NBA Star Power Index: LeBron’s Western Conference reality check; Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis in MVP form

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 cover the opening portion of the 2018-19 schedule, and run every week for the rest of the season. 

Magic Johnson said the Lakers were going to be patient with this team. He said Luke Walton didn’t need to worry if the Lakers got off to a slow start. That lasted eight games. Johnson has already pulled Walton into the principal’s office and the Lakers sit at 4-6 on the year as one of the 10 worst 3-point shooting and defensive teams in the league. The bad shooting shouldn’t be a surprise given the roster Johnson and Rob Pelinka put together in the wake of signing LeBron. Rajon Rondo can’t shoot. Lance Stephenson can’t shoot. LeBron is shooting just 28 percent from deep. 

That’s not the only number of concerns for LeBron. Entering Wednesday, when he’s on the court the Lakers are 11 points worse than when he’s off. We know that won’t continue, and plus-minus numbers can be deceiving anyway. But right now, the film on LeBron’s defense, particularly, matches up with the poor advanced numbers. He’s just not really trying on that end. It shouldn’t be that big a surprise to anyone who has watched LeBron’s regular-season defensive effort, or lack thereof, over the past four seasons with Cleveland. 

You can say LeBron is pacing himself, and that was fine in the East, where he could sleepwalk until April and pop awake in time to cruise to the Finals. But in the West, the Lakers could very well end up within a few games of either making or missing the playoffs. And as they say, the games at the beginning the season count the same as the ones at the end. Check out the clip below. Watch LeBron, right in the middle of the screen, call for a switch with Lonzo Ball, making Kyle Lowry LeBron’s new responsibility. Then watch what he does with that responsibility as Lowry cuts to the rim completely unaccounted for:

This is not a cherry-picked clip. There are plenty more where this came from — LeBron just standing around, or roaming around on his own terms, or helping when he shouldn’t or not helping when he should. It’s a mess, to be honest. I’ll be writing about it more at length in the coming days. For now, we all understand that LeBron has to do a ton for this Lakers team. He’s averaging 26.8 points and better than seven rebounds and seven assists, and he’s getting almost two steals a game, too. This isn’t to suggest the Lakers’ relative struggles out of the gate are all his fault. Not by a long shot. But they’re partly his fault. The simple truth is he has to do more in the West. That’s what he signed up for. 

The Freak has been incredible to start the year, as have the Bucks. This has the same feel as when Mark Jackson was fired with the Warriors. That team was ready to pop, and Jackson was holding it back. Same thing in Milwaukee, where, with virtually the same roster, Mike Budenholzer is quickly turning the Bucks into the real threat they should’ve been under Jason Kidd. 

For the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging a monster 25.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, nearly one steal and better than one block per game. His numbers dropped a tad after he scored 23 on 11-of-18 shooting in a loss to Portland on Tuesday. Budenholzer’s system has completely unlocked Giannis by putting 3-point shooters all around him, spacing the floor, and in turn clearing out the paint as defenders have to stay attached to those shooters, which is creating these wide-open driving lanes for Giannis in one-on-one settings with no rim protection on the backside. Here’s the result:

What’s even more frightening is that Giannis is starting to take and make jump shots on a relatively consistent basis. Once he gets that down, forget about it. There was a time when Kidd was flat-out refusing to even let Giannis shoot. Now Budenholzer is encouraging it. That matters. I’ve talked to a handful of players who all say what a difference it makes when a coach instills that kind of trust and confidence in you to just turn it loose and play with freedom. “The power of speech is a big thing,” Jrue Holiday told me this summer. “I didn’t really believe that for a long time, but I’ve seen it now.”

In the way-too-early MVP polls, Giannis has to be leading the charge. Whether he’s the East’s best player, or if that distinction now belongs to Kawhi Leonard, is a fascinating discussion. Right now, I would lean toward Kawhi because shooting is just so important. But man, that is as close a call as you’ll find at the top of the talent pool. 

Speaking of MVP cases, Curry has been up to his old tricks this season, re-assuming his shot-hunting, high-pick-and-roll running place in a Warriors offense that, somehow, looks better than ever. It took the Warriors just eight games for Curry to turn in a 51-point night, Durant to go for 41 and Klay Thompson to make an NBA-record 14 3-pointers against the Bulls. We talked about LeBron and his regular-season coasting above, and the Warriors are proof that doesn’t have to be the case. They have won three of the past four titles and are playing as hard and as inspired as ever, on both ends. 

In leading Golden State to a 10-1 start, Curry is the league’s top scorer at 31.3 points a night. He’s adding six assists, five rebounds and one steal a night. He’s shooting — wait for it — 50.8 percent from three. Curry has a 70-percent true shooting percentage, which would be a career high and is a just a silly number considering the types of shots, and volume of shots, he takes. 

With 62 threes made through 11 games, Curry is on pace to make a mind-bending 459 threes on the year, which would obliterate his own already ridiculous single-season record of 402. That pace likely won’t continue, particularly once he starts missing a few games. However, just for some perspective, the most threes anyone in history has ever made in a season, other than Curry, is the 269 that Ray Allen made in 2005-06. You run out of words to say about Curry. After he hung those 51 on the Wizards, in just three quarters no less, I suppose Washington coach Scott Brooks said it best: “The bottom line is we saw a performance that only one player on the planet can do,” Brooks said. “Nobody makes those shots. Nobody.”

Except Curry. Enjoy the highlights:

The buzz on Jimmy Butler and his one-man circus has died down a bit, if only because people are tired of hearing about it. This is after he pulled a pretty ridiculous stunt in storming through practice showing up everyone in the organization, reportedly leading a team of third-stringers to a scrimmage victory over the Wolves starters while screaming “you f—– need me” at Wolves GM Scott Layden, as if reminding a team how much they need you is a logical way to get them to trade you. 

Anyway, Butler has continued to make this all about him. After Derrick Rose scored 50 points and there was actually a Wolves story that didn’t involve Butler, Jimmy crashed the press conference to make sure everyone saw him. Sitting on the bench in Oakland, he waved his towel along with the Warrior fans and laughed it up as the Wolves were losing in the ultimate I-don’t-give-a-damn look. 

All the while, Butler has sat out three games and maintains that he is the one who tells the Wolves when he feels like playing and when he doesn’t. Butler clearly doesn’t care what he looks like here, but for what it’s worth, he’s looking worse every day. I keep hearing that this is how Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan led, by demanding more, by being hard on teammates. Yeah, call me when Jimmy Butler is Kobe or Mike. Dude’s been past the first round of the playoffs twice in his career and suddenly he’s the purveyor of all things winning basketball. The guy is making almost $19 million this season to play basketball and he doesn’t feel like he should have to show up to work because he doesn’t like who he works with? 

Through Wednesday, the Wolves are almost five points better per 100 possessions when Butler is on the bench. Those are very deceiving numbers because Butler just flat-out doesn’t care right now, but is that really upping his trade value? Butler is a really good player. He’s not a great one. If he was, somebody would’ve ponied up for him by now. I’ve talked to people in the league who question the way he’ll age. Is he worth a max deal when he’ll be upwards of 33 years old on the back end of it with Tom Thibodeau miles on his legs? 

You’d be hard pressed to find even one person who thinks Butler, even at his optimal level, can be the best player on a championship team, so you can only give up so much to get him without canceling out his value. The Heat’s Josh Richardson has been thrown around a lot. I could argue Richardson will be damn near as good as Butler in a few years. Maybe better. Butler won’t be in Minnesota for long, I don’t think, and that will be a great day for everyone in the NBA so we can all stop talking about this guy like he’s something he isn’t. 

If you don’t believe Kawhi Leonard was really that injured last season, what he did in basically sitting out the whole season was way worse than what Butler is currently doing. I have no idea whether he could’ve played or not. But I do know this: Either way, Kawhi is worth the drama. He is worlds better than Butler, as we’re seeing this year in Toronto, where Leonard has looked every bit like an MVP player. His presence has rocketed the Raptors into a whole new level of legitimacy. Kyle Lowry has a little something to do with this as well. He has been brilliant so far. As have Danny Green and Serge Ibaka. Just how good have the Raptors been? Check this out:

But Leonard is the story here. He’s averaging 26 points, almost eight rebounds, three assists and two steals a night. He’s shooting 50 percent from the field and almost 45 percent from three. After basically a year on the shelf, it’s really remarkable how in control he’s been pretty much since the jump of the season — dictating the defense and creating offense from every spot on the court — in the post, initiating the pick-and-roll, pulling up from three in transition, mid-range, spotting up. His whole bag is full. 

What’s really got me interested right now are these isolations that are, at times, largely carrying really good offensive teams such as the Bucks and the Raptors. I’ve asked Damian Lillard and Tony Parker about isolations and whether they’ve gotten too bad a name in this analytic age. They both said yes, isolation basketball is still necessary, maybe more than ever in this age when switching defenses that can largely neutralize off-ball movement. 

Lillard gets a lot of his offense one-on-one, and Giannis and Kawhi are killing teams because they can kill any defender. Space the floor, let them go one-on-one — and this is where Kawhi has been so in control, patiently allowing the defense to tell him whether to attack the rim with a cleared-out lane, get to his spot for a pull-up jumper or find a teammate. Per Synergy, Kawhi ranks in the 91st percentile in isolation situations including passes. These three clips show why:

First, the rim attack:

Then the pull-up jumper, driving hard the moment he sees Serge Ibaka drag his defender, Karl-Anthony Towns, into the paint, thus leaving the whole right side vacated:

And finally, finding his teammates. Look at this pass that comes courtesy of Kawhi going through his read progressions like an All-Pro quarterback. First, he plays pick-and-roll with Lowry, patiently waiting out the switch before he goes back into the post, all of which gives Lowry time to work around a preoccupied defense that is rightfully fixated on Leonard with the ball, because that’s the kind of attention his play is demanding. Don’t sleep, young fella. That’ll be a Lowry layup, thank you very much:

That is just beautiful individual basketball that lifts the whole team. 

Joel Embiid has been great. Ben Simmons has been, well, not so great. But these days, when it comes to the 76ers, Markelle Fultz is the guy everyone wants to talk about. Fultz’s numbers don’t look great by any stretch, but for a guy who completely forgot how to shoot and subsequently watched his whole game crumble after being selected No. 1 overall just one year ago, these averages don’t look completely miserable either — 9.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists on 39.3 percent shooting, 30.8 percent from three. 

Sixers’ optimists will tell you he’s making progress. That’s true. But when you start at the bottom, it’s pretty hard to not go up. The bottom line is the Sixers’ starting lineup, which was the best starting lineup in the league last season, has a negative-9.5 rating this season, and their 99.2 offensive rating would be the worst mark in the league if stretched out over an entire game. Four of the five players in that starting lineup are the same as last season. 

Fultz is the only thing that has changed. 

Through Wednesday, the Sixers are actually at least a net-even team when Fultz is on the floor. To some degree, his defense is a plus with his versatility and athleticism. He stays in front of guys and makes some pretty athletic blocks. His offense is much better when he’s not playing with Simmons because he’s completely useless off the ball. He needs to have control of the offense to at least be functional. 

That’s why the starting lineup looks so bad on paper and on the court. You can get away with one complete non-shooter in Simmons (actually, you can’t get away with it completely; eventually he will burn you, too, but it’s workable in the regular season), but two non-shooters in today’s game is a death sentence. Defenses don’t have to guard either one of those guys beyond 12 feet, and for the most part, they don’t. 

Fultz still only looks comfortable taking one shot — a dribble-in pull-up jumper from 15 feet max. It’s a charity shot for themes part. The defense sags so far off the guy can get a long-jumper’s running start. He gets standing ovations for making the most basic of shots. From distance, he still looks like this:

To be fair, he’s also looked like this on the four 3-pointers he’s made this season:

Again, this is just unworkable when you have to throw a party every week or so when he makes one of these. Fultz is dragging the once-best starting lineup in basketball into the dirt. Simmons’ inability to shoot is being glossed over because of Fultz. Embiid’s borderline MVP start is hardly being talked about. The Sixers have gone from everyone’s favorite to jump into the elite conversation to one of the early season’s biggest disappointments. They’ll keep giving Fultz chances because they have to, and perhaps he has a place on the court in small doses with the right lineup. But that’s about all right now. 

One of these days, people are going to stop doubting the power of Damian Lillard. Every year the Blazers are the trendy pick to stink, to fall out of the playoffs, to be exposed as some kind of superficial jump-shooting team. Then the season starts, Lillard commences torching the whole league, and everyone is stupid again. 

Get it through your heads: Lillard is a superstar, and no team he is on will ever be bad. Ever. He’s the third-best lead guard in the world behind Stephen Curry and James Harden, and it’s a photo finish with Harden. For the season, Lillard is averaging just under 27 points a game. He was third in the league in scoring at better than 28 a game until he was held to 13 on Tuesday, when the Blazers improved to 8-3 with yet another impressive win, this time over the Bucks. Lillard has already gone for 40-plus twice this season. 

Coach Terry Stotts told me he loves the way Lillard has matured as a point guard, to the point where he is now completely in control of that fine line between pursuing your own buckets and getting everyone involved. Yes, I’m aware Lillard struggled in last season’s playoffs when Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans blitzed him with the Steph Curry treatment, and I also don’t care. That didn’t expose anything about Lillard other than the fact that he’s not quite Steph Curry, which no one in the world is. Plus, Lillard gets better every year, even if only in small ways. If he sees that defense again in this year’s playoffs, my money’s on him torching it. 

The Hornets are quietly a pretty good team. Their record doesn’t necessarily reflect as much at 6-5 entering Wednesday, but that’s only because they are still struggling to win close games. Four of their games have been decided by two points or fewer, and they lost three of those. They lost another one, to OKC, by four. All told, they have the sixth-best point differential in the league and the No. 2 offense, trailing only the Warriors. 

You can thank Kemba Walker for almost all of that. 

Walker has been nothing short of sensational this season: More than 28 points per game on 40-percent shooting from three. Earlier this year, Walker told me that adding a deadly three-point shot to his arsenal has “changed [his] life,” and from a basketball standpoint, that’s not an exaggeration. The guy has become completely unguardable. Lay off him, and he’ll stick a three (entering Wednesday, he trails only Stephen Curry in 3-pointers made with 46). Try to get up tight on him, and you get this business:

“There just aren’t many players that can go from Point A to Point B like Kemba,” Walker’s old shooting coach, Bruce Kreutzer, told CBS Sports. “Now that he’s making that shot, he’s got you. That’s what made him what he is.”

What he is, to be clear, is a top-five MVP candidate. But he’ll never get that recognition until the Hornets start winning the close ones. 

So Jamal Murray hung a career-high 48 points on the Celtics on Monday, and it’s all the rage because he tried to hit a three at the buzzer when the game was already over — you know, to go for his 50 piece — and Kyrie Irving didn’t like it. Kyrie proceeded to throw the ball deep into the stands, which cost him a $25K fine, and now here we are talking about whether Murray should’ve taken that meaningless shot more than we are the absolute scoring clinic he laid on the Celtics. 

Here’s Jamal’s shot:

Here’s Kyrie’s hissy fit:

These unwritten baby rules in pro sports baffle me. In baseball, you can’t steal if you’re up a certain amount of runs. In football, you can’t pass if you’re winning by a lot at the end of a game. In basketball, shooting a shot at the buzzer that means absolutely nothing is just too much for the delicate sensibilities of a grown man. Is this tee-ball? We cry about participation trophies for kids, but it’s the professionals who are making hundreds of millions of dollars who are the softest whiners sometimes, throwing little tantrums when someone embarrasses them. Here’s an idea: If you don’t want Jamal Murray to shoot for his 50, don’t get lit up for 48 in the first place. 

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