Welcome back to 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. It's worth noting that this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they're generating.
Brad Stevens didn't take long to make his first blockbuster move as the Boston Celtics' new general manager. On Friday morning, Stevens traded Kemba Walker, the Celtics' 2021 first-round pick (No. 16) and a 2025 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Al Horford, Moses Brown and a 2023 second-round pick.
A Walker trade was becoming increasingly likely, but this still feels like a bomb drop on a Friday morning. Walker's contract, which still has two years and just under $74 million remaining on it, was supposed to be a bit harder than this to get rid of -- but Sam Presti was once again ready to jump on another team's desperation to move an All-Star point guard. He did it for Chris Paul, who came along with four future first-round picks (two swaps) and took the Thunder to the playoffs on his one season for good measure.
The funny thing is, Paul was better than the guy the Thunder traded in the first place, Russell Westbrook, which makes it laughable in hindsight that OKC got draft picks on top of the better player. Might we look back at this deal with Boston in similar fashion? There's certainly a chance Walker, if he can get and stay healthy, ends up being a much better player than Horford over the next year or two -- which would be a tough pill for Boston to swallow having given up the No. 16 pick in this deep 2021 draft as a sweetener.
Of course, that's a big if when it comes to Walker's health. When he was on the court and at full strength, he was everything the Celtics expected when they did the sign-and-trade with the Charlotte Hornets after losing Kyrie Irving. But Walker just wasn't in top form, or even on the court, enough for a Walker/Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown Big 3 to truly come to fruition.
It's been a frustratingly familiar tale in Boston -- bringing in big-name players who are supposed to put them over the top only to watch those players figuratively crumble. Irving was supposed to be that guy, then he missed the 2018 playoffs due to his having to have two screws, which had caused an infection, from a previous surgery in his knee taken out.
Gordon Hayward was supposed to be that guy, then he suffered one of the most gruesome ankle dislocation/leg breaks you'll ever see five minutes into his Celtics career, and he was never the same in Boston before being moved to Charlotte.
In came Walker, who was an All-Star his first year in Boston, but was ultimately never more than a third wheel behind Tatum and Brown. It's no one's fault. It's just been something of a Celtics curse, these top players falling apart once they get into green.
The days of Paul George being an easy postseason punching bag are over. Not that the constant mocking was ever warranted in the first place. George has laid a few high-profile eggs in his career, but he's had a lot of monster moments, too. Wednesday night was another one of them.
With the Clippers tied 2-2 with the Jazz and Kawhi Leonard out, George led the Clippers to a 119-111 Game 5 win in Utah with 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists on 12 of 22 shooting. He was spectacular, as he has been for pretty much this entire postseason.
George joins Kevin Durant as the only players this postseason to post a a 35-15-5 game. He's also the only player in Clippers history to record those numbers in a playoff game. So the potshots were fun while they lasted, but George, who has scored at least 20 points in each of the Clippers 12 playoff games thus far, is getting the last laugh.
LeBron James' Lakers are no longer playing, but he still made news on Wednesday with an "I told you so" rant. James was vocal in his criticism of the expedited schedule this season as the NBA sought to get back on (financial) track after the 2020 COVID hit, and in light of all the injuries we're seeing across the postseason, James, who dealt with a prolonged injury himself this season, let his frustrations be known with the following Twitter thread.
They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season. I knew exactly what would happen. I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just “PART OF THE GAME”. It’s the lack of PURE— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 16, 2021
RIM REST rest before starting back up. 8, possibly 9 ALL-STARS has missed Playoff games(most in league history). This is the best time of the year for our league and fans but missing a ton of our fav players. It’s insane. If there’s one person that know about the body and how it— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 16, 2021
works all year round it’s ME! I speak for the health of all our players and I hate to see this many injuries this time of the year. Sorry fans wish you guys were seeing all your fav guys right now. 🙏🏾👑— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 16, 2021
There's no doubt there have been a lot of high-profile injuries this season, but the data is less conclusive in terms of the actual injury rate this season as compared to others. There's really no way to prove the quick turnaround contributed to injuries, but it's an educated guess that it has played at least some role in some part of it.
The league is a business, and the players had a say in this, and surely I don't see a bunch of guys lining up to take less money. The show going on is how these players make the money they do. You can understand the frustrations, and personally, I think the league needs to take a long look at its schedule and playoff format independent of the COVID interruption.
The season is too long at 82 games. The playoffs are also too long at four rounds of seven-game series. Shorten the regular season, which would make the games more meaningful and hopefully pump up the rating that have long been declining. If it were up to me, I would reduce the playoffs to six teams per conference, with the top two teams getting byes.
That puts an even greater importance on regular-season games. Making the top-six cut cuts the margin for error considerably, and that first-round bye would be worth chasing hard. Load management becomes a thing of the past, but it also wouldn't be as necessary, because the players would be fresher for the playoffs and hopefully, as a result, less likely to suffer injuries.
After dropping a career-high 18 assists in Atlanta's Game 4 win over the Sixers, Trae Young came back with a career playoff-high 39 points as the Hawks erased a 26-point deficit to beat Philly in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Lou Williams, who was also huge with 15 points on 7 of 11 shooting (he was an incredible plus-31 in a three-point game), had this to say about his new teammate after being traded from the Clippers at the March deadline (via Sarah K. Spencer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
"He's a monster. This dude is a monster. It'll be one of those things where I look back when he's a Hall of Famer, he's an established superstar in this league and I can say I was part of that process and I worked with this gentleman. Seeing Trae up close and the things he's able to accomplish and the things he's able to go out on the floor and do night in and night out at such a young age with the poise that he has, with the swag that he has, the confidence that he has in his abilities, I'm proud to be a part of it. He listens to me and I try to help him as much as I can with little tidbits here and there, but just to see him night in and night out, I'm extremely happy for him, I'm proud of him and I'm happy to call him my teammate."
Durant gave us one of the all-time postseason performances with a 49-piece, while throwing in 17 rebounds and 10 assists in addition to playing all 48 minutes, in Brooklyn's Game 5 win over the Bucks on Tuesday.
On Thursday, the Bucks came back with one of the best defensive performances I've seen in quite some time against Durant.
This is some of the best individual defense I've seen on Durant in quite a while. Tucker was pretty great at the end of Game 3 getting over screens, but this is just straight up no screen, Jrue and Tucker one on one in post and off dribble, and Durant is having to WORK— Brad Botkin (@bradbotkincbs) June 18, 2021
Durant still wound up with 32 points on Thursday, but it took his 30 shots to get there. There was a lot of talk about Giannis Antetokounmpo taking the challenge of guarding Durant, but Mike Budenholzer stuck with mostly P.J. Tucker and Jrue Holiday, and they put on a clinic.
Durant is regarded as largely indefensible with the height of his shot, which is normally impervious to contests. But the Bucks were doing their work on the floor, interrupting Durant's dribble and cutting off his penetration. They had him off balance as a ball-handler in a way you almost never see, and in some instances, flat-out uncertain. By the time he got into his shot, the defense had won the possession.
"Me and Kevin fight every year...I love guarding him. I enjoy it. He's the best scorer I've ever seen in my life...that's my brother, we compete, we fight every game, we're gonna fight again in Game 7"— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) June 18, 2021
PJ Tucker vs. Kevin Durant - not the disrespectful rivalry you think it is. pic.twitter.com/QAVvKPmdFN
Amazing stuff from the Bucks We'll see if they can repeat it in Game 7.
Ben Simmons took one shot in the second half of Philly's Game 5 loss to Atlanta. One. This is after he said, following his similarly scared second-half showing in Philly's Game 4 meltdown that he "definitely should have been more aggressive and attacked more." Over the last two fourth quarters, Simmons hasn't taken one shot in almost 17 minutes of game time.
Perhaps the reason Simmons doesn't want to attack more is he's worried about getting fouled and having to go to the line. The guy is shooting 33 percent from the stripe in the playoffs (22 for 67).
Do the math, and that's 45 shanks for Simmons so far. That's more than the Hawks (35), Suns (29) and Nets (22) have missed as a team. On Wednesday, Simmons went 4 for 14 from the line, making him the first player this season -- regular or post -- to miss 10 free throws in a game. There was a time when Simmons was losing postseason fourth-quarter minutes because the great T.J. McConnell was a bigger threat to do, well, anything on the offensive end. Now he's getting benched in the fourth quarter so the other team doesn't intentionally foul him. That's called a liability. Not a franchise player.
The Sixers now trail the Hawks 3-2. Game 6 is on Friday.
Did Chris Paul do something in a former basketball life to deserve such bad luck? After a career filled with untimely playoff injuries, including a few weeks ago when he soldiered through Phoenix's first-round win over the Lakers with a shoulder contusion that had him effectively playing with one arm, ahead of the Western Conference finals.
It is not clear whether Paul has actually contracted COVID are simply come into contact with someone who has it. The next update on his status will be on Saturday, per the Suns. In the meantime, consider this:
Vaccinated NBA players don’t have to quarantine following exposure to COVID, so either Chris Paul isn’t vaccinated and may have cost his team a Finals berth by being stupid— Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) June 16, 2021
He tested positive after being vaccinated and has the worst luck in history
If the Suns are without Paul for even one game of the conference finals, it will obviously be a huge blow. If he's out for an extended time, well, let's try not to think that way. First and foremost, let's hope Paul is healthy and, if he does have COVID, that his recovery goes well. If he doesn't, Suns fans are crossing their fingers this all gets cleared by the start of the conference finals.
In addition to Paul's COVID news drop, word broke on a hellacious Wednesday NBA morning that Leonard is out indefinitely for the Clippers, who fear their superstar has suffered an ACL injury, per The Athletic's Shams Charania. Before an official diagnosis can be made, the swelling in Leonard's knee has to go down. We'll hope for the best, but it doesn't sound good.