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.
LeBron James' consistent commitment and energy on the defensive end this season has been remarkable. He has nothing to prove. The Los Angeles Lakers honestly probably don't care all that much about their playoff seed. And yet, he's regularly making plays like this:
LeBron should be 1st Team All-Defense this season.— Josh Toussaint (@josh2saint) March 2, 2021
- Hounds Kelly Oubre at the point of attack
- Knows exactly what GS was running
- Tells KCP to switch
- Steph looks open and LeBron intercepts the pass like a safety
Absolute genius stuff 🐐 pic.twitter.com/8yltKKkxH9
I have to say, we've really neutered the word "genius" in basketball talk. The first part of this play is pure effort. As for directing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to switch, frankly, LeBron not switching in that situation would've just been lazy. Stephen Curry was clearly curling into a wide-open lane with KCP trailing behind the screen. From there, LeBron anticipates a pretty soft pass and picks it off. It's a good play. He didn't split an atom.
Again, this kind of effort and focus has been consistent from LeBron all season. It's the biggest reason that the Lakers rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency. First-team All-Defense isn't going to happen for LeBron. To me, Ben Simmons, Mikal Bridges, Lu Dort and Rudy Gobert are first-team favorites, and If I had to pick right now, I'd make Draymond Green my second forward, but that is obviously debatable between guys like Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The second team is where LeBron has a shot. Joel Embiid and Myles Turner will battle for the center spot, and to me, Fred VanVleet should be one of the guards. For the forward spots, LeBron is in the conversation with the aforementioned Green, Leonard and Antetokounmpo as well as Jimmy Butler, OG Anunoby and Bam Adebayo. Whether LeBron makes one of the two All-Defense teams or not, he's been legitimately good and at times great on that end all season, and it's no coincidence that the Lakers have been, too.
Now, on the other side of the ball, is the fact that the Lakers rank 16th in offensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass, a concern?
It's easy to say the playoffs are a different game and Anthony Davis has either been out of the lineup or not in top form through most of the season. Still, the Lakers don't have a lot of playmakers, and per CTG, they rank 26th in 3-point accuracy and 24th in frequency. They run the third-highest percentage of isolations but score at a bottom-10 level out of those looks. They're a bottom-10 team in pick-and-roll frequency and efficiency.
The Lakers get the bulk of their half-court points in the paint, despite ranking 15th in paint touches and 28th in drives per game. They clean up a good amount of garbage, generating 22.2 putback points per 100 missed field goals/reboundable free throws, which ranks fourth in the league. They are aggressive in pushing off misses and relatively efficient in transition scoring.
None of this qualifies as particularly inspiring. But at the end of the day, the Lakers have LeBron James, and eventually, Anthony Davis, and we think that makes them the favorite over some troubling offensive indicators we would pay more attention to if they were attached to a different team.
Remember, the Lakers couldn't shoot 3s last season either, but they hit big ones in the playoffs and Davis shot from the midrange like Kevin Durant. Can that happen again? It might have to, because Brooklyn Nets could be looming, and no matter how great your defense is, you're going to have to score some serious points to beat them in a potential Finals matchup. Heck, even if the Lakers want to get past the Jazz and/or Clippers, two of the top three 3-point-shooting teams in the league per percentage, they're going to have to shoot above their heads or find a workaround. As it happens, LeBron is a pretty good workaround.
Joel Embiid dominated Rudy Gobert on Wednesday, posting 40 points and 19 rebounds in the Philadelphia 76ers' overtime win over the Utah Jazz. It was his fifth 40-point/10-rebound game of the season. Every other player in the league has four such games combined.
This is your Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner?
The Sixers trailed by three with 10 seconds to play in regulation when Embiid turned this go-nowhere possession into a retreating 3-pointer to send the game to OT:
You keep thinking these shooting numbers are going to regress, but Embiid has hit eight of his last 16 3-pointers and is at 41 percent for the season, per CTG, while his midrange shooting continues to sizzle at 50.9 percent on 5.8 attempts per game, per NBA.com -- a better mark than Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, to name a few.
Entering play on Thursday, Embiid is second in the league in scoring and fifth in rebounding, and he's doing it at a more efficient rate than anyone in NBA history.
There have been 23 seasons in NBA history in which a player averages 30 points and 10 rebounds.— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 4, 2021
If the season ended today, Joel Embiid will have the most efficient 30/10 season ever.
Embiid is shooting 52/42/86% (64.6 TS%) this season.
(Submitted by @StevieCozens) pic.twitter.com/xyxf4hdjFr
On the ensuing possession, it was Lillard stepping in front of Draymond Green for the game-sealing charge:
Lillard is the best clutch player in the NBA. This is not a debate. His clutch numbers are stupid -- over 61 percent from the field, 57 percent from 3 and 100 percent from the free-throw line. Since entering the league in 2012-13, Lillard has hit 29 game-tying or game-winning shots with under 20 seconds to play, the most in the league over that span.
Lillard is not as great a player as Stephen Curry. He's certainly not as great a shooter. That said, if you had to choose one player, Lillard is who you want taking the shot to win a game. His track record speaks for itself. What he is doing to keep the Blazers in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race without CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins should have him no lower than third on anyone's MVP ballot.
To me, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are the only defensible names you could put above Lillard right now. For my money, Lillard should be second behind Embiid, with Jokic third and LeBron fourth. Here's the rationale: Embiid and Jokic own the advanced stats, and Embiid has the winning over Jokic. Between Lillard and LeBron, Lillard is doing more with less.
LeBron has been great in the clutch, too, but his numbers are not what Lillard's are in money time, and another difference is LeBron has pulled out a lot of games for the Lakers that never should've been close in the first place, while Lillard has single-handedly won multiple games the Blazers had every right to lose. It's a fine line, but many MVP cases require hairsplitting calls.
Pay particular attention to that 3-point percentage. It's not a recent development. Doncic is shooting 44 percent on just under eight 3-point attempts per game since Feb. 1. That is terrifying. Three-point shooting is, or has been, the only hole in Luka's offensive game. When he can rely on his step-back 3 consistently, he is indefensible, and the Mavericks, no matter their seed, are a threat against any team.
Harden returned to Houston Wednesday night and hung a triple-double on his former team: 29 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds and three steals. We won't worry about the eight turnovers. Harden was a game-high plus-17 in his 41 minutes.
The Nets have won 10 of their last 11. Over that span, Harden is averaging 27.5 points, 10.9 assists and 9.6 rebounds on 50/46/81 shooting splits.
When the Nets go small at center, with Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, Kevin Durant and Jeff Green sharing the court, they are blasting teams by 26.7 points per 100 possessions with a supersonic 136.4 offensive rating. As long as Harden, Kyrie and Durant are on the court, they are plus-13.1 with a 126.4 offensive rating, per CTG. The defense might be a concern, but how many teams, when it comes down to it, are going to be able to score with the Nets?