LeBron James has largely been considered the best player in the NBA for the better part of the last decade. With James’ Los Angeles Lakers unable to make the playoffs, however, the title for the best player in the NBA is up for debate, primarily among three players: Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, who perhaps has the strongest claim.

Before this season, Leonard’s claim to the title of best player in the NBA would have seemed far-fetched, since the debate was regularly centered around Durant and James. Leonard has proven himself, however, to be more than just a product of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs system, which turns average athletes like Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker into legends, by consistently making the playoffs, as he averaged a career high through eight seasons in scoring and efficiency on a Toronto Raptors team led by an inexperienced coach, Nick Nurse.

These first two rounds of the playoffs, though, are where Leonard has distinguished himself from the pack, despite consistently strong performance from Antetokounmpo and Durant as well. Leonard’s scoring average has increased by more than three points per game, and his efficiency from the field and the three-point line has also improved.

Leonard’s uptick in efficiency is especially impressive considering his minutes and shot attempts increased even while he faced more locked-in defenses come playoff time. Leonard has also made these improvements while picking up the slack of point guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry is struggling in the playoffs through two rounds, continuing what has been a career-long trend for him. In addition to his superiority in their regular blowouts, Leonard has been especially strong in the clutch, hitting a massive shot in Game Four against the Sixers, and then a series-winning buzzer beater in the decisive Game Seven.

Leonard’s claim for the best player title goes beyond just his scoring; he is also considered one of the best defenders in the NBA. Nicknamed “The Klaw” for his defensive prowess and freakishly large hands, Leonard has made first team All-Defensive twice, and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. It is extremely rare in today’s NBA for a player to be as dominant on both ends of the floor as Leonard, since many current star players elect to conserve their energy for offense.

Despite Leonard’s impressive season, he is not widely considered as the best player in the NBA. While this title is the subject of common debate, Durant would likely be the most popular choice among the media and fans. Durant’s claim is based on his scoring dominance, having won four scoring titles in the 2010, 2011, 2012,and 2014 seasons and currently leading the league in scoring this postseason with an impressive average 34.2 points per game.

Kawhieliteinstagram | Kawhi Leonard spends his shootaround preparing for a recent playoff game.

Durant, however, plays on the Golden State Warriors, the most talented team in the league, boasting five 2017-18 all-stars, which provides him with the luxury of rarely facing the double-teams and the defensive scrutiny Leonard and most other stars do; double-teaming Durant would likely be punished by a good shot from stars Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, who are perhaps the two current best shooters and among the deadliest three-point shooters of all time.

Given the discrepancy in their supporting casts, what Leonard has done offensively this playoff season has been more impressive than Durant’s performance. Similarly, despite having marked improvement on defense the past few years, Durant is not the defender Leonard is, having never been named on two first NBA All-Defensive teams.

The other name floating around is Antetokounmpo, the new popular favorite for the title of the NBA’s best player. Antetokounmpo has led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA and a dominant 4-1 series win over a talented but largely dysfunctional Boston Celtics team that is suffering from internal discourse. While Antetokounmpo has certainly done well, he does not have Leonard’s shooting prowess. Additionally, Giannis is far less proven in the playoffs than either Durant or Leonard, with this season being his first time getting past the first round of the playoffs in his career. Leonard’s Raptors will play Antetokounmpo’s Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, though, giving Antetokounmpo a golden opportunity to stake his claim for being the best player in the league.

As of now, though, Leonard slightly edges out Antetokounmpo and Durant, for this title, something that will hopefully soon be a more commonly held opinion.

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