The 20 Most Important Players In The 2024 NBA Finals

It’s hard to not be excited about the NBA Finals this year. On one hand, we have a team that got corronated as the best team in their conference at the beginning of the season, and after sweeping the Indiana Pacers, the Boston Celtics were able to get to the place many expected them to end up. On the other, we have a team that needed to pivot on the fly and retool its team around a pair of stars, and as a result, the Dallas Mavericks have returned to the Finals for the first time since their magical run that ended in a title back in 2011.

Now, we have a matchup between two teams with rosters filled with stars and important role players. And today, we decided to look at 20 players who will take the floor in the NBA Finals and rank them based on how important they’re going to be to their team’s quest to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Reserves who have played a little this postseason

20. Dante Exum
19. Tim Hardaway Jr.
18. Jaden Hardy
17. Sam Hauser
16. Josh Green
15. Xavier Tillman/Luke Kornet
14. Payton Pritchard

You’ll sometimes get a game where one guy from this general category gives his team, like, 18 good minutes that helps them pick up a win. While those first five guys are all nice players — Exum’s renaissance this season has been great, Hardy is able to provide a little juice off the bench, Hardaway can get hot, Hauser can get really hot, Green’s athleticism and shooting are assets — keep an eye on the last three. Dallas’ size and physicality (along with the potential that Kristaps Porzingis isn’t 100 percent or gets hurt again) would mean Tillman or Kornet (the more likely option of the two if he’s fully healthy) could suddenly be thrust into an important role behind Al Horford, and they’ve generally rewarded Joe Mazzulla’s faith when they’ve had to do a lot. Pritchard, meanwhile, can provide an instant injection of scoring off the bench if Boston needs a change of pace and someone to add a little life to the offense if it gets bogged down.

Impactful big men

13. Maxi Kleber
12. Al Horford
11. Daniel Gafford
10. Dereck Lively II

Kleber’s switchability and shooting have made him a trusted option for years, and while he is just coming back from an injury, he was able to shake off a little rust at the end of the Timberwolves series. Whether he plays as a 4 alongside Gafford or Lively, or whether he’s thrown in as a smallball 5 to give Dallas a different look, Kleber provides something different that can be valuable against a Celtics team that will hunt switches and try to win the math battle by getting up a ton of threes.

There’s really nothing to say about Horford at this point. The man is a rock, and even at 38 years old, he can get dropped into the team’s starting lineup and battle, whether that means checking other bigs, stretching the floor, or giving the Celtics someone else who just knows how to play within their system and with all of their core pieces. Kristaps Porzingis is expected to be back after missing the last two rounds, but whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, you can basically set your watch to Horford giving the team good minutes, although watching him against two hyper-athletic bigs like Gafford and Lively will be fascinating.

As for Gafford and Lively: The former starts while the latter comes off the bench, despite the fact that Dallas’ numbers tend to be better when the rookie out of Duke is on the floor. Regardless, both of them are big, long, and athletic, and are major reasons why the Mavs have been getting tons of extra possessions off of offensive rebounds this postseason, while they’re two of the league’s premier lob threats playing alongside the league’s premier lob thrower in Luka Doncic. Their ability to guard on the perimeter is going to be tested this series, and if they can, that would be a huge boost for Dallas. They’ll have to be forces on the defensive glass, as well, because if you give the Celtics extra possessions off of offensive boards, you’re going to lose.

Critical role players

9. Jrue Holiday
8. Derrick Jones Jr.
7. PJ Washington

Holiday is the best player of the bunch here, but gets knocked down a bit because his success or failure won’t be nearly as critical to his team’s chances as it is for the other two dudes. Still, Holiday has been a perfect fit for the Celtics this year, and he’ll almost certainly get tasked with defending Kyrie Irving for long stretches during the Finals. There have been playoff games in the past where he gets a little overeager to try and get himself going as a scorer, and as long as that doesn’t happen in the Finals, it’s hard to see him having a bad series.

Jones and Washington are two nice players who will have to be excellent on both sides of the floor. The duo are almost certainly going to draw the Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum assignments on defense, and while shutting either guy’s water off completely won’t happen, just slowing them down enough so that their stars can take over games would be a gigantic boost (and also is very, very difficult to do). And regardless of whether the Celtics are able to successfully get hot from three, these two absolutely have to knock down the looks from behind the arc Irving and Luka Doncic generate. We saw during the Oklahoma City series how far one of them getting hot can go, as they do not beat the Thunder in six if not for Washington hitting 47 percent of his attempts from three.

The ceiling raisers

6. Derrick White
5. Kristaps Porzingis

Two things have happened this year that turned Boston into the best team in the NBA. One is that White has turned into a legitimate star guard — those who called him an All-Star earlier this year were probably a bit too optimistic, but the fact he even got into those conversations is probably more than the Celtics could’ve dreamed of when they acquired him. His ability to score, his comfort initiating the offense or acting as a connecting piece, and his defensive tenacity are all perfect fits in Boston’s starting five.

As for Porzingis, he could not have fit any more perfectly into this Celtics team. He’s embraced being a secondary or tertiary option in a way he didn’t during his time in Dallas, and while an injury has held him out the last two rounds, his ability to stretch the floor and provide elite rim protection have been exactly what Boston needed out of its center as Al Horford aged out of a starting job. And when the team needs him to get in the low post, he’s turned into an elite scorer, which, uh, hasn’t always been the case.

When both of their guys bring their A-games — hell, when one of them brings their A-game and the other just has a nice night — Boston can survive a game where Brown and/or Tatum are a just a hair off. It’s an incredible luxury. And when Brown and Tatum are cooking, both of these guys can slide into roles where they focus entirely on the stuff they’re great at, which makes them equally dangerous. How Dallas deals with these two in addition to Boston’s pair of All-Stars is maybe the single most important thing to watch in this series.

The superstar running mates

4. Kyrie Irving
3. Jaylen Brown

Irving has been weird this postseason. He’ll go through stretches where he just doesn’t really impact the game on offense at all and he has, like, five points in a half — his defense, to be fair, has consistently been respectable (and sometimes great). And then, the switch flips, and all of a sudden he turns into the killer on the offensive end that helps Luka Doncic carry the Mavs to wins. Dallas basically needs him to be at his best whenever he is on the floor against Boston, which is going to be difficult due to the fact that he’s constantly going to be hounded by Jrue Holiday and Derrick White. He has it in him to put up numbers despite that, though. And on defense, he is almost certainly going to be the guy the Celtics want to hunt. How he holds his own against Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum when they get him on a switch will go a long way in deciding this series.

Hey, speaking of Brown: Boy, he’s good at basketball, isn’t he? Brown has played the best ball of his career as Boston has gone on a run to the Finals, with a number of the criticisms about his game — namely that he really struggles with turnovers when he has to break down opponents in 1-on-1 situations — essentially evaporating. He’s been able to score efficiently even when his jumper isn’t falling from deep, and he’s been locked in on the defensive end. In this series, he’ll likely spend time guarding both Doncic and Irving, but the big thing is going to be his ability to attack guys like Derrick Jones Jr. and PJ Washington and get to spots on the floor where Dallas’ defense is put in conflict, particularly if/when Kristaps Porzingis is on the floor and the Celtics able to pull guys like Dereck Lively and Daniel Gafford away from the rim. The more Brown finds himself making the right play in those situations, the more likely it is Boston comes out on top.

The faces of the franchises

2. Jayson Tatum
1. Luka Doncic

Tatum has not been at his very best during the playoffs. That, of course, has meant that he’s only averaging 26 points, 10.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.1 steals a game on a team that made the NBA Finals. He’s quite good! Tatum’s a special player because he finds ways to impact games when his shot isn’t falling … but having said that, finding his shot (his numbers started to tick up against the Pacers in the conference finals) is going to be important, because the Celtics need him to be able to shoulder a heavy load when Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic take over games. He’ll still do all the other stuff that makes him great — the passing, the defense, the rebounding — but Tatum has gotten to this stage before and couldn’t carry Boston’s offense. That’s happens in a star’s first NBA Finals appearance all the time. Now, he has a chance to show how he’s grown since then against a Mavs team that is going to throw anything and everything it can at him. It’s a chance for him to emphatically end any questions about whether his name deserves to be thrown around in the conversations for the best basketball player in the world (see: here), particularly because in order for the Celtics to win, he’s going to have to hold his own against arguably the best player in the world right now for stretches in this series.

Doncic’s career — from winning everything in Europe as a member of Real Madrid to the number of times we’ve seen him rip an opponent’s heart out in the NBA — has basically happened in anticipation of the day he finally got a team to the Finals. Now 25 and on a team with a running mate in Irving who helps take some of the burden off of him, Doncic has spearheaded the Mavs’ offense in the playoffs as it got through the teams ranked first, fourth, and eighth in defensive rating during the regular season. His efficiency numbers have been a little worse than you realize as a result (43.8/34.3/80.6 shooting splits in the playoffs), and unfortunately, he now has to deal with a tenacious Boston defense that can throw a number of great-to-elite perimeter defenders at him. It’s a bit reductive to say this, but if Doncic isn’t at his best, the Mavs don’t have much of a chance in this series — it’s the big difference between him and Tatum, as there’s a path for Boston to win that involves Tatum not being the best player on the floor in the Finals. Dallas isn’t really afforded that luxury, and if Doncic is anything other than the star of the series, Boston is going to win a championship. The good news for the Mavs is that betting on Luka Doncic to be the best player in a given series has gotten them to this point, and continuing to do that very well could lead to them winning the second title in franchise history.