The matchup everyone has been waiting for is here. The 2017 NBA Finals pit the Golden State Warriors vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third straight time, the "three-match." These two teams know each other, and yet they are now very different than they were a year ago, and not just because of the addition of Kevin Durant to the super-team in the Bay.
Systems provide structure and opportunity. Culture enables opportunity. Coaching empowers greatness. But games are won and lost by the players. How important are each of the 30 players on-roster in the NBA Finals to their team's chances of victory? Here's a definitive ranking.
He's very tall, so he should be able to comfortably see the whole court from his spot on the bench.
Kevon Looney has been injured the past few months and hasn't been able to return to an active role. He's inexperienced in this situation, to boot.
James Jones has been to seven NBA Finals. Making friends with LeBron James was a wise choice, it turns out. Jones won't play much, if at all, but if the Cavs get desperate, you could see them turning to Jones to try and hit some 3's for a short stretch in a game.
James McAdoo may be running out of time in his NBA career. He's never stepped into a larger role with the Warriors and will be a free agent this summer. It's entirely possible teams take a flyer on him. Of course, if something crazy happens and he goes out and has a big game if called upon in the Finals, that could all change. If nothing else, he's got a world of experience in being part of a great team.
Dahntay Jones has made $18 million in his career, and he has a ring. He knows his role if called upon. You can think of him in this series as the countermeasure to Zaza Pachulia's antics if it comes to that, but it probably won't. It should be said, though, that he was an actual contributor for years, and actually played a big part in Denver's 2009 Western Conference finals run.
Matt Barnes doesn't have to be the one to pick up technicals and play with an edge (he's got Draymond Green for that.) But rest assured, if he gets playing time, there will be technicals. His shot has fallen off some, but if there's an injury, he can fill in as a wing, defend, and hit open looks, which is all he really needs to do.
Richard Jefferson was a key part of last year's Finals, but this time around he's primarily a podcaster. Still, he'll be called upon for action and will find ways to make an impact, even if in limited minutes. This is probably our last time seeing Jefferson on an NBA court. It should be noted he's also one of the Cavs perfectly willing and able to give hard fouls, but it's just business every time. His "Hey, no reason to be upset" face after he whacks someone on the arm or head or torso is always kind of hilarious.
Shaun Livingston has become more of a scalpel than a separate tool kit for the Warriors, but they still use him in certain lineups. And he's still valuable; the Warriors have outscored their opponent by 22 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
You know how the Rockets ran seven-deep, and were exhausted, because Mike D'Antoni didn't feel like he could trust his young guys, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell in a playoff series? The Warriors buck all that. They empower their young players, and it helps keep a steady pipeline intact. (Pay attention, Cavs, who have buried Felder and released DeAndre Liggins.)
Patrick McCaw is shooting 39 percent from deep. Yes, most of it is garbage time, but he's gotten minutes. If he can come in and provide a lift with his energy and shooting, that's a bonus. And he'll be empowered to do that, though the situation may have to be drastic to turn to a rookie on this stage.
Channing Frye played just 33 minutes in last year's Finals against the Warriors. It's tough to have him on the floor because Draymond Green can shoot. Can he survive vs. JaVale McGee, and possibly hurt him by spreading the floor? That's something worth keeping an eye on. McGee could dominate him on the glass and will dunk over him often, but if the Cavs are trading Warriors' 2's for 3's, that could change things.
Consider this another sign of how much things have flipped in this matchup to where the Cavs are more 3-point reliant than Golden State, which is weird.
Deron Williams has been good for Cleveland. He's always going to be the guy who should have been better, but forced his way to Brooklyn and caught the injury bug in his ankle. But as a role player, he's been terrific for Cleveland. The biggest thing is that he's a low-error player. He doesn't make mistakes. He knows how to run the offense. He can keep time and score in mind. He knows what's supposed to happen, and he doesn't try and play above his station. He can still take guys off the dribble, he can still make shots from the perimeter. He's not going to cook anybody any time, but he's going to contribute, and if he wins his matchup with Clark, that helps out the Cavs in big ways, if even for small minutes.
Ian Clark has earned the backup point-guard minutes and is probably their future at that position. He's smart, is shooting 40 percent in the playoffs, and can get to the rim. He knows the system and has his teammates' full trust; they go crazy when he knocks down shots.
He's a little mistake-prone, and he'll have to watch that against the Cavs, who will try and feast on Golden State turnovers. If he's in a 3-guard lineup he'll be chasing bigger shooters around screens, and that could be tough. Their defense has slipped considerably with Clark on the floor during the playoffs, but some/most of that is garbage time effect.
Before his public identity became "Warriors henchmen," Zaza Pachulia was a pretty good NBA player. He helped teams in Atlanta and Milwaukee, and he's not a stiff. He has some touch around the rim, a little mobility and is precise. He's not stone-handed like Bogut was, even if Bogut was a little sharper defensively. (Pachulia's still very good.)
It's just that there's not a lot for Pachulia to do on this team. He needs to do things like give hard fouls, set hard screens and provide extracurricular contact. That's how he contributes. Pachulia has also never been a bad guy for any team. He doesn't carry with him a bad reputation (to the best of my knowledge). But he's going to do what he has to in order to help the team win.
And that's going to make Cavs fans mad. Whether it's James, Irving or Love, one of them is going to catch a stray foot/elbow/forearm/shoulder/knee from Pachulia. He's not Draymond, no groin abuse. But he's going to do something that's going to set them off.
You see, it's what he gets paid to do.
Iman Shumpert is shooting well in the playoffs, above 40 percent, and that matters. But his role has been reduced; he's playing fewer minutes than Kyle Korver. So, much like Livingston for Golden State, he's more of a scalpel than a hammer. That said, his perimeter defense will be invaluable vs. the Warriors, and he will probably get more minutes if Korver can't hang defensively. It's then that his ability to contribute offensively will be called to the stand.
The Warriors are going to live with each and every Shumpert bucket that comes his way, which means he has to make them pay when given the opportunity. These are the kinds of players that have to make shots for the Cavaliers to hang with Golden State's offense.
I'm tired of writing about how shocking it is that JaVale McGee has brushed off his considerably loud reputation as a joke to become a real contributor, so just know, it is still amazing that they took a guy who was held off teams for way more than anything shown on TNT, and made him into a vital part of their squad.
And he could be huge in this series. McGee is the reason Tristan Thompson may have to play 40-plus-minutes, and why he cannot get into foul trouble. The Cavaliers have no way to prevent the lob to McGee if Thompson is out, and even with Thompson, he's going to get some. Now, there's a cost to these things, the Warriors' rate of defensive mistakes skyrockets when McGee is out there, which is why the team doesn't give him a long leash. (Also, he tends to get winded.)
But he's long, and athletic, and can run the floor, and can dunk over everyone. You can go ahead and get ready for him to posterize LeBron or Kevin Love because someone else lost their rotation, and the internet will go berserk over it. It's coming.
Kyle Korver's a step slow. Not a big step. Just a little one. Thing is, he was always crazy underrated defensively in Utah and Atlanta. Korver can defend guys. He's physical, and can stay with them around screens. He's big, which helps, and of course, he's just a lights-out shooter. He's shooting 42 percent from deep and has the eternal green light from LeBron James to fire upon catch.
Korver's a big deal. If he can hang defensively, that means the pace is where the Cavs want it. Think of it this way. If his counter is Andre Iguodala, and Korver is hitting 3's and Iguodala is missing them, that mitigates Iguodala's impact. And that's monstrous, because Iguodala's impact on the game is always monstrous. Turning him into a negative by punishing him for helping off or taking other assignments is key. He can also help keep the bench alive for stretches where LeBron James sits.
David West looked done last season. D-O-N-E with the Spurs. But the Warriors, as they do, found ways to make the most of his skillset, while mitigating his weaknesses. He's smart, and strong, and sometimes that jumper can fall and do some things. He can battle Kevin Love in the post, and give hard fouls to prevent buckets at the rim.
What the Warriors have unlocked with West is his terrific passing ability. He finds cutters everywhere, and he can help boost up lineups that don't have maximum firepower for the Warriors (and there aren't many of those.) He may not play as many minutes as some guys behind him, but if he wins his matchup, it's huge.
However, it should also be noted, West is the only Warrior outside of Matt Barnes and McAdoo to have a negative net rating. Again, garbage time impacts this. But he may be a guy the Cavaliers try and exploit. If he prevents that, it's a good sign for Golden State.
J.R. Smith struggled when he came back from injury and family health issues late in the year, but he's been, and this is still amazing to say, reliable in the playoffs. Shooting 45 percent from the field, and hasn't struggled on the defensive end like he did when he was adjusting, Smith knows his role on this team, and as he's matured, has become a guy the Cavs can count on.
Smith really struggled to start the Finals last year, but came on strong. More notably, the Cavaliers were a minus-16.4 with Smith on the bench in last year's Finals.
He has even tougher assignments this year, as he'll find time on both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, which means when they switch he'll have to guard Kevin Durant for possessions. They need Smith to stay physical and engaged, and of course, to knock down shots. His confidence is infectious for Cleveland.
Let's get serious.
Andre Iguodala is shooting 11 percent from 3-point range in these playoffs. Either he's due, or he's frozen and age is starting to catch up. He's battled injuries in the playoffs, and he has, at times, shown a little bit of slippage when tasked with guarding the absolute-elite players. He's still excellent, one of the best in the league. But these little things matter.
Of course, they'd matter a lot more if the Warriors hadn't gotten Kevin Durant. Which they did. So it's probably fine.
But Iguodala is still relied upon to settle the team down on both ends, and the Cavaliers are going to dare him to make shots. If the Warriors will live with Shumpert buckets, the Cavs will live with Iguodala going for 15-plus points.
Klay Thompson is a great player. He is. And if he has a huge series, he can swing it the Warriors' way. Like a lot of Golden State's stars, they don't need any one particular guy, because they have so many. But any one of them can swing the Finals. Thompson can have a game like Game 6 in 2016 vs. the Thunder, erase a deficit, and lift Golden State to a win in a game they would have otherwise lost. He's just not as important, because he's not going to be doing anything you can't live without.
He'll defend Kyrie Irving a lot, and that matters. But other guys can. He'll hit shots, but other guys can, and he's shooting "just" 36 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs, which isn't "Splash Brother" level. He's good. He's great. He's just not vital to what they do.
But don't sleep on him either. Given his struggles in the playoffs, it seems likely he's due for a breakout game.
Kyrie Irving is, arguably, the fourth-best player in this series. And the Cavs probably can't win if he has a bad series. You, of course, need a good one from him, and you're probably getting a great one. He can score against anyone, anytime. If anything, the Warriors overlooked him a bit last year. Yes, they sent good defenders at him, but they didn't throw the kitchen sink at him to try and stop him, they were too worried about LeBron.
And Irving will cook anyone he's got in isolation. Especially Steph Curry. But Irving can win his matchup with Curry, and the Cavs can still lose. That's just how the Warriors are, and that takes away some of his impact. He's not a good defender, but he has times where he plays good defense, and he matches up well with Curry overall, though it's not often given how much movement and screen action the Warriors force. When he's bad, it's really bad, when he's great, it's really great.
Irving could have a phenomenal Finals, and if he winds up Finals MVP, the Cavaliers have pulled off the upset. But it's not reasonable to expect him to repeat what he did in 2016, even if he looks even better this year.
Kevin Love is above Irving for three reasons.
- You can't absolutely count on his offense. He's struggled to fit in for two years. Now, this is the best season we've ever seen from Love, on both ends of the floor. He's been terrific. But this is a tough matchup, and his importance is high because he could have a great series, or another bad one, and if he does, the Cavaliers may not have enough to overcome it.
- The Warriors are likely going to target him again. He's just the most vulnerable player to attack. If he manages those situations, and deters them, it swings momentum the other way. That's a strategic victory for Cleveland. If he struggles, that means their defense is getting exposed and the Cavaliers are already facing an uphill climb on that end.
- If he wins his offensive matchups, all hell breaks loose. No one scores on Draymond Green in the post (and the Cavs may not even try). But if you do, if you turn his overwhelming defense into a weakpoint, the Warriors' whole scheme starts to crumble a little bit. If Green is the guy getting scored on in pick and pops, it takes a strength and makes it a vulnerability
Kyrie Irving is going to do what he's going to do. The shots will fall or they won't. But Love's defense, passing, rebounding and shot making bring a different component, if they can find the same success he's had this whole season.
Draymond Green is a better player than Tristan Thompson, who's above him. It's not close. Green is the best passer on the best passing team in the league, the best rebounder and defender on the second-best defense in the league. He's an emotional heartbeat for the Warriors, and they need his energy. If he makes shots, forget it, you're not beating Golden State. He is a phenomenal player.
They just don't need him like the Cavs need Thompson.
If I told you Green shot 31 percent from 3-point range, had some bad moments vs. LeBron James on switches, had some sloppy turnovers, played overall just OK or even "not great," and the Warriors won in five, would you be shocked? Truly? No, because you'd assume Curry went nuts or Durant picked up the slack or the Cavs didn't play well. There are a lot of ways the Warriors win if Draymond Green doesn't play well.
That said, he's still of huge importance. Green is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs. He shot 30.8 percent in the regular season. He does this. This has been what Green does since their first run back in 2013, he shoots above what is thought to be his standard. In the first half of Game 7, he was lights out and the Warriors led. He fell back to Earth in the second half. The Warriors lost. If he hits 3's, again, you're probably done. But the Cavs still have to dare him to make shots because they can't live with shots from Curry, Durant, or Thompson. It's what makes the Warriors impossible.
Draymond Green can win Finals MVP. He's that good. But he's not as important as the other guys on this list.
Tristan Thompson is way higher than his station, here. He's a rebounder and shot blocker, who throws down some dunks, gets some putbacks. But if the Cavaliers are going to put up a fight defensively, it starts with him, not James, because James has to guard individual perimeter assignments. He can't play free safety, the Warriors can just remove him from the equation. He has to engage on Curry, Durant or Green.
So it starts with Thompson. You have to beat Golden State on the boards. The Cavs will try and match 3-pointers with this team, they have the firepower. But you can't give up second-chance opportunities to Golden State. They'll tear you apart in the chaos of trying to re-find your assignment. Offensive-rebound-3's are daggers vs. the Warriors. So Thompson has to grab the board.
He also has to protect the rim. The Warriors generated 1.3 points per possession on cuts in the playoffs, accounting for 147 points over 16 games. That's 10 points per game. Cut that in half and you've done major work. Thompson has to be aware, snuff those out, and recover. He'll have to jump about 11,000 times per game. And he has to do it without fouling. If he gets in foul trouble, the Cavs have no recourse but to go small, and they'll get crushed in second-chance points and give up buckets at the rim.
Plus, Thompson has to effectively switch. He's going to find times where he's guarding every single Warrior, and he has to manage to contain, especially in any 1-5 pick and rolls with Curry. The Cavaliers have to have a massive series from Thompson. Like Smith, he struggled in the first four games of the Finals, and when he came alive, it helped change the series.
Kevin Durant's the most valuable Warrior. He's the best Warrior. He's the most versatile Warrior. He's the second-best player in this series, in this league, on this planet, in this universe. He is the Silver Surfer, delivering the Warriors to destroy your planet.
He and Curry are pretty close, but the difference is that Durant's simply not going to have a bad series. It's impossible. He might miss shots. He could have a bad shooting series; that would help Cleveland. He might have some mistakes or late-game gaffes. That could swing a game or two.
But he's not going to be bad. He'll either be great defensively, make great passes, have huge scoring games, spread the floor effectively, control the glass, block shots or most probably, do a little bit of all of that. He's impossible to stop, because Durant from an early age in the NBA recognized the need to be better at multiple things.
That's why he's not Carmelo Anthony, or any other one-dimensional scorer. He does everything, and he plays the game the right way. He's unselfish, but with a killer instinct. He's determined, but coachable. He listens, he adapts, he competes.
The Warriors could get a great series from Durant and lose. That's plausible. So he's not second. But make no mistake, Kevin Durant can decide these Finals, his legacy and his place at the top of the league, in this series.
Stephen Curry is within range, if he has a strong Finals, to shoot 50-40-90 on FG percentage, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage, which is pretty exclusive company for a playoff run. So yeah, he makes shots.
But the overall impact Curry has on this Warriors team is fascinating. His presence should mean less with Kevin Durant on board. He should still be great, but he shouldn't be necessary. Yet, in both the regular season and playoffs, the only player who the Warriors had a negative point differential per 100 possessions when he was on the bench was Curry. This should not be overlooked. The Warriors, in a playoff run where they have swept every team, have a positive net rating with every player on the bench, except Steph Curry.
Can the Warriors win if Curry's not great? Absolutely. They've done it before. Truth be told, the list of series where Curry has been truly capital-G Great is pretty small. His game suffers in the playoffs vs. traps and when possession basketball matters, plus he was injured last year.
With Durant, you can't do that effectively, and Curry's found a balance between attacking the rim and launching from the outside. He's big-shot hunting less, trusting the offense more, playing within himself, but also transcending. They don't need Curry to be great to win.
But if he is, if he's the best player in this series, the Cavaliers are not winning the title. He's the ultimate trump card.
Can the Greatest Player of His Generation, maybe, just possibly, the Greatest Of All Time, do so much, be so great, as to overcome even this super team? James is the most important player in this series for dozens of reasons, but first and foremost, if he is the best player in the series, the Cavaliers have a chance. The Cavs were without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in 2015 and still took two games off Golden State because LeBron was just that incredible. And this season, he's having maybe his best ever.
On the other hand, if James struggles in this series, the Cavaliers have no chance. They can lose with him being the best player in the series, they cannot win with any of the Warriors being better. He is the Cavs' best defensive player, best playmaker, best overall scoring force, their second-best rebounder, their leader, the soul of their team and his presence somehow brings more than all of that.
If you look at James' playoff stat line, it's just absurd, you start to giggle. He's averaging 33 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists while shooting 57 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range.
It's not fair to think James can top what he did last year. It's just not reasonable to think any player can rise to such a height again. The competition is too tough. His minutes have been too high. He's 32 years old.
But then again ... do you really want to tell LeBron James there's anything he can't do on a basketball court?