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.
If you haven't noticed, Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double again. It was once enough to win him the 2017 MVP. It's not to compare the player Westbrook is now to the player he was when he willed the Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs as a No. 6 seed in the aftermath of Kevin Durant's defection. But there was a time when we would've been enamored with the numbers alone. Context wouldn't have mattered. That time has passed.
Now nobody cares about Westbrook's 21.8 points, 10.6 assists and 10.5 rebounds a night. The only numbers we care about are the Washington Wizards' 18-32 record and the fact they are 4.7 points worse per 100 possessions when Russ is on the floor, the worst mark on the team for anyone who's played at least 300 total minutes.
On Wednesday, he did it again:
This time, the Wizards won. Russ was plus-13 for the game. That has not been the norm. Factored into that minus-4.7 overall number is the Wizards being six offensive points per 100 possessions worse with Westbrook on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, and that's mostly with the benefit of having Bradley Beal alongside him. When Westbrook is on the court without Beal and thus has to be the actual main catalyst, the Wizards free fall to minus-10.2 with a 100.1 offensive rating, which would rank as the worst mark in the league by a mile.
Flip that around and put Beal on the court without Westbrook, and the Wizards vault more than 15 offensive points per 100 possessions to a 116.6 rating, which would rank eighth in the league, per CTG.
Over his last 15 games, Westbrook has put up some of his best numbers of the season: 24.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 12.1 assists a night on 44 percent shooting, including 37 percent on over five 3-point attempts per game. And yet the Wizards are still minus-6.4 in his minutes. There's just no way around it anymore. Westbrook is a negative player these days. Don't let the triple-double average fool you. Not that it is.
Kevin Durant returned to the Nets on Wednesday after a 23-game absence, spanning nearly two months, and looked ... ridiculous. Basketball is so easy for this guy it's actually laughable. He didn't start for just the second time in his career. He entered the game with 7:37 to play in the second quarter and proceeded to go 5 for 5 from the field, 2 for 2 from 3, and 5 for 5 from the free-throw line en route to 17 perfect points, seven rebounds and five assists in 19 minutes. The Brooklyn Nets destroyed the New Orleans Pelicans without James Harden, by the way.
After hanging 35 on the Utah Jazz in a monster Phoenix Suns win on Wednesday night, Devin Booker has now scored 148 points over his last four games (tops in the league over that span) on 55 percent shooting, including 46 percent from 3. The Suns have now won seven straight and now trail Utah by just one game in the loss column for the No. 1 overall seed.
It's almost impossible to distinguish between Booker and Chris Paul in terms of who's been most valuable to Phoenix. And that's the point. You need two stars to contend these days.
Coming into Wednesday, the Suns were plus-6.9 points per 100 possessions with both Booker and Paul on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, but what really separates Phoenix is where most teams get worse when a star goes to the bench, the Suns continue to drill teams. When Booker plays without Paul, they are plus-11.7 and rank in the 98th offensive percentile. When Paul plays without Booker, the offense falls off considerably, but the Suns remain plus-10.1 per 100 because they rank in the 99th defensive percentile, per CTG.
Warriors Twitter finally got its collective wish when Steve Kerr extended Stephen Curry's fourth-quarter minutes on Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks. It worked. Curry reentered the game at the eight-minute mark -- two minutes earlier than normal -- with the Warriors trailing by nine. From that point forward, Curry scored 11 of his 41 points and the Golden State Warriors outscored the Bucks by 10 for a one-point victory.
On Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks, the reverse was true. Kerr, per his usual refusal to stretch Curry's fourth-quarter court time, had a dead-ball opportunity to bring Curry back at 7:27 mark. At the time, the Warriors were up by one. Kerr kept him out another minute, and in that time the Warriors fell behind by six points -- the exact margin by which they lost the game.
Golden State is clinging to a spot in Western Conference play-in series. Entering Thursday, they sit at No. 10, two games up in the loss column on No. 11 New Orleans and No. 12 Sacramento. Over his last four games, Curry is scoring 36.5 a night on 52 percent shooting, including 40 percent from 3. Curry's five made 3-pointers on Tuesday pushed him to 201 for the season. It's eighth time in his career he has crested the 200-made-3s mark in a single season, an NBA record.
How wonderful is Nikola Jokic to play with? Just ask new Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon. Through five games, Jokic has already assisted on 13 Gordon buckets, which is more than any player on Orlando did over 25 games this season other than Nikola Vucevic, who tallied 15 assists to Gordon on 215 total passes, per NBA.com. Jokic has only needed 56 passes to notch his 13 Gordon assists, and rest assured, there are a lot more coming.
In Orlando, Gordon was far more ball dominant -- which is to say he touched it more, and he held it longer. He doesn't have to do that anymore. I love this quick dive into Gordon's more streamlined activity in Denver, where Jokic runs a show that is equal parts poetic and precise, allowing Gordon to seek early seals and opportunistic cuts in an offense perfectly suited to his skillset.
Aaron Gordon in Orlando:— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) April 7, 2021
64 touches per game
3.4 dribbles per touch
0.9 points per chance
Aaron Gordon in Denver:
32 touches per game
1.2 dribbles per touch
1.2 points per chance
Dribbling and touching the ball half the time, per @SecondSpectrum. But playing better than ever. https://t.co/C48eTQ8r2W
More production in less time for the newest Nugget. That's the effect of Jokic, who's at the top of just about every encompassing advanced metric and for most people's money is the MVP favorite.
Joel Embiid's 10-game absence likely ended his MVP chances, but all the Philadelphia 76ers care about is he's back dominating as they chase the East's No. 1 seed. On Wednesday, Embiid humbled Boston's Robert Williams, who had been on a tear since being inserted into the starting lineup after the trade deadline.
In the two games prior to the Philly matchup, Williams had gone for 36 combined points on 16-of-18 shooting. Against Embiid, he scored four points and fouled out in 14 minutes. He had no chance against Embiid, who went for 35 points and got to the free-throw line 20 times. Embiid has now shot 37 free throws in two games since returning to the lineup, making 28, which more than makes up for his 1-for-9 mark from 3 over the same span.
Also, 7-foot-2 monsters are not supposed to be this nimble:
Embiid is unbelievable, indeed.