Welcome back to our NBA Star Power Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week for the rest of the season.
Don’t look now, but the narrative around Lonzo Ball is starting to shift from everyone talking about what he can’t do to eyes opening across the league to all the things he can do. He’s established himself as perhaps the best rebounding guard this side of Ben Simmons (and can you really call Simmons a guard? I know, he plays the point, but he’s 6-foot-10. Inch for inch, Lonzo is right there with Russell Westbrook on the boards). He also leads all point guards with a block per game, his defensive instincts are better than advertised and improving every game, and we know about his passing — seventh in the league at 7.1 assists per night.
Suddenly, Lonzo’s shooting is the only element of his game that isn’t already borderline All-Star level, and even that is starting to come around. Check out the last five games:
The numbers look even better over the last three games: 15.3 points, 7.7 assists. 7.3 rebounds, 47 percent from the field, 45 percent from three. The Lakers took Golden State to overtime on Monday for the second time this season, and Lonzo finished with 16 points, six assists, six boards, two blocks and a steal on 6-of-12 shooting, including 3 of 6 from three. Even more encouraging were a couple buckets he scored in overtime, including a step-back three that he’s starting to take more frequently and with more confidence. Proving that he can be a half-court creator, both for himself and others, down the stretch is a big step forward. Also, don’t sleep on this pull-up jumper going right, which is something he’s struggled with since his time at UCLA given his funky form. He’s clearly been working on this:
Speaking of struggling to shoot, Simmons’ inability to hit any kind of jumper, or even be willing to take one in most cases, is starting to become a little bit of an elephant in the room. Not a huge, mother elephant. But a baby one at least. The Sixers have lost seven of their last eight and are 1-6 this season in games decided by three points or less.
That’s not entirely on Simmons by any stretch, but when you can’t shoot at all, that’s going to be exposed in late, close games when the pace tends to slow down and defenses can narrow their game-plan focus. In Philly’s triple-OT loss to OKC, the 76ers went almost exclusively to Joel Embiid down the stretch, running their offense through him in the post, and when he’s on the court, that’s fine. Embiid didn’t play in Philly’s two-point loss to Chicago on Monday, and Simmons didn’t score over the final 6:49 of that game. Embiid didn’t play in Tuesday’s loss to Sacramento, either, and Simmons scored two points over the final 16 minutes, and even that bucket was a pretty generous continuation call.
Simmons is still the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year. He posted his fourth triple-double of the season vs. Chicago; only Westbrook and LeBron have more. It’s just the shooting, man. That’s it. I mean, when you’re an elite NBA player and you hit one uncontested 15-footer and Twitter feels the need to react, you are a really bad shooter.
That said, if he does start making this shot, good luck:
James Harden’s shooting percentages have dipped a bit of late (though he’s still averaging better than 22 ppg over his last three), yet the Rockets, who’ve won 14 straight and haven’t lost in more than a month, continue to steamroll the entire league. Why? Well, a bunch of reasons — but none bigger than Chris Paul, who’s coming off a triple-double of 18 points, 10 boards and 10 assists against the Jazz on Monday. Paul still hasn’t lost a game in a Houston uniform, up to 15-0 alongside Harden. Please look at what he’s doing in December:
Also, R.I.P. to Thabo Sefolosha:
Pretty fitting that on the night Kobe Bryant’s two numbers were retired, Kevin Durant scored a Kobe-esque 36 points on the Lakers — though inefficient as hell, missing 16 of his first 20 shots, before rending all the inefficiency completely moot by hitting the game-winning shot with less than 10 seconds to play in overtime:
If that’s not paying homage Kobe, one of the most single-minded assassin scorers in history who cared zero about all this efficiency basketball nerd talk, I don’t know what is. Durant said as much after the game. “That was for Kobe Night,” he told reporters. “I had to get them up for Kob.”
Durant continues to lead the Warriors in Stephen Curry’s absence, posting 33.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists over the four games Curry has been out. Golden State has won nine straight.
LeBron’s last three games: Two triple-doubles, followed by 39 points on 6-of-11 shooting from three against the Bucks on Tuesday. Milwaukee actually won that game, but don’t feel too bad for the Cavs, who’ve won 18 of their last 20 as LeBron continues to play, perhaps, the best basketball of his career (No matter how many times I hear people say this, and no matter how true it actually might be, it’s still impossible for me to imagine given the miles on LeBron’s legs. The guy is an alien).
This shot didn’t end up mattering, but this is how schoolyard-easy the game is right now for the King. He’s actually throwing it off the back of a defender to pass it to himself for a three:
LeBron has been unbelievable — and I’m not just throwing that word around — in fourth quarters this season. He leads the league with 94 clutch-time points, and continues toin trying to bring attention to, and advance, social equality.
Over the first quarter of the season, there was a contingent of people who believed Kyrie was getting too much hype, pointing to the fact that his numbers weren’t even as good as they were last season in Cleveland. I disagree in every way imaginable with this stance, numbers be damned, but even if you want to take a strictly statistical approach, well, that’s out the window now too. As of Wednesday:
On Monday, the Celtics pulled off something of a basketball miracle when Terry Rozier intercepted Bojan Bogdanovic’s inexplicably lazy pass and finished a dunk at the other end with 1.6 seconds left to give Boston a one-point win in Indiana,once again with two 3-pointers over the final 31 seconds and three consecutive buckets in the final minute. Irving is second in the league with 87 clutch points. His closing ability is what takes the Celtics from a good team to a legit threat in the East.
The Freak is averaging 28 points and 13 boards over his last three games, and the Bucks, as mentioned above, got a big-time win over Cleveland on Tuesday after they’d lost three straight. All Giannis did in that one was go for 27 points, 14 boards, eight assists and two steals. Oh, and he also came up with the game-sealer when he countered LeBron’s steal with a immediate steal of his own before finishing a three-point play with less than six seconds to play:
ESPN’s Adrain Wojnarowski came out with a story on Tuesday detailing, in addition to many other things, the trade rumors that seem to be constantly circling Davis, even more so recently. Yeah, that’s going to get everyone’s attention, especially when you hear the Celtics are one of the teams that is quietly eyeing Davis. From Woj:
Davis remains an obsession of several NBA teams full of the necessary trade assets to unfasten him from New Orleans, should the Pelicans ever consider a rebuild — or should Davis ever request a trade. Boston has remained vigilant on the possibility of acquiring Davis, and Davis knows it. However, the Pelicans have no intention of trading an all-world talent under contract through 2021, no matter the return.
The Pelicans say they have no intention of trading Davis, and chances are they won’t any time soon. But we all know how this often goes: Small-market team just can’t figure out how to win at a meaningful level, star player gets antsy, team doesn’t want to lose him for nothing, and bang, next thing you know Paul George is playing for the Thunder or Kevin Love is in Cleveland.
Look at the Pelicans right now. It feels like they’re starting to “get it” — with Cousins and Davis both putting up their customary ridiculous numbers and Jrue Holiday playing really well. As of Wednesday, they’re only 1.5 games out of the No. 5 seed in the West. At the same time, at 15-16, they’re not even a .500 team after losing to Washington on Tuesday in game in which they trailed by more than 20.
If you’re getting excited about the “positive momentum” of a team that isn’t even above .500, if the best you can do is scrape your way into the No. 8 seed (which the Pelicans occupy as of Wednesday), well, how long is AD, who is one of the three or four most talented players on the planet and in his absolute prime, going to remain patient? True, Davis is locked up through 2021, so it’s not a terribly urgent situation at the moment. But if the Pelicans remain just this side of relevant, or heaven forbid if they can’t even remain a playoff team over the next few months, perception can quickly become reality. People will talk. Rumors will fly. Teams will start to circle the situation, and being that you have to get further and further ahead of the potential superstar defection these days, so as to not lose your whole portfolio in one crash, you could see how Davis could wind up in a different uniform at some point relatively soon.
Slowly, the Thunder are starting to come out on the right side of all these close games they’ve been finding themselves in all season. OKC’s last four wins have come by a combined 10 points, with two of those wins were by a single point, and Russ is really starting to get tunnel vision, particularly down the stretch, for better or worse. Over the last four games he’s attempted more fourth-quarter shots than anyone in the league other than Kristaps Porzingis. He posted a crazy 33-point, 17-rebound, 15-assist line in a win over the Sixers last Friday, but it took him 33 shots to do it — something Joel Embiid certainly took notice of:
Melo continues to be less and less of a focal point of late. Paul George hasn’t felt like anything other than a secondary piece — at times a distant one — all season. All told, check out these OKC usage rates in comparison to the last season Westbrook and Durant played together:
In other words: “Forget you, Jobu. I do it myself.”