Ranking Stephen Curry and the Top 20 NBA Finals Stars Since 2000

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured Columnist IVJune 19, 2022

Ranking Stephen Curry and the Top 20 NBA Finals Stars Since 2000

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    This era of NBA basketball has been loaded with superstars, dynasties and some of the most entertaining playoff runs the league has ever seen.

    The 2000s started with the Shaq-and-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant gave the Lakers another run in the late 2000s and into the 2010s. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh then formed the Heatles. And finally, all that gave way to the lightyears Golden State Warriors.

    And oh yeah, the San Antonio Spurs were the running thread throughout all of that.

    Each of those teams features stars who put up big numbers in more than one trip to the Finals. And the aim here is to find the best performer on that stage.

    To be clear, this isn't a ranking of the best player during individual Finals runs. Someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo would certainly be much higher in that case. Instead, we're looking at the totality of what players have done since 2000. So, we'll use both rate (think points per game) and cumulative (think total points) numbers to reward someone like Robert Horry, who's played in 26 Finals games during this time period.

    A truly objective and definitive ranking is probably impossible, but that didn't stop us from trying.

    If you take every player since 2000 with at least 100 Finals minutes and sort them by the average of their ranks in box plus/minus (and a cumulative variant of box plus/minus), average game score (and total games core), points per game (and total points), total Finals MVPs and championships (while adding extra weight to those last two categories), you get the following top 20.

    It's not perfect (no criteria is), but it likely got us closer than pure subjectivity.

Honorable Mentions

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    There are plenty of names you might expect to see but won't. By this specific criteria, they aren't top 20, but they have to be mentioned.

    The 2007-08 Boston Celtics: This group may be unfairly punished by the use of points and points per game (though one member did make the cut). They played a team-first brand of basketball and shared the glory, but Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo were all well outside the top 20 in box plus/minus too.

    Jason Terry: Averaged 20.0 points in 12 career Finals games.

    Jason Kidd: Beyond winning a title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, Jason Kidd averaged 20.8 points, 9.8 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals in a 2002 Finals sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Danny Green: Three championships with three different teams and a 42.1 three-point percentage in the Finals.

    Allen Iverson: He lost in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers and shot 40.7 percent from the field (and 28.2 percent from three), but Allen Iverson averaged 35.6 points in his lone Finals appearance.

    Derek Fisher: Tied for the lead among players in this exercise with five championships.

    Tony Parker: Perhaps the biggest blind spot of this exercise, Tony Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP and four championships, but the advanced numbers are down on his defense.

    Ben Wallace: Averaged a double-double and 2.2 blocks in 12 Finals games.

    Jimmy Butler: He came up short against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020, but Jimmy Butler had the 10th-highest average game score on record for a single Finals.

    Reggie Miller: Averaged 24.3 points and 2.5 threes during his only trip to the Finals.

    Devin Booker and Chris Paul: They lost four straight to the Milwaukee Bucks, but Chris Paul and Devin Booker combined to average 50.0 points and 12.2 assists.

Nos. 20-16

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    20. Paul Pierce

    Paul Pierce made it to two Finals, won a Finals MVP and averaged 19.8 points and 4.5 assists in his 13 Finals games. And in 2008, he went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant and came out on top.

    19. Anthony Davis

    Anthony Davis was utterly dominant against the Miami Heat in 2020's Bubble Finals, when he averaged 25.0 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.0 blocks, 1.3 steals and 1.3 threes.

    Davis has seemingly battled injuries ever since, but in that series, he was the fully actualized, all-over-the-floor version of himself and looked like a worthy heir to the Los Angeles Lakers' storied big man legacy.

    18. Andre Iguodala

    Andre Iguodala never put up huge numbers during his four title runs with the Golden State Warriors, but his defense, leadership, playmaking and role in the legendary Death Lineup were crucial in 2015, 2017 and 2018.

    And snagging a Finals MVP for the Warriors' first championship just nudged him into the top 20.

    17. Robert Horry

    No one in this exercise has more championships than Robert Horry's five, and that doesn't even count the two he won with the Houston Rockets in the 1990s.

    He wasn't a mere tagalong for those titles either. Horry was a multipositional defender before it was all the rage, hit a number of clutch shots and averaged a well-rounded 8.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.3 threes, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals while shooting 43.6 percent from three in his post-2000 Finals appearances.

    16. Dirk Nowitzki

    This may be the first big surprise of the exercise.

    Many may remember Dirk Nowitzki's incredible run to the 2011 championship and understandably expect him to be higher, but a disappointing 2006 Finals and general inefficiency hold him back. Against the Miami Heat in that series, he shot 39.0 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from three. In his 12 total Finals games, those marks were 40.4 and 30.2.

Nos. 15-11

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    15. Klay Thompson

    Klay Thompson is here largely because of his four championships, but it's not like he was out there collecting participation trophies over the last eight years. Golden State doesn't have all the accolades it does without the Splash Brothers (plural), and Klay is the less heralded half of that duo. In 33 Finals games, he averaged 18.5 points and 3.2 threes while shooting 39.8 percent from three.

    14. Kyrie Irving

    Injuries and an early departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers (at least earlier than LeBron James and Kevin Love) limited Kyrie Irving's Finals exploits, but he averaged 27.7 points in 13 games on the game's biggest stage and hit a truly legendary shot in 2016's Game 7.

    13. Chauncey Billups

    Chauncey "Mr. Big Shot" Billups' resume is buoyed by his 2004 Finals MVP and the sixth-best box plus/minus in the exercise, but his basic numbers are worth mentioning too. Over 12 Finals games, he put up 20.7 points and 5.8 assists.

    12. Draymond Green

    Draymond Green is truly among the game's most unique difference-makers, and he now has four titles to prove it. His numbers (11.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks) don't leap off the screen, but few players across history could take over games without scoring in the way Green has during his six Finals appearances.

    11. Manu Ginobili

    Raw averages don't do Manu Ginobili's impact justice, especially since those were heavily impacted by his two post-prime runs to the Finals in 2013 and 2014, but his free-wheeling, pump-faking, high-flying style was a staple of 2000s postseasons.

    In the 2005 and 2007 Finals, he averaged 18.4 points, 3.5 assists, 2.0 threes and 1.3 steals while shooting 40.7 percent from three and winning two titles.

10. Pau Gasol

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

    Finals Stats: 17.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.7 blocks, 52.8 field-goal percentage, 5.9 box plus/minus

    Pau Gasol's steady influence as a post player, defender and passer was felt the moment the Los Angeles Lakers acquired him, and that remained true deep into the playoffs.

    From 2008 to 2010, when L.A. represented the West in three straight Finals, Pau trailed only Kobe Bryant in box plus/minus. And his legendary teammate gave him the ultimate seal of approval years later:

    Antonio Martín @MartinGuirado

    Kobe Bryant me dice que no hay debate que valga: los Lakers retirarán el número 16 de <a href="https://twitter.com/paugasol?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@paugasol</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/OscarsLunch?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#OscarsLunch</a> <a href="https://t.co/KotLCVKxwx">pic.twitter.com/KotLCVKxwx</a>

    Pau played a different style and was less dominant than Kobe's previous tag team partner (more on him later, obviously), but he still had a massive impact.

    He wasn't a bruiser, but defenses had to honor his post game, which made it more difficult to load up on Kobe. And with his more skill-based game, the Lakers were able to play him alongside other bigs like Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.

    And that gave L.A. one of the league's most devastating mixes of size and finesse.

9. Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Finals Stats: 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 blocks, 1.2 steals, 61.8 field-goal percentage, 13.6 box plus/minus

    If this article was about the best one-year Finals performances, it would be hard to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the top five.

    The only players who had higher single-Finals marks for box plus/minus were Michael Jordan in 1991, Kevin Durant in 2017 and LeBron James in 2016.

    Giannis' performance is all the more impressive when you remember what happened to him in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks.

    After hyperextending his knee, Antetokounmpo missed Games 5 and 6, and there was real doubt about his availability for Game 1 of the Finals.

    Of course, he played, and he was utterly dominant throughout the series.

    Considering he's just 27 years old, there's reason to think he may be able to add to the volume numbers for arguments like this.

8. Kawhi Leonard

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Finals Stats: 20.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.9 threes, 1.9 steals, 0.9 blocks, 49.6 field-goal percentage, 40.5 three-point percentage, 8.1 box plus/minus

    Kawhi Leonard's evolution from intriguing prospect to defensive stalwart to dominant two-way star can be pretty well charted through his three Finals appearances.

    In 2013, the San Antonio Spurs came up short, but Leonard averaged 14.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals as a 21-year-old NBA sophomore. The next year, he went for 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, and it was his defense on LeBron James that put him over the top for Finals MVP.

    Five years later, as a member of the Toronto Raptors, he put together the playoff run that earned him comparisons to The Terminator.

    Throughout that postseason, Leonard brought a feeling of inevitability to each series, with his space-erasing defense, seemingly automatic jump shot and laser-focused drives.

    In that series, he averaged 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks and became the third player (joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James) to win Finals MVP for more than one team.

7. Dwyane Wade

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    Finals Stats: 23.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.0 blocks, 47.6 field-goal percentage, 6.4 box plus/minus

    Dwyane Wade somehow feels like the forgotten Finals star of this era. But before he took a backseat to LeBron James, Wade had an absurdly productive Finals debut in 2006.

    At 24 years old, Wade averaged 34.7 points, 16.2 free-throw attempts, 7.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.0 blocks in the 2006 Finals.

    On a team with a just-past-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal, Wade was clearly the Finals MVP. And his performance signaled the arrival of a bona fide challenger to Kobe Bryant's "heir apparent to Michael Jordan" status.

    He's not here based entirely on his play in 2006, though. Alongside LeBron and Chris Bosh, Wade made four more Finals appearances and won two more titles.

    And he was one of the only bright spots in the Heatles' first Finals together, when he averaged 26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals in 2011.

6. Kevin Durant

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    Finals Stats: 30.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.9 threes, 1.5 blocks, 1.0 steals, 54.6 field-goal percentage, 44.8 three-point percentage, 11.1 box plus/minus

    Volume is the only thing holding Kevin Durant back here.

    He trails only Giannis Antetokounmpo in box plus/minus. Among the 54 players in this exercise with 100-plus field-goal attempts, KD's 67.4 true shooting percentage ranks first.

    And in back-to-back Finals against the greatest player of his generation, Durant exacted revenge for 2012 and arguably outplayed LeBron.

    In 2017 and 2018, KD had a 12.7 box plus/minus in the Finals, with averages of 32.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists. He shot 54.3 percent from the field and 45.0 percent from three.

    In those two series, his Golden State Warriors only lost one game, and he took home both Finals MVPs.

    If this was only about peak performance, Durant would have a heck of an argument for the top spot on the list.

5. Tim Duncan

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    Finals Stats: 19.7 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.4 blocks, 47.4 field-goal percentage, 6.0 box plus/minus

    His last two trips to the Finals in 2013 and 2014 dragged down his per-game numbers a bit, but they also put Duncan's unselfishness on vivid display.

    Throughout his career, Duncan was always willing to put team success over individual accomplishments, and he picked up plenty of the latter along the way.

    The twilight of his career may have also impacted the way today's fans remember Duncan. Those who weren't around for the first few runs to the title would be wise to revisit.

    In the 2003 Finals alone, he averaged 24.2 points, 17.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 5.3 blocks and 1.0 steals.

    Even while his low- and high-post games were the focal point of his teams' attacks, Duncan was also one of the game's very best defensive anchors. Few (if any) players across league history impacted both ends of the floor on the game's biggest stage in quite the same way Duncan did.

4. Kobe Bryant

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    Bob Rosato

    Finals Stats: 25.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.3 threes, 0.9 blocks, 41.2 field-goal percentage, 31.4 three-point percentage, 4.4 box plus/minus

    No one since 2000 has more championships than Kobe Bryant (Derek Fisher and Robert Horry are tied with him there).

    And while he may have been Shaquille O'Neal's No. 2 for the first three, there's no doubt the Los Angeles Lakers were Kobe's team in 2009 and 2010.

    Over the course of those two series, Kobe averaged 30.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.0 threes, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks with a 9.3 box plus/minus.

    There were plenty of moments over the course of Kobe's storied career when his sheer force of will was on display, but it's hard to put many above those last two championships.

    That was particularly true in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics in 2010. Kobe shot 6-of-24 from the field, but he found other ways to contribute to the win with 15 rebounds and 11 free throws.

    "But he grew wiser as time went on, greeting failure as an opportunity to explore alternative paths to victory and getting critical help from teammates along the way," Pete Zayas wrote of the performance for The Athletic. "It was the Kobe-ist of games by measure of will, if not skill. Stubborn and often misguided, but indomitable, unforgettable, and ultimately triumphant."

3. Stephen Curry

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    Annette Grant/NBAE via Getty Images

    Finals Stats: 27.3 points, 6.0 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 4.5 threes, 1.6 steals, 39.5 three-point percentage, 6.7 box plus/minus

    Stephen Curry didn't need a Finals MVP to secure his legacy, but it sure didn't hurt to lock one up this season.

    With that on his resume, peers are now pushing him pretty high up their all-time ladders.

    After the Golden State Warriors' Game 6 win over the Boston Celtics, Andre Iguodala told reporters that Curry "solidified himself as the greatest point guard of all time."

    And Ja Morant had no problem venturing outside the bounds of traditional positions:

    Ja Morant @JaMorant

    top 5 all time . <a href="https://t.co/NS7CxLSpGE">https://t.co/NS7CxLSpGE</a>

    After this most recent Finals, in which Curry averaged 31.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.2 threes, 5.0 assists and 2.0 steals while shooting 43.7 percent from three against the best defense in the league, both of those stances are totally reasonable.

2. Shaquille O'Neal

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    Photo by: M David Leeds/NBAE via Getty Images

    Finals stats: 29.0 points, 13.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 blocks, 60.3 field-goal percentage, 7.2 box plus/minus

    Shaquille O'Neal started the time frame in question with three of the most dominant Finals performances you'll ever see.

    In 2000, he averaged 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks against the Indiana Pacers. The next year, he went for 33.0 points, 15.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.4 blocks. And in 2002, he secured his threepeat (both as champion and Finals MVP) with 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.8 blocks against the New Jersey Nets.

    At that point, his fourth title and the numbers he accumulated along with it were gravy.

    At the peak of his powers, Shaq was the most physically dominant player in the league. There was no keeping him off the glass, stopping his drop step or moving him on defense. But he didn't limit himself to a power game.

    Instead, Shaq cultivated a skill set that plenty of today's centers fall short of. His footwork inside was top-notch, and he had decent range on one-handed push and hook shots.

    In the Finals, when he was completely locked in, he annihilated his opponents in a way few (if any) ever have.

1. LeBron James

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    Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

    Finals Stats: 28.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks, 48.4 field-goal percentage, 35.2 three-point percentage, 9.5 box plus/minus

    LeBron James' per-game numbers in the Finals are absurd, but let's talk about volume for a minute.

    He's played 55 Finals games. Derek Fisher is second in this time frame with 43. LeBron has 1,562 points. Kobe Bryant is second with 937. He has 561 rebounds. Tim Duncan's 382 ranks second. He has 430 assists. Draymond Green is second with 219. He's also first in Finals MVPs, first in steals, third in threes, third in blocks and tied for fourth in titles.

    He made his first Finals in 2007, represented the East in the series for eight straight years from 2011 to 2018 and added a championship from the West in 2020 for good measure.

    And beyond his learning experience at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, LeBron has been the best (or at least close to it) in each of those series.

    With an unrivaled combination of volume and efficiency, it should come as no surprise to see LeBron in the top spot.


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