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.
I have no idea how to describe the tear that James Harden is currently on. It's absurd. Here are his point totals in each of the last 10 games: 50, 32, 47, 35, 35, 39, 41, 45, 41, 43. Seriously, look at the company he has joined:
Harden's last game, against the Memphis Grizzlies, was not one you're going to see very often: 43 points on just eight made shots. Dude went 21 for 27 from the free-throw line. The game before that he went 14 for 14 from the line. The game before that he went 14 for 17. Of course, this has sparked the normal outrage about Harden's foul-hunting style and whether he deserves all these calls.
I'll be the first to admit, it is an absolutely frustrating, boring, borderline maddening style to watch. But he deserves these calls. People think there is some unwritten rule that fouls and free-throw attempts have to end up relatively equal for both teams in order for a game to be deemed fairly officiated. This is ridiculously ignorant. If you go to the line as much as Harden does, it's because the defense is having one hell of a hard time covering you. Really, that's all there is to that.
Now, back to real talk. The Rockets have won 10 of their last 11 games to jump from the bottom of the West to the No. 4 spot, with a 21-15 record, entering Wednesday. Chris Paul hasn't played on this current five-game win streak. There is a simmering dialogue that Paul has started the inevitable slide from stardom this season, but there isn't enough evidence to suggest this isn't just a slow start and Paul has certainly earned the latitude to work his way into prime-time form. Until he's able to do that, Harden, whose Rockets are back in action on Thursday against the Warriors (10:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), is holding things down pretty well.
Earlier this season, Anthony Davis commented that he felt he had to play basically perfect, on both ends, for the Pelicans to have a chance to win on a nightly basis. That's not an exaggeration. Last Friday, it took 48 points and 17 rebounds from Davis for the Pels to beat the Mavericks by two points. But hey, a win's a win right now for New Orleans, which has lost six of eight and sits next-to-last in the Western conference with a 17-21 record entering Wednesday.
That record could, perhaps, be deceiving in the unrelenting West. New Orleans could put together a good run and be in top-four position by March, and then we'll be back to seeing what it can do in the playoffs as a means of effectively pitching a bright future to Davis, who is eligible to sign a five-year super max on July 1. If he doesn't sign that, it's a signal that he's more than likely ready to bolt, at which point this trade war will go nuclear.
The Boston Celtics have the best package to offer post-July 1, when they'll be eligible to make a deal for Davis that doesn't include Kyrie Irving (it's some weird CBA fine print, but just know that it only applies until July 1). The Celtics could still offer New Orleans a tantalizing package long before July 1 if the Pelicans continue to slide and get itchy, though that seems unlikely. We know the Lakers would be in play with a pretty decent package to offer of its own. ESPN's Zach Lowe mentioned that the Warriors would be interested --- who wouldn't be interested in Davis? -- but they probably don't have enough leverage with no young assets that would even approach enticing enough to involve in a Davis deal. This includes Klay Thompson, who'll be an impending free agent, and thus a long shot to stay long term with the Pelicans.
Long story short: Get used to these rumors as long as the Pelicans are trudging along at the back of the Western pack. People I've talked to around the league don't believe there is any particular loyalty on the part of Davis toward New Orleans. The Pelicans are either going to win, or at least put some kind of plan in place that convinces Davis they can win at a meaningful level very soon, or they're going to lose him. The extra year and money New Orleans can offer Davis likely won't be enough. Davis himself has already said he will prioritize legacy -- which is to say, winning -- over money when decision time comes.
The Bucks have won four straight, eight of their last nine and 11 of their last 14. They have the best record in the NBA (according to winning percentage), they're the only team in the league to be top five in both offense and defense, and Giannis continues to be the leading MVP candidate. Antetokounmpo has scored 30 or more in three of his last four games. Last Saturday he went for 31 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, three blocks and two steals on 13-of-17 shooting, and he continues to do things that defy words:
There's a part of me that is fully bought into this Milwaukee team, seeing it as something like the Warriors of 2015, a team that was super talented with a transformative star that needed a coaching change to realize its potential. Giannis' jumper is the only thing that gives me pause. It's so hard to get around a high-usage player who can't shoot forever, but Milwaukee is clearly going to win a lot of regular-season games.
In the four games since the last Star Power Index, Doncic has averaged just under 25 points a game. He went for 34 on 10-of-16 shooting, including 7 of 10 from 3-point range, in a two-point loss to New Orleans. The end of that game drew a lot of attention because Doncic, who was obviously having a great game, didn't even get a touch, let alone a shot to tie the game, in the waning seconds as Dennis Smith Jr. failed to even get a shot off in time:
The plan was to use Doncic as a decoy to open up the floor, and indeed, there are times when using a star's leverage to occupy defenders can actually create a better shot in these situations. That said, give Luka the damn ball. Few players come into the league with his kind of knack for the big play. Any time that Smith has left running this offense is fading rapidly. The ball needs to be, and will be, in Doncic's hands as much as possible moving forward.
Russell Westbrook went for 32 points, 11 assists, 11 boards and four steals in a 20-point win over the Mavericks on New Year's Eve. He went for 40 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists against Phoenix three days before that. In between those two games, he had a truly horrific shooting night -- 4 for 22 from the field, 0-of-8 from 3 -- in a loss to the Kings. These games still happen for Westbrook, who is always going to shoot with more freedom than a guy with his percentages should, but they are happening less often.
The Thunder have so many markers this season that lends credence to the theory that they are a different team that post-Durant years past. Westrbook is shooting less and, arguably, is no longer OKC's best player. The defense has never been this good. And the Thunder are beating the teams they should, capitalizing on an easy schedule to this point. This team used to be an absolute crapshoot. They could beat anyone or lose to anyone.
It feels like you can trust this Thunder team in the sense that when they lose, it's more a case of them getting beat than them beating themselves. They're No. 3 in the West entering Wednesday, and that feels like an accurate representation of this team: top-four solid. A fringe contender that is finally, for the most part, getting the most out of itself.
Kawhi scored a career-high 45 points, including 30 in the second half, in a win over the Jazz on Tuesday. He went 16 for 22 from the field and worked his way to the foul line 17 times, a great sign after Raptors coach Nick Nurse voiced his frustrations that Leonard doesn't benefit from the same calls other stars get. The Raptors are percentage points behind the Bucks for the best record in the league. All eyes will be on Leonard when he returns to San Antonio on Thursday for the first time since the Spurs traded him. There might not be a stronger player with the ball than Leonard, who has an incredible ability to attack with equal parts force and patience.