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.
Not long ago, I wrote about LeBron James’, shall we say, less-than-stellar defense to start the season and whether Luke Walton was in a position of enough security to hold his star player accountable. But suddenly the Lakers have won seven of their last nine games, and LeBron hung a 51-ball on the Heat in his return to Miami on Sunday. This after putting 44 on the Blazers last Wednesday. It’s important to consider schedule strength any time a team is on a good — or bad — run, and the Lakers are certainly benefiting from a relatively soft stretch of games.
Still, good for them. They’re taking care of business when they need to. They beat the Western Conference-leading Blazers twice. They’re 5-1 since Tyson Chandler arrived. They’re using Lonzo Ball more with the second unit to give that group more playmaking. Things are starting to come together, an ugly loss to Orlando notwithstanding. LeBron is third in the league in ESPN’s recently released real plus-minus, single-handedly accounting for almost six points in the Lakers favor per 100 possessions.
But here’s the key: Even when LeBron’s got his game rolling to an unstoppable degree, as was the case in Miami, you can see him still making the effort to keep everyone engaged — to, say, let Brandon Ingram initiate some pick-and-rolls if he hasn’t been involved in a few trips, or make an extra pass to a shooter when he would be more than justified in just pulling up himself. Even in his 16th season, LeBron can still dominate a game pretty much at will. But he knows that’s not enough for the Lakers to get where they want to go, at least not as currently constructed. One of the more subtle aspects of his basketball genius is his ability to conduct a game, and a season for that matter, with a fluid balance of when to dominate and when to help develop.
Last week I spoke with a league scout who said his biggest concern with the Lakers is the differing timelines of the roster. You have LeBron, Tyson Chandler and Rajon Rondo who are ready to win now, who have each won championships. Then you have the young core of guys who are NBA babies: still learning, needing to play through mistakes and still get the opportunity to control their aspects of the offense and get their shots when it would be so easy for LeBron to just say “screw it, I’m taking over.” He doesn’t do that. And over this stretch, the other Lakers have done a good job of keeping up their end rather than just standing back and watching as LeBron goes wild.
Kyle Kuzma has had a great chemistry with LeBron all year thus far. He’s aggressive and is on the same page as a cutter when James, a hawk-eyed passer, is handling. Ball’s defense has been so impressive. Ingram is finding his niche of when and how to assert himself. Josh Hart fits in everywhere.
“It’s a balance,” Chandler told CBS Sports in Miami. “At the end of the day, it’s on us to continue to work as a unit. I haven’t been here that long, but I think guys are definitely out there getting a rhythm and learning to play together and doing good things. It could be hard to notice maybe, because LeBron is that great. But young guys are still learning their games. Still learning the league. It’s just how it goes. It’s the nature of the beast in the league.”
On Wednesday night, LeBron returns to Cleveland to finish off his homecoming tour. One would hope the reception he’ll get will be a lot better than the one he got when he returned in 2010 as a member of the Heat. LeBron brought Cleveland a championship, and with what he’s done for that community — and is continuing to do with his I Promise school that is legit changing the lives of young kids who might not have had any other positive path available to them — he ought to receive nothing less than a hero’s welcome. I suspect he will.
If Durant is thinking about leaving the Warriors next summer, he’s getting a pretty good taste — or bad taste, I suppose — of what life is like without Stephen Curry. With Curry still sidelined, the Warriors have lost four of five and have looked worse than they have at any point over this dream two-plus-year run with Durant. Over this five-game stretch, Durant is shooting 39 percent from the field, including a 3-of-21 mark from 3-point range.
Curry just makes this whole thing go. All this spacing and ball movement everyone loves to talk abut with the Warriors is largely just Curry being out there and doing his defense-crumbling thing. Without him, Durant is being reminded of the rigors of having to create consistent shots for himself, to live on a diet of contested mid-rangers and hard-line drives against waves of defenders who don’t have to be worried about the most dangerous shooter ever roaming around. Even for a scorer of Durant’s caliber, that’s a tall order night after night. Steve Kerr could be doing more to create some better looks for these guys in the absence of Curry, but that’s another story.
For now, the story around this team continues to center on Durant and his beef with Draymond Green, and whether any of these on- or off-court struggles will impact his decision to stay or leave next summer. What Draymond said to him, reportedly calling him a derogatory term while basically daring Durant to leave next summer because the Warriors don’t need him to win anyway, man, that’s harsh. These guys are human beings. Emotions are real, and they don’t make you soft. They make you human. That could be a tough one to get past.
Then again, Curry could come back, this whole thing could start humming again, and this could become a mere bump in the road in a matter of weeks. Durant might be the best player in the world. But the Warriors have never needed Stephen Curry more. Durant has never needed Stephen Curry more. In a way, it might be the best sales pitch the Warriors have in their bag. Life without Curry is hard.
The 76ers are 3-1 since Jimmy Butler arrived, and he already has a game-winner to his credit — a Kyrie-Game-7-esque sidestep three to sink the Hornets, on a night when Kemba Walker had 60 points, in overtime.
This shot came on the heels of Butler blocking Walker’s shot on the other end, then saving the loose ball over his head as he flew out of bounds. A remarkable two-way effort to win a game for the Sixers. Exactly the kind of tough-minded sequence Brett Brown was talking about when he said, before Butler’s Philly debut in Orlando, that Butler “mirrors the spirit of Philadelphia.”
Butler sparkled in his home debut in front of the Philly fans, leading the Sixers to a 113-107 win over the Jazz with 28 points on 12-of-15 shooting. After the game-winner in Charlotte, he returned to Philly in a 119-114 win over the Suns. Afterward, Butler and Sixers legend Allen Iverson, who is absolutely giddy about Butler being a Sixer, hugged for what seemed like an hour. Butler’s toughness. This city. A team on the brink of being something really special. This feels like a match made in basketball heaven.
Now, all this said, there are still concerns with the Sixers. Butler gives them a one-on-one player in the half court that they have lacked, which is really good news, particularly at the end of games, as you saw in Charlotte. The bad news, potentially, is that it moves Ben Simmons off the ball in more situations, and with his inability/unwillingness to shoot beyond 10 feet (and even that’s a stretch), he’s going to have to be an active cutter and offensive rebounder to not allow defenses to just sag off him and congest the lane. I talked with a league scout at length about this, and it’s one reason he wants to see more before he declares this Butler trade a real needle-mover. Here is one quick excerpt:
“Brett Brown has to be creative, and he will be. He’s got some good stuff. He’ll get Simmons moving, setting cross screens, running some pick-the-picker action that he can come off of, and that will make his defender have to chase. He’s going to have to be OK being a screener and almost kind of a decoy when Butler is handling. He’ll draw attention as long as he’s moving, but is he going to move and cut hard? Like, look at JJ Redick. He’s not always getting a shot, but he’s always sprinting his ass off and taking defenders with him. Will Simmons commit that same way? Or is he just going to kind of lollygag through it?”
So far, Simmons has looked really good alongside Butler, who is slowly asserting himself more and more as a creator. Butler has commented that Simmons sees the game one move ahead, which is something almost everyone says about him. He’s made some nice cuts and hung around the basket for drop-off dunks. He’s still involving himself at the top as an initiator and he’s doing work out of the post. It’s impossible to not be excited about what is potentially brewing in Philly. Now, will they go all in and make a move for, say, Bradley Beal? More on that in a second …
So Walker has scored … wait for it … 103 points over his last two games! After dropping 60 on the Sixers, he put up 43 in a gutty win over the Celtics two nights later. Kemba is a machine, man. I’m telling you. If you aren’t tuning in to every Hornets game you can, you are missing out on something so special. Take Stephen Curry out of the equation, and I don’t think I’ve seen a little guy put on this kind of scoring show, for this long, since Allen Iverson. I don’t even know if A.I. ever had a stretch like this.
Walker has taken over the league lead in scoring at 29.6 points a night. He also leads the league with 65 3-pointers made entering Wednesday. He’s 13 for his last 27 from deep, and 35 for his last 59 from the field — just under a 60 percent clip. He’s third in ESPN’s offensive real plus-minus, trailing only Curry and Damian Lillard. Charlotte is still struggling to win close games, which is why they only boast a record of 8-8 through Tuesday, despite having the seventh-best offense in the league and the ninth-best point differential, per NBA.com.
For a long time, the story around Kemba has been as a trade chip, as in, what Can Charlotte get for him as a sell-high commodity to begin what looked like an inevitable rebuild? Kemba has flipped that entire script. The Hornets know they have a stone-cold star on their hands, and rather than trying to figure out what they could get for him, they’re now reportedly in the business of seeing what they could get to go alongside Kemba. Reportedly, the Hornets have engaged the Wizards in trade talks regarding Bradley Beal. Seriously, would that be some kind of backcourt? My god.
Until then, feast on Kemba’s latest batch of highlights:
Wall shows up on our Star Power Index for all the wrong reasons. The Wizards are a mess, and his game is a big reason why. Washington is reportedly ready to shake this thing up, and is willing to trade anyone to do so. That includes their two stars, Wall and Bradley Beal. We’ll get to Beal next, but as for Wall, he’s got a hippo of a contract that balloons to $38 million next season and goes up from there. In 2022, when he’s 32 years old, he’s going to have a player option for $47 million. Choke on that for a second.
It’s not to say Wall is unmovable. Anyone can be traded in the right climate under the right circumstances. Phoenix needs a point guard, and Wall is still, potentially, an All-Star. As long as they could hang on to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton in the deal, that’s a pretty sweet-sounding trio moving forward — all locked up long term.
The Pelicans feel like a long shot worth mentioning as well. They’re borderline desperate to prove to Anthony Davis that they can put a contending team around him. Wall and Davis would be devastating in pick-and-rolls, and Wall would thrive in that New Orleans tempo — as long as he committed to it in both transition and the half court, where he tends to grind possessions down. That’s a ton of money to commit to Wall, and if Davis leaves, the Pels would have an albatross on their hands that would seriously hamstring their ability to rebuild.
That said, if they were to get Wall without giving up Jrue Holiday, then trade Davis in a worst-case scenario, they would have whatever they got back in that trade, Holiday and Wall. That would arguably leave the Pelicans in roughly the same spot they’re in right now — a borderline playoff team in the West. Not the worst thing in the the world. This will be very interesting to see what kind of market shakes out for Wall’s services — or, on the flip side, if the Wizards can perhaps get a nice trade for Beal and give Wall something new to work with in Washington. That’s still a team with a lot more talent that it’s showing, and Wall can still be really good if he can get reenergized.
So here’s the trade I have serious eyes on right now:
- Sixers get: Bradley Beal
- Wizards get: Zhaire Smith, Wilson Chandler, Markelle Fultz, 2021 first-round pick (via Miami)
For the Sixers, you go all in after getting Jimmy Butler and put a legit championship team on the floor. Beal obviously heals a lot of Philly’s shooting problems. In fact, alongside JJ Redick and Butler, with Landry Shamet coming off the bench and perhaps a buyout shooter still on the horizon, suddenly shooting could be a strength for the Sixers, and we know what Ben Simmons can do with shooters all around him. Beal is still only 25 years old and is signed through 2021, so your championship window remains open for the foreseeable future, presuming Butler re-signs long term. If Philly were to add Beal, it’s hard to see Butler leaving.
For the Wizards, it’s all about youth and draft picks, and this deal provides both. Zhaire Smith, who went No. 16 overall in June, is a crazy athlete who can be an elite defender. That 2021 Heat pick could easily be a top-10 pick given the way that team is trending. You get Markelle Fultz as a reclamation project, and if — and this is a big if — he is able to find his shooting stroke to at least a functional degree, the other parts of his game have looked good and this could be a steal to get a No. 1 overall pick this early in his career. Meanwhile, Chandler is on an expiring contract, so you don’t take on any long-term money for an aging player. If you’re looking to start fresh with upside, it’s hard to do better than two former first-round picks under the age of 21 and a future potential top-10 pick.
There are going to be a lot of teams interested in adding Beal. As mentioned, the Hornets have already inquired. More teams are sure to do the same. He’s a really good player and is, by almost all accounts, sick of the drama he’s been dealing with the last few years in Washington. A fresh start for a re-engaged Beal could produce incredible results for some lucky team.
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