Are We Witnessing the End of NBA Small Forwards?

The Warriors have found success playing their small forwards at power forward. Is this the future?

The way the Golden State Warriors have built their roster under GM Bob Myers is changing the NBA -– teams like the Milwaukee Bucks are trying to do a similar thing in the East, building around lengthy, do-it-all wings who basically have no weakness. Small-ball became big in Miami under Erik Spoelstra, but it seems like it’s being perfected in Golden State. Putting maximum shooting on the floor without a huge sacrifice on defense is the recipe for success in 2015.

When a team goes small, they’re generally slotting in an extra guard to get outside shooting. This means that the team’s “small forward” typically shifts up into the “power forward” role. If that player can hold his own on defense –- Harrison Barnes is a good example of this, as he has done a great job of battling guys like Zach Randolph when the Warriors go small –- the payoff is enormous on the other end, as the spacing becomes impossible to guard.

Although they’ve only played four minutes together in the Finals, the lineup with Barnes at the four and Draymond Green at the five has been unstoppable, posting a Net Rating of 89.2. The Warriors have essentially the same numbers when you switch out Barnes for Andre Iguodala. Interestingly, the Cavaliers have played a small-ball lineup four minutes themselves -– Dellavedova, Shumpert, LeBron, Jones, and Mozgov –- and found success, outscoring them 17-4 in that span.

The success of these lineups (and lineups like these all year) brings up an interesting question about positions: are all small forwards better off as power forwards? The NBA is slowly losing positions –- that’s what happens when LeBron comes into the league and becomes both the best post-up player in the world, as well as the best point guard in the world.

Skill-sets matter, not positions.

And it seems that the ability to guard a forward on the defensive end while stretching the floor on the offensive end is an increasingly coveted skill. The bigger small forwards –- and they’re getting increasingly bigger as the years progress –- can pull off this balance. It will certainly be interesting to see if some of the younger small forwards like Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and even soon-to-be guys like Justise Winslow will eventually find more success as the four alongside a rim-protecting center.

This makes things interesting for a team like the Jazz. Would a potential lineup of, say, Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Hayward, and Rudy Gobert find success long-term? This isn't to say Derrick Favors doesn’t have a place, but more that getting an extra couple of guards and wings might be more important than picking up a backup big man. Perhaps Gobert, Favors, and Hayward should be thought of as their best big men.

The NBA is certainly changing, as it always does when a team wins a title doing things a different way than anyone has done them in the past. The Warriors have found a lot of success playing their small forwards at power forward, and we’ll likely see more of this out of the rest of the league next season. We might be witnessing the beginning of the end of the NBA small forward.