Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals goes off Thursday night, and if you're a basketball head, this series has a ton of intrigue. For starters, the two best players in the playoffs are going head to head. How it should be. Two teams steeped in cohesion and culture who haven't tried to fast track the process and play as a total unit.
There are a lot of ways to break down this matchup and series, but for this piece I'm going to keep it really simple by ranking the starters for both sides 1-10. Important: This ranking is based on how these players are playing heading into this series. When we do our top 100 players for next season, they might not file in this same order. But right now, this is how I see it.
1. Nikola Jokic
Jokic is the best player in the world. He basically guarantees Denver an awesome shot every time down the floor. Eric Spoelstra says it will take all five guys to defend Jokic, but even that won't be enough; Butler will have to prove equally indefensible and/or Miami's shooting will have to remain red-hot to have any chance of neutralizing Jokic, who is 10-2 over the course of his career against Bam Adebayo.
2. Jimmy Butler
Butler would rank as the best player in just about any other series at this point. He's been dominant all through the playoffs, though he has had more inefficient games over the past two rounds than you may realize. Butler will need to rediscover the first-round form he showed against Milwaukee when he was a total terror if Miami is going to win this series, and he can do it. Even against Jokic, doubt Butler at your peril.
3. Jamal Murray
Murray has been the best player on the floor for stretches of this postseason for the Nuggets. Think about what that says. He's not as great as Jokic, but he as electric as any scorer on the planet when he gets it going. And he had it all going against the Lakers, averaging 32.7 points on 52.7/40.5/95 shooting splits.
4. Caleb Martin
Over a longer timeline, Martin is not the fourth-best player in this series (I don't think he is, anyway), but he's at that level right now and the Heat need to him to stay above his head against the Nuggets. Martin shot a blistering 49% from 3 on over six attempts per game against Boston. And he didn't just shoot. He attacked closeouts and finished at the rim. He created one-on-one. Is Martin suddenly a $100 million player, or will he come back to earth in the Finals?
5. Aaron Gordon
Gordon has been a defensive monster throughout these playoffs and the Nuggets will need him to remain in top form as the primary Jimmy Butler defender. Offensively, Miami will have most of its attention focused on Jokic and Murray, leaving room for Gordon to play a major cutting role in this series as the Heat attempt to force Denver into a heavy jump-shooting attack. If Gordon can use his athleticism to get to the rim, both in the half court and certainly in transition, it will be a big advantage in Denver's favor.
6. Bam Adebayo
Bam should be battling Murray for designation of third-best player in this series. He hasn't played at that level consistently of late, particularly offensively. His mission is huge in this series. Make it as difficult as possible (with plenty of help) on Jokic, and force the two-time MVP to work on the other end. Miami can hurt Denver in drop coverage, so if Jokic comes up in pick and roll it will be up to Adebayo to make plays out of slips and rolls.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this is a going to be a big KCP series. He's been so vital for the Nuggets as a defender and core component of their vast 3-point attack. He gave Denver almost 15 points per game in the conference finals on better than 44% 3-point shooting at high volume. If Miami succeeds in turning Denver into more of a jump-shooting team than it would like, KCP is a big-shot taker and maker.
Porter has made real strides as a defender; he's actually an asset now with his length. He was superb vs. the Lakers at 15 points per game, making his better than eight 3s per game at a 42% clip. Porter is really in a nice groove right now, not forcing anything yet hunting his shots without crowding Murray's space as a top option next to Jokic.
9. Gabe Vincent
Vincent is a stud. Eric Spoelstra has given him a bright green light and he's playing with total confidence. He shot 51.6% on over five 3s per against against Boston, scoring over 15 points per game, and he will be a weapon should Denver decide to play drop coverage when he's handling.
10. Max Strus
Strus winds up last on this list, but this is probably going to be north of a $60 million player on his next contract. He is the new Duncan Robinson in Miami's attack and will fire without hesitation regardless of situation. Just a solid player who plays team defense and fits right into Miami's tempo as a pull-up and quick catch-and-shoot artist.