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Top 10 Power Forwards in NBA History


photo by Keith Allison, 2009, CC 2.0

The position of power forward has evolved over the years, from the brawling bruisers of the past to the sharp-shooting stretch fours of the present. The players on this list represent the best the position has had to offer over the first 70 years of NBA basketball.

1) Tim Duncan, 1997-2016

Duncan is not only the best power forward in NBA history, he is also one of the game’s greatest two-way players. On offense, “The Big Fundamental” used a deadly arsenal of low-post moves, an accurate outside shot, and his famous bank shot to dominate defenders. On defense, the 15-time All-Star used intelligence, positioning and strength to shut down the best players of his era. In his 19 seasons, Duncan was named to the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams fifteen times each, won Rookie of the Year, two league MVPs and an All-Star Game MVP. He is also one of only two players in NBA history with at least 25,000 points, 15,000 rebounds, 4,000 assists and 3,000 blocks. As great as Duncan was in the regular season, he was even better in the postseason. In 251 playoff games, he averaged 20.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 blocks per game in leading the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA championships. He was named Finals MVP in 1999, 2003 and 2005.

2) Karl Malone, 1985-2004

Possessing a combination of strength, athleticism and an unwavering work ethic, Malone dominated the NBA for two decades. The Utah Jazz great is the league’s second all-time leading scorer with 36,928 points, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was especially adept at getting to the free throw line, as his 9,787 career free throws rank first in league history. The Hall of Famer was also an excellent defender, ranking second all-time in defensive rebounds and making the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team three years in a row from 1997-99. Malone’s mastery on both ends of the floor resulted in 14 All-Star selections, two league MVPs and two All-Star MVPs. Perhaps most impressive of all, “The Mailman” was named First Team All-NBA 11 straight years from 1989-99. Even though he came just short of winning an NBA title, Malone was his dominant self on the big stage, averaging 24.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 193 postseason games.

3) Bob Pettit, 1954-65

Pettit was one of the greatest scorers of his or any other era, averaging 26.4 points per game in his 12 NBA seasons. With an accurate jump shot and an uncanny ability to get to the free throw line, the Hall of Famer became the first player in league history to score 20,000 points. Pettit was equally impressive on the boards, averaging 16.2 rebounds per game. After winning Rookie of the Year with the Milwaukee Hawks in 1954-55, Pettit took his talents to St. Louis, along with the relocated Hawks. The 11-time All-Star went on to win two scoring titles, two league MVPs and a record four All-Star Game MVPs. He was named First Team All-NBA 11 straight seasons, and led the Hawks to their only NBA title in 1957-58. In the Finals against the defending champion Boston Celtics, Pettit averaged 29.3 points and 20.4 rebounds, including an incredible 50 points and 19 rebounds in the decisive game six.

4) Kevin Garnett, 1995-2015

Garnett is basketball’s version of the five-tool player. The versatile big man could shoot from outside, score in the paint, pass, rebound and defend. His length, athleticism and toughness made him a matchup nightmare on both ends. In 21 seasons, Garnett was a 15-time All-Star, nine-time All-NBA selection and a 12-time All-Defensive selection. In 2003-04 he won NBA MVP as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and in 2007-08 he won Defensive Player of the Year as a Boston Celtic. In 07-08, Garnett led the Celtics to their first NBA title in two decades, averaging 20.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 26 postseason games. The final numbers are impressive, as KG is the only player in NBA history with at least 25,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists, 1,500 steals and 1,500 blocks.

5) Dirk Nowitzki, 1998-2019

Nowitzki is the original stretch four. While other big men have had an accurate outside shot, no one posed a threat to defenses like the Dallas Mavericks sharpshooter. Nowitzki’s 1,982 made three-pointers rank 11th in NBA history. Of the top 11 three-point shooters, the 7-foot German is the only player on the list above 6’7”. Nowitzki was more than just a great three-point shooter, though. He possessed strong post and mid-range games, which included an unguardable fadeaway jumper, and he had a penchant for getting to the free throw line, where he shot 87.9 percent. The 14-time All-Star ended his career with 31,560 points, the sixth most in NBA history. He also had 11,489 rebounds and 3,651 assists. Nowitzki was named All-NBA 12 times, and was the 2006-07 NBA MVP. In 2010-11, he led the Mavericks to their first NBA championship, winning Finals MVP while averaging 26.0 points and 9.7 rebounds in six games.

6) Charles Barkley, 1984-2000

Many younger fans know Barkley from his candid and often colorful analysis on TV. What they may not know is that he was one of the most gifted and versatile players of his generation. Generously listed at 6’6” and weighing 252 pounds, “Sir Charles” was shorter and wider than other power forwards. Looks can be deceiving, though, as Barkley was quick, athletic and played much taller than his height. The Hall of Famer was an All-Star by his third season, averaging 23.0 points and leading the league with 14.6 rebounds per game. “The Round Mound of Rebound” would dominate the NBA for the next decade plus, with 11 straight All-Star and All-NBA selections. In 1992-93, Barkley won league MVP, averaging 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists, as he led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals. For his career, “Sir Charles” averaged 22.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists, while shooting an outstanding 54.1 percent from the field.

7) Elvin Hayes, 1968-84

Few players in NBA history were more durable or productive than Hayes. In 16 seasons, “The Big E” scored 27,313 points, the 10th highest total all-time, and grabbed 16,279 rebounds, fourth all-time. This was all while missing a total of nine games. Supplementing his athleticism with an unstoppable turnaround jumper, the Hall of Famer led the league in scoring his rookie year with 28.4 points per game. In his second year, he led in rebounding with 16.9 per game. A consistent performer on both ends of the floor, Hayes never averaged less than 19.7 points or 11.0 rebounds per game in his first 12 seasons, and was named an All-Star each year. In the postseason, “The Big E” was just as productive, averaging 22.9 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 96 games. In 1977-78, Hayes won an NBA title with the Washington Bullets, averaging 20.7 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in a classic seven-game Finals against the Seattle Supersonics.

8) Kevin McHale, 1980-93

McHale is one of the most dynamic low-post scorers in NBA history. The Boston Celtics great used excellent footwork, a dizzying array of moves and a soft touch on his shot to frustrate defenders for 13 seasons. The Hall of Famer spent his first five years as primarily a sixth man, providing a much-needed boost off of Boston’s bench. For his efforts, he was rewarded with back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year awards in 1983-84 and 84-85. McHale started for the next four years, scoring a career high 26.1 points per game in 1986-87 en route to being named First Team All-NBA. In addition to his skill on the offensive end, McHale was an outstanding defender. He was named to the All-Defensive Team six times, and averaged 1.7 blocks per game for his career. A clutch performer in the playoffs, the seven-time All-Star was a vital member of three Celtics championship teams.

9) Dolph Schayes, 1949-64

His name often gets lost among the all-time greats, but Schayes was one of the game’s first superstars. A consistent scorer and excellent rebounder, the Hall of Famer averaged 18.5 points and 12.1 rebounds in his 15 pro seasons. The scoring numbers would be higher, but Schayes played without a shot clock his first five years in the league. After the 24-second shot clock was instituted in 1954, the Syracuse Nationals star averaged 22.0 points per game over the next seven seasons. Schayes would be named to both the All-Star and All-NBA teams each of his first 12 seasons. In 1954-55, Schayes led Syracuse to the NBA championship, beating the Fort Wayne Pistons 4-3 in a classic seven-game series. When he retired in 1964, Schayes was the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 19,249 points.

10) Dennis Rodman, 1986-2000

While many fans only remember Rodman for his flamboyant personality and off-court antics, anyone who played with him or against him understands his immense impact on the basketball court. The fact that he made the Hall of Fame averaging less than eight points per game speaks volumes about him. Rodman’s tenacious defense, non-stop energy, relentless rebounding and overall unselfishness were key components in five NBA championship teams, the 1988-89 and 89-90 Detroit Pistons and the three-peat Chicago Bulls from 1995-96 to 97-98. Rodman won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award twice with the Pistons, and was named to the All-Defensive First Team seven times. Even more impressive was his assault on the boards. From 1991-92 to 97-98, Rodman led the NBA in rebounding seven straight seasons. His career average of 13.1 rebounds per game is 11th in NBA history, a unique feat for a player who is 6’7” and 210 pounds. Dennis Rodman was indeed one of a kind.

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