NBA Star Index: LeBron James, Luka Doncic early MVP front-runners; Dwight Howard making a fool of his skeptics

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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LeBron James LAL • SF • 23
PPG26.1
APG11.1
SPG1.6
3P/G1.571

LeBron James continues to amaze in his 17th season. He's one of two players from the 2003 draft class that are still in the league, with the other being Kyle Korver. Korver, in addition to being a spot-starter/bench player in the latter stages of his career, has endured far less of a beating on his body with his style of play. Not to mention the playoff minutes LeBron has logged, most of which he's spent wrapped inside double- and triple-teams, with nine trips to the Finals. 

It's so easy to take his sustained, consistent dominance for granted. That LeBron, after all that he's gone through over the years, is still arguably the best player in the world is kind of mind blowing. You can argue Kawhi Leonard or a healthy Kevin Durant, but you can just as reasonably make an argument for LeBron, who is riding a streak of three straight games with a triple-double.

NovemberNov. 1 at DALNov. 3 at SANov. 5 at CHI
39 PTS, 16 AST, 12 REB21 PTS, 13 AST, 11 REB30 PTS, 11 AST, 10 REB

That line against Dallas came in perhaps the game of the year thus far, a back-and-forth blood-battle between LeBron and Luka Doncic in which they became the oldest and youngest player in NBA history to record a 30-15-10 line, and they did it in the same game. 

After his most recent triple-double, LeBron took to Twitter to send a little message to all the folks who jumped on the "LeBron is washed up" bandwagon when the Lakers missed the playoffs last season. 

I'm not sure anybody ever said LeBron was washed up. If they did, they're not watching what we're watching. But yes, plenty of people have been looking for signs for a while now, even if they have to create them out of thin air, to make the case that LeBron isn't nearly the player he once was. 

You don't think that puts a little chip on LeBron's shoulder? You don't think he hears all the talk about Kawhi being the best player now, about Durant taking over the league's throne after winning back-to-back championships and Finals MVPs with the Warriors

LeBron with a point to prove is terrifying, which by extension makes the Lakers terrifying. Entering Thursday, the Lakers have the No. 1 defense in the league AND the best record at 6-1, and they are more than 22 points better per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the floor. The King leads the league in assists at 11.1 per game, he's top-10 in scoring, and he's less than two rebounds per game shy of averaging a triple double, all while ramping back up his defensive effort. It's early, obviously, but for my money he's been the league MVP so far. 

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Luka Doncic DAL • SG • 77
PPG26.7
APG9.5
SPG1.5
3P/G3.167

As mentioned above, Luka went toe to toe with LeBron in a wild overtime loss for the Mavericks, posting 31 points, 15 assists and 13 boards. Doncic then followed that up with another triple-double, putting up 29 points, 15 assists and 14 rebounds in a win over the Cavs. On Thursday, Doncic put up a ho-hum 27-7-7 line in a win over the Magic

Please look at the company Doncic has put himself in by notching at least 150 points, 50 rebounds and 50 assists through the first six games of the season:

It's such a telling stat because it captures the full spectrum of Doncic's impact. The guy does everything on the floor. 

George Karl said on Sirius XM NBA Radio that Doncic reminds him of "a young Magic Johnson" in a comparison that is begging to be cast off as hyperbole. But then you think about it, and it's not crazy at all. Doncic isn't listed as a point guard, but he's the Mavs' point guard for all intents and purposes, and with his size and passing, the Magic comparison actually seems kind of obvious. 

Doncic is 6-foot-8 with an uncanny feel for the game. He's a passing wizard and we're just now starting to see the true power of that part of his game. He's a true three-level scorer with poetic creativity in the lane and a step-back 3-pointer from the heavens. 

The kid is less than one assist a game shy of AVERAGING a triple-double. He's 20 years old and has the Mavs running as one of the top offenses in the league. Most importantly, Dallas is off to a 5-2 start. They were THIS close to beating the Lakers before a last-second Danny Green shot sent the game to overtime, in which case they would be 6-1 and the No. 1 team in the West. As it stands, they're No. 2. 

Plenty of people thought the Mavs would be a lottery team this season, and they may still be. But for now, they're one of the six or seven best teams in the NBA, and that puts Luka, who is obviously the catalyst of all this success, just behind LeBron in the early MVP race. 

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Anthony Davis LAL • PF • 3
PPG26.6
RPG10.9
BPG3.0

Davis was named Western Conference Player of the Week after averaging 32 points, 13 rebounds and just under three blocks in three wins over the Grizzlies, Mavericks and Spurs. Davis said before the season his goal was to win Defensive Player of the Year, and he's certainly in the early running. He's is ninth in the league in scoring, second in blocks and 12th in rebounds. 

Davis also made a lot of noise off the court this past week when he returned to his hometown Chicago to play the Bulls.

From my CBS colleague Michael Kaskey-Blomain:

On Monday, while in Chicago for the Lakers' Tuesday night matchup against the Bulls, Davis made a surprise appearance for members of his alma mater, Perspectives Charter School, at a local restaurant. There, Davis left the door open when asked about potentially playing for his hometown team, the Bulls, in the [near] future. 

"Honestly, there's nothing like playing at home," Davis said. "I don't know. I mean, I am a free agent next year ... but we will see. It's a possibility." 

Davis quickly tried to walk the comment back after it (of course) went viral, saying the following at the Lakers' shoot-around the next day: "I never said I'd consider anything. I said that I'm focused on a championship with the Lakers, and of course everyone knows I'll be a free agent next year and I said we'll see where it goes."

To be clear, that's not what he said. There's video of this. Now, he was clearly playing to the hometown media when he made the comments about considering the Bulls, and the man WAS IN CHICAGO making an appearance for people he went to high school with in the city. What's he supposed to say when he gets asked about coming home to play? The guy is having fun. He's saying the coolest thing he can say in that scenario. 

Nonetheless, he DID say it, and when you're Anthony Davis, and you play for the Los Angeles Lakers, and you just forced your way off your last team less than six months ago, people are going to react to this kind of comment. Walking it back the next day isn't going to do a thing. 

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Joel Embiid PHI • C • 21
PPG23.3
RPG10.3
BPG1.7

Did you hear that Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns got into a little skirmish? Both guys got suspended for two games for their roles in the extremely rare legitimate NBA fight. No punches were landed. It was a wrestling match for the most part, but a real one. It wasn't two dudes trying to fake their way through a "fight" to maintain whatever shred of street-cred they had back in the day. These dudes have a history that suggests they genuinely kind of hate each other. 

Embiid hit Towns with an eye gouge for crying out loud. That's not even legal in MMA fights. 

But it was after the game that the fireworks really started on social media. Not-suitable-for-work insults were traded. Towns mocked Embiid's self-proclaimed "lion" toughness with a photo of Embiid crying after the Sixers lost in the playoffs, to which Embiid naturally responded by calling out Towns for not even being capable of making the playoffs. Technically that's not true. KAT made it with the Wolves in 2018, when he had Jimmy Butler on this team. 

Speaking of Butler, Embiid hinted pretty strongly that he'd gotten the inside scoop on Towns' softness from Butler, who of course played with Embiid in Philadelphia last season. It got pretty personal. As it often will with Embiid, who is a ruthless, throwback trash talker looking to mentally devastate his opponents. He's long boasted of owning "real estate" in Towns' head, and you have to believe Towns had finally had enough. 

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Karl-Anthony Towns MIN • C • 32
PPG27.3
RPG11.5
BPG1.8

I don't need to say much about Towns here with regards to the Embiid fight; I said it all in the above section. So let's just say this: If getting into it with Embiid lights a fire under Towns to stop taking anyone's you-know-what and start whooping people's backside, well, let's just say this fight could turn out to be a really great thing for the Wolves. Because a ticked-off Towns is scary. 

Even as the polished gentlemen he's always been, Towns has been a beast so far this season. He's averaging over 26 points and just under 12 rebounds a game, both good enough for top-10 marks in the league. He was shooting 46 percent from deep entering Wednesday. Forty-six! On nine attempts a night. So we're not talking a small sample size. 

That number will go down a smidge after a 3-for-11 night from 3 in Minnesota's loss to Memphis on Wednesday, but come on. Towns is so skilled for a man his size it's disgusting. If he puts a little mean streak in his game on top of that, look out. 

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Dwight Howard LAL • C • 39
PPG6.7
RPG7.9
BPG2.1

Whoever saw this coming from Dwight Howard, stand up. And now kindly sit down. Because you're a liar. Most people chuckled when the Lakers signed Howard, and those who didn't outright laugh certainly had low expectations. Ambivalent, I suppose, would be a kind way of saying it. 

But give Howard his due. He's been spectacular off the bench. In 21 minutes a game, the numbers aren't going to look worthy of all the attention Howard is getting -- 6.7 points a game, 7.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks -- yet he deserves all the praise. He is simply playing his role. Rebounding and defending his tail off. Look at this play by the big man:

Offensively, Howard is simply taking advantage of the opportunities that come his way rather than whining about the ones that aren't. Over his last five games, Howard is 20 for 22 from the field, a mark that includes an 8-for-8 night last Sunday against the Spurs and a 7-for-7 night vs. Charlotte. The man is shooting over 78 percent for the season, and the Lakers are an astounding 23.7 points per 100 possessions better when Howard is on the floor. 

Put another way, when Howard isn't on the floor, the Lakers are a negative team (per 100 possessions) so far. Think about that. They have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and yet, without Howard on the floor, they are a minus team. There is a lot of context to consider with these numbers, and no, Howard isn't anywhere near as good or important to the Lakers as LeBron or Davis. But he has been truly terrific in his role, which is more than anyone expected, probably including the Lakers. 

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Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL • PF • 34
PPG27.7
RPG14.0
BPG1.6

The Greek Freak is really cranking things up for the now 6-2 Bucks. His last three games are his three highest-scoring games of the season, with 36, 34 and 38 against the Raptors, Wolves and Clippers, respectively. And it's not like he's just scoring. Giannis is the first player since the merger to put up three straight 30-15-5 games, per Elias Sports. Oh, there's also this:

It is end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it terrifying that Giannis is starting to look like an actual capable, and sometimes a downright lethal, shooter. He was 14 for 18 from the free-throw line on Wednesday. His 3-point percentage for the season stinks (under 20 percent entering Wednesday), but he went 4 for 7 from deep against the Clippers and he looks far more comfortable from deep than that percentage indicates. 

He is also fast becoming a monster playmaker, which makes him truly impossible to deal with when you can't just build a wall in front of him and rely on him putting his head down and forcing the action. He can find teammates pretty naturally now. He makes some downright silly passes back out to shooter swhile going full speed to the rim. His nine assists on Wednesday produced 22 points. He's averaging a career-high 7.8 dimes this season, which ranks top-10 in the league. He's also fifth in the league in scoring. Third in rebounding. He's shooting over 60 percent from the field. 

Obviously Giannis is a top MVP candidate at the moment, as well. I give it to LeBron for the team success the Lakers have had and Luka because of the unexpected success the Mavs have had. I'm not sure that is logical rationale, but it's my opinion at the moment. This means next to nothing this early in the season anyway, but it's not hard to see LeBron and Giannis still being at the top of the MVP list come March and April. In fact, it will be kind of shocking if they aren't. Luka is the one that is more likely to fall out because the Mavs probably won't keep up this type of winning. 

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