NBA Star Power Index: Harden, Paul game's best 1-2 punch; Westbrook hurting OKC
Also, LeBron James' historic season continues, while Kevin Durant reminds us who he is
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.
Paul is yet to lose a game in which he actually suited up for the Rockets (10-0 entering Wednesday). He and James Harden are really finding their groove together, and in the meantime, Houston is the only team in the league that can put the ball in the hands off a Hall of Fame point guard for all 48 minutes with Mike D'Antoni staggering his stars' minutes.
Example: On Monday, Harden exits the New Orleans game late in the third quarter with Houston trailing by 13. Paul proceeds to take over, scoring 10 straight over the third and fourth quarters (he had 18 second-half points), including this absolutely criminal crossover that has to have undrafted rookie Jalen Jones wondering if maybe European ball might've been the better call:
By the time Harden comes back in halfway through the fourth, Houston is only down two. That's a plus-11 with your MVP on the bench with the game slipping away late. That's the luxury Houston has with Paul, who is currently -- get this -- in the 100th percentile in points per possession including assists, via Synergy. In other words, not a single player in the league is creating buckets at a more efficient rate.
OK, so Paul does his part in getting that aforementioned 13-point deficit vs. New Orleans down to two when Harden re-enters the game halfway through the fourth. From that point forward, Harden scores 15 straight over the final 3:30 to close out the comeback win -- all but sealing it with this:
James Harden. Again. Disposes of Pelicans with second-straight three. GG. pic.twitter.com/PgohKzX8Yl— Kristaps Wobzingis (@World_Wide_Wob) December 12, 2017
With Harden complimenting Paul's 100th-percentile ranking in points plus assists with a 92nd percentile ranking of his own, there's simply not a better one-two punch in basketball right now than these two, and that includes Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. In a win over the Blazers on Saturday, Harden and Paul combined for 74 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and five steals.
Harden followed that up with 17 assists -- yes, 17 -- against New Orleans. In the first half he found Clint Capela for a lob dunk on three consecutive possessions. He is impossible in the pick and roll, keeping his dribble alive until the defense has to commit one way or the other:
In three games with Stephen Curry sidelined, Durant is averaging 33 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. He posted a 36-point triple-double against Charlotte in Curry's first game out after the ankle injury, and he also piled up 10 blocks over that 3-0 stretch.
What other team could lose an MVP-caliber player and not miss a beat? Imagine the Cavs without LeBron James for any stretch. The Celtics played without Kyrie Irving on Monday and lost by 23 to the Bulls. Durant and Curry have so willingly put aside their egos, and probably their MVP chances, to create one of the great duos in NBA history -- but any time one of them is out and the other is free to turn it loose, we get a very quick reminder of how brilliant they remain individually. Next to Harden, Durant has been the best player in the league over the last week.
Plus, he, who was unable to hold back tears, after the Portland win. Forget the triple-doubles and championships and all the money these guys make -- nothing is better than a moment like this:
The Greek Freak has the Bucks rolling with six wins in their last seven games, including a big one over a really good Detroit team last Wednesday. Giannis had 25 points and 10 boards in that one, and over his last three he's averaging 29.6 points and 11.6 rebounds on better than 52-percent shooting. The Bucks would like to make hay over the next games vs. New Orleans and Chicago before they see Houston and Cleveland.
If you don't like violence, I suggest you look away from this Giannis dunk:
Not to be outdone by Harden, LeBron dropped a career-high 17 assists on the Hawks Tuesday night. The ease with which he makes passes like this is maybe the most overlooked elite skill in the league:
If the season were to end today, LeBron would be the first player in league history to average at least 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on better than 55 percent shooting. He leads the league in clutch points and fourth-quarter scoring. In his 15th season, he is playing as well, if not better, than he ever has, which is mind boggling. I'm not here to start any Jordan vs. LeBron debates, but I will tell you that in his 15th season, Jordan was averaging 20 points on 44 percent shooting for the Wizards. You can argue who was better in their prime, but there is no debate when it comes to longevity.
Hell, LeBron is actually getting better with something closer to 20 seasons worth of actual game mileage on his body. Believe it or not, his 63.0 eFG percentage entering Tuesday was on par with Curry's historic 2015-16 season in which he drained 402 threes, thanks in part to an.
Some long-overdue Star-Index recognition for the season DeRozan is putting together in Toronto. DeRozan has 68 points over his last three games, and even more importantly over that stretch, he has 23 assists. Toronto is passing the ball so much more this season, and DeRozan is really thriving as a playmaker, averaging a career-high 5.1 assists.
We've long known how effectively DeRozan can score (though it's still all coming inside the arc), but you'd probably be surprised to learn that he's in 79th percentile in pick-and-roll offense including assists. He's really a patient initiator with better-than-you'd-think vision:
Over OKC's last three games entering Wednesday, Russell Westbrook has taken ... wait for it ... 78 shots. Seventy. Eight. He has made 27 of them, including just four of his 20 threes. That's less than 35 percent from the field and 20 percent from three, if you're counting.
OKC is a mess. I don't care what plus-minus or net rating or (insert here) analytic anyone cares to throw at me to suggest otherwise. OKC is a mess. It's not fair to pin it all on Westbrook, but he certainly has a lot to do with it. I just can't get over this possession late in OKC's loss to Brooklyn in Mexico City last Thursday:
That's a five-point game with plenty of time left for OKC to get at least two more possessions, and this is what the Thunder get? Look at those three guys on the weak side watching the paint dry. Nobody is doing anything, except for Westbrook, who is so determined to get the ball and shoot it, regardless of how hard he's being defended 30 feet from the basket, that he can't even see his teammates. Or if he can, he just doesn't care to involve them.
Some of this has to be on Billy Donovan for not being able to reign in Westbrook and/or influence any semblance of equitable, sophisticated offense. But we're seeing just how tough it is to coach Westbrook, a phenomenal individual player and talent who just may not have the instincts, or perhaps even the desire, to lead a team and get the best out of others.
Just look at the evidence. Victor Oladipo leaves OKC, and he's having the best season of his career. Paul George comes to OKC, and he's having arguably his worst. Enes Kanter is shooting and playing better with the Knicks than he ever did alongside Westbrook. Domantas Sabonis averaged 5.9 points on 39 percent shooting for OKC last season; this season he's averaging 12.1 points on 54 percent shooting. The Pacers lose George and sit at 16-11 entering Wednesday as one of the real success stories thus far. The Thunder add George, and Carmelo Anthony for that matter, and sit at 12-14 as by far the most disappointing team in the league.
For all Westbrook's numbers, at some point you have to do the math.
Embiid makes the list off one game -- the second-half masterpiece he turned in against the Timberwolves on Tuesday. After sitting out the two previous games with back tightness, Embiid flirted with a triple-double with 28 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists (in a career-high 39 minutes) as Philly came up with a really impressive road win in OT.
With Ben Simmons struggling to get anything going, Philly ran its offense though Embiid late and he delivered. Check out the dime to Simmons (he dropped two of these to Simmons to help get him out of his scoring funk when Philly needed it most) followed by a silky Eurostep that shouldn't be legal for a man Embiid's size:
As mentioned, Simmons had a rough go of it in the win over Minnesota on Tuesday, scoring just seven points on 3-of-8 shooting to go with eight assists. The upside is he got active down the stretch, which is a great sign for a young player to bounce back from a relatively invisible three quarters to be there for his team when it counts. That's tough stuff. In his previous two games, Simmons logged 41 points, 20 assists and 11 rebounds on 17-of-29 shooting.
During the Minnesota game, ESPN announcer Jeff Van Gundy (who for my money is the best color man in the biz), said of Simmons' lack of offensive output: "In his defense, there is so little range shooting on the court [for the Sixers]." At the time, J.J. Redick wasn't on the court and Robert Covington missed the game, and indeed, this is a real thing that I've talked about before. When Simmons doesn't play with Covington and Redick, who provide the space he cannot really create for himself with his lack of a jumper, he doesn't have near the same impact.
Simmons is going to be the Rookie of the Year and is light years ahead of where any rookie should be as a playmaker. But any way you slice it, not being able to shoot is a problem. The elite point guards in the NBA don't look to others to provide range shooting; they do it themselves. If you can't do that -- and at this point, Simmons clearly can't -- you are inherently as reliable on your teammates as they are on you. That's a strange equation for a superstar, which most people believe Simmons on his way to being, if he's not one already.
Two Lakers have recorded at least 15 points, five assists and five rebounds in their first game at Madison Square Garden: Magic Johnson, who notched a triple-double in his MSG debut, and Lonzo Ball, who posted 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists on Tuesday. That's the good news.
The bad news is that the Lakers lost a tight one to the Knicks, and Ball didn't make a single field goal after the third quarter, going scoreless in the fourth before hitting 2-of-3 free throws in overtime -- meaning he hasn't scored a single fourth-quarter point over the Lakers' last five games. When the game isn't in transition, and particularly late in the game when possessions get even tighter, he just has a hard time creating much offense in tight quarters without the threat of the jumper.
Last Thursday the Lakers got a really nice win in a super exciting game at Philly, and Ball posted 10 points, eight rebonds, eight assists, four blocks, three steals an zero turnovers. How about that line?
Right now, Lonzo leads all point guards with 24 blocks, is one of three players averaging at least eight points, seven assists and six rebounds -- with the other two being LeBron James and Draymond Green -- and he's seventh in the league at 7.0 assists per game. He's far from a bust, but the ceiling, albeit with very little evidence to consider, is still in question. The only reason we're not gushing over Lonzo right now is the shooting, which, to be fair, has been as terrible as advertised -- 32.7 percent from the field, 25.8 percent from three, 48.6 percent from the free-throw line.
Zinger got the best of Ball and the Lakers on Tuesday with 37 points (5-of-8 from three), 11 rebounds and five blocks -- making him the first player in history to put up such a line, per ESPN. Over his last three games, Porzingis has 90 points, 23 rebounds and nine blocks. Check out this bucket that all but seals the win over the Lakers:
We know Porzingis can shoot, but the ability to put the ball on the floor and finish with that kind of footwork and deftness around the rim, at 7-foot-3, is why Porzingis is seventh in the league at 26 points a game and perhaps one of the 10 most impossible players to cover.
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