NBA Star Power Index: As Stephen Curry goes down, Russell Westbrook's shots won't


Welcome back to our NBA Star Power 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 for the rest of the season.  

Stephen Curry G / Warriors

Curry became the talk of the league Monday night for all the wrong reasons. After leading Golden State back from a 20-point halftime deficit with 19 of his 31 points coming in the second half, Curry overextended for a steal on the wing and wound up rolling his right ankle in pretty ugly fashion. 

Given his history with ankle injuries, people are always going to fear the worst whenever Curry comes up even a little bit gimpy. He had an MRI Tuesday, which revealed no structural damage, which is the good news. The bad news is he'll be re-evaluated in a couple weeks, so he'll be out at least that long. There's a chance he'll miss all of December, and with the Warriors locked in race for the No. 1 seed with Houston, how Golden State navigates this stretch will likely go a long way toward its playoff seeding. 

Before the injury, Curry -- who has struggled, relatively speaking, from three this season -- was really starting to cook, shooting it better than 46 percent from deep (13 for 28) while scoring 31, 30 and 23 in wins over the Pelicans, Heat and the Magic, respectively. His 58 percent mark from 2-point range is the best of his career. "I got to make some shots," Curry joked with reporters after Golden State's win in Miami. "I ain't making threes, so I might as well make some twos."

Embiid again made headlines this past week with his trash talk, this time saying of Detroit's Andre Drummond"No disrespect, but he can't shoot." Then he went out and put 25 and 10 on the Pistons before delivering this immediately viral sendoff for the fouled-out Drummond:

If you're counting, that's seven straight double-doubles for Embiid, who would be a virtual lock for All-NBA if the season were to end right now. 

Last week I wrote about how Ben Simmons' numbers look surprisingly pedestrian when he isn't playing with J.J. Redick and Robert Covington, who provide the floor spacing Simmons needs, and can't really create for himself given his lack of a jumper. That night he went out and put 31 points, 18 boards, four assists, two blocks and two steals on the Wizards. I didn't even bother to check the on-offs. They don't matter. That line is silly. 

Before Golden State's game with Miami, I spent some time talking to Shaun Livingston about Simmons, who he's seen close up as the Warriors have already played the Sixers twice this year. Livingston, of course, has made a nice career as an inside-the-arc player in a 3-point-drunk league, and he certainly benefits from the space Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson create the same way Simmons benefits from the range of Covington and Redick. Livingston told me that generally speaking, he doesn't think a point guard can be elite in today's game if he's not a shooter, particularly off the dribble and from deep, but that Simmons was a pretty clear exception. 

"The main thing [for a guy like Simmons] is just knowing you have to play with pace," Livingston said. "If you're always in transition, always pushing the pace, it's harder for a defense to settle into their game plan [and force you to shoot]." 

As of Wednesday, the Sixers are playing at the fourth-fastest pace it the league, per NBA.com. 

Westbrook notched his league-leading eighth triple-double of the season with 34 points, 14 assists and 13 rebounds in a comeback win over the Jazz on Tuesday. In fact, he fell one rebound shy in two separate games of putting up three straight triple-doubles over the last week. That said, he's shooting less than 40 percent from the field over his last three, including a dreadful 4 of 19 from deep. He remains a riddle of crazy numbers. 

Back to the Jazz game, which could really serve as a springboard-type win as the Thunder finally executed down the stretch with some semblance of patience, outscoring Utah 34-14 in the fourth quarter. Westbrook was undeniably great all game and particularly during the 17-point, second-half rally. These are numbers Billy Donovan will like to see:

Here's an interesting Westbrook number you're probably not aware of: He has just four screen assists (calculated as a screen that leads directly to a field goal) this season. By comparison, LeBron James has 16, Stephen Curry has 15, Kyrie Irving has 12, James Harden has 11, Ben Simmons and Goran Dragic each have nine. Last season, Curry had over 100 screen assists. 

It's not a stat you hear much about, particularly with guards, but it indicates just how inactive Westbrook is off the ball in terms of freeing up his teammates. And he doesn't do much for himself off the ball, either, as he's scored just 10 points all year long off cuts, which isn't even enough to register on Synergy's top-40 leaderboard with a minimum of 10 such possessions. If the Thunder want to start moving the ball more, Westbrook getting more off-ball active in a variety of ways would be a good start.

Jayson Tatum F / Celtics


That Jayson Tatum is 19 years old becomes more unfathomable every time you watch him play. He is just so polished, so poised, so ... good. Seriously, look at this stat:

Not exactly pedestrian company for Tatum, who has scored in double digits in 13 straight games (the first Celtics rookie to do so since Paul Pierce in 1999) while leading the league in 3-point shooting, by a considerable margin, at better than 51 percent. His last two games he's scored 32 points on 11 of 15 from the field and 5 of 6 from three. He also let Simmons know the Rookie of the Year race might not be quite the formality it's being made out to be:


Speaking of dark-horse ROY candidates, how's this for some buzz? 

Yeah, you read that right. Brooks didn't call Mitchell one of the best rookies, he called him one of the best players, period, in the NBA. The kid has played 24 career games, so perhaps Brooks is getting a little ahead of himself. But you can understand the sentiment if you were just basing things off the last week of action. Over his last three games, Mitchell is averaging 31 points a night on just under 50-percent shooting from three (14 for 30). That includes a 41-point effort in a win over the Pelicans last Friday -- which is one more point than Gordon Hayward ever scored in a single game for Utah. 

If you haven't watched Mitchell play, do yourself a favor and set your calendar. This guy is special. He did everything he could to almost single-handedly hold off that furious OKC run on Tuesday night, creating and making shots all over the court in crunch time. Even more impressive was the fact that the Jazz were on a back-to-back and Mitchell spent most of the night being guarded by Paul George and Andre Roberson -- two elite defenders -- and he still put up 31. In case you forgot, the Nuggets traded Mitchell to the Jazz for Trey Lyles. Oops. 

James Harden G / Rockets

The Rockets are the best team in basketball right now. They've won seven straight and 13 of 14. Chris Paul is starting to find his groove, but it's Harden who's by far the leading candidate for league MVP right now. He was so dominant in Houston's win over the Lakers, scoring 36 points with his standard ease. 

"James probably missed his first 3 and then got like seven in row," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said after the game. "He's ridiculous."

Ridiculous is right, and surprisingly the numbers don't just look great on the offensive end. Harden has always been a better defender on the ball than he is off, where he's lost focus in the past, but when you look up and see that he's in the 93rd percentile, via Synergy, in isolation defense, no matter how limited a play type that is, it catches your eye. It forced me to check out some tape. This first clip is solid one-on-one defense against a pretty single-minded scorer in Brandon Ingram:

This next one is even more impressive to me. Harden gets beat, yes, but this is a player he would've given up on and conceded the dunk in the past:  

Largely because of his length and the sheer amount of ground he can cover in terms of impacting shots from almost any position, Giannis, as of Wednesday, is defending 23.5 shots a game inside of five feet, which is the most of any big man outside of Aaron Gordon. On those shots, he's holding players to a 57.1 percent conversion rate. By comparison, LeBron James, who also defends over 23 shots a game inside five feet, is getting scored on in those situations at better than a 64 percent clip. Kevin Durant, perhaps as similar a defender as there is to Giannis in terms of his role, athleticism and length, defends 22 such shots a game, getting scored on more than 63 percent of the time. 

That's just one example of how good Giannis has been defensively this season, particularly around the basket, but really all over. Meanwhile, over his last two games he's put up 73 points and 22 rebounds on better than 56 percent shooting. The second-leading scorer in the league, he continues to be impossible to defend. Just look at this post-up:

LeBron James F / Cavaliers

Two players have 10 games with 30 or more points this season. The first one is Devin Booker, which probably surprises you. That the second one is LeBron is anything but a shocker, as the King continues his torrid season. His last three games: 81 points, 30 assists and 15 rebounds on ... wait for it ... 63 percent shooting. LeBron's efficiency this season has been straight bonkers -- career-high marks from three (41.6 percent), from 2-point range (64 percent) and from the free-throw line (77 percent). Please check out what he's doing in the fourth quarter:

On that note, he scored the final 13 points down the stretch to beat the Grizzlies last Saturday as the Cavs have now won 12 straight.  

Lonzo Ball G / Lakers

By extension of his madman father, Lonzo, again, is buzzing on the internet. This time LaVar yanked Lonzo's younger brother, LiAngelo, out of UCLA because he didn't like that UCLA had the audacity to punish his son for shoplifting in China. The nerve. Keep in mind LaVar already pulled Lonzo's other younger brother, LaMelo, out of high school. 

Lonzo continues to be the the biggest victim of his dad's big mouth, which has gotten crazy enough (who could've seen this coming?) with all the coach-questioning and what-not that the Lakers have instituted what's being called the "LaVar Ball Rule." From ESPN's Chris Haynes:

In what many employees at Staples Center view as the "LaVar Ball rule," this season, the Los Angeles Lakers are enforcing a policy that no longer allows members of the media to congregate in a section of the arena among family and associates of players after games.

Meanwhile, Lonzo still can't shoot. Over his last two games he's scored 11 combined points on 4 of 14 from the field, including 1 of 7 from deep. He scored two points against the Rockets on Sunday and didn't get off the bench for the fourth quarter.

Kyrie Irving G / Celtics


Kyrie's last three games: 87 points on 56 percent shooting, including 9 of 15 from three. Boston has won five of six after its 16-game winning streak was snapped at Miami a few weeks ago, and now sits at 21-4 for the season. If you don't think this guy is a top-five MVP candidate, you're crazy. 

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