In today’s NBA, the power forward position is somewhat in flux. You’ve got power forwards that possess the skills of a center (Amare Stoudemire, Tim Duncan, Elton Brand) and power forwards that would be playing at the small forward or guard positions if it weren’t for their height (Dirk Nowitzki, Antawn Jamison, Rashard Lewis).
Historically, a power forward must carry a big load, both on the scoring end, the rebounding glass and on defense, with rebounding being the first priority for the power forward.
If you’ve got a center with a good low-post game, the power forward should be hanging around on the weak side, ready to grab an offensive board (or better yet, get a tip-in). If the roles are reversed, and the center is more of a defensive player (I’m looking at you, Hasheem Thabeet), then those roles might be reversed.
Kevin Garnett is everything you could ever want from a power forward. He can pull down double-digit rebounds, hit the midrange jumper with frightening consistency, and also possesses the length (it’s rumored he’s over seven feet) to post up centers and forwards alike.
He’s also able to adapt his game to different circumstances, and since he is skilled in so many areas, he can always find ways to be useful.
With the Timberwolves, Garnett was the number-one offensive option, which he was able to do (although it didn’t often translate to postseason success). In Boston, surrounded by scorers in Ray Allen and Paul Pierce (not to mention a true center), Garnett took more responsibility on the defensive end, but still proved more than capable of scoring when needed.
Garnett also possesses a skill that not many big men have, but if they do, they are downright devastating: passing. Garnett averages 4.3 assists per game over his career, and in 2002-03 had 6.0 assists per game.
For someone as offensively skilled as Garnett to be able to pass well, it’s a whole other dimension that big men just don’t have.
Pau Gasol is another big man who can pass well. Sure, he’s been listed at center, and played center in the 2008 Finals, but Gasol is more suited to play power forward.
In fact, there’s a whole group of power forwards that switch between power forward and center, and they are just not suited to be centers. Gasol, Chris Bosh, Stoudemire, all of them would be much better served with a true center playing next to them.
Sure, both Bosh and Stoudemire played alongside centers last year, but they were both named O’Neal, and both are currently at the tail-end of their usefulness.
The problem with playing people like Bosh, Stoudemire and Gasol at center is that they are good jump shooters. And playing a good jump shooter at center handcuffs both the teams and players involved.
See, if the Bosh/Gasol/Stoudemire is playing outside of the paint, then the team loses a significant edge on the interior should they miss their shot. And if they’re staying close to the basket, then their skills aren’t being utilized properly.
That’s not even taking into account the marshmallow-soft defense that particularly Gasol and Stoudemire are known for. A power forward needs to be able to bang bodies with other power forwards and centers. Soft defense from a low-post player results in high-probability shots from the other team.
At the power forward, those defensive and low-post shortcomings are more easily masked, since there is a center who is ostensibly bigger than a power forward to back them up.
Dirk Nowitzki has always been lucky in that regards, as a power forward he has always played with a decent big man, whether it be Erick Dampier or DeSegana Diop in the past few years.
Speaking of Dirk Nowitzki, we began this discussion with Kevin Garnett, the ideal power forward in the last decade, and we’ll finish with Dirk, who has done more to redefine his position than anyone else before him. He’s the one who turned the power forward into a perimeter position, for better or for worse.
Dirk is the reason that teams are constantly on the lookout for the “next Dirk Nowitzki,” a big man who can shoot. It’s why Andrea Bargnani was the no. 1 pick a few years ago (he should be stroking Dirk a royalty check every month), and it’s why someone like Darko Milicic was drafted above Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Bosh.
At 7-feet tall, Dirk is a matchup nightmare for anyone, center or forward. The one-legged fadeaway he has in his arsenal is the most indefensible shot since Kareem’s sky-hook. His point of release is about more than a foot over his already 7-foot frame, and almost no one has the combination of size, speed and length to block that shot.
As much as I love Dirk (and believe you me, I love him, in the “it’s a little weird for one man to feel that way about another man” sort of way) he’s got flaws in his game, and they perfectly illustrate my point about what a good power forward should do.
Namely this: Dirk is primarily a scorer. While his rebounding figures are nothing to sneeze at (8.6 regular season, 11 in the playoffs), he’s not what you would call a dominant presence on the boards.
Part of this is because he lacks the requisite bulk that most forwards have, and height doesn’t make up for bulk when you’re fighting for position (just ask Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley, who at 6-7 and 6-6, respectively, were rebounding phenoms).
But since Dirk excels at the jump shot, he frequently is the one making that shot away from the basket, depriving the Mavericks of half of their frontcourt duo, which generally gets most of the rebounds.
Dirk’s lack of bulk and general finesse game would lend itself to the small forward position, except for one reason. The size that would give him an even greater mismatch at the 3, would prove to be a major defensive liability.
Can you imagine Dirk trying to guard the LeBrons, Carmelos and Kevin Durants of the world (hold on, I just threw up a little bit in my mouth)? Me neither.
Dirk lacks what so many other power forwards have in terms of defense and rebounding, but his offensive output seems to make up for it.
Except for one thing: it hasn’t won a championship yet. Like LeBron James (the best small forward in the game today), Dirk has been surrounded by a number of different players and skill sets, yet he still hasn’t gotten over that hill.
It remains to be seen whether a jump shooting big man can win a title (ones that have, e.g. Gasol, Garnett also played with good centers/have other aspects to their game).
Speaking of winning titles, you thought I’d get through this article without mentioning the best power forward in the history of the game?
Tim Duncan is it. I know I said Garnett was the ideal power forward, but Tim Duncan has everything that Garnett has and more: he’s got the hardware to back it up. Four rings.
Tim Duncan locks down the low post defensively (often playing center, especially this year), has the best set of low post moves in the NBA today, and can rebound with the best of them.
Jump shooting isn’t his strong suit, but we can see how much that has hurt him.
In a way, Tim Duncan is almost the complete opposite of Dirk. If Tim Duncan’s teammates are hot, and he simply needs to grab 15-20 rebounds and lock down the opposing center (often this decade, Shaq in the playoffs) he’ll do it.
If he needs to drop 35 points on 20 shots and put his back to the basket and systematically break down the other defender with impeccable footwork, Duncan will do it.
And while Dirk and his offensive fireworks might be more entertaining to watch from a fan’s standpoint, the perfect fundamentals of Tim Duncan have won him championships throughout several different incarnations of the Spurs, which is more than can be said for any other player in the league.
This is the fourth in a weekly series covering each position on the floor in-depth. Also check out On a Wing and a Prayer: A Frank Look at the Small Forward Position, Guns a-Blazin’: The Modern Shooting Guard and Hardwood Generals: Examining Today’s Point Guard .