NBA

Ranking NBA’s 20 best players in conference finals: Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum or Stephen Curry at No. 1?

The 2021 postseason belonged to Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 2020 postseason belonged to LeBron James. The 2019 postseason belonged to Kawhi Leonard. When the dust settles on the 2022 postseason, someone is going to stand on top of the mountain. Right now, there’s no clear frontrunner for who that might be.

Antetokounmpo, James and Leonard are all out of the picture. So is Kevin Durant and the defending Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns. The MVP winner and runner-up? They’re gone, too. Here’s a fun fact: There is only one former Finals MVP still alive. Want to guess who it is? It’s Andre Iguodala. There aren’t just four teams vying for the title. There are four stars vying for the league’s individual throne. 

Supporting them are some of the deepest rosters you’ll ever see at this stage of the postseason. There’s not a superteam to be found in the 2022 conference finals. Instead, we have dozens of underappreciated youngsters trying to make their way in the league. Some are playing for contracts. Others for status. And we’re going to rank the 20 best of them left in the playing field. (Note: Kyle Lowry would be listed below if not for the uncertainty due to his ailing hamstring injury. We’re leaving him out because we just don’t know his availability going forward.)

Tier 9: The Dallas specialists

The Dallas Mavericks are living proof that 3-and-D players come in all shapes and sizes. Bullock plays shooting guard. Last postseason, Kleber defended Kawhi Leonard. This postseason, he’s playing center. Their functions are nearly identical: Make the shots Luka Doncic creates, protect Doncic from giving up those same shots on the other end of the floor. It’s a relatively straightforward gig that these two get to make their own in entirely distinct ways.

So why does Bullock get the edge over Kleber? Workload. Bullock doesn’t get tired. He’s played 44 or more minutes five times this postseason. Kleber’s never done it once in his career. He’s a low-minutes player. That suits Dallas just fine. The Mavericks probably “need” what Kleber does slightly more. His shooting at center powers their five-out offensive identity. Bullock is a slightly inferior version of a player in the next tier. But replacing Kleber’s 25 minutes per night is just easier than replacing Bullock’s 40. There’s also the fact that Kleber is currently shooting 16 percentage points better from 3 than he did in the regular season. Let’s assume a slight dip in the Western Conference finals.

Tier 8: Defense wins championships, Part 1

Williams vs. Tucker is the first toss-up of the list. The work Williams just did against Antetokounmpo was reminiscent of Tucker’s performance against Durant last season. Williams is the better shooter of the two (he’ll even leave the corner sometimes!), but Tucker is the more versatile defender. He has a track record of covering guards for lengthy stretches of games. Williams can do so off of switches, but Tucker is one of the few five-position defenders on Earth. That’s so obscenely valuable in 2022 that he gets the slightest of nods here. Williams might be the next generation’s Tucker. He’ll probably be even better.

Finney-Smith is the king of the Dallas 3-and-D’s. A steadier shooter than Bullock and a sturdier defender than Kleber, Finney-Smith held Donovan Mitchell to 32.7 percent shooting on the 52 attempts he took against him in the first round. Finney-Smith will make an All-Defense team someday. Robert Williams should this season. Frankly, there’s a compelling argument for him as Boston’s true Defensive Player of the Year. Turning him into an off-ball rover saved Boston’s season. He’s the vertical element the Celtics largely lacked against Milwaukee, and he figures to be a major factor against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. 

Tier 7: The bucket

Tyler Herro had a better season than either of the two other young guards on the list. He won Sixth Man of the Year for a reason and now provides so much spacing that the Heat can afford not to play Duncan Robinson when matchups dictate they shouldn’t. Herro’s job is to get buckets. He does so relatively efficiently and at fairly steep volume. But does he drive team offense to the extent that Jalen Brunson does? Probably not. Brunson stole Dallas’ two wins against Utah without Doncic. Miami’s playoff offense has completely cratered in the minutes Jimmy Butler has sat. The Warriors are at least surviving Stephen Curry’s rests, thanks in no small part to Jordan Poole, whose athletic gifts and superior vision give him access to plays Herro just can’t execute. 

Herro’s 2020 postseason was, by rookie standards, remarkable. He’s been much closer to average this postseason, shooting only 42 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from 3. More distressing is his waning usage. Victor Oladipo is now playing nearly as many minutes as he has. So is Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus is ahead of him. It’s telling that even with Lowry down, the Heat aren’t entrusting Herro with added ball-handling duties. His defensive vulnerability might be responsible for that. The Heat don’t miss a beat with Vincent, Strus or Oladipo playing defense. Herro might as well slap a bullseye on his chest. He’s talented enough to climb this list. He’s not playing up to that talent right now.

Tier 6: You get what you pay for

Wiggins is overpaid and a touch overrated. Who cares? He’s Golden State’s dream role player, a fully committed 3-and-D’er who is comfortable enough with the ball in his hands to operate freely within Golden State’s egalitarian offense. As Dallas will surely find as the postseason progresses … sometimes it’s nice to just have a fourth or fifth guy on your roster who can occasionally dribble out of trouble or sustain your bench units with two minutes of mid-range jumpers. Once or twice per game, Wiggins pulls some athletic feat that reminds you why he was the No. 1 pick in the draft before fading comfortably into the background. If he shared the sky-high basketball IQ that has made some of his teammates legends, he’d be in the top 10 on this list.

Basketball IQ isn’t a problem for Smart and Horford. If I wrote this list after Game 4 of the Bucks series, Horford might’ve found himself in the Draymond Green/Bam Adebayo tier. He’s their geriatric equivalent, Boston’s everything, everywhere-all-at-once big man. Could Green or Adebayo have given their teams 52 combined points in back-to-back road playoff games with their season on the line? Probably not. The next three games were a reminder that Horford has limits in his mid-30s. Smart, smack dab in his prime, does not. There isn’t a better help-defending guard on Earth than Smart. Go ask Brooklyn what happens when you try to dribble near the middle of the court against Smart’s team. Smart is simultaneously the guard equivalent of Horford and his shadow. Horford is reserved and scales up reluctantly. Smart will blow a game in crunch time, shrug and come back to take nine 3s in the next one. Championship teams need on-court versatility, but they also need those contrasting personalities.

Look, Klay is a legacy pick. He’s been worse than everyone in this tier on balance in the playoffs. I’m just going to ask you one simple question: After watching what he did to Memphis in Game 6 … can you honestly tell me you’d rather have anyone listed above him here with your season on the line? No? Great. We’re sticking with Klay in the top 10. He’s not remotely the defender he once was and you know within a few minutes when he doesn’t have it offensively. But when he does? Congratulations. You’ve won the game.

Tier 5: The future is now

  • 9. Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks
  • 8. Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors

This is Batman vs. Superman. Brunson is all craft, the little genius with some of the best footwork in the NBA. Poole has plenty of that craft too … but he can also stare down your best defender and say “watch me blow by him before flipping this pass behind my head to a wide-open shooter.” Brunson has maximized every ounce of talent he has. Poole is so talented that we’re years away from even knowing how far he can go. If you needed to pick one to be your primary ball-handler for a game or season? You probably take the steadier Brunson. If you want to strike terror into the hearts of defenses that are already panicking over what your superstar is doing? You take the nuclear athlete who hits 40 percent of his 3s.

Tier 4: Defense wins championships, Part 2

Draymond Green is the best defender in the world and would have won Defensive Player of the Year had he not gotten hurt. Bam Adebayo isn’t far behind, but for him to pass a three-time champion like Green, he’d have to bridge the gap somewhere else. He isn’t really doing that right now. He’s not allergic to the basket like Draymond is, but he’s not much of an individual shot-creator and his scoring has dipped to 14.6 points in the playoffs without Kyle Lowry to feed him buckets. That’s not especially surprising, but the Heat haven’t used Adebayo as much as a playmaker in Lowry’s absence as many expected. He’s a stellar passer, though he misses his favorite handoff partner Robinson, who has largely fallen out of the rotation. Their two-man dance was one of Miami’s most reliable offensive actions the last time the Heat reached the Finals. 

Scoring aside, Green’s offensive role is more vital. While Adebayo is more dependent on the offense to generate shots for him, Green’s ability to vacillate between point guard and center is essential to Golden State’s offense. Even without having to cover for his individual weaknesses, it’s worth noting that the Warriors were essentially a league-average offense during his prolonged mid-season absence. Adebayo is the closest thing we have to a “next Draymond.” His superior size and athleticism even opens doors for him that aren’t available to Green. But without steadier scoring, he can’t quite pass the Hall of Famer yet.

Tier 3: The perfect Robin

Jaylen Brown is easy. That’s the simplest way of putting it. He’s one of the league’s lowest-maintenance All-Stars, and that can be a double-edged sword. On lesser teams, his limitations as a shot-creator for teammates would be maddening. Boston has so much spare passing lying around the rest of its roster that Brown can blend into the offense as seamlessly as the Celtics need him to. As much as a tighter handle would help, Brown is a three-level scorer who rarely needs plays run for him. When we think of play-finishers rather than play-starters, we tend to think of big men dunking. Brown is the jump-shooting equivalent, someone who can sneak his way into 24 or 25 points with just a couple of well-timed cuts, quick releases off someone else’s penetration and a single aggressive stint with a bench lineup. Co-starring with Jayson Tatum isn’t always easy. He’s grown significantly as a playmaker, but he’s not always immune to the tunnel vision and poor shot selection that plagued his younger years. Boston doesn’t have a typical star-level point guard. Its offense functions as a unit and Brown is the second-most important cog within it.

Tier 2: I hope he doesn’t see that I left him out of Tier 1

  • 4. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Antetokounmpo was the best player in the postseason, but if you woke up tomorrow and found out he was actually an alien from the planet Blingor, you probably wouldn’t be that surprised. Among humans, Butler has made a compelling case for himself. He’s scoring only three fewer points per game in the postseason than Doncic despite a usage rate 10 percentage points lower. Miami doesn’t like to play Luka-ball. They want to whip the ball around the court and cut their opponents to death. Butler personifies that in the regular season. He turns into a much more traditional, heliocentric star when the playoffs call for it. Lowry’s absence has forced his hand the past few weeks. He’s Miami’s only consistent shot-creator and its best perimeter defender. 

If we pretended that no basketball had ever been played before the 2022 playoffs? Butler makes the top tier. You could almost argue that his playoff track record is extensive enough for his inclusion even despite his less accomplished overall resume. As well as Butler is playing right now, he’s never made First- or Second-Team All-NBA. We’re comparing him to a three-time MVP, a probable First-Team All-NBA choice at his own position and a 6-7 point guard drawing comparisons to LeBron. Butler has just never been that sort of player over a sustained period of time. 

Tier 1: Maybe the best player in the world

  • 3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
  • 2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
  • 1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Before we begin, I want to stress that this is a tier. You’d be justified ordering these players in any way you choose. Any one of them could get hot for the next few weeks and win the championship. One of them is probably going to and earn poll position in this group for next season. The gap here is so small that it’s practically a matter of preference. Here we go.

No modern offensive player affects defenses to the degree that Curry does. It takes five men to defend him. When one of them inevitably botches a switch or gets smacked by a screen, Curry takes what has been for the greater part of the past decade among the most efficient shots in NBA history. It says everything about Curry that you need to know that even in a season in which he’s making “only” 38 percent of his 3s, defenses haven’t loosened up one iota against him. That said … the fact that he’s making 38 percent of his 3s is concerning! He’s down to 36 percent in the playoffs. The degree of difficulty on his 3s is higher than practically anyone else’s, but that never kept him out of the 40s before. Steve Kerr doesn’t exactly help matters when he refuses to scale Curry’s pick-and-roll usage up until it’s absolutely necessary. Curry could make up for that lost efficiency with higher volume, but the Warriors are dogmatic about their motion offense. They have every right to be. They’re three-time champions. But as valuable as he is off the ball, he just hasn’t produced quite as much with it as his two contemporaries.

Tatum is the hardest to place here because he doesn’t quite dictate the terms of engagement as Curry and Doncic do. It took him five games to solve Milwaukee’s drop coverage. It would have taken Luka five minutes. That’s no knock on Tatum. He’s just a more specific sort of offensive player, something closer to Kawhi than LeBron. As we know, Leonard is an incredibly valuable offensive player. Tatum isn’t quite as lethal in the mid-range, but he’s growing in all of the same ways Leonard once did, and he’s doing so earlier in his career. He’s figured out how to force his way to the line when his shot isn’t falling. He’s grown by leaps and bounds as a playmaker since the last time he faced Miami in the playoffs. And if we’re sticking with the Leonard comparisons, Tatum just held Durant below 39 percent shooting in a four-game sweep. Doncic is a below-average defender. Curry is only slightly better. Tatum is a flat-out stopper. He’s the least valuable offensive player of the trio, but that enormous defensive gap gives him the slightest edge over this iteration of Curry.

But we’ve seen Tatum struggle in the playoffs, at least relative to his own lofty standards. Wes Matthews gave him fits early in the Bucks series. “Struggle” is probably too strong a word for what’s going on with Curry, but he’s undeniably mired in one of the worst shooting stretches of his career, and his shooting numbers have almost always dipped slightly in the playoffs. There are answers to Curry. There are answers to Tatum. They aren’t good answers, mind you. We’re talking about top-five players here. But defenses have found ways to make their lives harder in the playoffs.

That’s what separates Doncic, because based on what we’ve seen so far, there is no answer for him whatsoever. He played Leonard in the playoffs twice and came just shy of a 34-point triple-double average on 50-40 shooting splits. He averaged 29 playing hurt against Rudy Gobert. They have five Defensive Player of the Year awards between them. Mikal Bridges was this season’s runner-up and we all saw what Doncic just did to him. These are the best defenders in basketball … and they had no idea what to do with Doncic whatsoever. He’s defense-proof. Show him any sort of coverage and he’ll solve it by the third or fourth time he’s seen it. Nobody can defend him straight up. He’s too good a passer to blitz. Duck under screens and he’ll rain 3s on you. Chase him over and he’ll duck into you and draw a foul. His floater kills drop coverage. Switch and he tortures your worst defender. If you have any ideas, send them to Steve Kerr. I’m sure he’d appreciate them.

Breaking game plans to that extent is a level of greatness reserved for a very, very small group of players. Prime Shaq did it. Prime LeBron did it. Prime Michael Jordan did it. All of them won championships. Doncic probably isn’t going to do so this season. He’ll probably need the sort of star running mates Curry and Tatum have to eventually overcome them. But the fact that I kept using the word “probably” in those last few sentences is a testament to the uncharted territory Doncic is dragging us into. He’s so good that the typical rules of NBA history might not apply to him. He might not need another All-Star. He might be enough all by himself. That is why he’s the best player left in the playoff field. 



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