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 Wednesday through the end of the regular season.
Curry returned from an 11-game absence due to a left groin strain by scoring 57 points on 47 percent 3-point shooting (9 of 19) over two games. So, yeah, he's not exactly rusty. For the season, Curry is averaging over 29 points a game while shooting 51 percent from the field, 49 percent from three and 93 percent from the free-throw line. He has a legitimate shot at the NBA's first 50-50-90 season (with the qualifying amount of attempts in all three categories), which is unthinkable given the volume and difficulty of his shots.
The only thing more utterly insane than these numbers is the fact that we have pretty much come to take them for granted with Curry, who flew out of the gate with 18 first-quarter points in his second game back vs. Atlanta:
Steph Curry just dropped 18 PTS (6/7 FG, 4/5 3FG) in the first quarter in Atlanta ... 🔥🔥🔥 #DubNation pic.twitter.com/qFL7QYNE8b— NBA TV (@NBATV) December 4, 2018
Curry will look to continue his quest for the elusive 50-50-90 line when his Warriors return to action when they visit Cleveland on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension).
Lost in Stephen Curry's return to doing Stephen Curry things, Durant tallied a ho-hum 28 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go with eight assists, five rebounds and two steals against Atlanta. Durant always make scoring -- and, really, all facets of the game -- look remarkably easy, but when Curry is on the court and doing his thing, it is just unfair that a talent like Durant can operate on such cruise control, and really go somewhat unnoticed, while putting up a line like that.
You can talk all you want about whatever drama the Warriors have endured through these Durant years (very little, if we're being honest, meningitis scares notwithstanding), but at the end of the day, it has been incredible how collectively selfless these two stars in Durant and Curry have been while existing in each other's light. They praise each other. They look for one another when the other is hot. They happily sacrifice shots and split MVP votes so they can win and have fun playing together.
Durant -- who has scored 44, 49, 51, 28 and 28 over his last five games -- has a legit case as the best scorer in NBA history. He has raised his game across the board in Golden State. And still, he plays his role with humility and a true understanding of basketball to know it's not all about him. All while, probably for the first time in his life, playing alongside someone who is legitimately as good as him.
After the Atlanta game, Durant was asked by The Athletic's Anthony Slater if he more enjoys games when he's scoring 40-plus or when he's playing a more efficient style while someone else (usually Curry) is going off.
"I love both," Durant answered. "But tonight was moreso -- I was telling myself when Steph gets it going to start the game, I still gotta be aggressive but in a different way. I was even more strategic with picking and choosing when I want to shoot.
"When Steph is going off like that, it allows me to play that type of game. And it's fun when you're playing a mental game like that. It's a little bit more of a challenge doing that than just chucking up shots and trying to get to 40. But both ways are pretty fun to play."
Forget all the social media burner accounts and Draymond dustups, when it comes to playing basketball, this guy flat-out gets it. And he's one of the best to ever do it, to state the rather obvious.
The Lakers are doing exactly what they needed to do with this soft stretch of schedule, and are suddenly 14-9 and tied in the loss column with the Golden State Warriors. LeBron James is cruising along as only he can -- averaging 29 points, six boards and six assists over his last three games and just under 28 points, eight boards and seven assists for the season. Don't look now, but the Lakers are the 7th-ranked defense in the league, per NBA.com.
Again, beware of the soft schedule. But give the Lakers credit for how quickly they're coming together in a lot of areas. If someone said the Lakers were the second-most dangerous team in the West if the playoffs were to start right now, would you disagree?
The Greek Freak remains the early MVP favorite. Over his last week of action, he's scored 34, 20, 36 and 33. Somehow the Bucks lost to the Knicks despite Giannis' 33 points, 19 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks. Over his last four, Giannis is averaging 30.7 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and 1.7 blocks. Perhaps the biggest number: 76 percent from the line on 55 attempts over the past four games, including a 13-for-16 night vs. the Knicks.
Giannis is shooting a solid 70 percent from the line for the year, but if he starts living more in the 75- to 80-percent range, with how borderline impossible it already is to stop him from getting to the rim, that's going to make a major difference come playoff time when sending him to the line might be your best chance of containing him.
On Tuesday, it was reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski that Fultz has been diagnosed with Neurogenic Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Agent Raymond Brothers: “Markelle (Fultz) has been diagnosed with Neurogenic Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, (TOS), a physical injury.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) December 4, 2018
TOS affects nerves between the neck and shoulder resulting in abnormal functional movement and range of motion, thus severely shoot a basketball...”
So many questions still remain. Though this is a notoriously difficult injury to diagnose and one that can be missed even through examinations, how did it go undetected this long? The symptoms seem to match up pretty identically to what Fultz has been experiencing, and the Sixers have presumably had every incentive to turn over every possible rock in their search for the cause of Fultz's shooting woes.
Also, it has been reported that this injury is treatable with physical therapy. Does that mean it's fixable, or treatable? Can Fultz ever be 100 percent back to the player he was when Philly took him No. 1 overall in 2017? If he can, indeed, get back there in time, are the Sixers interested in continuing to ride out that process, or are they ready to move forward now? And if so, does this news give Fultz a little more value on the trade market given that a recovery now seems at least plausible? Also, is some of this still in his head? A guy can be injured to start, and then end up mentally affected from the injury. If his shoulder gets fixed, does his confidence follow? Again, so many questions. Time will tell.
Lillard is averaging 31.5 points over his last four games, but the Blazers have lost three of them. In fact, Portland has now dropped six of its last seven to fall into the No. 8 spot out West after leading the conference briefly. Standings don't mean much this early; fewer than four games separates the No. 8 seed from the top seed out West. But Portland is going in the wrong direction. The Blazers are getting shredded defensively, giving up 119.5 points per 100 possessions over this seven-game stretch, which ranks 29th in the league. The offense hasn't been great, either -- just 23rd in the league over their last seven. Portland's latest loss came to the rapidly rising Mavs on Tuesday night. Speaking of ...
Doncic sealed the Portland victory with this absolute Picasso-esque step-back three:
Mean step-back with the shot clock fading from @luka7doncic 🔥 pic.twitter.com/1zpmXqOh7F— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 5, 2018
Come on, man. That is filthy. Deandre Ayton has put up monster numbers for a rookie in his own right, and Marvin Bagley III is starting to produce the more he gets on the court, but let's be real: How did Doncic not go No. 1? Look at what he's doing compared to what two of the greatest players in history did in their rookie seasons:
PLAYER A = Larry Bird's season as a 24-year-old— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) December 5, 2018
PLAYER B = Luka Doncic through 20 games
PLAYER C = Michael Jordan's season as a 23-year-old
LUKA IS ONLY 19, HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?!?!?! pic.twitter.com/opn6cACCsh
Every time Dennis Smith Jr. dribbles around and doesn't give the ball to Luka, a little part of my basketball soul dies. Give the damn ball to the best player on the team. Not to quibble with what the Mavs are doing: They've won nine of their last 11 and, with the No. 12 offense and No. 10 defense in the league, are perhaps the most surprising team in the league at 13-11 and safely in the Western playoffs entering Wednesday.
Over his last three games, the Brow is averaging 33.3 points, 13.6 rebounds, five assists and three blocks on 65 percent shooting. Still, the Pelicans are spinning their wheels at 12-13 having lost six of their last eight. People I've talked to around the league expect this to be a pretty active trade season, with one exec telling me a lot of teams will be "posturing" for players they are trying to attract. This could apply to teams like the Lakers, who want to look as ripe as possible for Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, but also to a team like the Pelicans, whose main focus isn't to attract anyone new but to perhaps fill in the right spots to keep the star that they have in Davis happy. Shooting and playmaking are definitely on New Orleans' radar.