• Based on their shared history, it makes sense that the Warriors and Cavaliers boast the NBA's top talent. But who's the most important player in the series?
By Rohan Nadkarni
May 30, 2017

There will be so many stars in the NBA Finals, it’s almost hard to keep track of them all. The Warriors and Cavaliers have two of the most loaded rosters in the league, and both made improvements to the squads that faced off for the championship last year. If you’ve had a little trouble keeping up with the personnel or you just want a refresher because there haven’t been any basketball games in 492 days, here’s every player in the Finals ranked by importance in determining the outcome.

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Won’t See Much Time

30. Edy Tavares

29. Damian Jones

28. Kevon Looney

27. James Jones

26. Derrick Williams

25. Dahntay Jones

24. Kay Felder

23. James McAdoo

You shouldn’t expect to see any of these guys on the court unless it’s garbage time or one of the teams is dealing with serious injuries. The most you can say about this group is watch out for their bench celebrations. If four or more of these eight guys are on the court at once, turn the TV off and spend some time with your loved ones.

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Role Players

22. Matt Barnes

21. Richard Jefferson

Barnes and Jefferson are two aged vets who haven’t played a ton during the playoffs. Still, both can offer a little outside shooting and rugged defense when called upon. Barnes played well for the Warriors when Kevin Durant was injured during the regular season, and Jefferson had some great moments for the Cavs during last year’s Finals. It would be surprising if either of these guys got regular playing time in the series, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see them on the court for a few minutes here and there, even if it’s only to give someone the slightest breather.

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20. Channing Frye

Frye is in an interesting place in this series. He didn’t play much in last year’s Finals, but the Cavs also had Timofey Mozgov on the roster then. Frye is Cleveland’s only backup big, but he doesn’t offer much in terms of rim protection or offense in the lane. Frye’s biggest value is his three-point shooting, but that could be mitigated if he’s not up to the task defensively. Frye could be in trouble if he’s chasing around Warriors’ guards while trying to contain Javale McGee. I think the conundrum with Frye will ultimately keep him on the bench more often than he’s on the court. Expect huge minutes for Tristan Thompson and for Cleveland to play small with lineups anchored by Kevin Love or LeBron James at center.

19. Patrick McCaw

18. Shaun Livingston

17. Ian Clark

The Warriors’ backup guards all see a not-insignificant amount of playing time. McCaw has mostly played in mop-up duty, and Golden State’s created a lot of messes through the first three rounds of the playoffs. But he’s flashed a three-point touch, and Mike Brown won’t be scared to play him because he’s a rookie. Livingston is still doing his Livingston thing, living inside the three-point line, posting up smaller guards and finding junky offense. Livingston rarely has a negative impact on the court, and his reliability is important in high-leverage moments. He had some nice moments against the Cavs in last year’s Finals, so don’t be shocked if he mixes in one big game. Clark has a little spark to his game, and he’s shooting 40% from three so far during the playoffs. Clark isn’t the best defender, and he’ll have to be completely focused if he’s asked to chase around one of Cleveland’s shooters. Still, he’s a capable sub, and his shooting could be needed if Andre Iguodala continues to struggle.

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16. Deron Williams

After loudly complaining about a lack of playmakers on the team during the regular season, LeBron James was given Deron Williams, who has actually acquitted himself well in Cleveland. The former Jazz star steadied the Cavs’ guard rotation, and his presence behind Kyrie Irving has been welcome. Williams has become a reliable backup for Cleveland, and he never plays too far over his head. He’s shooting well from the field and keeping his turnovers down while more or less keeping up defensively. Williams could see his minutes decrease if Irving is asked to do even more during the Finals, but Cleveland can count on him whenever he’s in the game.

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Big And Shooters

15. David West

14. Zaza Pachulia

13. Javale McGee

For a team known for playing small, the Warriors’ bigs have been a revelation this season. West has played center more often than any other time in his career, and he’s responded with intelligent passing and timely scores. Pachulia has admirably filled the shoes of Andrew Bogut, playing solid defense and finding scraps on offense, leading to dominant performances from the Dubs’ starting five. And McGee has been a gamechanger, sometimes wrecking opponents and blowing things open in short, three-or-four minute stretches.

Pachulia and McGee give Golden State an advantage in this series particularly because Cleveland doesn’t have a traditional center on the roster to counteract them. McGee will be a taxing matchup for anyone on the Cavs’ bench, and he could single-handedly force Tyronn Lue to adjust his rotation to keep Thompson in the game longer. Of the three bigs, West is probably the best player but also the easiest to match up with for Cleveland. Keep an eye on McGee—if he goes off in short bursts, he could swing a game by himself.

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12. Iman Shumpert

11. Kyle Korver

10. J.R. Smith

Cleveland’s wings will each have to have a huge series if the Cavs want a chance at winning. Shumpert has seen his role marginalized with the addition of Korver, but Shump has been shooting well during the postseason and he’s the best perimeter defender of this group. It wouldn’t be surprising if he got an uptick in minutes in the Finals to help defend Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, but if he struggles shooting, Lue will keep him on a short leash.

Korver is shooting 42% from three in the postseason and he has the ultimate green light to keep firing away. He’s more than held his own defensively so far, but the Warriors present a whole new challenge. If Korver can keep connecting at his current rate, he will create enough problems for Golden State to warrant his role above Shumpert’s.

Smith has bounced back from injury and personal circumstances to shoot 45% from three and play engaged defense in the playoffs. Smith played very well down the stretch of last year’s Finals, and the Cavs will need his infectious shooting and physical defense more than ever. Something within Cleveland just clicks when Smith is having a big game. Smith is similar to McGee in that, if he goes off one night, he has the potential to decide a game himself.

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9. Klay Thompson

Thompson is this low because the Warriors have proved they can win easily even with Thompson far from his best. Klay has struggled in the postseason, averaging playoff career-lows in scoring and field-goal percentage. If he returns to form, the world may not be prepared for what the Warriors are capable of when everyone is hitting shots. If he continues to struggle, the door remains slightly ajar for the Cavs to upset.

8. Andre Iguodala

Iguodala has been awful from three in the playoffs and he battled some knee soreness against the Spurs, which is concerning after he finished last year’s Finals clearly hobbled by a bad back. With Durant, Iguodala’s defense on LeBron won’t be as essential, but he’s still the Warriors’ best option for slowing down James. But if Iguodala can’t hit his open shots, the Cavs can hide a poor defender on him and make Golden State pay by connecting on threes from the other end. Again, Iguodala’s struggles haven’t been a problem for the Dubs so far, but Cleveland’s own shooting ability could really magnify Iguodala’s offensive issues.

7. Kyrie Irving

Irving was sensational in last year’s Finals, hitting the biggest shot of the series and making his own case for MVP. His scoring will be needed, but simply outgunning Stephen Curry won’t be enough this year because of the Warriors’ firepower. A great series from Irving is absolutely essential for the Cavs to pull off the upset, but his impact is slightly mitigated by his positional matchup.

6. Tristan Thompson

Thompson’s defense on Curry and his offensive rebounding were major keys in the Cavs’ 2016 upset. As Cleveland’s only real big, Thompson will be called to play heavy minutes in this series. He will have to outplay the Warriors centers while also dominating against Golden State’s smaller lineups. If Thompson can still comfortably switch out onto the perimeter, protect the rime and inhale offensive boards, then Cleveland can dictate the style of play and not be forced to match smaller lineups. It won’t be his scoring, but everything else Thompson does will be of extreme value to the Cavs.

5. Draymond Green

The best defensive player in the world right now. Green, of course, unlocks the Warriors’ death lineup because of his ability to play center. His shooting has also been lights out during the playoffs, though some regression has to be expected. Golden State would have won the Finals last year if Green wasn’t suspended, so expect a focused, highly motivated series from him. When the Cavs are forced to pick their poison defensively, they will likely leave Green some open outside shots, and if he continues to connect at a high rate, this will be a short series.

4. Kevin Love

Love, outside of his memorable stop of Curry in Game 7, had a forgettable Finals in 2016. He was targeted on defense and couldn’t find his shooting stroke. Love seems to be reaching new levels of comfort, however, and his conference finals performance against the Celtics was spectacular. If Love can maintain that level of play, Cleveland becomes a much better team. If Love can find his offense and hold up defensively, the Cavs can be less afraid to play small while still matching the firepower of the Warriors. Outside of LeBron, Love is Cleveland’s most important player in this series. He’s the X-factor. If Love picks up where he left off against the Celtics, then the Cavs are the best possible version of themselves they can be. And that version will be needed to beat this version of Golden State.

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Mega Stars

3. Kevin Durant

Simply put, Cleveland can’t let Durant shoot all the open threes Harrison Barnes bricked in last year’s Finals. If everyone else on his team has an off night, Durant is still capable of winning a game by himself. Durant is consistent, and his game is so much more than scoring. He plays within the offense, finding open shooters and making crisp passes, while also contributing heavily on the defensive end. Of course, Durant will also be matched up with the one human designed to slow him down—LeBron James.

2. Stephen Curry

Over the last three seasons, no singular skill in the NBA has been as important as Curry’s shooting ability. If Steph gets into his zone, nothing can stop him. Curry is having his best playoff run this year, but he’s been inconsistent in the last two Finals. If Curry is at his absolute best for a whole series, I’m not sure if Cleveland has a chance.

1. LeBron James

James is the best basketball player alive and maybe the best to ever do it. The Cavs will need a superhuman performance from him in every game to even sniff an upset. But the way James has played since Game 5 of last year’s Finals makes it seem as if anything is within his reach.

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