The NBA playoffs are down to the Final Four — the conference finals, which is when TV pundits and NBA Twitter start engaging in the favorite basketball pastime of debating who’s “the best player in the world,” an unofficial title bestowed on the postseason’s most dominant star.
In the past, the answer was obvious — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo — but those superstars will be busy Cancun-ing while the four teams still alive — Miami Heat and Boston Celtics in the East, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks in the West — fight for a spot in the 2022 NBA Finals. Without those basketball immortals to choose from, this year’s debate is far from clear-cut. You could make a case that none of the remaining stars in these playoffs, at least right now, don’t measure up to the lofty standards of Planet’s No. 1 Hooper.
Based on their skill sets, LeBron, K.D. and Giannis are still proper choices for best basketball player in the world. You won’t get an argument here if that’s the hill you’re prepared to die on. We’re just having fun with an age-old NBA playoffs debate that, uncharacteristically, could generate convincing arguments for a number of NBA stars still battling for this year’s chip.
And that’s what makes this postseason so unique and exciting: the uncertainty of who can win it all, and the prospect that both the Eastern Conference finals and Western Conference finals could be headed for intense, drama-filled seven-game series.
Best player in the world might not apply here, but there are cases to be made for best player left in the playoffs. Before reaching a final answer to the latter, let’s look at the candidates (in alphabetical order).
Jimmy Butler, Heat: Jimmy Buckets produced back-to-back monster series, averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.1 assists in leading Miami past the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers. His playoff plus/minus of plus-118 is far and away tops in the NBA (Giannis is a distant second at plus-79), and of the four candidates on this list, Butler possesses the best postseason defensive rating (101) as well as the best postseason offensive rating (129). With Kyle Lowry missing six of the Heat’s last eight games due to a hamstring injury, Butler has had to do all the heavy lifting on offense, much like he did in the playoff bubble of 2020 in carrying the Heat to the Finals. His two-way play has set a VERY high bar for the other stars in this discussion.
Steph Curry, Warriors. Everything Golden State does offensively revolves around the gravity created by Curry, whose season-long shooting struggles have continued in the playoffs with a career-worst 35.9% on 3-pointers. That hasn’t stopped him from averaging 26.9 points during the Warriors’ series victories over the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies. Curry has built up his upper body to avoid being an easy defensive target for opposing offenses, but he’s not the stout defender that Butler is. And of the four candidates, his postseason defensive rating of 113 is the worst. In that regard, the Splash Brother gets eliminated from “best player left” consideration.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks. Let’s just say it from the top: He’s the best offensive force still playing for a title. The ball is in Doncic’s hands more than anyone (playoff-high 39.3% usage rate), and if he’s not scoring, he’s driving straight into the heart of defenses to help set up teammates for gut-punching 3s (Dallas’ 38.5% beyond the arc is best among remaining playoff teams). Jason Kidd, now famously, challenged Luka to turn up his defensive effort in the last series against the Phoenix Suns, but Kidd’s team defense concepts do a good job of making sure Doncic doesn’t get exposed repeatedly. Luka does a lot for the Mavericks, as his playoff averages of 31.5 points and 10.1 rebounds (both No. 1 in the playoffs among those still competing) suggest. His 6.6 assists per game are just three-hundredths below Draymond Green for tops among conference finalists, too.
Jayson Tatum, Celtics. Yes, angry Boston fan: Jaylen Brown has the numbers to be a candidate on this list. But after what Tatum did to the Milwaukee Bucks, especially his 46-point Game 6 classic in which he matched Giannis bucket for bucket, it’s clear that he has ascended to superstar status. Tatum is averaging a team-best 28.3 points along with 5.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks. His playoff ratings of 109 on offense and 107 on defense indicate his importance as one of the Celtics’ offensive fulcrums and his prowess as a defender on a team that led the NBA in defensive rating.
OK, the cases have been made. Who’s the best player remaining in the playoffs? Answer …
Doncic’s dominance on offense is mesmerizing, and while Luka’s game doesn’t match Butler’s overall impact for Miami, scoring the basketball is what gets people’s attention. And Doncic just orchestrated the most devastating and shocking destruction of a No. 1 seed ever, embarrassing a Suns squad that was on a mission to return to the NBA Finals after winning a league-best 64 games in the regular season. But on its home floor last Sunday, Phoenix was torn to pieces in a lopsided Game 7 rout by the Mavericks. And the stunning result was made possible thanks to the methodical wizardry of Luka Doncic, the best player remaining in the NBA playoffs and, quite possibly, the best player in basketball right now.