The 2019 NBA Finals tip off Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC). Everyone on the planet is familiar with the Golden State Warriors at this point. Entering their fifth straight championship series, they have added only a few new faces (DeMarcus Cousins, some fringe roster players). The stars and role players are well-established.
Not so for the challengers, the Toronto Raptors. Among the 15, only Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Serge Ibaka have been to the NBA Finals before, with Leonard winning the 2014 Finals MVP trophy. The Raptors have been really good for several years now, but a few trades have shuffled most of the roster. Only Kyle Lowry and Ibaka are long-standing Raptors, really. Plus, Toronto has a number of important players (Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell) who might be unfamiliar to more casual basketball fans. If you’re one of those: you’re going to love these guys.
As is now annual tradition, let’s rank all 30 players on both Finals rosters in terms of importance. No offense intended to anyone ranked lowly, except for ...
30. Andrew Bogut
I’m still not sure why the Warriors signed this dude given everything else the franchise claims to stand for. But hey, Jordan Bell Insurance Policies gotta eat too.
Now, no offense to anyone else ranked lowly.
29. Chris Boucher
Oh yeah, the Raptors have the 26-year-old reigning G League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year chilling in the cut. He has played four minutes in the playoffs.
28. Jacob Evans
If Jacob Evans gets NBA Finals minutes, something has gone very wrong for one of these teams.
27. Eric Moreland
Definitely the best player who couldn’t get minutes on either the Phoenix Suns or Toronto Raptors this season.
26. Damian Jones
Jones has played in three of the Warriors’ 16 playoff games. In one of them, he started. Gotta love crazy Steve Kerr.
25. Malcolm Miller
Miller, a second-year wing who is seldom used, is like the Bruno Caboclo to Pascal Siakam’s Bebe Nogueira.
24. Quinn Cook
Cook could get between four and seven straight DNP-CDs, or play 20 minutes and rack up 11 points and six assists in one of these games. With Kerr as coach, anything is possible. Cook actually matters substantially more when Stephen Curry improbably gets into foul trouble.
23. Jordan Bell
Bell is one of the 11 Warriors to start a game this postseason. Is Kerr trolling the league?
22. Jeremy Lin
A little stretch of time to shine in the Bay Area could turn into a magical, storybook homecoming performance for Palo Alto’s finest. Or, it could signal garbage time in one of the games at Oracle.
21. Jodie Meeks
Masai Ujiri signed Meeks to a contract in late March for some reason. Maybe we’ll figure it out at some point.
20. Alfonzo McKinnie
Among the Warriors reserves that never knows if Kerr is going to call on him or not, McKinnie is my favorite.
19. Patrick McCaw
That the Patrick McCaw storyline is a thing is pretty hilarious. This was the least essential story of the offseason and early part of the regular season. McCaw refused to sign his qualifying offer despite no other teams stepping up with an offer sheet. He eventually convinced the Cavaliers to spring him free with a fake offer sheet and a waiver. The Raptors may have been in on it and scooped him up on a small contract.
He hasn’t played more than eight minutes in any Toronto playoff game.
18. OG Anunoby
Anunoby, one of the Raptors’ most promising young players, hasn’t played this postseason due to an appendectomy at the end of the regular season. Toronto has suggested he might be available around the middle of this series. What a dream that could be! He’d likely take minutes from Norm Powell and be assigned to hassle one of the Splash Brothers. This might be especially valuable if the Warriors make it painful for the Raptors to play Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka.
17. Shaun Livingston
Shaun Livingston and Father Time are currently in Round 31 of a 39-round mixed martial arts fight. My money’s on Livingston.
16. Jonas Jerebko
Jerebko is one of those reserve wings who you feel could play 20 minutes every night and give the Warriors a solid contribution, except the Warriors have so many great wings that there’s really no use. But hey, if something happens and the Warriors need him, he’s there.
15. Norman Powell
Powell is definitely the best player in the NBA Finals who also has a DNP-CD in the playoffs. Is this where I mention that Powell shot 40 percent from three during the regular season and is shooting 41 percent from three in the playoffs? Young Lou Williams over here.
14. Kevon Looney
Looney has been something of a revelation since DeMarcus Cousins went down, and has definitely won the confidence of Steve Kerr over Jordan Bell and the Aussie Who Shall Not Be Named. You can kind of imagine Looney playing Marc Gasol to a draw, which would seem to be a major problem for the Raptors. Looney’s definitely very different from both Brook Lopez and Joel Embiid, so Gasol and Serge Ibaka may need a game to adjust.
13. DeMarcus Cousins
Of course, Looney’s importance could slide if Cousins is indeed ready to go. He’s been out since early in the Clippers series, but seems closer to returning than Kevin Durant. Cousins actually has had trouble scoring on Gasol in the past (like most centers!), but Gasol is now 34 and clearly a step slower. Anyways, Cousins is also more of a passer and less of a rim runner and transition threat than Looney, so there are certainly some trade-offs.
The only thing that could make me sad about a Raptors series win is if Cousins’ return gets blamed. Don’t do it, folks. Unless, you know, it’s deserved.
12. Andre Iguodala
Iguodala is banged up, but seems to be available at the start of the series. Needless to say, Iguodala takes on much greater defensive importance in guarding Kawhi and/or Pascal Siakam with Kevin Durant out. We have clearly seen that the Warriors offense can survive and thrive without KD. But Toronto has a really, really good offense, and Golden State doesn’t have a deep reserve of strong defensive wings.
Iguodala’s health and competence loom large, at least until Durant returns. If Durant returns.
11. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka feels like the soul of the team, and he’s also the resident tough guy, which likely means at least one run-in with the zenned out Draymond Green. Depending on Cousins’ availability, Nick Nurse may end up spending a lot of time with Ibaka at center checking Looney or Green in Golden State’s smaller lineups. (In fact, you wonder if Nurse will turn to Siakam at center for long stretches.)
Ibaka will almost always be the fourth or fifth offensive option when on the floor, but defense and hitting the glass will be critical to Toronto’s fortunes.
10. Fred VanVleet
Kawhi and Kyle Lowry have rightfully received the lion’s share of attention and credit for the Raptors’ East title. But don’t forget that Fred VanVleet shot 14-17 from three in those last three games against Milwaukee ... all of which came after his son was born. Good heavens!
9. Danny Green
Unlike VanVleet, Green is not on a hot streak. In fact, Nurse had to bench him a few times because he’s seemingly lost some confidence in his shot. But he’s here not just to it open catch-and-shoot threes. He’s here to harass Klay Thompson and/or Stephen Curry, switch effectively onto Draymond Green, and to take the Raptors’ defense from WOW to HOLY S—T.
He’s a bit of a luxury in that sense, but the Warriors are so good that Toronto needs every open shot he can hit.
8. Marc Gasol
Gasol’s fortunes really turned around with his midseason trade to Toronto, and he’s been just about a perfect fit. Big Spain is an immaculate passer and a huge reason the Raptors have shot so well from deep since acquiring him. There are valid criticisms that Gasol doesn’t shoot enough — he passes up open looks more than anyone on either of these teams, which is saying something, because the Warriors have multiple excellent players who regularly pass up lay-ups — but he does everything else so well that it would seem Toronto needs him to stay on the court and play well to give the Raptors a shot.
7. Pascal Siakam
Toronto’s second-best player will be introduced to casual basketball fans in these Finals, much like Draymond and Klay were in the 2015 NBA Finals. Siakam hasn’t shied away from anything yet this postseason. Don’t expect him to start now. You do wonder how aggressive Nurse will be in having Siakam check Thompson or Curry on occasion, just to give them a different look.
6. Klay Thompson
A brewing thunderstorm just waiting to strike at a moment’s notice and completely change the texture of a game or series.
5. Kyle Lowry
Lowry buried the demons and the jokes in the Eastern Conference finals with some huge performances. His defense on Eric Bledsoe was superlative, and he’ll need to be even better when guarding Stephen Curry or Thompson in the Finals. There’s no tougher dude in this series.
4. Kevin Durant
Obviously, the single most important factor in this series is whether Durant can play. The Warriors can obviously still win if Durant is done, but the advantage swings so heavily in their favor if he comes back. The primary reason is on defense: having both Durant and Draymond Green to deal with Kawhi and Siakam is enormous. Iguodala is good, but Durant is better when locked in.
3. Draymond Green
Green famously lost a bunch of weight before the end of the season and he’s been as great as ever in the playoffs, dominating the game on defense while making smart plays and relieving pressure on the Splash Brothers on offense. He’ll likely get a chance guarding Leonard in addition to watching Siakam, and how he does on that end could determine whether this is a series or a one-sided affair. We’ve seen how reliant the Raptors are on Kawhi. If Draymond can slow him down ... uh oh.
2. Stephen Curry
Curry has had a masterful postseason once Durant went out of action. It seems so long ago that he started slow in these playoffs with a few duds against the Clippers and Rockets. Curry is every bit as impactful as Kawhi thanks to his tireless movement off the ball, his shot creation skills, and his playmaking. But Toronto’s defense is something else (ask Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Lowry will be doing his best to make things difficult for Curry. In theory, Lowry should be better equipped than Damian Lillard to do that.
1. Kawhi Leonard
Leonard has been the best player in the league overall this postseason, and led the Raptors on offense while keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo bottled up in the Eastern Conference finals. He’s looked to be banged up lately; hopefully the extended rest between series will help him be back to his best.
Toronto needs Kawhi to be as good as ever — 2014 Finals good — to have a chance here. Can they count on him to be the best player on the court for a fourth straight series?