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.
Bill Simmons said something on a recent podcast that I have thought to myself many times and couldn't agree with more: Kevin Durant robbed us of Stephen Curry, who is currently on a stop-everything-you're-doing-and-turn-on-the-TV run reminiscent of his 2015-16 unanimous-MVP season.
I say this as a Northern California native and longtime Warriors fan: Those two Durant championships were not, and never will be, worth what they cost in prime-Curry currency. For three years, we -- not just Warriors fans, but every basketball fan in the world -- lost out on the unmitigated, unparalleled joy that is watching a fully unleashed Curry play basketball.
Was Curry great alongside Durant? Absolutely. Were they great together? Obviously. But nothing compares to Curry on a lone-star crusade, mix-taping hordes of helpless defenders before banging the type of show-off shots that continue to stretch the parameters of possible every single game. I mean, what is this nonsense?
Clearly there will be people who disagree with me on this, citing championships as the be-all and end-all of competitive endeavors. To those people I would say: Some team wins the championship every year. Whatever. Stephen Curry only comes along once, and having to cage his most colorful talents is a basketball crime.
Simmons went so far as to say the most entertaining Curry is on a 47-win team, which is to suggest a team that relies on a certain amount of desperation, which inspires Curry's most thrilling pursuits. I don't agree with that. For starters, no team with a prime Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green is going to be a 47-win team (perhaps unless its coached by Mark Jackson). What the Warriors had post-Jackson but pre-Durant was the best of both worlds: Lone-star Curry, perfectly supported by both system and personnel, on a championship-caliber team.
Would the Warriors have won any more titles if Durant hadn't come? I don't know. But they certainly would've been in the hunt, and give me Curry on the hunt every time, however that journey turns out, because there is nothing like it in sports.
This season, the real Steph Curry, the one who is leading the league by a mile in total points scored and 3-pointers made, is standing back up, and though it comes with a nightly dose of frustration that it's all likely for show on a team with probably no realistic chance to play deep in the playoffs, it's still worth it.
Over his last 10 games, Curry is averaging over 32 points on better than 53 percent shooting, including 51 percent from 3. Over his last five, he's averaging 37 points on 57.5 percent shooting. Over his last three he's averaging over 40 points while making seven 3s a night at a 52.5 percent clip, a run that includes a 57-point explosion, on 11 3-pointers, in a loss to Dallas last Saturday.
LaMelo is for real, people. Over his last eight games, Ball is averaging 21.6 points on 49 percent shooting, including 44 percent on 6.3 3-point attempts per game. Over those eight games, he hasn't scored under 14 points, and last Friday he put a career-high 34 on Utah.
And these aren't empty numbers by any stretch. James Borrego isn't playing Ball for developmental purposes. He's playing him -- in fact he's starting him -- because he can't keep him off the floor, and Charlotte is plus-7.6 points per 100 possessions with Ball on the court over this eight-game stretch.
Ball's rapid development into an aggressive scorer has fully unlocked his playmaking genius, and his defense isn't nearly as bad as it was made out to be coming into the draft. Throw in his size, instincts, rebounding ability and the unifying effect his game has on his teammates, and Rookie of the Year is starting to look like it might be a runaway.
Overshadowed by Curry's aforementioned 57-point outburst was Doncic's career-high 42 points in what was a really important win for the Mavericks, who used that momentum to start a three-game winning streak. The Mavs have now won four out of five as they try to climb back into the playoff race after a dreadful start to the season, and Doncic is starting to look slightly better from 3-point land -- the only part of his offensive game that isn't beyond reproach.
On Wednesday, Doncic posted a 28-10-10 triple-double as Dallas squeaked past Trae Young and the Hawks. It's always fun when Luka and Trae match up. Right or wrong, they'll be linked together forever after being traded for one another on draft night in 2018. Luka is the better player, but Trae is his own kind of special and the Hawks got another lottery pick out of the deal, which became Cam Reddish. Look at the company Doncic and Young are in:
Not a bad start to a couple sky-is-the-limit careers.
Another week, another crazy Kyrie comment -- this time that the Brooklyn Nets, the team that traded for James Harden to create what is probably the greatest offensive trio in NBA history, is somehow battling against all odds.
After the Nets lost to the Pistons on Tuesday, their seventh loss this season to a below-.500 team, Irving described Brooklyn an "average" team before going on to cite COVID-19 protocols and apparently biased officials as a few of the obstacles these gritty, can't-catch-a-break Nets are battling.
Poor guys. It really stinks that they're the only team forced to deal with this COVID inconvenience. I mean, how can a team starting James Harden and Kyrie Irving possibly be expected to beat the Pistons and the refs? You can only ask so much.
Kyrie is going to say this is the type of comment-nitpicking that had him backed into a media boycott to start the season, but it's not true. This is what he said. And he was very clear about it. Adamant, even. The Nets are up against the world.
In truth, if the Nets have faced any extra adversity in these universally adverse times, it's been the fact that they ... employ Kyrie Irving, who didn't show up to games for two weeks. It was a mental-health break, and this isn't to diminish the need for Kyrie -- or anyone -- to take care of himself. That's massively important. For everyone. But you can't be the guy who has, for various reasons and at various points over his career, personally made life difficult on his team, only to then, in a collectively difficult time, whine about life being difficult on his team.
You know what I mean?
Through it all, Kyrie remains a dazzling basketball player who is having the best year of his career. On Wednesday, Irving helped get the Nets back in the win column with 35 points -- aided by a career-high 17-for-17 night at the free-throw line -- against the Pacers. As always, he was poetry in motion with the ball in his hands:
And one of his eight assists:
Entering Thursday, there are three players in the league who have scored at least 600 points while making at least 80 3-pointers this season, and Zach LaVine is one of them. The other two are Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. Not bad company for LaVine, who is one of the most effortless scorers on the planet and an evolving playmaker.
There's a case to be made he should be starting in the All-Star Game alongside Bradley Beal as the East backcourt, though Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Trae Young, Khris Middleton and perhaps even James Harden will certainly have something to say about that. Either way, LaVine, assuming healthy the rest of the way, is a lock to at least be an All-Star reserve. At least he better be.
On Wednesday, LaVine, the league's sixth-leading scorer on the most efficient marks of his career, hit the Pelicans for 46 points while cashing 9 of 14 3-pointers. Meanwhile, Coby White hit eight triples of his own, making LaVine and White the first teammates in history to both make eight 3-pointers in the same game. That feels like a record that should belong to Curry and Klay Thompson, but nope, it's LaVine and White.
In this piece, our Jack Maloney broke down how LaVine and White were able to make history, from Pelicans defensive mishaps to paint penetration and just flat-out great individual shot creation.