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.
Davis has been out since Feb. 14 with a calf/Achilles injury, and on Thursday Lakers coach Frank Vogel said the Lakers star is "still a ways away" from returning.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel on Anthony Davis' progress since he was cleared to take next step in rehab on March 12. He's schedule to be reevaluated on Friday: "I really don't want to get into every little detail on what he's doing on each day. But he's still a ways away."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) March 26, 2021
Davis has now missed the Lakers' last 17 games, in which they have gone 7-10 after Thursday's loss to Philadelphia. Nobody wants to mess with a calf injury after what happened to Kevin Durant, who went from a calf strain to a torn Achilles with one step in the 2019 Finals. The Lakers are going to be as cautious as possible with Davis, even if it costs them some playoff positioning.
But on that note ....
The problem with Davis being out is that LeBron is also slated to miss "several weeks" after a high ankle sprain on March 20, and some reports have indicated James' return timetable could be 3-5 weeks.
Prior to Thursday, Vogel said the extended absences of LeBron and Davis would "certainly impact what our mindset is come trade deadline time." It might have impacted their mindset, but it didn't inspire any actual movement. The Lakers are now one of just three teams who have not made a midseason trade this year.
And now they've lost four straight and sit just one game ahead of No. 6 Portland in the loss column, two games ahead of No. 7 Dallas and three games ahead of No. 9 Memphis. It is not a stretch for the Lakers -- who struggle mightily to generate offense without Davis and LeBron and rank 24th in both 3-point frequency and accuracy, per Cleaning the Glass -- to go on an extended slide and wind up having to battle just to stay out of a play-in series, if not have to actually win one or two of those series just to make the playoffs.
That sounds dramatic, but look at this team without LeBron and Davis. It's a bad team. And these aren't injuries you can just rush back from because the team needs you. They're not just "resting." They're injured. This could legit get kind of dicey for the Lakers.
Pretty much everyone expected Kyle Lowry to be traded on Thursday. Instead, he's staying in Toronto, which just may have flipped the trade-deadline script and actually gotten better rather than taking the first real step toward a post-Lowry rebuild. The Raptors also traded Norman Powell to the Blazers, who sent back Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood.
Trent is a stud. Hood is wing depth. The question now becomes: Will the Raptors re-sign the 35-year-old Lowry in the offseason and try to keep this train rolling? If they don't, unless they do a sign-and-trade, they will have lost him for nothing after refusing to be low-balled even slightly at the deadline.
The trade that most moved the needle on Thursday was Gordon to Denver, which takes another step toward elite title contention. Gordon gives the Nuggets a versatile defender to replace Jerami Grant and serious athleticism on the wing, both major needs. Our James Herbert says it's a perfect team-player match, and Colin Ward-Henninger ranked Gordon to Denver as the most important move of the deadline. I agree on both counts.
I'm just throwing this out, but now that the Nuggets are legitimately in the short-term game of title chasing, I wonder if they would consider moving Michael Porter Jr. for a star return. He has massive value, and if, say, Bradley Beal was to ever become available, adding that type of player to this Nuggets roster might be worth compromising Porter now that a title is in sight. Something to think about.
Vucevic was the first big name to kick off Thursday's trade movement, with Orlando shipping him to Chicago, which also brought in Daniel Theis from Boston and Troy Brown from Washington. Suddenly, as one of the deadline's biggest winners, the Bulls look like a pretty fun team. Zach LaVine and Vucevic are going to work offensive wonders together with Vucevic's ability to pick and pop to the 3-point line, where he is hitting at a 41-percent clip this season.
Ball was another big name whom many thought would be moved that wound up staying put, with New Orleans deciding there weren't any offers good enough to forfeit the opportunity to re-sign Ball as a restricted free agent this summer. Ball is reportedly seeking in the vicinity of $20 million per year, and if the Pelicans aren't willing to go that high and some other team does, they could potentially do a sign-and-trade to avoid losing him for nothing.
Of course, they could also just keep Ball. Pay him whatever it takes within reason. He's a terrific fit alongside Zion Williamson. He's shooting 39 percent from 3 for the season and 43 percent since the start of February. New Orleans still has a shot at making the play-in series this season, and then all eyes will turn to the summer, where Ball's status will represent a major decision for the franchise moving forward.