And once Malone, the estimable Mailman, joined the Jazz, he got his own delivery service in the person of point guard John Stockton. Malone then hoisted the Jazz upon his shoulders and carried them to within one game of the Western Conference championship last season.
Other small forwards have made their presence felt too. For all of Isiah's greatness, the Pistons sputtered, coughed and died in the playoffs until Dantley arrived in 1986. Result? In 1 A.D. (After Dantley), Detroit came within one victory of the Eastern title, and in 2 A.D., it came within one victory of an NBA championship. Cavalier general manager Wayne Embry made the trading coup of last season when in February he plucked a dissatisfied Nance from Phoenix and got Mike Sanders in the bargain; that forward thinking helped turn Cleveland, which had its first winning season since 1977-78, from farce to force. And the transformation of Kersey from a sixth-man high-wire act to a solid 19.2-points-a-game starter helped Portland to a 53-29 record in '87-88, its best since the 58-24 Blazers of'77-78.
Conversely, lack of production at small forward has been an important, and sometimes central, failure for more than one franchise. For example, the Kings' progress has been stymied by injuries to their small forward, Derek Smith, a circumstance that put far too much of the frontcourt offensive load on power forward Otis Thorpe, who was recently traded to Houston for Rodney McCray and forward Jim Petersen. The Knicks designated Kenny Walker as their small forward of the future by selecting him with the fifth pick in the '86 draft, but they now realize that Walker may not have the small-forward skills that a championship team needs.
And no NBA team has agonized over its small-forward spot more than Dallas. Since 1981, when he was the first pick in the draft, and an answered prayer for a fledgling expansion team, Mark Anthony Aguirre has been taking most of the shots and making most of the headlines for the Mavs. He's either the primary reason for Dallas's steady climb to respectability or the main reason the Mavericks' championship ambitions remain frustrated. Take your pick. Aguirre's shortcoming has been that he isn't Bird, he isn't Worthy, he isn't Wilkins. (In playing style and body type Aguirre is closest to Dantley, in production he's closest to English, and in temperament he's closest to Barkley.) Now Aguirre faces a new obstacle as Dallas continues its pursuit of its first Western title—he's not Malone, either.
For its first two decades, the NBA got along with an uncomplicated pentagonal lineup—center, two guards, two forwards. That's all. Adjectives for the position didn't exist.
Sure, Boston's Bob Cousy was a magical passer and clearly the prototype for today's point guard, but in the 10 seasons (1951-52 to '60-61) he teamed with Bill Sharman, who many would think of as a shooting guard today, Cousy actually scored more points (13,699-12,287) than Sharman. Cousy and Sharman were guards. Similarly, the Hawks' 6'9" Bob Pettit (1954-55 to '64-65) did things that power forwards are known for today—scoring near the basket and rebounding—but he was also a deadly outside shooter. "They ran double picks to get him long jumpers—things you don't see teams running for even their small forwards today," says Tom Heinsohn, a former Celtic and frequent opponent of Pettit. Further, Pettit's running mate, 6'4" Cliff Hagan, was a diminutive forward who nonetheless scored close to the basket and specialized in the hook shot. Pettit and Hagan, and for that matter, Heinsohn, were simply forwards.
Though the Lakers' Elgin Baylor (1958-59 to 71-72) is clearly the model for today's small forward, there were times when Baylor, at 6'5" and 225 pounds, had to play defense against monster forwards like the 76ers" Luke Jackson and the Hawks' Bill Bridges. And Baylor rebounded with a ferocity—he averaged 13.6 a game over his 14-year career—that's not associated with modern-day small forwards, Barkley and Malone excepted. "I never thought about which forward was this or which forward was that," says Baylor, who's now the Clipper general manager. "I just went out and played." Baylor was simply a forward.
No one seems quite sure whom to credit (or blame) for coining the specialized terms for the positions that prevail today. The need for a power forward grew, Heinsohn and others theorize, out of the rapid expansion that took place in the NBA in the late '60s. (There were nine teams in 1965-66 and 17 by '70-71.) "There simply weren't enough good centers with the skills to play the traditional center position down low," says Heinsohn. "So teams looked for someone else to go down there and score. Naturally it was a forward, and he became the power forward." And that power forward evolved into a slightly smaller, more athletic and just as rugged version of the center, a forward who intimidated opponents with his rebounding skills and with his defensive tenacity.
Paul Silas, who helped Boston win championships in 1974 and '76, was just such a player. Suddenly it all seemed so clear: To win, you needed a tough inside "power forward," like Silas, and a much quicker forward on the other side who could take up the scoring slack, like John Havlicek, Purely to contrast the Havlicek position with power forward, it became known as small forward.
Ah, but it didn't take this subspecies long to get an identity of its own. Take a bow, Julius Winfield Erving II. From the moment the good Doctor stepped into the league in 1976 he was the ultimate small forward: graceful, acrobatic, quick, lithe, with finesse oozing from every pore, big (Erving is 6'7") but not too big, strong but not too strong, tough but not too tough. He could shoot outside (even though he didn't always look smooth doing it), but his forte was driving to the basket, breaking down the defense, creating plays and new moves as needed and leaving opponents in slack-jawed awe. He was a white-collar scorer, a dunker, a fast breaker, a game-saver, a headline-maker. That's what a small forward was.