In the 1980s the forward positions tended to be very fluid. The 3-4 swing forward was the “it” player on the wing. Everybody had one: Larry Bird, James Worthy, Bobby Jones, Alex English, Charles Barkley, Dennis Rodman, Larry Nance, Orlando Woolridge… Heck some teams started two swing forwards together – Bird and Cedric Maxwell for instance or Worthy and AC Green. The measure of the swing forward is who he can play next to in the front court. Bird was equally comfortable next to a 4-5 like McHale or a 2-3 like Reggie Lewis. Barkley started in a lineup with Rick Mahorn at the other forward but played most of the game next to Ron Anderson (a 2-3), and he dominated in both scenarios – either torturing small forwards with his post game or embarrassing power forwards with his guard skills.
Then in the 90s this type of player seemingly vanished. Scottie Pippen and Chris Mullin became the models for small forwards, players who could moonlight at the point guard and shooting guard respectively and who lacked the bulk to bang with power players. Big, power players took over the 4, guys like Karl Malone, Shawn Kemp, Charles Oakley, and Kevin Willis. But just because they weren’t making All-Star teams, doesn’t mean the swing forwards were gone. Detlef Schrempf, Derrick McKee, Robert Horry, Anthony Mason, Toni Kukoc, and Danny Manning made important contributions on successful teams playing that 3-4 role.
The 2000s brought the swing forward back to the high scoring table with the growth of the stretch 4 / big 3 in guys like Shawn Marion, Antoine Walker, Antawn Jamison, Lamar Odom, Kenyon Martin Vlad Radmonovic, and Rashard Lewis, but none of those players was a true star and all of them were considered to be flawed in one way or another – too small to be a true big or not skilled enough to be a full time perimeter dynamo.
Today the swing forward has come full circle. A determined man could argue that the top 3 MVP candidates in the early running are all playing swing forward: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony (sure he’s a stretch, but the Knicks are still the winningest team in the East). Some might claim that these are all standard small forwards playing the 4 in small lineups, but I would disagree. All of them defend 4s as well as or better than 2s. Even LeBron, who has quicker feet than most point guards, has trouble chasing skinny shooters off screens simply because of his size. All three are finding increased efficiency by playing inside out rather than outside in, and in many cases their coaches are finding ways for them to do so even when they are playing the nominal small forward role.
Is the prominence of three great players playing a similar role indicative of some change in the game itself? Maybe tangentially. It could be argued that the late 90s and early 2000s was dominated by big men because the game had slowed and the lane had clogged, making drives to the rim more difficult, but it could also be argued that the best teams played that way because they had great big men in Hakeem, Robinson, Karl, Shaq and Timmy. The rules that allow guards to drive without resistance does reward teams that play stretch 4s, but that’s not what Bron, KD, and Melo are. They are acting as primary scorers and playmakers from the 3-4 position in the grand tradition of Bird and Barkley, and whether that’s just a coincidence or part of a more complex change in the game is hard to say.