Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players getting the most buzz around the league. Inclusion on this list isn't necessarily a good thing -- it simply means you're capturing the NBA world's attention. This is also not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order. This column will run every week throughout the regular season.
Klay Thompson's return to the court after more than two and a half years was triumphant. How well he played almost didn't even matter, but it was surely a welcome bonus that he did, in fact, play well. Thompson finished with 17 points in 19 minutes, hitting 7 of 18 shots including three 3-pointers. If you had questions about his explosiveness or legs in general after two major injuries, the dunk below answered a lot of them.
In his second game back, Thompson finished with 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting. In their loss to the Grizzlies, the Warriors were plus-17 in Thompson's 19 minutes and minus-25 when he sat. Take single-game plus-minus numbers with a significant grain of salt, but Thompson's presence already means a lot in terms of how hard teams can sell out on Stephen Curry.
He's shown he can create shots off the dribble, getting to and making isolation midrange jumpers on multiple trips over his first two games. His defense has held up when challenged. All positive signs.
Kyrie Irving has also played two games since his return to the Nets -- both on the road, of course -- and he's fared pretty well, too. Irving had 22 points and four assists in his first game back, a win over the Pacers, and put up those same numbers in a loss to the Blazers on Monday.
Prior to the Blazers game, Portland coach Chauncey Billups called Irving the "most skilled" point guard in history. I agree. I think. It's a very interesting debate between him and Stephen Curry, but I lean Irving.
After the Portland game, Irving was asked about the play below -- in which Nassir Little dives for a loose ball and ends up crashing into Irving, who wound up twisting his ankle. Here's what Irving had to say:
"It was an unnecessary play...I could've broke my ankle or done something worse. There's just no place in our game for it. I get the intent from Nassir...but it could've been avoided"— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) January 11, 2022
Kyrie Irving speaks on the diving play by Nassir Little that twisted his ankle pic.twitter.com/h42SQZ23m6
Here's what Little has to say in response:
Count me in Little's camp. Was this a dangerous play? Perhaps. But it wasn't reckless. Watch the play again, and you'll see that the ball is still on the logo, a good distance from the sideline, when Little leaves his feet, and he gets his fingertip on it before knocking it out of bounds. Another few inches, and he could've corralled that ball or knocked it backward off Irving.
Necessary context: Little is not a star like Irving, whose place in the league and financial future is 100 percent secure. Little is on a rookie contract trying to prove his place on the Blazers and in the league in general. He's trying to earn money and playing time every single time he steps on the floor. He's playing hard, plain and simple, and this was more than justifiable effort in a close game where possessions were at a premium.
Also, Kyrie said he "tried to get out of the way," but if you look at the tape, you can plainly see there is absolutely no effort on the part of Irving to get out of the way. In fact, he stutter steps right in front of the ball, slowing to a halt, becoming a human shield of sorts, to block Little's path to it. So I'll say this loudly for the entitled folks in the back: If you don't want to be caught in the path of a guy who is playing harder than you, get out of the path.
I keep seeing this push to make Ja Morant an All-Star. Is that a question? The Grizzlies have won 10 straight and 20 of their last 24 and Morant is the fastest-rising MVP candidate in the league. I'm calling him top five on the strength of this block alone.
Whatever words short of inhuman that people have used to describe that block are insufficient. That is not-of-our-species stuff. Ja has officially elevated to must-see TV. He brings you out of your seat multiple times every game. Now that he's shooting 38 percent from 3, he's virtually indefensible (unless you're Gary Payton II, who could smother a tornado).
Look at Memphis' league ranks over the past six weeks.
The Grizzlies are now an astounding 19-8 against teams with a .500 record or better. I'm telling you, don't count this team among at least the fringe contenders to come out of the West at your own peril. It might not happen; it probably won't, in fact. But there's not a team in the league that wants anything to do with Memphis in a playoff series.
LaMelo Ball continues to build on what is becoming a pretty unassailable All-Star case. He's one of just five players in the league averaging at least 19 points, seven assists and seven rebounds, and he's the only one of that group adding at least 1.5 steals per game while shooting better than 37 percent from 3.
Ball capped a 23-point night with the game-winner against the Bucks on Monday.
Ball, like Morant, is appointment television. His flash is more fundamentally sound than would seem to make sense. He makes the right play almost every time and often before anyone else sees it. Add in Trae Young and Luka Doncic to Ball and Morant, and the league is flush with its next wave of superstar point guards. These are not young guys here to learn from the wily veterans; they're here to do the teaching.
The Hornets, who've won three straight and six of their last eight, are 22-19 and just outside a top-six seed with the league's No. 2 offense. Now, if we can just do something about that 28th-ranked defense and those slow starts that seem to always have Charlotte in need of big comebacks, which are great for entertainment but not so much for consistency.
Stephen Curry's ice-cold shooting streak continues. In three of his last four games from 3-point range, he's 1 for 9, 1 for 10 and 2 for 9. He's down to 38 percent from deep for the season and just 42 percent overall, both of which would register as career lows by wide margins.
Over five games in January, Curry is shooting 27 percent from 3, and he's at just 35 percent since Dec. 1. I maintain this isn't his normal cold streak; he's missing some of these shots by a lot. All the Warriors can hope is that, as mentioned above, having Thompson back in the fold frees Curry up some and eventually gets him back on rhythm.