NBA Star Power Index: Paul George making case as Thunder's best player; James Harden deserves our attention again
George is playing like a legit MVP candidate, and it's time to stop sleeping on Harden's surging Rockets
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.
Before I say what I'm about to say, I feel the need to qualify it by saying how great Russell Westbrook is, has been, and will continue to be. That said, I think it's about time we start talking about Paul George as OKC's best player and a legitimate MVP candidate. George is the only player in the league averaging at least 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals. After starting 0-4, the Thunder have won 20 of their past 26 games. George had 43 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in a win over the Kings on Wednesday. Look at these individual lines for OKC:
The part about George, perhaps, surpassing Westbrook as OKC's best player is no small thing. We have seen what a team with Westbrook as the best player looks like -- and it's an inconsistent one, a second-round team at best. We've also seen what a team with Westbrook as the second-best player looks like, as was the case all those years with Kevin Durant, and it's a perennial title contender.
It's a different situation with George and Westbrook than it was with Durant in that there was no question Durant was the better player, even if Westbrook didn't always approach it that way. George and Westbrook is going to be 1A and 1B no matter what order reasonable minds put them in. Still, there is something to a team looking to someone other than Westbrook to be the guy to win a game for them. A true go-to guy.
I talked to a scout before the season started, and he said he felt a similar succession needed to happen in Washington for the Wizards to go to another level -- meaning Bradley Beal needed to surpass John Wall as the top guy, because we've seen what a team with John Wall as its best player looks like. The Wizards obviously have a boatload of other problems now, but in OKC, there is a succession starting to happen, and it's making this perpetually frustrating team look more and more like a real contender every day.
So are the Rockets back? They've won five straight, and four of them weren't cupcakes -- Blazers, Lakers, Grizzlies and Jazz. Houston torched the Wizards on Wednesday , and Harden was again spectacular with 35 points and nine assists. Here are his scoring outputs over his three previous games: 47, 32, and a 50-point triple-double on the Lakers. Harden is shooting 53 percent from the field over this stretch, and 40 percent from deep.
Harden leads the league in scoring at over 31 points a game. Add in his better than eight assists and five rebounds a night, and his slightly increased shooting percentages, and he's actually having a better season than he did last year when he won MVP. We just aren't paying as much attention because the Rockets have been such a disappointment. Perhaps that is turning around.
The Lakers have lost two straight after winning 10 of their previous 14 to jump into the top half of the Western Conference playoff race. But the buzz around LeBron of late isn't stemming from anything on the court -- it's Carmelo Anthony ending up with the Lakers remains a legitimate possibility. Here's what James told reporters after L.A.'s loss in Brooklyn on Tuesday:that would seem to be implying that
"We'll see. I don't run the team. There are obviously things that need to be worked out on both sides. But I've always wanted to play with Melo, and if the opportunity presents itself, it'll be great. So we'll see what happens."
This is one thing that changes when a star like LeBron signs a long-term deal, as opposed to these one-year deals we see so many guys doing nowadays that keep all the leverage with the player. If LeBron were on a one-and-one deal, for example, the Lakers would be very incentivized to do anything they could to make him happy, even if it probably wasn't the best thing for the team. I've said this before, and I'll continue to say it: Any team that thinks it's getting closer to a championship by adding Melo is fooling itself.
Which is to say, the Lakers don't need to go completely out of their way to cater to LeBron's wants -- if he indeed even wants to add Melo, as opposed to just saying this to sound good for his friend. This isn't like when the Cavs forced a Dwyane Wade signing in a desperate attempt to appease LeBron in the hopes that he would re-sign. The Lakers have LeBron for at least three seasons. They don't have to force anything.
At the same time, LeBron is in his 16th season. You don't have years to just wait around for future plans to potentially come through. The Lakers are in this strange middle ground of needing to be urgent and patient at the same time. We'll see if they think Carmelo, somehow, fits into this equation.
After rattling off eight straight wins, the Celtics have lost two straight to the Pistons and ... the Suns? Yes, the Suns. In Boston. So that's not exactly great. But it's December and this Boston team is definitely trending in the right direction, and a lot of it has to do with Irving, who has been MVP worthy over this 10-game stretch -- and really for much of the year.
Over his previous nine games entering the Phoenix loss, Irving was averaging 24.9 points on just under 50 percent shooting, including 46.6 percent from three, and Boston was outscoring opponents by almost 18 points per game during his minutes. Irving went for 29 points, 10 assists and four steals against Phoenix. He shot 10-of-19 from the field, including 4-of-8 from three.
In watching the film, one thing that jumps out is the great pace Irving is playing within the half court. People tend to talk about pace in terms of up-tempo transition offense and fast breaks, but pace is equally important, if not more, in the half court. "The teams that are always cutting hard and playing downhill, catch and attack, putting that constant pressure on the defense, those are the teams that are the hardest to guard," Pelicans assistant coach Darren Erman told CBS Sports.
In the play below, watch how Irving comes to the ball to receive the pass, almost like a receiver coming back to the quarterback, effectively setting his man up for a pick and roll before he even receives the ball. When he catches the pass, he's already headed downhill with a step on his defender, and the roller is already in the lane. That forces the defense to collapse, and tic-tac-toe, you create a wide-open three on just two passes.
There are more examples of the increased pace Boston has been playing with in the half-court in this week's
For the season, Doncic is averaging 18.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists. Only seven other players in the league are hitting those marks across the board, and six of them -- LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo -- were All-NBA players last season.
This is same way I began my, and I'm doing it again because it bears repeating: This guy is 19 years old and is already in the company of some of the best players in the world.
"There is no doubt in my mind that [Luka] should have been the No. 1 pick," Chris Thomas, a former NBA scout with the Bulls, Jazz and Warriors, who is now coaching professionally in Doncic's native Slovenia, told CBS Sports. "He is that rare player who was the most ready to contribute right away and has an incredibly high ceiling."
The part about Doncic's ceiling stands out. On Sunday, Kings coach Dave Joerger all but admitted Sacramento made a mistake by passing on Doncic when he said: "Perhaps there was an idea that there was a [low] ceiling on [Luka]. I don't see it, unfortunately for us."
Doncic's last four games: 22 points, 8.3 assists and 6.8 rebounds. He'll look to continue his push for Rookie of the Year when his Mavericks return to action on Thursday against the Clippers (10:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension). Dallas is losers of three straight, but faces an L.A. squad that hasn't pulled out a victory in the past four games.
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