The Conference Finals Will Be a Showcase for the Best Active Player Debate
As we head into the conference finals, a few hard truths—whether right, wrong, fair, or unfair—have seemingly started to emerge from this postseason. The Rockets blew it. Steph can still do it without KD. Enes Kanter should stop tweeting so much. These are all storylines I’ll be following with vigor for years to come. The most important question, however, is still somewhat up for grabs: Who is the best basketball player in the world?
Now, does this question really matter? I get annoyed at people who ask that. If you zoom out of anything far enough nothing in the world matters. But players in the NBA often stack themselves up against their biggest competition, and there’s some comfort in knowing who the league’s top dog is, and who the people are working diligently to take that person’s spot. Arguably the three top contenders for the Best Player throne will be taking part in the conference finals—Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Durant (assuming he returns from injury at some point)—and all three at different times this playoffs have looked like the No. 1 guy in the NBA. This next round could go a long way in settling that debate.
Durant, until his calf strain, was looking like the most unstoppable offensive player in the known universe for much of the postseason. After a couple games of jostling with Patrick Beverley in the first round, KD literally reminded everyone who he was, then proceeded to go scorched earth on the poor Clippers and Rockets. Durant’s stats are eye-dropping. (This is a new term I’ve created for when your eyes don’t even have the ability to pop, they just fall out of their sockets in pure awe.) In the ‘yoffs, KD is averaging a 34/5/5 on over 50% shooting from the field, over 40% from three, and a tidy 90.1% from the free-throw line. Against the Rockets, he asked to guard James Harden down the stretch of tight games, and his defense was spectacular.
The argument against Durant is the same it’s been for three years—is the game easier for him because of how good his teammates are? Perhaps even too easy? Stephen Curry was struggling for most of the playoffs, but then he led the Warriors to a surprising series-clinching win without KD in a throwback performance. Could the Raptors or Bucks do that without Kawhi or Giannis? It’s not necessarily a strong argument against Durant’s greatness, but it doesn’t feel like an invalid one either.
Leonard’s postseason has been a return to form. Way back during the regular season, I wondered if he could decide the East by himself, and he’s been on that kind of path so far. His miracle shot took down the Sixers, and he’s been an absolute workhorse for Toronto. Kawhi is averaging 32/9/4 on 54% shooting—he’s also over 40% from three—and last series he was frustrating Ben Simmons to no end. Leonard’s most convincing argument is the burden he’s had to carry for the Raptors. In 128 minutes with Kawhi off the floor this postseason, Toronto has a -13.3 net rating, with an offense that’s incomprehensibly awful. The Raptors are an astounding 27.1 points per 100 possessions better with Leonard on the floor.
Kawhi would have had a great year if he even resembled something close to the 2017 version of himself. He’s been even better through the playoffs so far. And it’s worth remembering that Spurs team had a huge lead on a much less rickety version of the KD-led Warriors before Leonard missed the rest of the series.
Then again, The Greek Freak stands in the way of a potential Kawhi-Golden State rematch. Giannis has made his first trip to the conference finals look effortless. No team has been as dominant as the Bucks this postseason, who sport an 8–1 record after turning the Pistons into scrap metal and sending Kyrie Irving and the Celtics back to their next recommended video on YouTube.
To give you an idea of how imposing Giannis has been, he’s played 165 fewer minutes than Leonard. Milwaukee has played in so many blowouts, it hasn’t needed Antetokounmpo as much as other teams have needed their stars. The Freak is still averaging a tidy 27/11/4 on 53% shooting, and he’ll have the freshest legs of any superstar headed into the third round.
So how will this debate get settled? Well, there may not be an absolute, definitive answer until after the Finals, but there should still be some clarity after the conference finals dust settles. Giannis and Kawhi going head-to-head will help one of their cases immensely. How will Leonard fare against the best defense (both regular season and playoffs!) in the league? Can Giannis take down yet another opponent with more playoff experience—and a more star-studded cast? The questions are a little trickier for Durant, but the Warriors’ performance should be illuminating nonetheless. Will Durant have to return mid-series and save the day? How will his playoff run be viewed if Curry and Klay Thompson are making quick work of the Blazers with KD sidelined?
For years, LeBron James has reigned in the No. 1 spot on SI’s Top 100 Players list. I have absolutely no input on that project because nobody respects my opinion, but I can still guarantee that will change this fall. Durant had a grip on that No. 1 spot for much of the first two rounds, but Kawhi and Giannis are worthy challengers in their own right. The next two weeks will go a long way in determining who emerges from this postseason as the best basketball player in the world. Those are some extra juicy stakes the playoffs haven’t had in quite some time. All that’s left is for the debate to begin.