NBA Star Power Index: Jimmy Butler issues more about Ben Simmons; Lonzo Ball feeling the heat
Also, Nikola Jokic needs to be in the thick of the MVP conversation
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.
Stop me if you've heard this before: Jimmy Butler isn't happy. This time it's reportedly about his role in the Sixers' offense. Butler wants to run more of the actions in which he's comfortable, namely, pick and roll and isolations where he can be the main creator, and he reportedly Sixers coach Brett Brown about the matter during a film session in Portland.
So here's the deal: As far as Jimmy Butler the teammate and locker room presence is concerned, clearly there is cause for concern given his past, even if both Butler and Brown have downplayed the incident. Even when you have a point, there are clearly right and wrong ways to make it. With that said, from a pure basketball standpoint, Butler is right. Philly should be taking more advantage of his strengths on offense. The fact that they aren't is more about Ben Simmons than it is Butler.
Talking about Simmons' inability/unwillingness to shoot feels like a broken record, but you just can't get away from it. Even though Brown has said that Embiid and Butler, in that order, are Philly's first two options, the half-court offense, for better or worse, orbits around Simmons. Almost everything the Sixers do has to begin with accounting for what Simmons can't do.
Yes, as a matter of basketball philosophy, Brown and the Sixers believe in movement-based offense over stationary actions such as the ones Butler likes running. They rank last, by a wide margin, in pick-and-roll frequency. That's largely because of Simmons, who can't space the floor in a conventional way. As soon as the action stops moving, unless the ball is in Simmons' hands, he can be largely disregarded by his defender.
Everyone knew this would be an issue. When the Butler trade first went down, I was with the Sixers in Miami and then in Orlando for Butler's debut, and everyone, particularly Brown, said all the right things about how they would strategically utilize Simmons in more off-ball settings. They would use him as a cutter. They would turn him loose as an offensive rebounder. They would put him in the "dunker" spot along the baseline, almost hiding him behind the backboard, as Brown described it.
It all sounded great, and in theory, it is great. Simmons is tall and athletic and smart, he should be a frequent cutter and finisher. But the reality is, playing him off the ball is just awkward. You can't space him out and have him drag a defender with him because he can't shoot. He can't run off screens because he can't shoot. He can't hang in the lane because that clogs things for Joel Embiid, not to mention anyone trying to penetrate.
What ends up happening is you have this super-talented playmaker with brilliant vision and creativity being relegated to these in-between spots that, frankly, anyone with his size can occupy. There are a lot of tall guys in the NBA who can stand on the baseline and catch drop-off passes and lobs and crash the glass. That's useful, but it's also neutralizing everything that makes Simmons great. Understandably, that's a hard pill for the Sixers to swallow.
Problem is, it's an equally hard pill for Butler to swallow to have to compromise what he does best -- and frankly, what the Sixers are going to need the most on the perimeter come playoff time -- because Simmons just isn't that adaptable of a player. Is that ironic or what? One of the most versatile players in the league is actually relatively incapable of going outside his comfort zone. He's trying. He's been shooting a few short jumpers here and there. It's still not anything that will register even one ounce on a defense's radar.
It's worth pointing out that the Sixers are playing good basketball. They've won four straight and seven of nine. Entering Wednesday, they're just two games back in the loss column of the No. 1 seed in the East. Whatever challenges Simmons brings, he is irrefutably great at a ton of things and the Sixers, though top-heavy, are a super-talented team. That may just have to be enough. Few teams are perfect. Perhaps for the Sixers, it's not so much about fixing their flaws as it is overcoming them with sheer talent.
That said, if Philly is going to contend for the Eastern Conference title -- which they fully should, and do, expect to do -- they're eventually going to need to lean heavily on Butler in the half-court. It's the whole reason people were so excited about the trade, to begin with. He gives them the half-court creator they lacked. But there's a catch to turning him loose in those ways, and Simmons, who most glaringly represents Philly's lack of overall shooting and spacing, is the catch.
People I've talked to wonder when, and if, Brown will start using Simmons more as a screener, potentially with Butler as the ball handler, forcing Simmons' defender into the action. It seems like a smart option. If you double Butler off the pick, Simmons gets the ball in a 4 on 3 situation while heading downhill and can pick defenses apart as a playmaker. If they stay with Simmons, Butler gets his one-on-one action.
"Brett Brown has to be creative, and he will be," A league scout told me when the trade happened. "He's got some good stuff. He'll get Simmons moving, setting cross screens, running some pick-the-picker action that he can come off of, and that will make his defender have to chase."
However Brown chooses to play it moving forward and into the playoffs, at the end of the day, everything has to be imagined and executed with Simmons' one glaring limitation in mind. For better or worse, that makes the Sixers offense much more about Simmons than Butler. And it is absolutely fair to question how good a Simmons-led offense can be, even if Butler will never get the benefit of the doubt for being the one to question it.
As mentioned at the top, winding up in the Star Index is not necessarily a good thing. It just means you're generating some buzz, and Lonzo Ball has been doing that for all the wrong reasons. Along with Brandon Ingram, Ball was called out by Lakers coach Luke Walton for his, shall we say, lack of enthusiasm during the Lakers' recent struggles with LeBron James still sidelined with a groin injury. Via ESPN:
"They're trying, but they're young," Walton said of Ball and Ingram, both just 21 years old. "At some point, we need more passion. We need more fight. And that's not scoring more. That's more diving for loose balls, communicating loudly, grabbing [rebounds].
"Brandon had some really nice crack-back rebounds tonight that we can get out and run [from]. We need that all the time from him. So, it's not just them, but until we get healthy again, you got to play in this league with some passion and fire. It's hard to win in this league when you are healthy. So you need to double that effort when guys are down."
"I talk about it with them all the time," Walton said when asked whether he's been able to connect with the former No. 2 picks when they are disengaged. "There's no secret to it. As far as finding that way, I can find it with a lot of people. I don't have the exact answer on those ones yet. But I also have all the belief in the world in them that they'll figure it out and they'll get it going. So, they know that we need them, and they'll get it going for us."
If you look at Ball's numbers over the last seven games (during which the Lakers have been without LeBron James for the first time this season), they look good: 13.3 points, 6 assists and 5.6 rebounds on 45-percent shooting. Most encouragingly, he's shooting 44.7 percent from three on more than five attempts a game. Most discouragingly, he's shooting 23 percent from the free-throw line and he's a minus-6.8 during his minutes.
Ball continues to be an enigma -- when he puts up numbers, as he has in spots of late, it doesn't always equate to winning impact, and when he doesn't put up numbers, he's often making a lot of winning plays and having a major impact. Ultimately, the issue is consistency. Just look at his four games: He scores 17 and 21 in two of them, and 0 and 3 in the other two. He took eight combined shots in two, and 28 combined shots in the other two.
Box scores can be deceiving, but in this case, they indeed validate what is easy to see if you watch the Lakers: You never know what Lonzo is going to show up. He's either bringing energy or he's floating around as a bystander. When he's bringing energy, as Walton said, he's good. In the random games when he's bringing energy AND shooting well, he's borderline great. Usually, he's in some kind of gray area, his game and impact are wide open to interpretation.
Ball has always been under a microscope, but this season it's an even hotter glare because the Lakers, with LeBron on board, are ready to win now -- and there is also the lingering possibility of Ball eventually being included in a trade package. That has two layers: Would the Lakers be ready to move on from a guy they expected to be a franchise cornerstone so soon? And if so, how interested would other teams be in acquiring him?
Jokic should be a top-five MVP candidate. He continues to be the best player on the best team, record-wise, in the West. Just look at the numbers and the company Jokic is in:
And the follow up:
Jokic was spectacular, again, in Denver's win over Miami on Tuesday. He made what proved to be the game-winner, muscling through contact for a seemingly impossible rainbow that barely touched the net on its way through.
Jokic's last three games: 30.6 points, 12 rebounds, 6.6 assists and two steals. This is where Jokic is becoming truly one of the best players in the league. He's scoring like a star. He's a load on the block, has a variety of creative shots that are much more fluid than they might look, and he can stretch to the 3-point line. This is to say nothing of the skill that first earned him most of his attention: his passing.
"I find players that have great vision the most interesting. Young players coming up, my nephew is 12, and watching his games you just never see any young kids who have a desire or even vision to see, and the ones that do are just unique. It's an extremely unique skillset that he has, at that size, to be able to make it easier for everybody else. .. I grew up in the Blazers family during the whole recruitment of [Arvydas] Sabonis, and I'm sure there have been quite a few comparisons to him."
At one time, Sabonis was considered one of the best players in the world. By the time he came to the NBA, he wasn't in his prime, but indeed he was a spectacularly skilled big man with the size and vision to impact, even orchestrate, games in a way very few bigs have ever been able to do. Jokic is the same way, as most everyone realizes by now. And the Nuggets are really good in large part because of it.
A league source I spoke with last week said he thinks Denver is still a tier below the true contenders, but it's getting harder to saddle them with the classic "year or two away" tag that we attach to so many young teams -- particularly teams that missed the playoffs the previous year. The Nuggets' win profile is elite. They have wins over the Warriors and the Celtics. They've beaten the Thunder twice, once on the road. They've beaten the Raptors twice, once on the road. They beat the Lakers with LeBron. They're 5-1 on back-to-backs.
"There's a belief, obviously to be in the position we're in after  games, to have beaten some of the teams we've beaten in the manner in which we've done so, I think that definitely brings confidence [that we can be among the elite teams]," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said prior to Monday's win in Miami. "My job is to make sure we're not getting too confident. Make sure I'm holding guys accountable. Because the reality is, we haven't done anything. We have a lot of basketball to be played, and the West is crazy. When the schedule came out in August, I looked at our post-All-Star-break schedule, it's murder. So we have to continue to find ways to win games and create a fusion, because down the stretch, there will not be an easy game on the schedule."
Harden put on perhaps the show of the year last Thursday, torching the Warriors for 44 points (his fifth straight 40-point game at the time), including the game-winning three you've sure seen a hundred times by now. It's worth watching again:
Harden hasn't scored fewer than 30 points in almost a month. His 33.7 points per game lead the league by a mile -- Stephen Curry is second at 28.7. Harden's numbers are surprisingly similar to what he did last year when he won MVP, and he's certainly on track to win a second award, though I would still give the edge to Giannis Antetokounmpo if the season ended today. Reasonable minds can disagree on that one.
Either way, Harden has the Rockets surging up the standings after starting the year in the tank. Entering Wednesday, Houston is tied in the loss column with the Clippers for the No. 4 seed. I recently asked a scout if the gap between the Warriors and the rest of the league has shrunk this season, and he pointed out that the gap wasn't as big as people thought even last year. The Rockets had Golden State on the ropes in last year's conference finals and probably would've won the title had Chris Paul not gotten hurt.
So the question is: Who can be this year's Rockets?
Answer: Probably the Rockets.
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