Earlier this week, CBS Sports released its second NBA Power Rankings of the young season, and will soon drop the latest Rookie Rankings. This is neither of those, nor is it an MVP ranking. What this is, effectively, is an NBA heat map -- a weekly gauge of the 12 players who are most controlling the buzz around the league.
A couple notes: First, Inclusion on this list isn't necessarily a good thing. It simply means you're capturing the NBA world's attention. Second, again, this is not a ranking of any kind. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to their "heat." With that in mind, we're calling this our Star Power Index. It will run every week for the rest of the season.
LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers F
"The King" is always in the eye of the NBA conversation, but right now, it's for all the wrong reasons -- which is the polite way of saying his Cavaliers currently stink. LeBron had to go full Game 7 mode in early November, posting an inhuman 57 points, 11 boards and seven assists on a combination of 68 percent shooting and sheer desperation, just to squeak past a Wizards team that lost to the Mavericks by 14 on Tuesday.
After Tuesday's narrow win over the Bucks in which Cleveland still surrendered 119 points, the 5-6 Cavs remain dead-last in defensive rating and 3-point defense, and they barely have a positive point-differential despite a pretty weak schedule so far. All this, and now LeBron has to watch Eric Bledsoe get traded to Milwaukee when the Cavs, who are in desperate need of a point guard upgrade at least until Isaiah Thomas gets healthy, presumably could've made a run at him -- a missed opportunity that becomes doubly hard to stomach given that James and Bledsoe share an agent in Rich Paul.
Oh, and all the while, Kyrie Irving is straight balling in Boston as he continues to take less-than-subtle swipes at LeBron's Land, saying it's nice to finally play for an "intellectual coach" and a "competent organization." No wonder LeBron took to Instagram with his frustration following Kyrie's 35-point showing on Monday in Boston's ninth straight win (a streak that extended to 10 with a win over the Lakers on Wednesday).
Kyrie Irving Boston Celtics G
It only makes sense to pick up where we left off with Irving, who is the talk of the league right now with what he's doing for the Celtics -- namely making mincemeat of the increasingly foolish critique that he can't be a No. 1 option and he doesn't make his teammates better, and yada yada. Dude is eating this season and especially of late, leading Boston in scoring in five of its last seven games while picking and choosing his spots to attack like a true pro.
What's interesting is that Kyrie actually hasn't wowed us with numbers so far this season. In fact, he's scoring less while shooting worse from both the field (44.6 percent) and beyond the arc (32 percent) than he did last season. Going deeper, while we're starting to lock in on his impact down the stretch as a true go-to guy for the Celtics, he's actually shooting even worse in the fourth quarter, though he is scoring nearly a point a minute in the final frame.
This is where overall numbers can be deceiving. In NBA money time, you win a possession at a time, and Irving is taking it upon himself to win the most pivotal possessions -- hitting shots like this with Boston trailing by two with less than two minutes to play against Atlanta on Monday:
On Wednesday against the Lakers, Irving re-entered at around the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter and briefly took control of a game that was still very much in doubt, first with a dazzling up-and-under layup before putting Kyle Kuzma in the spin cycle with this filthy piece of work:
Don't reach, young blood.
Lonzo Ball Los Angeles Lakers G
Ball hasn't been anything close to a star in terms of his actual play on the court, but you can't deny the buzz around this guy. One look at Google trends will tell you that his search traffic consistently dwarfs the numbers of league pillars such as Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and even LeBron. Some of that is his outspoken Pops, LaVar, but Ball's game is fascinating.
On one hand, the Lakers are playing above expectations and Ball's egalitarian, hot-potato style that gets everyone involved receives a lot of credit for that. On the other hand, as ESPN Stats and Info noted after the Lakers' loss to Boston on Wednesday, Lonzo now has the league's worst shooting percentage in the paint (34.4 percent) and the second-worst mark outside the paint at a truly awful 25 percent. So basically, he can't put the ball in the hoop from anywhere. According to StatMuse, Ball's 34.1 effective field-goal percentage is also the worst mark in the league. Here's what Ball had to say to ESPN's Jeff Goodman following the loss in Boston:
Former All-Star Mark Price was one of the greatest shooters in NBA history and has since worked with guys like Kemba Walker and Rajon Rondo as a assistant/shooting coach with the Magic and Hornets.
"The mental side of shooting is something that a lot of people still don't understand the depths of," Price told me this week. "Confidence is huge, especially when you're not making shots. But it's not that easy. Even the best shooters in the world struggle with confidence [when they're not making shots].
"As a coach, the first thing I ask a guy is: 'What are you thinking about when you're about to take a shot?'" Price said. "You'd be surprised what people will tell you."
One can only imagine everything that's swirling around in Lonzo's head right now.
Ben Simmons Philadelphia 76ers G
Whoever told you that you have to shoot 3-pointers to be a star in today's game hasn't watched Ben Simmons, who has yet to attempt a single triple on the young season and yet has emerged as not only the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year, but maybe the league's fastest-rising star (even faster than his teammate Joel Embiid) this side of Giannis Antetokounmpo -- who, in turn, might be the only guy aside from Simmons who could so effortlessly pull off a two-handed dunk from this far out:
Like Lonzo, Simmons' rapidly growing popularity is confirmed by the dramatic spikes you see in his search traffic on nights when the Sixers play. He's got the Sixers -- the Sixers! -- on a five-game win streak after they went into Utah and knocked off the Jazz by 15 on Wednesday ... without Embiid. That's a big-time win on the road, and Simmons had more than a little to do with it with 16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks. Look at that line, and then consider that Simmons remarked after the game that it was the "worst game he's played this season."
In case you were wondering if the kid was going to get complacent.
With that terrible, awful performance in Utah, Simmons joined Oscar Robertson as the only two players in NBA history to begin their career with 10 straight games of at least 10 points, five rebounds and five assists. That's the Big O, people. That's the type of company Simmons is already in.
Russell Westbrook Oklahoma City Thunder G
They say the game gets easier for a star when he's joined by other stars, but I'm not sure I would agree with that in the case of Westbrook, who isn't programmed to just smoothly downshift. In reality, the Thunder's rocky start to the season -- they're now 4-6 after losing to the lowly Kings, who snapped a seven-game skid, in Sacramento on Wednesday -- should be a team-wide concern, but Westbrook is the star and thus he gets the focus.
Westbrook is making a clear effort to prioritize the integration of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, averaging a career-high 11.4 assists coming into Wednesday while shooting seven fewer shots per game than last season, which is a crazy one-year reduction but not too far out of line from where Westbrook lived during his days playing next to Durant.
When Durant came to Golden State last year, we saw Curry struggle in the early going to walk that fine line of getting another star involved without compromising his own aggression. Westbrook hasn't found that sweet spot yet, and is too often waiting until the fourth quarter to say the hell with it and go get his. There's a middle ground somewhere, and Russ needs to find it, because for all the concern about Cleveland, at least the Cavs have earned the benefit of the doubt. This OKC team hasn't earned anything. We all granted them instant contender status (or at least I did), but the reality is they aren't even a playoff team at the moment, and they're looking more frustrated -- with officials, with each other, with everything -- with every loss.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks F
Coming into Tuesday's matchup with the Cavs, the Greek Freak was averaging a league-leading 31 points on better than 58-percent shooting, 9.9 rebounds and an even five assists -- then we went out and dropped 40 on 16-of-21 shooting to go with nine rebounds and four blocks. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Antetokounmpo is the first player in NBA history to post multiple 40-point games in his first 10 games of the season while shooting 70 percent or better in each.
I'm still not sure what is more head-scratching: the numbers Giannis puts up, or the manner in which he does it. Check this out from Tuesday's game:
It is not supposed to be that easy to leave Jae Crowder glued to the floor before causally eluding LeBron James in mid-air. It's just baffling how easily this guy gets to the rim with all that length and athleticism. He looks like he's playing against middle-schoolers holding the ball above their head and just laughing.
The Bucks, a trendy sleeper in the East, have fallen to 4-6 and as such, Giannis isn't getting quite the same attention as he was in the early going. His Google trends are dropping slightly, for whatever that's worth, but help is en route in the form of the aforementioned deal for Bledsoe. Give Giannis a legit pick-and-roll sidekick and we might be in for some fireworks -- if Bucks coach Jason Kidd doesn't decide to start playing four corners.
John Wall Washington Wizards G
It's been a tough go for Wall this season. He's shooting like he needs Rick Vaughn's glasses -- 40 percent from the field entering Tuesday, less than 30 percent from three -- and his Wizards are scuffling at 5-5 after a really bad loss to Dallas on Tuesday, which marked Wall's return after he sat out against Toronto with a hurt shoulder.
Speaking of that shoulder, that happened in Washington's loss to the Cavs, which is really the only reason Wall is getting much buzz at the moment. Prior to that game, Wall told Rachel Nichols on ESPN's The Jump that he believes the Cavs intentionally fell to the No. 2 seed in last year's playoffs to avoid facing the Wizards in the second round. Yeah, LeBron and company had a good laugh about that, then James went out and hung 57.
Wall is still putting up his customary 20 and 10 and the Wizards are an elite offensive team with him on the floor, and his shooting is starting to show signs of life, relatively speaking. It won't be long before Wall is back in the news for the right reasons, but right now he's not even the best player on his own team. That distinction would go to Bradley Beal at the moment.
James Harden Houston Rockets G
Harden is just sort of going about his amazing work in relative obscurity this season, as the Rockets have lost some of their sizzle after opening the season as all the rage with a win over the Warriors and a 5-0 start. But Harden reclaimed his place in the spotlight with a 56-point, 13-assist effort on Monday in which he was basically Picasso with a basketball. Arguments have been made that it was, all things considered, perhaps one of the best offensive games in NBA history. From ESPN:
Kristaps Porzingis New York Knicks F
Second-leading scorer in the league at 30 a night. Third in blocks at 2.3 a game. Had the supposedly hideous Knicks -- winners of six of their last eight -- on a three-game winning streak before he sat out Wednesday's loss to the Magic. Yeah, the Unicorn has been getting some ink of late.
Porzingis has been phenomenal all year, setting a Knicks franchise record with 300 points through the first 10 games. On Tuesday against Charlotte, he posted 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting and 4 of 8 from three -- including this monster triple with the game tied and less than two minutes to play to send the Garden into a frenzy:
Lord Zingis is making a habit of hitting truly stone-cold shots like this, and has already erased any doubt as to whether he's a legit No. 1 option. Like Giannis in a way, it doesn't make sense what Porzingis can do at his size. The way he can put the ball on the floor, shoot from distance, defend with agility. Throw in the auspicious beginning to Frank Ntilikina's career, and New York might have the makings of a pretty gorgeous two-man game moving forward.
Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors G
When Steve Kerr suggested that Stephen Curry impacts games -- just in terms of the way he destroys all defensive principles -- on the same level as Michael Jordan, old-schoolers were predictably outraged by the inflated value we continue to attach to this skinny-little jumpshooter.
One of these days, we're going to actually allow someone else's name be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan. Until then, let's at least agree that in large part we continue to take for granted what Curry does, not just for the Warriors, but on a basketball court in general. Coming into Wednesday's win over Minnesota, the Warriors were posting a 123.5 offensive rating with Curry on the court, but just a 99.7 rating with him on the bench -- which would rank 26th in the league. All told, when Curry is on the court this season, Golden State is outscoring opponents by almost 23 points per 100 possessions, but when he's off, the Warriors are being outscored by 7.5 points per 100.
That's a fancy way of saying they're the historic team we've all come to know with him, and an actual losing team without him. There's certainly some garbage time factoring in there, but Curry's otherworldly impact is once again hiding in plain sight. Entering Wednesday, Curry ranked first in offensive rating, first in net rating, second in 3-pointers made, fifth in true shooting percentage, seventh in scoring and eighth in steals. He was a ridiculous plus-44 against the Nuggets last Saturday. Plus-44! In 30 minutes! Which leads us to this:
DeMarcus Cousins New Orleans Pelicans C
Boogie has long been putting up crazy numbers on losing teams, and this season, so far, is no different. The numbers are astounding -- 28.9 points, 13.6 rebounds and almost six assists a night. In two of his last four games, he's hit four and five 3-pointers, respectively. He's unstoppable, and now New Orleans has won three straight, albeit against two really terrible teams in Chicago and Dallas before knocking off Indiana on Tuesday. Cousins had 32 points and 13 boards in that one.
Anthony Davis is putting up his own dominant numbers, but the reason Cousins is getting a bit more coverage is for the speculation that he could be dealt this season if New Orleans continues to under-perform. On Bill Simmons' podcast, Tom Haberstroh speculated that he likes the chances of the Wizards pulling off a trade for Cousins at this year's deadline -- which, wow.
Damian Lillard Portland Trail Blazers G
I have no idea if the numbers would support this, but I'm telling you right now there isn't a point guard in the league that I'd rather have the ball in the closing seconds with the game on the line that Lillard. The guy is filthy in the biggest moments, as evidenced yet again by this rip-your-heart-out game-winner against the Lakers last week.
That is so cold. I mean, I know guys are typically advised to get something going to the basket in those situations -- put the onus on the refs to make a call and all that. But when you've got Lillard, I'll take a clean look at the hoop, no matter where it's from, any day.
Lillard, who's averaging better than 27 a game, has the Blazers playing good ball. They're 6-5 after a loss to Memphis on Tuesday, but three of those losses have come by a combined five points; two of them were one-point losses, including the one to Memphis on Tuesday, which is why Portland has the fifth-best point-differential in the league. With a closer like Lillard, a point differential like that can take you a long way.