Welcome back to the 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 through the end of the regular season.
LeBron James was hoping to return Tuesday vs. the New York Knicks, then Wednesday vs. the Houston Rockets, and now the hope is for Saturday vs. the Indiana Pacers. The Los Angeles Lakers managed to squeak out wins against New York and Houston by a combined four points to keep their slim hopes of crawling out of the play-in tournament alive.
But it doesn't look good. The No. 7 Lakers trail the No. 6 Dallas Mavericks and No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers by one game, but both those teams own the tiebreaker over L.A., which makes the gap an effective two games with two to play. If Portland, Dallas and L.A. finish in a three-way tie, the Lakers would still end up No. 7 on account of Dallas being a division winner and the Blazers having a better head-to-head record (4-2) vs. L.A. and Dallas than the Lakers do (2-4) against Portland and Dallas.
But LeBron's return is about more than trying to make a last-minute run at a secure playoff spot. He needs reps. Rhythm. He's only appeared in two games over the last seven weeks, and the challenges of repeating start immediately. As it stands entering play on Thursday, the Lakers would play the Golden State Warriors in the first play-in game.
With the way Golden State is rolling, that's no easy task with the added dimension of LeBron working his way back into shape. If the Lakers get through the play-in round, they'll face the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns or Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. Even if they crawl to No. 6, they'll face the Suns, Clippers or Nugget out of the chute.
Trae Young is averaging 33 points and nine assists over his last three games. The Hawks have won five of their last six and clinched a top-six seed on Wednesday. Atlanta is no joke. Since Nate McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce on March 2, the Hawks are plus-4.9 per 100 possessions in Young's minutes, the exact same mark as the Mavs in Luka Doncic's minutes and the Nuggets in Nikola Jokic's minutes.
Young still isn't a consistent 3-point shooter. He's six for his last 30 from deep and is shooting under 35 percent for the season. But he's reined in his attempts, from 9.5 per game last season to 6.4 this season, and has particularly curbed his early shot-clock bombs. Young is a master at getting into the paint. His floater is basically indefensible. He has the annoyingly effective knack for getting to the free-throw line, where he's made 40 straight and 99 of his last 102 attempts.
On Wednesday night, the Hawks clinched their first playoff appearance since 2017. They are 25-11 since Nate McMillan took over as coach and currently sit as the East's No. 4 seed. They are explosive, versatile and confident. And Young is the center of it all.
After spending five weeks -- 18 games -- on the shelf nursing his injured hamstring, James Harden made his return on Wednesday in the Brooklyn Nets' win over the San Antonio Spurs. He came off the bench and posted 18 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in 26 minutes. He shot 6 of 8 from the field and 3 of 4 from 3. If there's any rust on his game, good luck detecting it.
"Not to brag or anything, but I'm, like, really good at this game," Harden said after the win. "I study the game, very unselfish. I take the game and I play it the right way every single night. So, I don't try to do anything I can't do or doesn't benefit my team. That mindset right there keeps me in a really good place."
This is not arrogance. It's the truth. Harden is so natural with the ball in his hands, he's not going to have a long road back skill wise. Like LeBron, it's about getting back into game condition. And on top of that, playoff game condition, which is an entirely different level of intensity.
Bradley Beal did not take kindly to Kent Bazemore's playful suggestion that Beal's hamstring strain might be some kind of cover for Beal not wanting to go head-to-head with Stephen Curry down the stretch for the scoring title. Bazemore took the jab after Curry hung 49 points on the Thunder to all but eliminate the ground Beal might've gained by scoring 50 earlier in the night before leaving with the hamstring strain, which has kept him out since.
"Forty-nine points in 29 minutes, that's unreal," Bazemore said of Curry's performance vs. OKC. "We got guys hurting hamstrings to keep up."
Beal has had on-court beef with Bazemore in the past. When Bazemore played in Atlanta, he shoved Beal from behind on a breakaway layup when Beal was in the air, and he undercut John Wall under similar circumstances.
When Beal caught wind of Bazemore's comments, he, along with his wife, went on a Twitter tirade for the ages. From Sam Quinn's piece summarizing the ordeal:
The beef began in earnest when, mere hours before tipoff of the Wizards' game against the Atlanta Hawks, Kamiah Adams-Beal started tweeting about Bazemore. It began with her sharing Bazemore's career statistics, which are unimpressive compared to Beal. Things seemingly cooled off when she argued that he didn't need to put others down to make his point. Then they got more heated when she tweeted "I'm mad we even giving relevancy to someone most people didn't even know was still in the league."
This escalated the situation enough for Beal to get involved. When he asked if he should respond to Bazemore, his wife chimed in with this GIF from Mortal Kombat.
The Beal stepped in for himself.
"You don't know me or s*** about me bruh!!!" Beal's first reply read. "You don't know why I go out there and play and it damn sure ain't for another man's approval!!! You a straight LAME!!! But it don't surprise me coming from you, thats what's yo type do!!"
He then turned things around on Curry, who has spoken openly about his pursuit of the scoring title. "It's funny you say that because ya mans admittedly checked my numbers before the game, but IM CHASING!!! Shut yo a** up!"
And, to complete the family tag team, Adams-Beal replied "I wouldn't hold my breath for a response. But hey, maybe after a long night of 8 points, 1 assist, 1 rebound, 6 turnovers and 6 fouls he will have some time." While all of this was going on, Bazemore's Warriors were on the floor playing against the Utah Jazz. He has therefore been unable to respond to it at the time, but commented after the game.
"I guess you can't joke anymore," Bazemore said. "Whatever. I feel like I'm a pretty lighthearted guy. Hey man -- my loyalty is to SC30. It kind of got out of hand. I don't get involved with that crap."
This is sort of funny, of course, that Bazemore would say he "don't get involved with that crap" when there was nothing to get involved in before he, you know, creating something. Bazemore is a jokester. He was kidding, I think. But to me, that's a tad bit over the line to suggest, even in jest, that a competitor like Beal would be essentially faking an injury to avoid the challenge of staring Curry down in the scoring race.
When has Beal ever backed down from a challenge on a basketball court? The guy is still in Washington, for crying out loud. He could've demanded a trade years ago. He's battling. He's up for the fight. And Beal's point about Curry admitting he was tracking Beal's 50-point game is right on. Beal has never shown any indication that he's particularly concerned with this title.
But if he was overly concerned with winning, just for the sake of argument, how would sitting out games help his cause? Even with Curry posting a 21-point game on Tuesday, his PPG average only dropped one-tenth of a point. If Beal wants to win, he needs to play, not sit out, so he can give himself a chance to have another huge game and up his average. Curry (31.8 PPG) is almost certainly not going to fall back to Beal (31.4 PPG).
Either way, I'm Team Beal here. Bad joke, Baze.
On Monday, Russell Westbrook posted 28 points, 21 assists and 13 rebounds against the Hawks for the 182nd triple-double of his career, passing Oscar Robertson for the NBA's all-time record.
What more is there to say about this? It's an astounding statistical achievement. I've been hard on Westbrook in the past, and I still don't believe he impacts games quite as much as the stats suggest, but Robertson's triple-double record appeared to be about as untouchable as any in sports. Robertson averaging a triple-double for a season was, not long ago, talked about with an almost religious reverence. Robertson did that once. Westbrook, whose gas pedal is perpetually pegged to the floor, has now averaged a triple-double in FOUR separate seasons.
Congrats, Russ. Pretty amazing stuff.