The Whiteboard: Power ranking NBA Finals MVP candidates

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images /

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The NBA Finals MVP conversation held an unusually large share of the conversation before this series started, largely because of Steph Curry. The future Hall-of-Famer has helped lead the Warriors to three titles but has been outshone by teammates in each series, watching Andre Iguodala win in 2015, largely for his defense on LeBron James, and then Kevin Durant win back-to-back in 2017 and 2018.

That conversation is obviously a lot more complicated now with the Celtics holding a 2-1 lead in the series. But Curry is still in play if the Warriors can make a comeback, and there are several viable candidates on the other side if the Celtics hold on. There is still a lot of basketball to be played, but here’s how I see the NBA Finals MVP candidates stacking up right now.

Who should be the favorite to win NBA Finals MVP after three games?

3. Steph Curry

The case for Steph Curry is a bit more complicated than it appears at this point. He’s been playing spectacularly well to this point, averaging 31.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, on a 64.1 true shooting percentage. However, he’s been playing about as well as he could and the Warriors are still trailing in the series. If the Warriors were to come back and take the series, he’d likely need to continue performing at this level and would be the Finals MVP favorite. However, that turn in momentum is going to require the Warriors to get a lot more from guys like Draymond Green, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins. If the Warriors turn things around with one of those guys going off, it might make for a compelling narrative arc that’s hard to ignore — the Warriors were still losing with Steph at his peak, an explosion from Player X is what really changed the series for the Warriors.

2. Jayson Tatum

Tatum has struggled shooting the ball for the Boston, particularly inside the arc where he’s made just 10-of-36 shots during the first three games. Still, his floor game has been masterful and he’s done a fantastic job of leveraging defensive attention to create shots for his teammates. He’s averaging 8.3 assists per game and his teammates have posted a 70.6 effective field goal percentage on shots after a pass from Tatum. He’s played fantastic defense on Draymond Green and has really kept the offense humming even though he hasn’t been making self-created shots at a rate we’re used to. This is not Tatum at his peak, but his ability to adjust to the game context and continue to find different ways to make a tremendous impact has been remarkable.

1. Jaylen Brown

There is a fairly thin line between Brown and Tatum at this point but I’m putting Brown in the top spot in recognition of his slightly more impressive scoring numbers which, unfortunately, often carry outsized weight in voting for these kinds of awards. Brown is averaging 22.7 points per game in the NBA Finals, slightly ahead of Tatum at 22.0, but he’s also doing it on a 55.1 true shooting percentage, compared to 48.4 for Tatum. His offensive balance has tilted more towards scoring but he’s been fantastic at finding open teammates and done a much better job of creating for himself efficiently — posting a 53.1 effective field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers with 14 of his 15 made 2-pointers in the series being unassisted.

Perhaps most importantly (to the particular question of Finals MVP) he’s been central to Boston’s two crucial fourth quarters, totaling 13 points, 5 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block on a 72.2 true shooting percentage in 20 fourth-quarter minutes in the series. The Celtics need two more wins to secure the title and Tatum and Brown could easily flip places, depending on how those two hypothetical wins manifest. But right now, Brown is the choice.

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Other NBA stories:

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If you’re craving more Jaylen Brown content, Rob Mahoney goes deep at The Ringer.

If you watched the Celtics at all early in the regular season, it is unbelievably shocking that their halfcourt offense is what’s carrying them in the NBA Finals.

I didn’t include Marcus Smart in my rankings above and I think the nature of his game means there’s almost no chance he actually wins Finals MVP. But you can make a compelling argument that no player is more important to the Celtics.

This week on Above the Break, Justin Carter is looking at the New York Liberty and their splashy new combo guard, Marine Johannès, as well as WNBA All-Star ballots and more.