Who Has the Edge at Every Position in the 2021 NBA Finals?July 5, 2021
Who Has the Edge at Every Position in the 2021 NBA Finals?
Just like we all predicted, without a shadow or hint or even the slightest bit of doubt, the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns are set to square off in the 2021 NBA Finals.
This flippancy is mostly performative. Few, if any, forecasted a Bucks-Suns Finals, but the matchup isn't random relative to the regular-season results.
Phoenix turned in the second-best record and entrenched itself as one of the league's best two-way teams after trading for Chris Paul. Milwaukee went all-in on Jrue Holiday after churning out the Eastern Conference's best record in each of the past two years.
Granted, neither team arrives here via paths foreseen. The Suns survived a still-harrowing Western Conference—a Finals-bound trek that ran through opponents with missing stars and also featured injuries to their own two best players.
The Bucks swept last postseason's boogeyman, the Miami Heat, in the first round. They then came one shoe size short of losing to a shorthanded Brooklyn Nets squad in the semifinals. Milwaukee didn't have Giannis Antetokounmpo for the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals but still advanced.
Weirdness doesn't warrant asterisk talk. Every team dealt with, let's call it, stuff. Milwaukee and Phoenix absolutely belong here, and if they're both fully healthy, this figures to be one hell of a series.
Naturally, then, our Finals prep work must feature a matchup-by-matchup overview.
Positional designations are imperfect these days. Specific roles and defensive assignments are more fluid and indefinable than ever. We will be using the spot at which players start as our guide, and then look at the benches in totality. Names are pitted against one another in position only; the assumption won't be that each player is the primary defender for the other unless appropriate.
All verdicts will be rendered based exclusively on what's happened in this year's regular season and playoffs. Predictive elements of each head-to-head (like health) will be factored in wherever necessary. Let's get cracking.
Point Guard: Jrue Holiday vs. Chris Paul
Jrue Holiday remains a defensive monster. The scope of his workload will span beyond Chris Paul, spilling into plenty of time against Devin Booker. But it will also include pestering the Point God himself. Taking possessions off is not a luxury he will enjoy—not that he's ever really had that chance.
Giving him the advantage gets tough when looking at his offensive unevenness, specifically from the outside. He's downing under 29 percent of his treys for the postseason and has a sub-45 effective field-goal percentage on all jumpers, a far cry from his regular-season mark of 53.7.
Still, Holiday remains a gargantuan upgrade over Eric Bledsoe. Defenses have to plan around his shot creation and making, and he's hitting 50 percent of his twos, including 66.7 percent of his looks inside three feet. Concern is further assuaged by his performance in the Eastern Conference Finals. His shot-making continued to wax and wane, but the variance wasn't nearly as extreme. He averaged 22 points and 10 assists while banging in 37 percent of his threes.
That's not enough to eclipse Paul's offensive value. His manipulation of defenses is second to none. His 18.1 points and 8.7 assists per game come on 40.5 percent shooting from deep and a typo-seeming 48.9 percent clip from mid-range.
Few players can dictate the terms of engagement as comprehensively as Paul. That also happens to be part of his downfall. The Suns struggled at times after he returned in the Western Conference Finals because he was playing too slow. They need him to prioritize those semi-transition sets.
He will. And even if he doesn't, he's still the dude that dropped 41 points and eight assists without committing a single turnover in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. His preferred cadence is less of an issue when he's cooking defenses in crunch time.
The influence he has over his own team and opponents would be enough to award him a full-on victory without thinking twice if not for Holiday's court time. He's averaging over 41 minutes through his past eight games. The Suns haven't needed to roll out CP3 in such heavy doses. Can he handle a 40-plus-minute workload, at age 36, even if just for one series?
Shooting Guard: Devin Booker vs. Khris Middleton
Choosing between Devin Booker and Khris Middleton is unfair and wouldn't be a thing if not for Donte DiVincenzo's season-ending left ankle injury. This projects as the most even (offensive) battle of the series.
Booker's efficiency cratered during the Western Conference Finals while navigating entire games without Chris Paul and playing through a broken nose that required him to wear a mask he'd fiddle with or, sometimes, entirely ditch. He shot 28.6 percent (10-of-35) from deep and 41.6 percent (42-of-101) on twos in six games against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Middleton hasn't delivered the steadiest postseason run himself. He came up huge for the Bucks in their two games without Giannis Antetokounmpo against the Hawks, but had 0-of-9 (Game 1) and 0-of-7 (Game 4) showings from beyond the arc in that same series. He's converting just 33.8 percent of his treys overall for the playoffs.
Both players have seen their knockdown rates on pull-up jumpers take a hit in the macro, but they're canning more than 48 percent of their twos amid shot profiles heavy on mid-range jumpers. Neither has gone kaboom in crunch time, but they have both hit pivotal looks down the stretch of tight games and remain viable hubs through which high-leverage offensive possessions can be run.
Middleton is averaging more assists, but the difference is negligible and not telltale of any decided edge. Booker defers more of the ball-handling responsibility to Chris Paul and is still a meaningful playmaker. Among the 93 players who have averaged at least 20 passes per postseason game, he ranks seventh in assist to pass percentage adjusted—the percentage of passes by a player or team that are assists, free-throw assists or secondary assists—trailing only Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard.
Booker and Middleton both have offensive bags that stall out before the rim, mostly by design. Middleton has been the better finisher during the playoffs, but Booker wields more changes of pace and is getting to the line at a higher clip.
Milwaukee is a net-neutral in the minutes Middleton has logged without Giannis. Phoenix has decidedly won the stretches Booker plays without Paul. Middleton is by far the better defender, but Booker has improved at that end. Though the off-ball lapses remain, he's held up fairly well offenses have attempted to target him.
In a vacuum, Booker gets the advantage. He is better suited to carry lineups on his own. Defenses react more strongly to his attacks, and his free-throw volume is huge. But between his struggles from the floor since breaking his nose, the share of the crunch-time offense that goes to Paul, and Middleton's defense, the coward's verdict is the only one worth rendering right now.
Small Forward: Mikal Bridges vs. P.J. Tucker
Mikal Bridges seldom puts up smack-you-in-the-face lines. He exists to complement the Suns' primary ball-handlers on offense, and while he has an attack mode, his aggression can be high-variance from game-to-game.
That Bridges has an attack mode at all matters in a head-to-head with P.J. Tucker. The latter is among the lowest-usage players on the planet. If his corner threes aren't falling—and overall, they haven't been; he's at 27.9 percent for the postseason—he becomes a liability on offense. Tucker offsets some of those stretches with his defense, but the Bucks had moments in the conference finals when it felt like they'd be better off yanking him for a beat.
Phoenix is never in that position with Bridges who, as a legitimate All-Defense snub, remains an underrated stopper.
No one on the Suns spent more time guarding Paul George, LeBron James or Michael Porter Jr. Bridges' spectrum of assignments can span wider than Tucker's scope. And that's not an insult to Tucker, who went toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant at age 36. It's just a fact.
Offensive usage winds up being the capper. Even on nights when Bridges isn't as assertive as he should be, his mode of operation has more depth. He is an active cutter, more likely to drain above-the-break threes, a sneaky passer on the move and can actually put the ball on the floor. He's shooting 12-of-16 on drives in the postseason (66.7 percent).
Equally important: The potential for more volume is there. He will have nights where he drops 15-plus, even 20-plus, while going something like 8-of-12 from the floor. Tucker has scored in double figures just twice all playoffs.
Power Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Jae Crowder
Giannis Antetokounmpo's left knee injury somewhat complicates this discussion. Jae Crowder gets the nod if his counterpart is Bobby Portis, or he could just wind up tussling with a hobbled Giannis.
The latter appears more likely. Giannis is considered day-to-day entering the Finals but was expected to play if the Eastern Conference Finals went to a Game 7. He has also resumed on-court work. Perhaps the Bucks treat him with kid gloves and hold him out to start the series, but the overarching power forward battle won't be determined by Portis.
That skews against Crowder by default. He was instrumental in helping the Heat slow down Giannis during the 2020 semifinals, but a two-time MVP playing at partial strength is still a superstar.
And if he's even relatively healthy, forget about it. Giannis feasted on the Hawks before his knee injury. Through the full three games he played—he logged just 14 minutes in Game 4—he averaged 30.7 points and 6.0 assists while nailing nearly 65 percent of his twos and spinning through the teeth of the defense.
Phoenix has more bodies to throw at Giannis in Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Torrey Craig. But any scenario in which he flops during the Finals will either be owed to a defense-by-committee approach or, more likely, the state of his knee.
Center: Deandre Ayton vs. Brook Lopez
Deandre Ayton picked the right time to put together the best and most consistent stretch of his career. He looks so much more comfortable and aggressive on offense. More of his looks are coming closer to the basket, he continues to own the glass, and while he still doesn't to the line nearly enough, he's more decisive when moving with and without the ball.
Brook Lopez remains the superior offensive player anyway by virtue of doing more. Ayton has the higher postseason usage, but BroLo stretches defenses beyond the three-point line and does a nice job ducking in for point-blank buckets off dribble penetration from Milwaukee's primary ball-handlers. Ayton knows how to traverse open space and is much quicker on dives or when he puts the rock on the deck. Lopez has more of a push shot and rapid-fire hook and is better at establishing position in the post.
Defense becomes the dividing line for both bigs given how well they fit what their teams need on offense. Lopez is one season removed from a (deserving) All-Defense selection and, despite prisoner-of-the-moment commentary, can do more than exist in drop coverage. His wide, low-to-the-ground stances help him hold up on certain switches.
And yet, Lopez can more readily be played off the floor—or at least into unfavorable mismatches.
Put enough off-the-bounce attackers on the floor, and life becomes difficult for him. The Hawks created problems for him earlier in the Eastern Conference Finals with all-offense units that didn't have Clint Capela in the middle.
That isn't as much of a concern against the Suns unless they start indulging three-guard lineups with Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Cameron Payne. Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder don't offer the same level of off-the-dribble shot-making as Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. Phoenix does have Dario Saric-at-the-5 arrangements in its arsenal, but that novelty faded even before the playoffs.
Ayton can player higher on defense and, by extension, is tougher to mismatch off the floor. The Clippers gave him issues when they played their five-shooter lineups, but the Bucks don't have that same genre of "small-ball" at their disposal. Giannis Antetokounmpo-at-center units have annihilated opponents in the postseason, but they're not five-out unless Giannis is splashing jumpers. Ayton should be able to hang against Milwaukee's most versatile combos.
Really, the difference here is hypothetical. It's easier to envision a series in which the Bucks decide closing games without Lopez is their best move. It's infinitely harder to picture the Suns coming to the same conclusion with Ayton.
Injuries have hollowed out what was already a thin Milwaukee bench. P.J. Tucker has taken Donte DiVincenzo's place in the starting five, and Bobby Portis was promoted to the opening lineup in Giannis Antetokounmpo's absence to close the Eastern Conference Finals.
Fortunately for the Bucks, Portis remains part of their calculus here. Unfortunately for them, it doesn't really matter.
Milwaukee doesn't have a ton of jet fuel in its reserves. Bryn Forbes can get hot and Pat Connaughton will have his moments, but Portis is the only second-stringer (so far) the Bucks can count on for more than 10 to 12 minutes per game without cringing. That they depend on Jeff Teague at all, even in teensy doses, says everything. That said reliance is actually half-necessity, half-Mike Budenholzer self-sabotage says more than everything.
Phoenix has no such issues. Its depth is enviable and manifests in optionality.
Cameron Payne has become an authentic offensive steward, someone who torches with both his shot-making and table-setting. Cameron Johnson is easily now one of the NBA's most underrated players. His motion away from the ball puts pressure on defenses, and he pairs his three-point stroke with timely duck-ins and opportunism on the offensive glass—all while holding his own at the less glamorous end.
Dario Saric has seen his role diminish from its regular-season zenith amid rocky play and Deandre Ayton's come-up. He is still an operable small-ball 5 option and could prove useful during stretches in which Portis is manning the 5 for Milwaukee without Antetokounmpo on the floor.
Torrey Craig, meanwhile, began the season on the Bucks. They traded him to the Suns for nothing. That move has aged into a big yikes. His defensive range knows no position, he's downing 44.3 percent of his triples, and defenses still don't seem to get that he views offensive rebounding as religion.
Heck, even Abdel Nader, who missed almost two months with a right knee injury only to return during the conference finals, has looked pretty good defensively in sporadic burn. This is all to say: There is no debate here.
Reaching the NBA Finals has not inoculated Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer from criticism. On the contrary, his job security has become a running joke. Fans and analysts, by and large, have little faith in him pulling the right strings, and it is almost universally believed he'd be looking for work elsewhere had Milwaukee lost prior to the Finals.
To his credit, the defensive adjustments Milwaukee implemented during the Eastern Conference Finals went a long way, and he has been more inclined to lean on his stars for heavy minutes. (The latter is possibly because he has no other choice.) But he can still be his own worst enemy.
Whether he's falling in love with Jeff Teague, trying too hard to make Pat Connaughton happen, stashing Bryn Forbes on players against whom poor defenders can't be hidden or boring us all into comas with the least interesting interviews since the dawn of time, he always seems to miss the mark somewhere.
This all comes withe the caveat that Coach Bud will forget more about basketball over the time it takes you to finish this sentence than yours truly will ever know. But there is a certain level of trust Suns head coach Monty Williams deserves. He is without question a better quote and and definitely the more uplifting presence inside the huddle.
Williams also seems more willing to futz and fiddle, and he's adept at tailoring his lineups to the matchup. He has a deeper bench with which to work, but little things like knowing when to deploy Torrey Craig or Cam Johnson at power forward, showing the willingness to cut Abdel Nader loose on defense when he hasn't played in roughly forever and trusting players to stay on the court despite early foul trouble make a difference.
In more ways than one, and in many ways overall, Williams inspires confidence. Budenholzer, on the other hand, inspires memes.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.