

Top Five Most Impactful Power Forwards

  1. Tim Duncan
  2. Karl Malone
  3. Dirk Nowitzki
  4. Charles Barkley
  5. Kevin Garnett

Top Five Power Forwards of All-Time

In conclusion, to be the best of all-time at a position requires greatness in multiple aspects. Dominating the low post offensively will earn All-Star appearances, All-NBA awards, possibly an MVP. But, only dominating the low post will fall short of the greatest power forward of all-time. With that in mind, the final ranking of the top-five power forwards in NBA History is:

  1. Tim Duncan – 5 NBA Championships, 3 Finals MVPs, 2 MVPs, 15 All-NBA, 15 All-Defensive
  2. Charles Barkley – 1 MVP, 11 All-NBA, 1 Rebounding Champ, 11 All-Star
  3. Karl Malone – 2 MVPs, 14 All-NBA, 4 All-Defensive, 14 All-Star
  4. Kevin Garnett – 1 NBA Championship, 1 MVP, 9 All-NBA, 12 All-Defensive, 1 Defensive Player of the Year
  5. Dirk Nowitzki – 1 NBA Championship, 1 Finals MVP, 1 MVP, 12 All-NBA, 14 All-Star

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  1. Barkley as one of the top five defensive PFs? This is ridiculous, particularly as you left Malone off that list — a player that actually positively effected multiple playoff series with his man-to-man defensive abilities.

    Malone, for instance, held David Robinson to 19 PPG in 1996. Against Phoenix, with Barkley in the prior round, Robinson averaged 30 per game. Now, Barkley wasn’t capable of defending Robinson, but that is also the point: Malone could take on superstar bigs defensively and hold them well below their average in playoff series.

    In 1999 he held Chris Webber to 14 ppg.

    In 1994 he held Robinson to 20 points per game — nearly 10 points below his regular season scoring average.

    In 2004, on a busted leg, Malone held Tim Duncan to 17.5 PPG on 38.3% shooting over the last four games of the Western conference semifinals. The Lakers won all four games.

  2. Malone was also a far better rotational player on defense. This is just one aspect that demonstrates your bias for Barkley, which is outright mendacity in regards to defense.

    Further, this idea that Barkley should be ranked close to Malone on offense by pretending that Malone was only better as far as longevity in that area is also lacking in honesty, particularly as you use broad career stats without looking at the relative decline of the two players as they aged: Barkley’s drop is precipitous, while Malone’s is arguably the most negligible in league history.

    In the last 7 years of Barkley’s career he only shot over 50% once. His efficiency was declining even as his scoring numbers were falling off; this means that, almost certainly, if he had raised his volume his efficiency would have declined further.

    Barkley also only has 5 seasons over 25 PPG. That’s Malone’s career average, and Malone also had a notably higher peak in scoring per game than Barkley: Malone averaged 31 at his peak whereas Barkley’s peak scoring on PPG was 28.3. Malone averaged better than that three times, and over 28 per game four times.

    Malone averaged over 27 per game 7 times. Barkley? 2 times in his career.

    Malone, when considering the toll volume takes on efficiency, was the better scorer. Barkley could not maintain a scoring average over 25 for more than 5 seasons in his career, whereas Malone has a career average of 25 per game…over the course of 19 years.

    These are not minor points. Nor is the fact that Malone expended far more energy on defense than Barkley, which will tax a player offensively.

    Barkley never was great defensively, and certainly was nowhere near Malone’s level on that end. That includes exertion.

    This article is distinctly biased, attempting to give Barkley credit for things he did not do.

    As far as scoring projections, keep in mind that Malone also had a higher career average than Kareem, which — by your standard, not mine — means that we can give him credit as the better all-time scorer by simply projecting his career stats another couple seasons or games.

    As far as Barkley, by the time he retired he was averaging 14.5 PPG on 47% shooting. He was 36.

    That same season, Malone averaged 25.5 PPG on 50% shooting. He was also 36.

    Malone has the most 20ppg seasons on NBA history, tied with Kareem at 17.

    Barkley has 12. And he has 4 seasons under 20.

    Malone has 2 seasons under 20 per game: his first and his last.

    Malone played 19 years, Barkley 16.

    By the age of 33, Barkley never scored 20 per game again. Malone was MVP at that age, averaging 27 per game.

    Malone has Barkley beat in both longevity and peak scoring considerations. Which is even more of a blowout when considering the fact that Malone was an elite defender, focusing a great deal of energy on that end of the floor.

    Again, unlike Barkley.

    Some perspective, please.


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