Who is the best player? The conference finals will determine that

The question has come up numerous times in this year’s NBA playoffs, and the answer is so inconsistent. Who is the best player in the NBA right now? In our social media-driven world, NBA fans tend to have a different answer to this question game-by-game.

Lebron James stans will defend his crown until his retirement, and that’s possibly justifiable. We’re considering this past season as the start of his demise, yet he averaged 27.2 points, 8.3 assists, and 8.5 rebounds per game on 50.8 percent shooting. That’s saying something, which is why I still think he ultimately still holds that crown.

The race is for who’s second, not first, and the conference finals will determine that.

The popular opinion is that Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant holds the crown. He’s completely unstoppable when healthy. There isn’t a gameplan to stop Durant, but only to contain him. He can get his high percentage shot up whenever he pleases and when he’s completely locked in, he can defend at an NBA All-Defensive level. Until the calf strain that he suffered in game five of the Western Conference Semis against Houston, he was virtually unstoppable as he averaged 34 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds on 50 percent shooting, while also shooting 90.1 percent from the free throw line. He was tasked with guarding reigning MVP James Harden down the stretch and was outstanding.

His biggest knock is the talent that’s around him, meaning Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and for a portion of the season, DeMarcus Cousins. After injuring his calf in the Houston series, Curry stepped things back up and seamlessly took the series over for Golden State. Would the Milwaukee Bucks do the same without Giannis Antetokounmpo? Would the Toronto Raptors have won their series without Kawhi Leonard? Both are an obvious no. Though this may be an arbitrary argument, it’s still somewhat justified.

Kawhi Leonard has been the sleeper in this discussion but thanks to a previously improbable playoff performance thus far, he’s not only back in the discussion, but ESPN personality Max Kellerman even said he’s better than Kobe Bryant. Though that may have been a reach, Kawhi is on another planet. In addition to his off-balance fadeaway buzzer-beater with his tongue sticking out, Leonard has averaged 32 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists during the playoffs and has been the heart and soul of this team.

Leonard looked like a new and improved version of himself in the 2017 playoffs.

Giannis has been the MVP frontrunner in my opinion, for the entire season and could be the guy to ruin everything for the Kawhi and the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Greek Freek’s performance this season and the playoffs speak for itself. He’s been unstoppable and has made the Bucks playoff run look simple. Milwaukee has been the most dominant team in the NBA this season, it’s not even close and Giannis is the reason why.

A quick comparison to show how dominant the Greek Freak has been this season: he’s played 165 minutes fewer than Leonard because the Bucks have been blowing everybody out. Giannis still averages 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists per game on 53 percent shooting.

This case won’t be definitively answered until the Finals, and maybe not even then. But the conference finals will surely shine some light and help narrow the race down, at least between Antetokounmpo and Leonard, who are facing each other head-to-head. Leonard will face the best defense he’s faced all season and the most unstoppable young player in basketball for at least four games. Giannis will face a player that’s far more experienced than him and matches his play for the first time (in the Eastern Conference). How will he react? Will he step up or will he fold?

Kevin Durant’s case is slightly different. His placement in this discussion depends largely on how his team performs while he’s out with his strained right calf injury for Game 1 and probably Game 2. Will he have to come back in Game 3 and save the series for the Warriors, or will Steph and Klay return to vintage Splash Bros. form and cruise to a comfortable 2-0 lead over the Trail Blazers?

Regardless, James is still the best player in the NBA, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation if the Lakers didn’t suffer injuries throughout the season and were in complete disarray this offseason. We’re merely trying to figure out who’s next up when Lebron’s career takes an actual significant decline.

Addam M. Francisco

Founder & Editor-in-Chief. National Association of Black Journalists. University of Central Oklahoma.

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