jamal-murray.jpg
USATSI

Welcome back to the NBA Star 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. 

Stephen Curry
GS • PG • 30
PPG30.4
APG5.9
SPG1.28
3P/G4.87
View Profile

Stephen Curry has won three championships and two MVPs, including one by the only unanimous vote in NBA history. He's won a scoring title. He's made seven All-Star and six All-NBA teams. He authored the most positively preposterous shooting season across the span of human existence when he hit 402 3-pointers at a 45-percent clip in 2015-16. He's the greatest shooter ever and it isn't close. He's probably already a top-10 player of all-time and the greatest point guard ever. 

And yet, somehow, at 33 years old, he might be getting even better. 

It sounds absurd, I know. But the creative control Curry has come to possess over not just his own game, but over the whole court, has reached Beethoven on a piano levels -- every moving part, every angle, every tiny pattern of rhythm playing a song only he can hear. The guy could play with his eyes closed. On Wednesday, the Golden State Warriors star hung 42 points and 11 3-pointers on the OKC Thunder in such effortless fashion you would've thought he was playing in a pro-am. 

It marks the eighth straight game Curry has scored at least 30 points, the longest streak of his career and in the league this season. He's also hit at least 10 3-pointers in two straight games for just the second time in his career; on Monday Curry went for 53 points on 10 of 18 from 3 against the Nuggets en route to passing Wilt Chamberlain as the Warriors' all-time leading scorer. 

Over his last five games, Curry is averaging 41.2 points. Since the start of April, he's averaging 39.9 points on 57/50/92 splits. He has, quite possibly, been the best player in the league this season even though he's almost certainly not going to win MVP. He just might run down Bradley Beal for his second scoring title. And if the Warriors get into the playoffs, look out. I'm not saying they will pull an upset, but whoever potentially ends up playing them in the first round is going to be absolutely sweating. 

Luka Doncic
DAL • PG • 77
PPG28.6
APG8.6
SPG.96
3P/G2.979
View Profile

In most ways, the Dallas Mavericks have been grinding their gears most of this season. They're clinging to the No. 7 seed on the sheer will and shot-creating magic of Luka Doncic, who pulled Dallas from the depths of what looked to be sure defeat by netting one of the nuttiest buzzer-beaters you'll ever see to beat Memphis Wednesday night:

A one-footed, basically falling-down 3-point flick as the horn sounds? Come on, man. That play had no right ending up successful. Memphis covered everything. Doncic had to split two defenders before even getting that prayer up. 

And this wasn't just any game. Memphis sits right behind Dallas in the standings. Had the Grizzlies won, they would've been tied in the loss column. Now it's a two-game lead for Dallas. If the 7-8 play-in series started today, that's the difference between having to win one and two games. Doncic is only shooting 30.4 percent from 3 in April, but he made this triple count when the Mavs needed it most. 

Joel Embiid
PHI • C • 21
PPG29.6
RPG10.9
BPG1.47
View Profile

Has Joel Embiid missed too much time (18 games so far) to win MVP? Perhaps. But a new variable has been introduced in Nikola Jokic having to play the remainder of the season without Jamal Murray (whom we'll get to in a second). If Jokic and the Nuggets fall off, Embiid can make this a very interesting debate if he keeps decimating people and the Philadelphia 76ers pull away from Brooklyn for the East's No. 1 seed. 

Through that lens, Embiid's cause got a massive bump on Wednesday when the Sixers took out the Nets 123-117. The win gave the Sixers a one-game lead in the loss column, but it also gave them the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Nets, meaning they effectively hold a two-game lead now. That's no footnote. In addition to having home-court advantage in a potential conference finals, the No. 1 seed would also, if the playoffs started today and seeds held, get the Hawks in the second round rather than the Bucks.   

To say Embiid was bullying the Nets would be an understatement. He went for 39 points and 13 rebounds in 33 minutes. It was a big-brother-in-the-driveway situation. Embiid backed Jeff Green basically through the stanchion. He had DeAndre Jordan hanging on to him like a mechanical bull -- his only hope to hack and send Embiid to the free-throw line, where he converted 10 of his 11 attempts. Over his last three games, Embiid is averaging 34 points on 52/45/88 shooting splits. 

Jayson Tatum
BOS • SF • 0
PPG25.9
APG4.2
SPG1.24
3P/G2.898
View Profile

Jayson Tatum is quietly having a pretty impressive season. He went through COVID and is still feeling the effects, having to use an inhaler before games to aid his breathing. The Boston Celtics haven't been able to find any sort of rhythm until their last seven games, six of which they've won. Tatum has had a few extended cold streaks himself as Boston has too often boiled down to the worst version of its stagnant self.

But you look up, and Tatum is one of just two players averaging at least 25 points, seven rebounds, four assists and one steal on at least 38 percent 3-point shooting. The other is leading MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. Over his last 10 games, Tatum is averaging 29.4 points on 49/39/94 splits. 

Over his last three, Tatum is shooting 50 percent (12 for 24) from deep. He ravaged the Timberwolves for 53 points and 10 boards last Friday, hitting 6 of 10 from 3 and 15 of 16 from the free-throw line. On Tuesday, he stuck this side-step dagger to seal Boston's win at Portland:

Don't look now, but Boston is up to No. 5 in the East and just one game back of No. 4 Atlanta. 

Jamal Murray
DEN • PG • 27
PPG21.2
APG4.8
SPG1.33
3P/G2.688
View Profile

Jamal Murray registers on the Star Index for the worst of reasons: a torn ACL. He went down in the final minutes of the Denver Nuggets' loss at Golden State on Monday. It didn't look good. Murray was in clear pain. The next day everyone's fear was confirmed. Murray was officially ruled out indefinitely by the team, but most likely done for the season, and what a massive blow this is to Denver's playoff prospects. 

Make no mistake, the Nuggets were a legit threat to make the Finals. Perhaps win it all. Murray has arguably already proven himself to be one of the 10 best playoff performers in the league, and he was quietly putting together the consistent regular season critics have long asked for: 21 points per game on 47.7 percent shooting, including 40 percent 3-point shooting, all career-best marks by a wide margin. 

There is just no positive spin to put on this. Don't talk about Denver being a young team. Contracts end no matter how young you are, and Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. are both set to hit the market in 2022. Porter could well be on his way to a max contract that would begin in 2022-23, when Murray and Jokic are already on the books for $65 million. 

If the Nuggets can't pay Gordon, or even if they do but have to let guys like P.J. Dozier and/or JaMychal Green go, that leaves this season and next with this super high-level roster in place. Murray's injury ends any championship hopes this season, so now you have one chance before the bills come due. Again, don't talk about youth in the NBA. Young, old, it doesn't matter. You get a championship window, you have to leap through it, because they close in a heartbeat.