Pat Riley has a principle for the NBA's highest-leverage games. "Use eight, rotate seven, play six, trust five." The difference between "use," "rotate," and "play" remains ambiguous to this day, but the message is clear: This ain't January. When you get to the Finals, you're supposed to banish most of your roster and live or die by your best players. Our two finalists operate on the opposite ends of that spectrum.
When injuries permitted, Celtics coach Ime Udoka trimmed his rotation to eight as far back as the regular season. Save a two-minute Payton Pritchard cameo, he only really used seven players in Sunday's Game 7 victory over Riley's Miami Heat. Warriors coach Steve Kerr once used 10 players in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Kumbaya Kerr cares not for Riley's pearls of wisdom. He's going to give Patrick McCaw developmental Finals minutes whether you like it or not.
That contrast sets the stage for a fascinating Finals matchup. One of these teams has an incredibly predictable rotation. The other could conceivably use 14 different players depending on circumstances. With that contrast in mind, let's rank all 30 rostered players in this series and attempt to figure out which of them are worthy of being used, rotated, played and trusted.
CBS Sports HQ Newsletter
Your Ultimate Guide to Every Day in Sports
We bring sports news that matters to your inbox, to help you stay informed and get a winning edge.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Out of the picture
30. Sam Hauser, Boston Celtics
29. James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
28. Juwan Morgan, Boston Celtics
27. Malik Fitts, Boston Celtics
26. Nik Stauskas, Boston Celtics
25. Luke Kornet, Boston Celtics
24. Aaron Nesmith, Boston Celtics
23. Juan Toscano-Anderson, Golden State Warriors
Sam Hauser and James Wiseman automatically start at the bottom of the list here based on injuries. Wiseman, as a No. 2 overall pick, beats out Hauser, who has never been a steady rotation player. Morgan and Fitts haven't been either, but if, for whatever reason, they were called upon to play in this series, they'd be available. Stauskas and Kornet have both been in NBA rotations in the past, and both are at least capable of hitting shots. Neither can defend anywhere near the level necessary to play in the Finals. Boston essentially confirmed to us that it considers Nesmith its best non-rotation player when it gave him minutes in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals due to other absences. When the Celtics were healthy, though, Nesmith was out of the mix. Toscano-Anderson has sadly been pushed to the fringes by Jonathan Kuminga. Both are athletic forwards who can score easy points on cuts and in transition, but Kuminga is just more explosive and more comfortable with the ball in his hands.
The real takeaway here? We've already burned through 40 percent of Boston's roster. Only two Warriors are listed here, and it wouldn't be the craziest thing in the world for Kerr to use Toscano-Anderson at some point. He played 32 minutes in a do-or-die play-in game against Memphis only a year ago, after all. He's capable of contributing. The Warriors are just too deep to let him.
22. Daniel Theis, Boston Celtics
21. Moses Moody, Golden State Warriors
20. Damion Lee, Golden State Warriors
19. Payton Pritchard, Boston Celtics
18. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors
17. Nemanja Bjelica, Golden State Warriors
16. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Theis is a "break glass in case of emergency" player. If Robert Williams III can't stay on the floor, he's at least a playable fourth big. The word "playable" is doing a lot of work in that sentence, though, because the Celtics lost his 46 minutes against Miami by 47 points. He was far better against Brooklyn. Golden State's motion would give him the same problems the Heat did.
That brings us to the three youngsters. Moody ranks last among them on track record. He's acquitted himself quite well since joining the rotation for the Dallas series, but hitting shots against the Mavericks is one thing. Doing it against Boston is quite another, and with Gary Payton II back in the fold, Moody probably isn't playing major minutes. Pritchard had trouble surviving defensively against the Heat. Golden State doesn't like to switch hunt, but it'll make exceptions for the right matchups. Pritchard is probably relegated to the minutes Stephen Curry sits in this matchup. Kuminga is the wildcard, a luxury Golden State can bust out when needed but leave on the bench otherwise. His athleticism is going to pose a problem to every Boston big not named Robert Williams, but as more of a situational change of pace, he's probably not going to see major minutes here.
Nemanja Bjelica probably won't either, and he probably would've ranked below the kids before last round. But he survived defensively against Dallas, and if Luka Doncic can't kill you, the Celtics certainly can't. Golden State will badly need a big man who can space the floor to stretch Boston's incredible defense. Bjelica can do so. Andre Iguodala tops this group on institutional knowledge alone. He's been there and done that so many times that the Warriors know exactly what to expect from him, provided he's healthy enough to play. That he's sized ideally to defend Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum is a fortuitous bonus.
15. Kevon Looney, Golden State Warriors
14. Gary Payton II, Golden State Warriors
13. Derrick White, Boston Celtics
Here's a fun fact: Kevon Looney averaged four rebounds per game in his first six seasons. He jumped over seven this season. Since the Warriors started giving him starter minutes late in the Memphis series? He's up to 12.5. Looney has added bulk this season without sacrificing his perimeter defensive capabilities, and that has made him a credible interior scoring option. He's not going to post up Horford in this series, but he's going to pull in offensive rebounds and take advantage of the easy shots Curry creates.
Payton takes advantage of Curry's gravity in the same way, but where Looney is a good defender, Payton, on a per-minute basis, might be as great as the two former Defensive Player of the Year winners in this series. If you thought the Celtics struggled to hold onto the ball against Miami, just wait until you see what Payton does to them, and despite his size disadvantage, the Warriors will be more than comfortable throwing him on Tatum and Brown. Short of centers, they'll throw him on anyone. If he's making his corner 3s, he might close games in this series. If all of his offense is coming off of cuts, he's slightly lower in the rotation.
White is somewhat more reliable as a ball-handler than Payton, and while neither is a particularly adept shooter, White is at least comfortable from firing all over the arc. Payton is limited mostly to the corners. Even if Payton is the superior defender, White isn't far behind, and Boston has survived playoff games with him as its starting point guard. Payton's job just isn't as difficult. He comes in, wrecks some havoc, eats Curry's scraps and then takes a seat.
12. Otto Porter Jr., Golden State Warriors
11. Robert Williams III, Boston Celtics
Welcome to the injury table. Golden State got Porter for the minimum because he just spent the better part of a max contract sidelined by some malady or another. He's missed time in the postseason as well, and even when he plays, the Warriors keep him on a fairly tight minutes limit. He's reached 30 minutes just four times this season, but in the minutes that he plays, he's largely lived up to the lofty contract he's no longer playing under. He checks every box on the 3-and-D checklist while adding timely cuts and a hint of ball-handling in one low-maintenance package. Porter is the sort of player every contender needs. He does his job and asks for nothing in return.
Williams is something a bit more substantial, and frankly, was just as essential to Boston's otherworldly defense as Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart. Boston turned its season around by turning him into an off-ball rover. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo is better at that role … when Williams is healthy. He isn't right now. He'd rank higher on this list if he was capable of giving Boston 30 good minutes. He averaged under 22 in the last four games of the Miami series, and they weren't always good. When he's right, there's just no answer for his athleticism. He's going to finish three or four lobs per night and terrify every opposing driver. But with its season on the line Sunday, Boston gave Grant Williams twice as many minutes. With his knee hobbling him, Williams has to be held out of the top 10.
10. Grant Williams, Boston Celtics
9. Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors
8. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
7. Andrew Wiggins, Golden State Warriors
6. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
5. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
4. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
3. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
James Herbert P.J. Tucker's footsteps, and a more appropriate comparison could not be made. He's extremely undersized for his position and it doesn't hamper him one bit. He's just going to keep making his corner 3s, playing stellar defense across several positions and enraging everyone he plays against with his complaining until someone figures out how to make him stop. If Giannis couldn't, no one will.a great story on Grant Williams following in
I over-ranked Poole on Max Strus, the Celtics have already identified Jordan Poole as their target in the Finals.because of what he can be at his best. The fully realized version of him is going to average 25 points per game. There's simply no answer for his combination of perimeter shooting, interior craft, speed and ball-handling. He's the avatar of young scorers. He's just not consistent enough yet. The shot gets a bit rickety. He gets picked on defensively. Boston isn't as precarious a matchup for him as Dallas could have been, but make no mistake, after a series in which they based their offense largely around hunting
Horford and Wiggins are an interesting comparison point. Horford's game is all subtlety. He can be the best player on the floor without scoring a single point. Golden State prides itself on creating such players, with Draymond Green as the apex of that art form. Wiggins isn't quite there yet, but he's making progress. His cuts are crisp. He makes the right passes. And he does these things without sacrificing the louder portions of his game that made him a No. 1 overall pick in the first place. Mikal Bridges was the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, yet Wiggins played better on-ball defense against Doncic than he did. When points are at a premium in the Finals, there's something to be said for someone who's going to steadily give you 18 points and can create some of them for himself even if he isn't doing so especially efficiently. At one point in their careers, Horford was almost the photo negative of Wiggins: a hipster darling dominating in the margins while the overpaid golden boy sleep-walked his way through prime seasons in Minnesota. That version of Wiggins is long gone. The new one has been everything Golden State could've hoped for.
Three years ago, Smart vs. Thompson wasn't a debate. It wasn't three months ago either, when Thompson was still finding himself after two years away and Smart was spearheading a historic second-half run. Thompson is the consummate off-ball star. Smart's career year has been the result of Boston finally trusting him to be a point guard and run its offense. They were once contemporaries defensively. They aren't anymore. Thompson just doesn't move as well laterally as he once did, and as a result he's declined significantly. But Game 5 of the Dallas series reminded us just how dangerous Thompson can still be. Those heat checks are what allow the Warriors to get away with playing as many non-shooters as they do. Thompson is impacting offense whether he has the ball or not. Smart is impacting offense no matter what, but that impact can range from very positive to very negative. How he managed to lead the Celtics in shot attempts over both of the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals, I will never understand. Smart is just a hair too inconsistent to rank above Klay at this point, but if Boston wins, it will be in part because Smart outplayed Thompson.
Every superlative we've laid on Horford applies to Draymond Green in spades. He's the best defender in the NBA. He's the best short-roll playmaker in the NBA. He's managed to carve out a role for himself as the primary playmaker on the NBA's most unique offense without ever needing to score. But … scoring is nice! And Brown does a lot of it. If Brown wasn't himself a stellar defender, this might be a different conversation. But this is a similar argument to Horford vs. Wiggins, and Wiggins got the edge there. When both players do the invisible things, one player succeeding conventionally is going to edge the other out even if he doesn't have those subtler advantages.
I ranked Tatum above Curry before the conference finals. I don't know if I regret that, but Miami certainly shined a light on his shortcomings. There were three competitive games in the ECF. Tatum averaged just 15.7 shots in those games. To some extent, the Celtics didn't do a good enough job of getting him the ball, but Miami, like Milwaukee in the second round, was able to bother Tatum with smaller, stockier defenders. He switch-hunted Max Strus aggressively in response, but his results were mixed in doing so. Boston won the series. Tatum was, at times, excellent in the process. But he lacked Jimmy Butler's undeniability. Jimmy Butler is not better than Stephen Curry.
My argument for putting Tatum above Curry at the time revolved around Curry's underwhelming 3-point shooting this season and the limitations it imposed on his individual production. He still hasn't scored 40 points in a game this postseason. Tatum's 46-point gem in Game 6 against the Bucks is up there with any playoff performance Curry has ever had. But neither of these guys is prime LeBron James. They're not even Antetokounmpo. Statistically speaking, some games are going to be better than others. They won't all be gems.
So what is the tiebreaker in that case? If it's defense, Tatum has a sizable edge, but Curry has been quite good in that respect this postseason. Tatum is the better two-way player here, but Curry's offense, whether he scores or not, is undeniable. His gravity makes Golden State's offense viable. Tatum's helps quite a bit, but he isn't Curry because nobody is Curry. Defenses can limit his scoring but they can't contain his impact.
So if Tatum is going to pass him, he has to do so with the ball in his hands. We don't necessarily need him to match what he did in Game 6 against the Bucks, but he can't be held to 15 or 16 shot attempts either. He has to be undeniable as a scorer, and if Boston wins this series, it will probably be because he was.