NBA Star Power Index: Stephen Curry in vintage form; Donovan Mitchell has Jazz primed for a run
Also, are Kyrie Irving's frustrations reaching a boiling point in Boston?
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.
If you want to make the argument the Warriors are not the same team they've been in years past, one thing you could point to is their lack of depth. Getting DeMarcus Cousins back this week will help with that, but in the meantime, Steve Kerr had been experimenting with staggering Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant's minutes so that one of them is pretty much always on the floor.
Three games ago, Kerr went back to the regular rotation, meaning more minutes with Curry and Durant together. Since that time, the Warriors have put up 146, 119 and 142 points. Curry, meanwhile, went for 28 against Chicago, 48 against Dallas and 31 on Tuesday in a rout of the Nuggets. Over the stretch, Curry shot 24 for 42 from 3-point range -- a 56-percent clip.
For the season, Curry is back in range of a 50-45-90 shooting line. Only three players have ever done that while playing in at least 35 games -- Steve Nash in his 2007-08 MVP season, Kerr when he was with the Bulls in 1995-96, and Curry in 2015-16, his unanimous MVP season. Entering Wednesday, Curry is shooting 49 percent from the field, 45.6 percent from three and 92 percent from the free throw line. He is second in the league in scoring at 29.5 a night and still has an MVP run in him if the Warriors turn up the heat over the second half.
On so many layers, there are no words for what James Harden has done over the past month. Since hanging 50 on the Lakers back on December 13, Harden is averaging 41.3 points, 9.2 assists, 7.5 rebounds and two steals a night. After putting 57 on the Grizzlies on Monday, Harden has now scored at least 30 points in 17 straight games. The production is honestly hard to fathom.
At the same time, so are the opportunities. Over that same stretch, Harden is only shooting 43 percent from the field and 38 percent from three. Those are fine numbers, but at those percentages, you have to jack a lot of shots -- and get to the free throw line a ton -- to score at this rate. Harden hasn't shot fewer than 10 threes in a game in more than a month. He's yet to shoot fewer than 15 since the beginning of January. Dude went 1 for 17 from downtown on Sunday vs. Orlando, then the very next night put up 15 more in his aforementioned 57-point outing.
This is to take absolutely nothing away from what Harden is doing. It's just astounding on so many levels. We've never seen anything like this. And the thing is, it's working. Harden is single-handedly carrying the Rockets, who have won 14 of their past 18 to shoot into the No. 4 spot out West despite Chris Paul being sidelined for pretty much the last month. It won't be easy for the Rockets to stay this hot with the recent news that Clint Capela will . If Harden somehow manages to keep the Rockets flying without Paul AND Capela, just give him the MVP now.
Assuming Embiid can say healthy, he's going to be a Hall of Fame player. He's already a Hall of Fame trash talker. After Jimmy Butler made his triumphant return to Minnesota in a Sixers 149-107 beating of the Timberwolves. Embiid has this to say:
We all know that prior to Butler's Minnesota exit, he showed up at practice and proceeded to defeat, in reportedly embarrassing fashion, the Wolves' starters in a scrimmage while playing with the third-stringers. That Embiid went there with his tweet is truly legendary. And what are the Wolves going to say? Embiid destroyed them with 31 points and 13 boards, and he only needed 27 minutes to do it.
For all the talk about roles and the fit between the Big 3 of Embiid, Butler and Ben Simmons (and there are real concerns, ), the Sixers are playing pretty damn well -- taking advantage of a soft schedule stretch to win six of their last eight.
Not every team is a perfect fit. The Warriors have tricked us into thinking this is a requirement of championship teams. They are an exception. Most great teams throughout history overcome their few flaws with sheer talent. The Sixers -- who currently sit No. 4 in the East, four games back in the loss column of No. 1 Toronto -- have every right to believe they have enough top-end talent to do the same thing.
Irving has been very critical of his teammates, Celtics have lost three straight after they appeared to have found their first real stretch of momentum this season. Before Boston's loss in Brooklyn on Monday, Irving said he wouldn't publicly criticize his teammates again. Terry Rozier, meanwhile, has some very interesting thoughts on the matter., as the
From NBC Boston:
"Kyrie said a lot after the last game (against Orlando) and it was probably stuff that people didn't want to hear," Rozier told Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill. "But it's showing."
The 24-year-old also admitted it's been a challenge for players like himself, Tatum and Brown to adapt to roles that were larger late last season when Irving and Gordon Hayward were out due to injury, even suggesting the Celtics could be "too talented."
"I don't think we've all been on a team like this," Rozier said. "Young guys who can play, guys who did things in their career, the group that was together last year, then you bring Kyrie and Hayward back, it's a lot with it."
And if you ask Rozier, the impromptu meetings (led mostly by Irving) to iron out these issues haven't always been beneficial.
"I feel like we have them talks throughout the season, but it didn't turn out that good," Rozier added. "You see guys get into it with each other, but that's part of the game. You gotta be real with each other."
Here's the bottom line: The Celtics are not playing up to expectations and they haven't all season long. Kyrie is frustrated, but so are a lot of the younger Celtics who've had to accept lesser roles while also shouldering most of the blame when things don't go well because they "aren't ready" and "don't understand what it takes yet." There's some truth in this. Last year's Celtics got to play with house money with Irving and Gordon Hayward both out in the playoffs, allowing them to play free of expectations and the pressure that comes with it, is a lot different than having to play championship basketball every night when people actually expect nothing less.
That said, these guys DID make if within one game of the NBA Finals WITHOUT Irving. You can understand how it would be hard to continually hear how you don't know how to win and you have to be taught to be champions, so on and so forth. Boston has a world of talent and a sensational coach and my bet would be that they'll figure this out by the playoffs. We'll see.
Mitchell was named Western Conference Player of the Week after posting 33, 33, 34 and 28 points over Utah's last four games. This is the player that was a budding superstar last season. Scouts I've spoken with this year have pointed to Mitchell forcing his offense a bit in the early going. It's a fine line because Mitchell has to create so much offense for a Utah team that, outside to Mitchell, lacks individual creators and scorers.
Mitchell is finding that balance of prioritizing flow and inclusive offense without compromising his own aggression, and when he does that, Utah is tough. The big thing with the Jazz: They've had by far the toughest schedule in the West so far, meaning they have an easier stretch to look forward to post-All-Star break. Combine that with the way Mitchell is now playing and a defense that we know can go on a suffocating stretch of its own, and Utah is a team that you could see make a major jump up the standings, potentially high enough to get home-court in the first round, by season's end.
The Wolves have quietly won four of six and Towns has looked like the superstar everyone expects him to be. Over his last 10 games, Towns is averaging 28.8 points, 14.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting better than 51 percent and 36 percent from three. He posted 27 points and 27 rebounds -- the latter an NBA high for this season -- against Anthony Davis and the Pelicans on Saturday.
Then came the Debbie Downer showing against Philly on Tuesday. I think a lot of people expected Towns to come out smoking with the revenge game against Jimmy Butler and all that, but as has too often been the case for a guy with Towns' talent, he just didn't rise to the occasion, putting up just 13 points and three rebounds. As Minnesota moves forward, Towns has to do more with these barometer-type games to prove he is capable of not just being a star talent, but a guy who can be the centerpiece of a contender.
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