NBA Star Power Index: Who is the Celtics' best player? How about the 76ers?
Meanwhile, we learned the hard way just how many supporters Lonzo Ball still has out there
Welcome back to our 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 of any kind. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they're generating. This column will run every week for the rest of the season.
, there will be multiple Celtics players on this list, and why not? They're the hottest team in the league right now, having won 16 straight after starting the season 0-2. It's the story of the year in a year with a ton of great stories, and it's one being contributed to by so many players in different ways every night.
A few guys who didn't make this week's list but deserve more attention than they're getting: Victor Oladipo, who's, where he's 13th in the league at just under 23 points a game for a Pacers team that continues to play plus.500 basketball. It's early, but it'll be tough to keep Oladipo off the All-Star team at this pace.
Also, Kevin Durant, who's somehow flying under the radar despite having the second-best net rating in the league to his teammate Steph Curry. Buzz around Durant will heat up Wednesday night when he returns to OKC to play the Thunder. DeMar DeRozan has also been terrific of late, and really all year, but there just isn't any buzz around him or the Raptors at all right now. That's too bad, because that's a team that should once again figure as at least an outside threat to go back to the conference finals.
Now, onto this week's list:
Kyrie Irving Boston Celtics G
How can we start with anyone else? Kyrie's presence -- no disrespect to Al Horford or Jaylen Brown, both of whom you'll also find on this list -- continues to be the driving force behind Boston's refuse-to-lose mantra along this run. So many of these 16 straight wins have been decided by a few crucial possessions, and Kyrie is winning those possessions like stars are supposed to do. Just look at these numbers from the past week:
Included in there are the 10 points Irving posted in overtime to save Boston's streak at Dallas. In 38 clutch minutes this season, Kyrie has scored almost two points a minute (crazy talk) on just under 62-percent shooting, all while piling up 10 assists against ZERO turnovers. Oh, and he's a plus-40 in those situations -- all of which has Danny Ainge reconsidering the possibility that the earth might be flat after all, while Gordon Hayward continues to watch from afar in amazement.
What continues to be most interesting about Kyrie is for all his obvious impact, his offensive numbers are actually down from last season overall. More interestingly, he's faring worse than Isaiah Thomas did last year in almost all categories for Boston. The difference is the defense. Irving has been not simply serviceable on that end, but downright good with a 97.4 defensive rating.
Also, he has just blended so smoothly with this team, and in turn the team has blended so smoothly around him. "It's pretty fun out there [right now]," Irving said of the team's chemistry at Boston's shoot around Wednesday in Miami. "The biggest thing is that we respect each other's talent. Guys are willing to do everything in order for us to win. It's pretty awesome."
Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers C
The 46 points, 16 rebounds 7 assists and 7 blocks (for 80 fantasy points!) Embiid hung on the Lakers last Wednesday is my clubhouse leader for game of the year. Feast your eyes on this:
Look at that arsenal. Inside, outside, in transition, putting it on the floor, low post, high post, recognizing doubles and hitting cutters -- the guy is flat out unstoppable and he's played fewer than 50 career games. Steve Kerr called Embiid's performance vs. L.A. "terrifying" before his Warriors found themselves down 24 in the third quarter to Embiid's Sixers on Saturday. Golden State came back to win that game -- as only Golden State can do so routinely -- but even in a loss Embiid was still a central part of the story.
Embiid and Durant have some common ground in that they are two of the best players in the world who can't definitively say they're the best player on their own team. We'll get to Ben Simmons and Stephen Curry later, but as for Embiid and all the wonderful junk he talks, he's not exactly worried about it coming back to haunt him.
Lonzo Ball Los Angeles Lakers G
It's good to know Lonzo still has a gazillion supporters out there, seemingly every one of which came at me with a Twitter pitchfork after I had the audacity to-- an 11-point, 11-assist, 16-rebound, 2-block showing in a victory over the Nuggets. Lonzo obviously played well in the game. He was a plus-29. I'll admit that got pretty lost in my attack on the hollowness of those numbers.
My bigger point was that triple-doubles, like all stats these days, can be deceiving if you don't actually watch the game. If you did watch that game, you didn't see Lonzo answering any of the myriad questions we all have about his game. You didn't see him make a single jumper under duress (in fact, you only saw him make one jumper period), and you didn't see him really creating much for his teammates. To the contrary, those 11 assists were almost entirely a result of somebody else making an individual play, as was the case with these two:
The simple truth is that all conversations about Lonzo right now are so extreme. He's either a total bust because he has struggled to shoot and his dad set his bar impossibly high, or he's a "transcendent" player. Can't he be somewhere in the middle? My opinion is that when you see a triple-double on paper, it would be easy to assume Ball is starting to make good on that "transcendent" label, that he went out and truly dominated in three fazes of the game, but the tape told a different story. He merely made a lot of replaceable plays, and even perhaps got some home-cooking credit for a few he didn't make. To wit:
To be clear, this doesn't mean he wasn't good in that game. As a lot of angry Tweeters rightly pointed out, there is value in making the easy play over and over. But certainly not "transcendent" value. He followed up the triple-double, by the way, with a 3-of-13 shooting night vs. the Bulls on Tuesday, including 2 of 8 from downtown. He did post another big rebound number with 13, and he was a plus-14 for the game, which makes him plus-43 over his last two, both Lakers wins. So you can only knock him so much. Plus, when you're on the following list, it's never a bad thing.
Kemba Walker Charlotte Hornets G
First appearance on the Star Index for Kemba, who's averaging 29 points a game, including a 57-percent mark from 3-point range (13 for 23), over the last three games. Walker hung 47 on Chicago last week (somehow Charlotte still lost), but perhaps even more impressive than the scoring was Walker's one turnover. This guy has become-- just below the 90th percentile, via Synergy, in both pick-and-roll and spot-up scoring. Not bad for a guy whose weakness used to be his shooting.
This is so good -- rejecting the screen because he likes his matchup and angle to the baseline, then having the patience to keep his dribble alive until the big (Robin Lopez) gives up on his help and turns his back, at which point Kemba simply turns and pops.
At one time, Walker only knew one speed. This is what people talk about when the game starts to slow down. As of Wednesday, Walker is top-15 in the league in both points (22.9) and assists (6.3), sixth overall with 31 clutch points, and because of savvy plays like you just saw, he's in the 70th percentile at almost 1.3 points per possession around the basket (non post-ups) despite being listed at an extremely generous 6-feet-1. Without him, the Hornets would be completely sunk.
James Harden Houston Rockets G
, and rightfully so. Just take a look at this:
Forty-five years, folks. That's how great Harden has been of late, and now that Chris Paul has returned, so too has the buzz around Harden as now we feel like we can get a real gauge as to how these two operate off one another. So far, so good -- in Paul's first game back. Harden dropped 48 as the Rockets scored a completely nuts 90 first-half points against the Suns.
"I thought there was something wrong with the score," Harden said after the game.
Nope, nothing wrong with the score, or Harden's game next to Paul. We know Harden can get whatever shot he wants as a primary ball handler, but in this next clip, watch how easy Paul can make the game for Harden off the ball. You'll see that Dillon Brooks is face-guarding Harden to start, but with the respect Paul demands off the pick and roll, as soon as Paul comes off the pick there's an instinct to gravitate to him. Brooks and Mario Chalmers stay with Paul, and even Marc Gasol prioritizes his back-line help position for fear of Paul turning the corner and getting downhill, and in doing so he just lets Harden fan out to the three-point line unaccounted for.
Even if Gasol had rotated out with Harden there, Harden would have him one-on-one with a live dribble. To call that a mismatch is an understatement, and these are the kinds of advantages Paul and Harden should be able to create for one another moving forward. As of Wednesday, Harden leads the league in both points per game (31.9) and assists (9.9), and over the last week he's 12 for 23 from 3-point land. Also, over his last three games he's a perfect 42 for 42 from the free throw line.
Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors G
After being held to nine points on 3-for-14 shooting in a loss to Boston, Curry erupted for 39 and 35 against Brooklyn and Philly, respectively. As mentioned above, the Warriors rallied from 24 back to beat Philly. In fact, they went from 24 down to a 10-point lead in less than a quarter, which is just silly. The run began in earnest with Ben Simmons unwisely woke a sleeping Curry early in the third quarter:
As you can see, at this point in the game the Sixers were up 19 and Curry had yet to hit a 3. About 10 seconds later, he did this:
That was the first of Curry's four 3-pointers, and from that point forward the Warriors outscored Philly 42-13 in the third quarter. So, yeah, don't wake up Curry when he's taking one of his very rare NBA naps. Just let him drift off the dream and be thankful you got out of there alive.
Ben Simmons Philadelphia 76ers G
In case you haven't noticed, Ben Simmons is a major problem. Forget Rookie of the Year (he has that all but locked up already); if the Sixers get on a run and compete for home-court in the first round, which is entirely possible, both Simmons and Embiid could be in the conversation for MVP. I doubt either would win it, but they'd have every right to be considered at the rate they're both playing. Simmons is not only impossible to defend, but also runs the team as a 6-10 point guard like he's been in the league 10 years.
Simmons' last three games: 22.6 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists and 3.3 steals on better than 61 percent from the field. There's just nothing anyone -- even Draymond Green and the Warriors -- can do with him. If you sag off because he can't shoot and go under screens, you give him a head of steam to do this:
Then, if you crowd his space, he does this:
Out of on-ball options, if you over-extend to try to deny him the ball in the first place, he's a terrific cutter.
Typically, I don't buy any player with a shot as bad as Simmons' as a future superstar. But Simmons ... well, Durant said it best after the game.
Al Horford Boston Celtics F
It's high time Horford started to receive even a slice of the recognition he deserves for how great he's been this season, so I'm giving it to him here even though it hasn't been his best week on paper. He went for 18 and 11 in the win over Golden State, and was a plus-16. Then, true to form, he was a plus-15 in the win over Atlanta despite scoring just three points -- illuminating the many ways in which he helps Boston even when he's not scoring big. Matt Moore has been on the Horford train all season.
Horford is a basketball oxymoron because his subtle, understated excellence in fact sticks out like a neon light when you watch the film. You can't miss how smoothly he runs the pick-and-roll with Kyrie, how he feels exactly when to roll and exactly when to pop, how he naturally fades to open space as a shooter. A lot of guys have been great, and Brad Stevens is the runaway Coach of the Year at this point, but Horford is most responsible for the defensive/rebounding beast the Celtics have become.
Jaylen Brown Boston Celtics G
Brown has made the leap to borderline All-Star level this season, and he's been particularly great of late under some very trying circumstances. In the win over Golden State, Brown went for 22 points and 7 rebounds shortly after learning of the death of his best friend from high school, Trevin Steede.
Brown was considering not playing vs. Golden State, but wound up playing a major role in Boston's best win of the season. Two nights later, Brown scored a career-high 27 on 10-of-13 shooting including 4 of 6 from downtown. Two nights later, he went for 22 and 9 in the win over Dallas.
Probably not a stretch of basketball, or life, that Brown will ever forget.
LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers F
Don't look now, but the Cavs have won five straight. The defense is still a mess but LeBron is basically shifting into "best player in the world" mode about five months earlier than normal. The King's last three games:
Here's video of that first quarter against Detroit. Pay attention to how on point LeBron's step-back 3-pointer is. It's been like that for a while now, and when that thing is going, good luck.
Anthony Davis New Orleans Pelicans F
Davis was a monster in New Orleans' big win over OKC on Monday, posting 36 points and 16 boards to lift the Pelicans after DeMarcus Cousins was ejected for elbowing Russell Westrbook in the face as Westbrook was hounding him after a rebound.
Cousins, very slightly, leads Davis in points, rebounds and assists, but it's Davis with the fairly significantly better PER -- 28.7 to Cousins' 24.3. New Orleans hasn't been able to string together many wins so far, but it's 9-8 heading into Wednesday's tilt with San Antonio. The OKC game was arguably Davis; best showing of the season in a victory.
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