As the NBA has evolved in recent years, no position has changed more than power forward. A position that once was exclusively played by girthy, bruising men with back-to-the-basket games, the power forward spot is now occupied by speedy uber-athletes with knock-down jumpers and elite handles.
Yet the traditional power forward mold still exists as well, creating a wildly diverse position. Consider: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Carmelo Anthony, and Ryan Anderson all start at the 4, but so do LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, and Paul Millsap. LeBron James has started half of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ games at power forward, while his polar opposite, Kevin Love, has started the other half.
Two players who brilliant represent this dichotomy and shift will be squaring up at Oracle Arena tonight: Tobias Harris of the Detroit Pistons, and Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors.
The true combo-forward
When the in-arena announcers shout out the starting lineups before games, they don’t specify exact positions. They simply announce the forwards as “starting at forward”, and sometimes “starting at the other forward position”.
Tobias Harris is a perfect representation of that. Harris was drafted as a small forward, but quickly added muscle to his lengthy 6’9” frame. Since then he’s pretty evenly split his time at the two forward positions.
Last night was a perfect example of Harris’ versatility: against the Los Angeles Clippers, Harris started at power forward, as he has all season. At halftime, however, former Warrior Anthony Tolliver was inserted into the lineup, and Harris began the third quarter playing small forward.
While Harris can often hold his own defensively against larger 4s, he’s a perimeter player at heart. On the year, he’s averaging just 4.7 rebounds per game, and has only blocked one shot all season. But he’s still off to the best start of his career, pouring in 21.7 points per game, while resembling a Splash Brother with his 48.7% mark from beyond the arc.
If any basketball fan is just waking up from a 30-year coma, they would be very confused to see Harris, with his love of transition play and his home near the three-point line, categorized as a power forward.
The positionless star
Draymond Green is a power forward by name, but only because he has to be something. In reality, he’s nothing, or more accurately, everything.
Green has the hips, shoulders, and strength of a traditional power forward, but the height of a shooting guard. He passes and makes play like a point guard, with his 8.0 assists per game ranking sixth in the league.
He scores like a small forward, getting out in transition, and being happiest when driving and cutting to the rim. And he defends the rim like a center, despite being just 6’7”.
He’s the only player in the league that is above-average defensively at all five positions. And he’s one of a handful of players that excels at both rebounding and passing.
Steve Kerr recently said that the power forward position no longer exists, and his own power forward is a testament to that. Green perfectly represents the evolution of the power forward, which is to say that he also represents the borderline extinction of the position.
That’s not really how evolution is supposed to work, but basketball is a weird sport.
So, who wins the new age power forward battle?
Harris and Green will start the game matched up, but they’ll quickly find themselves guarding other players. Stan Van Gundy often moves Harris down a position, to small forward, while Steve Kerr’s best lineups involve moving Green up to the center spot.
Still, we’ll get to see these two go head to head with some regularity, and it should be fun to watch. Harris’s tendency to stay at the three-point line will draw Green out of the paint, which is a big positive for Detroit.
On the other hand, Green’s low center of gravity, and willingness to bully defenders in the paint en route to making a brilliant pass could pose problems for Harris. Harris has bulked up a bit, but he’s still far more comfortable defending on the perimeter.
One thing we know: both men will get out and run, just like their ancestors at the position would advise against. We’ll likely see transition highlights from both players, and a plethora of threes attempted (though hopefully not too many from Green).
In different ways, both players represent a changing of guard at the power forward position. But, more importantly, they represent a really fun matchup.