Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James

On the first full week of each month this season, I’m going to rank the top 10 NBA players at each position based on how I expect them to perform in the coming month. If a player is injured and is expected to miss most of the month, then they probably won’t make the list regardless of his value when healthy. I’ll rank the point guards on Monday, the shooting guards on Tuesday … you get the picture.  Your feedback is welcome, even if you want to tell me how incredibly, irredeemably clueless I am.

I’m ranking the small forwards today and I had a really tough time figuring out how to round finish this list. Luol Deng, Andrei Kirilenko, Corey Maggette and Nicolas Batum all make compelling cases, but I ultimately had to give credit where credit is due and start the list with…

10. Ron Artest, Los Angeles Lakers — 2009-10 stats: 77 GP, 33.8 MPG, 11.0 PPG, 3.0 APG, 4.3 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG, .414 FG%, .355 3P%, .688 FT%, 12.1 PER

I thought it was a bad idea for the Lakers to switch Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest after they won the 2009 NBA title. I thought Ron would be a disruptive influence, that he would be unable to defer to his superior teammates on offense, and that he had lost a step defensively and wouldn’t be able to contain longer, more athletic players like Kevin Durant. Man, was I ever wrong. Wrong-wrong-wrongity-wrong-wrongerino. It’s possible he might return to his unpredictable, wacky ways both on and off the court now that he finally has a ring, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt after last season’s performance and because I believe he still longs for Kobe’s approval more than anything in the world.

9. Rudy Gay, Memphis Grizzlies — 2009-10 stats:  80 GP,  39.7 MPG, 19.6 PPG, 1.9 APG, 5.9 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 0.8 BPG, .466 FG%, .327 3P%, .753 FT%, 16.2 PER

Since the Grizzlies signed Gay to a five-year, $82 million contract this past off-season, you have to assume they think he hasn’t fully reached his potential yet. With his athleticism and length, he should be a much better defender and rebounder than he’s been so far in his career. He’s already proven that he can give you 20 points per game at decent efficiency, but his best season was actually in 2007-08 so I have to wonder if we’ve already seen him at his best.

8. Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks — 2009-10 stats:  81 GP,  35.4 MPG, 15.7 PPG, 4.2 APG, 8.7 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 2.1 BPG, .505 FG%, .000 3P%, .618 FT%, 21.0 PER

Josh Smith should give Rudy Gay fans hope that Gay can make a leap to an almost-All-Star level after a few seasons of stagnancy, because Smith’s improvement in 2009-10 was as surprising as it was impressive. His offensive efficiency improved significantly as he stopped jacking threes (he’s a career 26.6 percent three-point shooter who reduced his attempts from 87 in 2008-09 to just seven last season) while he increased the percentage of shots he took closer to the basket. The big question about Smith this season is how effective he will be moving from power forward to small forward, where he’s expected to play the majority of his minutes. His lack of a perimeter game could hurt him at that position, but his excellent help defense should continue to be a tremendous benefit to the Hawks.

7. Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics — 2009-10 stats:  71 GP, 34.0 MPG, 18.3 PPG, 3.1 APG, 4.4 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 0.4 BPG, .472 FG%, .414 3P%, .852 FT%, 18.2 PER

Like many Celtics, the question with Pierce is whether he’ll be able to avoid a major decline as he advances through his 30s. While his scoring output and rebounding aren’t what they used to be, he’s compensated by improving his outside shooting and by remaining a solid defender at his position. He remains a respected leader, a certain Hall-of-Famer and perhaps most importantly a Celtic for life.

6. Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia 76ers — 2009-10 stats:  82 GP,  38.9 MPG, 17.1 PPG, 5.8 APG, 6.5 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 0.7 BPG, .443 FG%, .310 3P%, .733 FT%, 17.8 PER

Iguodala’s main flaw is that he’s a second banana who thinks he’s a superstar. He’s simply not a good enough shooter or scorer to be considered an elite wing player, but he offers top-notch defense and he’s a very good passer and rebounder. He showcased his lockdown defense at the recent FIBA World Championships and while he’ll never be quite as good as he thinks he is, he’s still pretty damn good.

Kevin Durant and Ron Artest
5. Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers — 2009-10 stats:  62 GP, 36.7 MPG, 24.1 PPG, 2.8 APG, 5.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 0.8 BPG, .428 FG%, .361 3P%, 848 FT%, 19.8 PER

Granger is the classic example of a pretty good player who puts up superstar numbers on a crappy team. Because he carries so much of the Pacers’ offensive load, he doesn’t seem to exert as much effort on the defensive end. While the Pacers will probably miss the playoffs once again, you can expect him to score in the mid-20s per game again and be highly valuable in your fantasy league.

4. Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats — 2009-10 stats:  76 GP, 41.0 MPG, 18.2 PPG, 2.1 APG, 10.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 1.1 BPG, .484 FG%, .371 3P%, .776 FT%, 18.3 PER

Gerald “Crash” Wallace made his first All-Defensive First Team last season and the honor was well-deserved. His athletic exploits at both ends of the court make him one of the most fun players to watch in the NBA, and last year’s appearance in the All-Star Game should be the first of many if he can stay healthy. If he continues to improve his perimeter game and shoot more treys at last year’s decent 37 percent rate, don’t be shocked to see him crack the top three in this ranking later in the season.

3. Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets — 2009-10 stats:  69 GP,  38.2 MPG, 28.2 PPG, 3.2 APG, 6.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.4 BPG, .458 FG%, .316 3P%, .830 FT%, 22.2 PER

Is he a volume scorer with so-so defense who is more than a little overrated by a lot of NBA fans? I think so. Is he also one of the best offensive players in the game that any team would love to have in their lineup? Without question. ‘Melo most likely won’t be a Nugget for the entire 2010-11 season, but whatever team he ends up on will surely benefit significantly from his peformance in a contract season.

2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder — 2009-10 stats:  82 GP,  39.5 MPG, 30.1 PPG, 2.8 APG, 7.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.0 BPG, .476 FG%, .365 3P%, .900 FT%, 26.2 PER

He’s not quite ready to claim the crown of the best small forward in the league just yet, but around half of the GMs in the NBA would choose him to build their franchise around if they could pick anyone. As the youngest scoring champion in NBA history, there’s really no telling what Kevin Durant’s ceiling is. Only one player has scored over 35 points per game in the past 21 seasons (Kobe in 2005-06) but it seems not only reasonable but sort of inevitable that Durant will be the next player to hit that mark. Meanwhile, his defense and rebounding will most likely continue to improve and it’s really going to be a lot of fun watching him blossom into one of the all-time greats of the game.

1. LeBron James, Miami Heat — 2009-10 stats:  76 GP,  39.0 MPG, 29.7 PPG, 8.6 APG, 7.3 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 1.0 BPG, .503 FG%, .333 3P%, .767 FT%, 31.1 PER

We all know how good he is (whether some of you want to admit it or not) and we also know that a lot of people think he’s kind of a dick at the moment, so I’m not going to bother to go on about that. What intrigues me most about LeBron taking his talents to South Beach is his legitimate potential to average a triple-double over an entire NBA season. If the Heat decide to leverage their superior athleticism by playing at a fast pace, there’s a very good chance LeBron could average 10-plus assists per game. Averaging double figures in rebounds should prove more of a challenge, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility. LeBron’s career high was 7.9 boards per game in the 2007-08 season on a Cavs squad that played one of the slowest paces in the league. You could make the case that his new teammate, Chris Bosh, might prove to be his biggest impediment to reaching that mark. More than any of that, with his unprecedented talents, the main determinant to whether or not he achieves that holy trinity of the hoops world is how badly he wants it.