It wouldn’t be an NBA season without a smattering of arguments, and no discussion has raged more fiercely this year than the ranking of power forwards. The battle lines are drawn among two major camps: those who support Kevin Love’s candidacy, and those who back LaMarcus Aldridge. Blake Griffin gets some periphery consideration, too, though much of the evidence in his favor seems hypothetical at best. It’s certainly a fascinating conversation that centers on a variety of factors.*
*Though he’s probably not quite on the level of Love or Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki should be getting more love as well. Time marches on, yet Dirk remains outstanding, putting up his numbers since his Dallas Mavericks won the title in 2011. Long live Dirk.
Love seems to be the clear-cut favorite, though he’s by no means a unanimous choice. Certain factions hold the Minnesota Timberwolves’ relative lack of success against him, especially when compared to the surprising results attained by the Portland Trail Blazers to this point. Defense is a muddied subject, but Aldridge is likely the better defender. The value of Love’s three-point shooting relative to Aldridge’s mid-range consistency is somewhat of a flash point. Both offenses run largely through their respective power forwards in the post, yet Portland’s flow system and Minnesota’s corner offense call for different decisions and skill sets from similar positions on the floor.
But there’s a caveat that hovers over the “Best Power Forward” dialogue, a looming shadow that threatens to cast the entire tête-à-tête in unimpeachable darkness. To speak of the Love vs. Aldridge contest (and Griffin, too) starts and ends with the declaration that LeBron James is excluded from the power forward categorization.
Unfortunately, that’s an unrealistic supposition. James is undoubtedly a power forward, and he’s certainly the best of the best in that positional grouping. His credentials speak for themselves; the only qualification necessary is whether or not he is indeed a four. And on that level, there’s both a specific and general argument in his favor.
On a team level, James is Miami’s power forward. According to Basketball-Reference’s advanced play-by-play for the 2012-13 season, James played 82% of his regular season minutes at the four; in the postseason, that number jumped to 92%. As the Heat have adopted small-ball as their default setting, committing fully to pace-and-space and their chaos defense, they’ve almost entirely abandoned playing two traditional big guys at the same time. This season, the large majority of James’s minutes have come with him as the second biggest guy on the floor for Miami, with Chris Bosh playing center. While Shane Battier often takes on the task of defending the other team’s power forward (and there’s an argument to be made that you are what you guard), Battier’s willingness and ability to defend players larger than he in order is simply a mechanism to save wear and tear on James and enable him to be the omnipresent terror opponents fear. That by no means makes him any less of a power forward, and when the game does necessitate LeBron defending a four, he holds them to a well below average PER, via 82games.com. In essence, Battier is a wing with the ability to defend fours, and James vice-versa.
On offense, James is infinitely more likely than Battier to have the ball in the post. And it’s that offensive flexibility that truly makes the case for James as a power forward in the current context of the league; he’s both the prototypical and perfect stretch four for the modern NBA. He possesses classic power forward size and strength, capable of bullying defenders in the paint, playing with his back to the basket or getting to the rim seemingly at will. On the flip side, over 20% of his field goal attempts this year are from deep, and he hits 3s at a 40% clip since improving his jumper and outside shot selection. He’s a mad man’s combination of Karl Malone and Ray Allen, an unattainable ideal for a position in flux that puts more and more emphasis on being able to play on the perimeter with every passing game.
The arguments against LeBron James as a power forward are reasonable, indeed. For the vast portion of his career, he’s been a small forward. Until last season with the Heat, it was easily the most common position he’d played in both Cleveland and Miami. Beyond that, it seems somewhat short-sighted to proclaim James any position, let alone power forward. Where positionality has become a moving target in a league increasingly focused on putting the best possible combination of players and skill sets together, James stands as the shining example of the superfluous nature of positional labels. Depending on the context, he’s a point shooting small power forward capable of switching onto centers and doing a fair job of defending them. The position that LeBron James plays is LeBron James, the best position there is.
And, not for nothing, James’s supreme domination across various roles and positions can make for fairly reductive arguments. It’s not very fun if every discussion of the best player in a given situation circles back to the same answer. To declare Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge the best power forward in the league “if we assume LeBron isn’t a power forward” is simply a tacit acknowledgement of that fact, even if it’s not openly stated.
So yes, James has largely played small forward for his career. Yes, Shane Battier often defends opposing power forwards. And yes, the conversation can get a little stagnant when LeBron is the answer to every question. But at this moment in space and time, LeBron James is the power forward for the defending world champions. And he’s the best damned power forward in the NBA.
Statistical support courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, nba.com/stats and 82games.com