NBA Star Index: As Giannis tries to widen gap for second straight MVP, LeBron James continues to make his case

Welcome back to the NBA Star 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 through the end of the regular season.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL • PF • 34
PPG31.1
RPG13.9
BPG1.3

Giannis hung 50 points, 14 rebounds and six assists on the Jazz Monday, becoming the first player since Michael Jordan in 1989 to have at least 50-10-5 with ZERO turnovers. Given his usage rate, that is just a silly stat. GIannis now has 17 straight double-doubles to begin the season, which is the second-longest streak in history. He has a ways to go to catch Bill Walton. 

Entering play on Wednesday, Giannis leads the league in plus/minus among players who have played at least 35 total minutes. He's also first in PER (player efficiency rating), second in scoring, fourth in rebounds, top 15 in steals and top 30 in blocks. He's made more field goals than anyone in the league. He's shooting over 56 percent from the field. Shooting 3-pointers is starting to become an active part of his arsenal, and he's proving to be plenty capable of making them -- 3 for 8 in his 50-point night. 

Most importantly, the Bucks have won nine of their last 10 and are atop the Eastern Conference at 14-3 on the season. If the season were to end right now, Giannis would almost certainly win MVP. LeBron James is right there in my mind, and Luka Doncic and James Harden are, too. But Giannis is seemingly widening the gap every game. He is just playing out-of-this-world basketball.  

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LeBron James LAL • SF • 23
PPG25.6
APG11.0
SPG1.2
3P/G2

Prior to this season, the best record a LeBron James-led team had ever posted to start a season was 13-3, which was accomplished by the Cavaliers of both 2016-17 and 2008-09, and the 2013-14 Miami Heat. 

The Lakers, after a 114-104 win over the Spurs on Monday, now own that record at 15-2. It's the best mark in the league, and the way they are dominating second halves, and particularly fourth quarters, is the mark of a great team that knows when, and how, to crank things up. 

The Lakers have the best fourth-quarter defensive rating in the league by a mile. 

LeBron was again sensational on Monday, posting 33 points and 14 assists on an efficient 13-of-24 shooting, including 4 of 7 from 3. He continues to lead the league in assists while still scoring just under 26 points a game. You love that James' 3-point mark is up over 35 percent. He looks as comfortable as ever from deep, and when it's a big shot, you can throw that percentage out. He hit two huge 3s to give the Lakers some fourth-quarter separation in a close game vs. San Antonio on Monday. 

You love this defensive effort even more:

LeBron has been out to make a statement this season. He heard all the offseason chatter about other stars having taken his throne, and so far, he's playing every game with urgency and energy and with something to prove. We'll see how long that keeps up if the Lakers run off enough to secure their playoff spot/seed and start scaling back their two stars, but for now, he'd be No. 2 in my MVP voting. 

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James Harden HOU • SG • 13
PPG37.9
APG8.0
SPG1.6
3P/G4.647

Following the Rockets' 122-119 loss to the Clippers last Friday, Harden told reporters, effectively, that the types of double teams he's seeing are unprecedented. The evidence shows that is not true

That said, Harden is definitely getting doubled more consistently than any star we've seen in quite some time, and perhaps ever. Second defenders are constantly shading toward him, if not leaving their man outright to trap him at the top of the key. He also sees the standard superstar treatment of doubles off pick-and-rolls on almost every possession.  

This is a product of two things: First, the Rockets, simply by the way they play, announce to everyone that they don't believe any other player on their roster is anywhere near as qualified to shoot as Harden. So why would a defense honor the other players? If Harden is going to operate with such a disproportionate usage rate to his teammates, he's going to see a disproportionate level of defense. 

That said, Russell Westbrook is the guy that has to punish teams for doubling Harden so aggressively. If he's truly a superstar, he will find a way to do that. But it's not going to happen as long as he's shooting 23 percent from 3, unless he consistently avoids the temptation of the 3-pointer and attacks the open lanes created by these Harden doubles. Like this:

When Westbrook does that, he can make teams pay. 

When a 23 percent shooter does this, the only team paying is Houston:

Right now, Westbrook is just not making enough good decisions in these situations. You can see him trying. He doesn't pull up for his patented mid-rangers as much. He doesn't settle for 3s quite as much. He's trying to get to the rim, but in doing so he can tend to get out of control. When he does shoot, well, the defense thanks him. 

When people questioned the Harden/Westbrook pairing, this was the main reason why. How valuable, really, is a largely off-ball player who can't shoot? The reason LeBron James doesn't see this level of double teams isn't because Harden is better than LeBron. It's because Anthony Davis is better than Westbrook. Davis is the deterrent. He's the double-team punisher, and LeBron serves the same role in reverse for Davis. 

Kevin Durant and Steph Curry did it for each other. 

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard do it for each other. 

Double-team one, the other burns you. Right now, nobody can double Westbrook because Harden will kill them, but Westbrook isn't holding up his end of the bargain. Right now, teams have no problem leaving Westbrook by himself. There are ways he can burn them, and at times he is. But it has to be consistent, and that 3-point percentage has to at least creep up near the 30s. That shouldn't be asking too much for a "superstar." 

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Joel Embiid PHI • C • 21
PPG21.0
RPG11.8
BPG1.3

This is almost impossible to believe, but it's true. Embiid, in 32 minutes of action, went 0 for 11 from the field and 0 of 3 from the free throw line in Philly's 101-96 loss to the Raptors (who improved to 12-4, by the way) on Monday. It was the first scoreless night of Embiid's career

Spacing is a serious issue for the 76ers, and Embiid particularly. So is Marc Gasol, who made life miserable on Embiid in the playoffs last season and is now the most responsible party for holding him scoreless. Gasol seems like a pretty nice trade chip, but with the way the Raptors are playing and the way he's proven he can frustrate Embiid, Toronto is probably thinking very hard about hanging onto Gasol for that one potential matchup come playoff time. 

Meanwhile, this is not the company Embiid wants to be in ... 

My college James Herbert laid out the reasons for this Embiid goose egg being both an aberration and an alarming sign for the Sixers, who are the 15th-ranked offense in the league and often look even more challenged than that ranking indicates. Again, the spacing is a major problem. Ben Simmons is square in the middle of that issue, but they don't have a ton of shooters, either. 

Also, the tandem of Embiid and Horford is still a work in progress. Horford brings obvious value as a defensive anchor when Embiid is on the bench, but when they're on the floor together, they function optimally in largely the same spaces. Throw Simmons into the mix, and it becomes a pretty crowded paint. Horford is being forced to take more 3-pointers per game than at any point in his career, and when he and Embiid are on the floor together the Sixers are functioning at a bottom-five offensive level. 

There are definitely some things to figure out in Philly. 

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Carmelo Anthony POR • SF • 00
PPG16.0
RPG5.3
BPG.3

Anthony put up 25 points and eight boards on 10-of-20 shooting as Portland snapped a four-game skid with a win in Chicago Monday night. Melo continued his solid shooting from distance, going 4 of 7 from 3 -- where he is now at 39 percent over his four games back. 

That number is deceiving, too. Melo went 0 for 8 from 3-point range against Cleveland on Saturday. Throw that one game out, and he's shooting 60 percent from deep. Say what you want about his defense (which has been predictably bad), but Melo can clearly still shoot and score, and the Blazers need both. 

"I'm starting to get my feel and my flow back," Anthony told reporters on Monday. 

You can already see the driving lanes starting to open up for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as defenses have to honor Melo as a floor spacer. He's still a guy who can go get a bucket for a team that struggles to find any kind of consistent offense outside its two guards. You love seeing stuff like this, too:

To suggest this guy "can still play" is an insult. That much is obvious. He remains a turnstile defensively and won't be much of a plus player when he's not making shots, but when he is making shots, it's still a beautiful sight to see. 

Anthony is on a non-guaranteed deal that will pay him $2.15 million if he remains on the Portland roster past Jan. 7, which looks like a good bet. But there could be more money, and perhaps another team, in store down the line as Melo has made it clear that he doesn't intend to retire after this season.

[Anthony] told The Athletic he wants to play for more seasons beyond this one.

"This ain't a damn farewell tour," Anthony said. "My love for the game don't stop. I don't know where this 'farewell tour' thing came from. I've never talked about a farewell tour. I know what I can do and I believe in myself. When a farewell tour comes, it comes. That's not something I think about. I'm not thinking about retiring right now. I had during this past stretch over the summer.

"But ain't no retiring in my mind. I believe in what I have left."

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Buddy Hield SAC • SG • 24
PPG20.4
APG2.3
SPG.8
3P/G3.938

Buddy Hield has a history of lighting up the Celtics. Earlier this month, Hield put up 35 points, making 7 of 12 from 3-point range, in a one-point win over Boston. On Monday, he topped that performance with 41 points on a Kings franchise record 11 3-pointers. But this time, it was the Celtics who came out with a one-point win, 103-102. 

The 11 triples are the most ever surrendered by a Celtics team, and per ESPN Stats and Info, they are tied for the most made in a loss. Stephen Curry has made 11 3s in a loss twice for the Warriors. Hield did over half his damage in the third quarter, when he scored 21 points on 8 of 10 from the field. 

Hield had been struggling with his shot coming into this game, going just 5 for 22 over his previous three games from downtown. This will hopefully get him going again. 

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