This should be a great NBA Finals, in part because one team has LeBron James and the other has Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. But it’s also worth noting just how many fascinating humans there are alongside them.
This is not a series for youngsters: Of the 20 players I’d characterize as rotation players, only one, Warriors guard Patrick McCaw, has three or fewer years of NBA experience. The majority of the remaining players have taken winding roads to get here. J.R. Smith used to be known as one of the NBA’s most unserious players, a purveyor of pipe. Shaun Livingston’s leg almost fell off during an NBA game. JaVale McGee was a human punch line. These players aren’t just competing for the NBA championship — they’re potentially able to contribute to one team winning or losing it.
Let’s look at each of the 30 players in this series, including their pasts and their presents, and rank them from least to most likely to make a difference in this series.
I’d like to shout-out Tom Ziller of SB Nation for doing this well in the past. A lot of people write about the best players in basketball well, but Ziller can do that and also writes excellently about the worst players in basketball, which I’ve always found twice as entertaining.
Tier IX: The Guys Who Literally Will Not Play
30. Edy Tavares
Tavares is out for the season, so let’s focus on the cursed 15th spot on Cleveland’s roster. First the team signed Andrew Bogut, hoping the ex-Warrior could provide inside intel and savvy should the Cavs face his former team in the Finals. He broke his leg in one minute of playing time, giving him a PER of negative-35.3 in Cleveland that would have ranked last in the league, beating out Ben Bentil of the Mavericks (-17.6), who missed every shot he took in 10 minutes of action.
Then the Cavaliers signed Larry Sanders, fresh off his two-year hiatus from the league that stemmed from issues with depression and several suspensions for marijuana use. He was cut a few weeks later, with Cavs GM David Griffin calling him "flaky" and saying he was "further away than we thought."
They then turned to Tavares, hoping the 7-foot-3 Cape Verdean could turn into something down the road, or at least be ready to play should the Cavs’ first few centers get injured. Nope — he broke his hand in a pickup game before practice before the Eastern Conference finals, too late for the team to grab a replacement.
29. Kevon Looney
Looney, who has a hip injury, is the only Warrior not to play so far this postseason. So many garbage time minutes he could’ve played.
28. Kay Felder
The Cavs’ rookie point guard played in 42 games this year, but most of those were before the acquisition of Deron Williams. He hasn’t played yet this postseason, so let’s watch this video of the 5-foot-9 guard dunking and blocking dudes on the extremely ugly court he played on in college.
Tier VIII: The Garbage Time All-Stars
27. Damian Jones
The first-round pick out of Vanderbilt has played in four playoff games this year! Do you remember seeing him? Neither do I!
26. James Michael McAdoo
JMM has been in the NBA three years and made the Finals in all of them. A true legend. He played in 52 games this year for the Warriors, so he’s ready to play if called upon, I guess.
25. James Jones
Can you imagine how good at friendship James Jones must be? He’s been LeBron James’s teammate in seven straight NBA Finals. He’s a pretty good shooter, but on most of those seven teams, Jones hasn’t been the best person at filling his role. In Miami he was behind Mike Miller and Rashard Lewis on the depth chart in 2013 and 2014; Miller — another close friend of LeBron — came with him to Cleveland and again filled his role in 2015. And now Jones is behind Kyle Korver. And yet since he began playing with LeBron, he’s never been cut or traded.
On the one hand, you can never have too many shooters, and Jones hit nearly half of his 66 3-point attempts this year. On the other, he must have the dopest cookouts.
24. Dahntay Jones
If the question here was "Who is the worst player in the NBA Finals?" I would’ve instantly put Jones 30th. He’s a defensive specialist who is no longer good at playing defense, which is why he was unsigned for the majority of the last four NBA seasons.
But each of the past two years, the Cavs have signed him before the 82nd and final game of the regular season. Last year, he contributed by punching Bismack Biyombo in the groin seconds after checking into a well-decided game. This year he got ejected two minutes after checking into a well-decided game.
So in terms of importance, I couldn’t put Jones last. There is a nonzero chance that he comes into a well-decided game, sparks a fight with Draymond Green, and gets Green suspended from multiple games. He could be hugely important.
Tier VII: The Guys Who Might Play, but Probably Shouldn’t
23. Derrick Williams
The Cavs have three of the top four picks from the 2011 draft. They should sign Jan Vesely to make it 4-of-6.
22. Matt Barnes
Barnes is the first player on this list who has actually played meaningful minutes this postseason. He checked in during the second quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals with Golden State trailing against San Antonio. I don’t know why: Barnes was cut by the Kings this year, which means he is not very good at basketball. He was once good at hustling and angering people, but he is now a 37-year-old who isn’t as good at the hustling part anymore.
I suppose it’s an idea at harkening back to the lovable We Believe Warriors, when the team was filled with underdogs and the crowd wasn’t filled with venture capitalists, but I really wish they would have signed, like, Stephen Jackson instead. Read this interview with Stephen Jackson and tell me I’m wrong.
21. Richard Jefferson
Jefferson played in the 2002 NBA Finals and is still playing! He played extensively in last year’s Finals and appeared in 79 regular-season games this season, but it seems like the Cavs have bumped him out of the rotation for the playoffs — he’s had four DNP-CDs and hasn’t gotten serious minutes in a non-blowout since Round 1 against the Pacers. At this point, there’s not much the 16th-year veteran can provide besides leadership and an excellent podcast.
Tier VI: The Rotation
20. Patrick McCaw
The second-round rookie has shown some serious promise — he’s long for a shooting guard and can hit shots. It’s not clear that he’ll be a part of the rotation when everybody’s healthy, but he did get spot starts in Round 1 when Kevin Durant was hurt and another against the Spurs in the conference finals. It’s impressive that he’s gotten any meaningful minutes, considering the Warriors’ last two first-round picks haven’t.
19. Shaun Livingston
It makes me so happy that Shaun Livingston can walk. I wouldn’t expect a repeat of Game 1 of last year’s Finals, when he scored 20 points in a Golden State win — his season high was 17 points this year.
18. Channing Frye
Frye plays most frequently as the stretch big in a let-LeBron-drive-with-four-players-who-can-shoot lineup alongside Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, and Iman Shumpert. And he’s doing his job, hitting 52.6 percent from 3 in the playoffs.
17. Ian Clark
Ian Clark plays 15 minutes a game and is a pretty nice scorer — he had 36 points when the Warriors rested their starters in March against San Antonio! I’m not sure why Golden State needs another scorer, but whatever.
16. David West
NBA Gollum David West has cast aside all worldly comforts in pursuit of one ring. He gave up $11 million last year, and probably a few million this year to take veteran’s minimum deals for teams with a chance of winning the title — last year San Antonio, this year Golden State. Maybe it’ll work! He’s still draining midranges and providing mean veteran defense to opposing big men. Anything for his precious.
Tier V: The Maybe-Difference-Makers
15. JaVale McGee
Important Playoff Basketball Person JaVale McGee! He’s shooting 74 percent in the playoffs, with four double-digit scoring performances despite never playing more than 16 minutes.
There are reasons McGee is the butt of basketball jokes and barely made Golden State’s roster as the 15th man in October; he’s a goofball, he’s a poor rebounder, and he never, under any circumstances, passes. But he is absolutely enormous and mobile. He will block shots, and he will go 6-for-7 if you pass the ball to him seven times against mismatches.
14. Deron Williams
Deron isn’t a star anymore, but Cleveland didn’t sign him to be one — they needed a backup point guard. And if the backup point guard continues shooting 50 percent from 3, as Williams has so far during the playoffs, well, that’s pretty good.
13. Iman Shumpert
Shumpert had fallen out of the Cavs rotation and got a DNP-CD for Game 1 of the playoffs, but he’s been good since — and is probably part of why the team’s defensive struggles have lessened. He’s having the best shooting season of his career, and has been shooting even better in the postseason.
12. Zaza Pachulia
Pachulia is nominally Golden State’s starting center — even though he gets fewer minutes than Andre Iguodala, and the team’s best lineups don’t feature a conventional big. I don’t foresee him winning battles with Tristan Thompson when he plays, but whether he’s dirty or clumsy, we saw last series that he can eliminate the best player on the opposing team. If he takes out LeBron, he’s the MVP.
11. Kyle Korver
Korver is one of the best spot-up shooters in NBA history. Now he’s paired with LeBron James, perhaps the best player at opening space for exceptional 3-point shooters ever. He’s hit four 3s on six or fewer attempts three times in the playoffs so far.
Tier IV: The Starters
10. J.R. Smith
I don’t think we smile enough about the fact that J.R. Smith won an NBA championship last year. Like, he wasn’t just on the team — he was a pivotal member. It happened. He deserved to go shirtless for a summer.
In the regular season, he shot 34.6 percent on just under nine shots per game. That’s bad. In the postseason, he’s taken just 4.8 shots per game and is shooting 48.4 percent. That’s good. He still might randomly attempt a behind-the-back pass to nobody on a critical possession, but he’s harnessed his talents for good, because he’s learned how good the parties are when you win.
9. Andre Iguodala
The 2015 Finals MVP should be critical for the Warriors — we know he can stop LeBron, or at least come as close to stopping him as any human on earth — but he’s struggled all postseason with a knee injury. He’s seventh on the team in scoring and just hasn’t looked right. Has he been taking it easy in less important matchups, or is he really hobbled?
8. Tristan Thompson
There is one player whose little write-up here will not mention 3-point percentages, and he’s pretty important! Thompson torched the Warriors from Game 3 on last year, shooting 20-for-25 from the field and averaging a double-double. Thompson is better than any of the Warriors’ centers.
Tier III: The Semistars
7. Kevin Love
It sounds weird, but Love has been the best shooter besides Steph Curry in these playoffs — he averaged 22.6 points and 12.4 rebounds while shooting 53.5 percent from deep against the Celtics. If he plays like that, he’s a huge factor. He played poorly after Game 1 of last year’s Finals — it seemed like a matchup problem, but he might also have been struggling to recover from the concussion he suffered in Game 2. Either way, he stopped Steph Curry that one time, and we’ll never forget it.
6. Klay Thompson
Thompson’s the forgotten Warrior. He averaged 22.3 points this season, but that’s dropped off to 14.4 these playoffs, as he’s shooting a dismal 38.3 percent from the field. But we really shouldn’t sour too much on him: His 268 made 3s this year would be third-most all time if we got rid of his flashier teammate.
The shoes are bad, though.
5. Draymond Green
We spend too much time talking about Draymond Green as a hothead, and not enough talking about how magnificently talented he is, both as a life-wrecking game-changer on defense and a weird amalgam of offensive skills that are somehow effective.
Last year, the Finals hinged on Green’s drop-off after Game 2, a shift caused in part by the decision to switch LeBron James onto him and in part by Green’s subsequent decision to hit LeBron James in the privates. The Cavs might not have the luxury of that defensive choice this year with Kevin Durant also on the Warriors — and it’s up to Green whether he avoids getting himself suspended.
4. Kyrie Irving
The drop-off from LeBron to Kyrie is a bit harsher than the drop-off from the Warriors’ best player to their runner-up. But when he gets hot — 42 points against the Celtics last round, 41 in the pivotal Game 5 of last year’s Finals, and, um, that shot — he’s so good that it makes me wonder if the world actually is flat.
Tier II: The Warriors’ World-Beaters
3. Kevin Durant
Obviously it’s hard to pick between Durant and Curry, two preposterous talents who can easily win MVP of these Finals.
I’m putting Durant below Curry because the Warriors have more clearly demonstrated their ability to succeed if he’s not present — they did, after all, run off a 13-game win streak without him and win both playoff games he missed this year.
Let’s just say it one more time: The Warriors won 73 games last year and added Kevin Durant. Some people seem to feel that makes Durant a coward, but even they can’t deny that it makes this team incredibly, incredibly good at basketball.
2. Stephen Curry
Even with Durant, Curry led the Warriors in scoring this season and this postseason. He’s hit five 3s in six of 12 postseason games this year — and that’s with him sitting a whole bunch because his team normally leads by 30 points pretty quickly. Stephen Curry is still the best shooter in basketball history, and a lot of basketball depends on shooting.
Durant is probably the more efficient of the two stars, in part due to the nature of the 3-point shot. Curry had as many shots as points or more shots than points 10 times this season, Durant just twice. But Curry’s got more potential to break out; Curry had five 40-point games this year, Durant just one.
I hate to borrow a dumb T-shirt slogan, but the Warriors do have strength in numbers, a roster so loaded with superstars that they have overwhelmed everyone they’ve faced with the depth of their talent. But if I had to pick one player to be most likely to lead their group with an historically memorable individual display, I’d pick Curry.
Tier I: This Dude
1. LeBron James
On paper, this series should not be close. The Warriors won 67 games and have gone 12–0 in the playoffs. They won those postseason games by an average of 16.3 points, the largest margin of victory in pre-Finals playoff history. They finished this season with the league’s best offensive rating and second-best defensive rating. They have an ungodly conglomeration of talent, a slew of superstars some say is unfair to the league.
The Cavaliers won 51 games and although they went 12–1 in the postseason, there were several close games. They finished the season with the league’s third-best offensive rating and 21st-best defensive rating. They spent most of the year mixing and matching to acquire role players, and entered the playoffs unsure of their ideal rotation.
And yet we expect it to be a good series, by the grace of LeBron James. We know he can do this; he did it last year, beating the seemingly unbeatable Warriors by leading the Finals in every major statistical category.
The Warriors can survive a mediocre series from Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson. That is how they are built. But Cleveland needs LeBron to play spectacularly to win this series, and that’s why he’s its most important player.