Although no more important than any of the other positions, a quick look back through the last few teams to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy and you will notice that all of these teams had a top power forward in their lineup. The Spurs have had Tim Duncan, the Heat had Chris Bosh, the Mavs were powered by Dirk Nowitzki, the Celtics had Kevin Garnett and the Lakers had Pau Gasol.
There have been dozens of incredible power forwards over the years, and this is one position that has changed more than any other on the floor. The traditional role of the power forward, or the 4 is similar to a center in that they are positioned on the low block and will typically attack with their back to the basket, but many will also have a mid range shot in their arsenal. They will typically be slightly smaller than a center but bigger than the other positions, and they will possess greater athleticism than a center to enable them to run the floor and use their speed and strength to attack the basket. Along with the center, their rebounding is key and all power forwards must excel in this area. In the modern era, it has become more common for PFs to have good ballhandling skills to lead a fast break or take defenders off the dribble, as well as the ability to step behind the 3-point line to knock down shots. This shooting ability has largely come from the influx of European players, and a PF with this ability is known as a Stretch 4, as they have the ability to stretch defences with their outside threat.
This season there is a crop of highly talented power forwards, with some of these playing the more traditional role whilst some fill the role of Stretch 4’s. With so much talent in the 4 spot around the league, and many of these on potential title contenders, it is worth taking a look at the top power forwards in the league right now and what they are bringing to their teams.
10 Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
It has been a challenging start to the campaign for the Thunder, who have been held back by a number of injuries to players in almost every position and to their stars in particular. This means that they have not quite got going yet, but they have managed to hang around and with key players fit and healthy again they will now look to push above .500 and earn themselves a playoff berth.
Ibaka has been productive despite these troubles, and his physical presence has continued to create problems for opponents on both sides of the ball. Ibaka has also added a new weapon to his arsenal this year, the ability to knock down an open 3. He attempts nearly four a game and is shooting a brilliant 41.7%; this has been huge for the Thunder this year and could be crucial when matching up in the playoffs. In what could be a season changing win against the Warriors, Ibaka had a mammoth performance with 27 points (14 in the 4th on 6-for-7). The teams just ahead are now looking over their shoulders at a Thunder team gathering momentum.
9 Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks have soared to the top of the Eastern Conference and have a league best record after stumbling out of the gate with a 5-5 record. At the time of writing they are riding a 13-game win streak and have lost just 8 games all season; stunning the entire league and leading many to believe that they are genuine contenders. The reasoning for this surge to the top cannot be easily identified, but Paul Millsap’s stellar play has certainly been an integral part of it.
A hard nosed player, opponents know they are in for a physical night when they face off with the Hawks. Millsap has a respectable statline of 16.9 PPG, 7.9 RPG and 3.2 APG, but it is what he does that doesn’t show up in the boxscore which makes him such an intimidating PF. He makes smart plays offensively to help the team, but defensively he is an excellent rebounder and physical presence that contributes to the Hawks excellent defence.
8 Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Things are certainly not going as well as anticipated for the Cavs, who many immediately labelled contenders after bringing elite PF Love in to join Kyrie Irving and LeBron. The team has failed to gel and form an identity, which can’t come as too much of a surprise when you bring in so many new faces and pair this with bringing in a coach with no NBA experience.
His production is down this year, which is to be expected, but he is still chipping in a solid 17.6 PPG and 10.4 RPG and he is clearly still an elite player in the league. It will be interesting to see how the Cavs fare in the second half of the season and if they gel in time for the postseason. Love has proven himself to be one of the best PF’s in recent times with his incredible rebounding despite his size, his post-up game, ability to knock down the 3, brilliant passing ability and high basketball IQ. Despite struggling, he is still one of the top 4’s in the game right now and may take his talents elsewhere this summer.
7 Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies
Zach Randolph has proven to be a handful with each team he has played for, but he now seems to have found a home with the Memphis Grizzlies. He isn’t the tallest PF at 6-foot-9, but he weighs 260 pounds and has a thick frame which he knows how to use to his advantage. He can barrel his way through defenders to attack the basket, but he also has a reliable 18-footer if defenders back off. On the defensive end of the floor he can clog up the middle and is excellent at boxing out to secure defensive rebounds. Paired with Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have one of the most physical and bruising frontcourts in the league.
This year Randolph has averages of 16.7 PPG and 11.9 RPG shooting just under 50%. He has been key to the Grizzlies impressive 29-12 record so far, and they will be hungry to advance in the playoffs where the combination of Gasol and Randolph could be too much for certain teams.
6 Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
The ageless Tim Duncan seems as strong as ever, as his play this season has remained highly impressive and he is still the all important cog for the Spurs. His numbers have hardly fluctuated throughout his career, and this year he is still chipping in a double-double each night with 14.9 PPG and 10.2 RPG, he also averages 2 blocks per game (1 of 3 players to average a double-double plus 2 BPG). It has always been about much more than numbers with Duncan however, as you get the impression that as long as he is playing the Spurs always have a shot at winning thanks to his experience and leadership.
The Spurs have laboured along this season and are 27-16, but expect them to soon make a surge for home court advantage in the playoffs. It is here where Popovich, Duncan and co. excel, and only a fool would count them out of the running. Popovich is known for resting his players during the season so that they will be fresh for the postseason, but even on 30 minutes a game Duncan continues to impress and remains one of the best 4’s in the game.
5 Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls
Gasol’s move to the Bulls this summer has proven to be a smart choice, as the Spaniard is back to his best after a tough few years with the Lakers. He has provided the much needed firepower down low for the Bulls, and his experience and intelligence has also been key in their impressive start. He seems to be the perfect fit, and it will be fascinating to see how the Bulls fare in the postseason now they have a player of Gasol’s calibre to go along with Noah’s presence and defensive abilities.
The 7-feet, 250 pound PF has a fantastic post-up game, can knock down an 18-foot jump shot and has exceptional passing ability and vision for a Big Man. He dropped a career high 46 points in January to go along with 18 boards, a monster performance and proof that he still has what it takes. He averages 18.7 PPG and 11.4 RPG, and with him in the squad the Bulls will be a real handful for any team.
4 Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Anytime a team is set to face the Mavericks their primary concern will be how to shut down Dirk Nowitzki. The big German power forward is still getting it done in his 17th season, averaging 18.7 PPG along with 5.9 RPG and steadily climbing the all-time scorers list. He recently proved he is still ruthless down the stretch, taking over the game and scoring the Mavericks last 8 points in a key victory over the Grizzlies. Surrounded by talent this season, Nowitzki will be desperate to add a second ring to his collection before he retires.
Nowitzki’s outside shooting transformed the position when he entered the league, inspiring an entire generation of Stretch 4’s that are now so common in the NBA. Dirk’s size, shooting ability, arsenal of polished moves and intelligence make him one of the all-time great power forwards and one that is still dominant today.
3 LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trailblazers
Portland has emerged as serious title contenders and one of the elite teams in a fiercely contested Western Conference, with the play of LaMarcus Aldridge being a key factor in this. They are a young and exciting team with Aldridge, Lillard, Batum, Wesley Matthews plus other reliable players, with Aldridge emerging as one of the best PF’s in the game right now.
He plays with his back to the basket and has a signature turn around jumpshot that is unguardable due to his long arms. He also pulls down 10.2 RPG to go along with 23.2 PPG, and has the ability to block or alter shots on the defensive end. Importantly, Aldridge and the Blazers seem to have the right mentality, which is key for a group of young players as they look set for a deep run in the post-season this year. Unfortunately, Aldridge recently suffered a hand injury against the Kings and his return date is unclear.
2 Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin is an absolute monster that seems to get better with each year. We are all aware of his tremendous athleticism and habit of dunking on anyone foolish enough to stand under the basket, but he has now added a dangerous jumpshot to his game too. Due to his driving and finishing ability, defenders lay off of Griffin, but this year he has punished them by knocking down open jumpshots. Crucially, Griffin’s vision and decision making has improved and he is averaging a career high 5 assists this campaign. He has truly evolved from a raw athlete to an intelligent basketball player, and the Clippers look the real deal this year.
To go along with 5 assists, Griffin is putting up 23 PPG and pulling down 7.6 RPG, but just watching one game you will see that Griffin contributes much more than this. He is a hustle player that can lead a fast break and make the right decision, and his strength and quickness create problems on both sides of the ball for opponents. He and Paul run the pick and roll to perfection, but the Clippers have become a much more complete team this year largely thanks to Griffin’s development.
1 Antony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
The potential that Anthony Davis has shown this season has been alarming, and if he continues like this then he will go down as one of the greatest big men to play the game. So far this season he has scored a career high 43 in a remarkable performance where he also pulled down 14 rebounds, and in December he recorded a statline which Hakeem Olajuwon is the only other player to hit all five statistical marks in one game. Davis stuffed the stat-sheet with 25 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals and 4 blocks, proving that he can do it all. For the season he averages 24.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.4 BPG and 1.3 SPG while shooting 56.1% from the floor. At just 21 years old, these are truly remarkable stats and something fans should be excited about.
The towering 6-foot-10 Davis is freakishly athletic and has an incredible wingspan of 7-foot-4, but he is also a very intelligent and unselfish player with terrific timing. He is still developing but can post-up, knock down open jumpshots, lead a fast break, make the smart pass and he excels on the defensive end. With the right guidance, Davis could not just become an elite player but one of the all-time greats. He's the best thing to happen to the New Orleans franchise in quite some time.