Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. This is also 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 throughout the regular season.
The Lakers have gotten out to a sluggish 2-2 start (they survived in OT at San Antonio on Tuesday without LeBron James, who was out with a sore leg), but the good news is LeBron James continues to look like a player capable of carrying a team. James’ 3-point shot is particularly splashy (as is his fadeaway).
Through three games, James is taking just under 10 3-pointers per game and hitting 48 percent of them. If you’re interested in how the Lakers have played with using Russell Westbrook as a pick-and-roll partner with LeBron, our Sam Quinn provided a good breakdown here.
Do yourself a favor and clear your schedule for as many Hornets games as you can. They are an Indy car, and LaMelo Ball is in the driver’s seat with the throttle pegged. Charlotte has jumped out to a 3-1 start with Ball shooting 50 percent from 3 on eight attempts a night; he’s already made seven 3s in two separate games.
That kind of shooting was simply not expected from Ball, and certainly not this early. His comfort and confidence bely his experience. When he’s making 3s off the dribble and the catch on top of making passes like this one below, he’s an All-Star level player already.
People are going to play the premature card, but the Golden State Warriors, though they’re obviously going to say all the right things about James Wiseman, have to be quietly kicking themselves for not grabbing Ball when he was sitting right there for them at No. 2 in the 2020 draft.
What Ball could be doing in that fast-paced, instinctive, pass-oriented Warriors system, with that kind of shooting and talent around him, is limitless. And this is to say nothing of the clear franchise-player talent and star power he possesses. Through that lens, to go from the Stephen Curry era right into the LaMelo Ball era would be like hitting the Powerball twice, and the Warriors had the ticket.
It’s not to say Wiseman won’t end up being good, but this feels, at best, a lot like the Suns taking Deandre Ayton over Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Ayton is going to be good; he already is. But he is never going to be Doncic or Young. We don’t need any more time to be able to say that with extreme confidence.
Speaking of the Warriors, they’ve gotten out to a 4-0 start, and they’ve done it despite Stephen Curry having a relatively cold-shooting start to his season. His 45-point game against the Clippers is propping up his numbers, but all told he’s still shooting just 38 percent from 3 and 43 percent overall. Throw out the Clippers game, and he’s 10 for 32 from 3.
But Curry — whose mere presence, even when he’s not making a ton of shots, creates countless wide-open opportunities for his teammates — is doing other things well. Like rebounding. The Warriors play a lot of small lineups, making it a rebound-by-committee situation, and so far Curry is chipping in over eight boards a night.
After an offseason of trade rumors, which he recently squashed (for the time being), Damian Lillard has come out of the 2021-22 gates ice cold. Through three games, he’s 2 for 24 from 3; he went 0 for 9 against the Kings and 0 for 8 against the Clippers, and he’s hitting just 36 percent of his shots overall.
Since Lillard entered the league in 2012, this is the first time he has had two games in the same season in which he didn’t make a 3-pointer while attempting at least eight. We won’t even start on Lillard’s defense, which has, as usual, been terrible. The shooting will certainly pick up, but if the Blazers can’t stop anybody, those “Lillard needs to force his way out of Portland” takes are going to be flying again soon enough.
What more can be said about Ben Simmons at this point? He reportedly said he’s not mentally ready to play for the Sixers, who have resumed paying him as long as he’s working, both mentally and physically, toward returning to the court. There are so many layers to this situation.
Simmons has not handled this well, first and foremost. If he’s legitimately struggling with his mental health, then come out and say that. It should be, and I suspect would be, respected. But this half explanation of not being mentally ready to play just sounds like a guy who isn’t ready to face the music he largely made with his teammates and the Philadelphia fans.
Criticism is part of being a professional athlete. Sometimes that criticism isn’t fair, or balanced, but he gets paid $170 million to play basketball. His ego should be fine. Simmons is right that he and Joel Embiid don’t fit together, and that he would probably be better off in a system specifically designed for what Simmons can and can’t do, but that works both ways. Embiid would be better off with a point guard who could shoot and create offense in the half-court and make a free throw here and there.
I will say this: The Sixers do not look good without Simmons. They are 2-2, beating two bad teams and losing to two good teams. Their final five-minute stretch against Brooklyn was horrific. The Knicks trounced them. In both games, it was glaring how difficult it is for the Sixers to create half-court offense.
You would think they could consistently play through Embiid in the post, but he still isn’t great at handling the inevitable double teams; throwing the ball into him does not guarantee a good shot like it does when you give it to Nikola Jokic or Kevin Durant or other great back-to-the-basket players.
Simmons doesn’t fix these half-court issue (Tobias Harris and Seth Curry are simply over their heads as primary creators), but some of the things he does do, could, as it has in the past, go a long way in at least compensating for these collective holes. I suspect that Simmons is going to play for the Sixers at some point this season before he’s ultimately traded. To say it’ll be interesting how that goes is an understatement.
Ja Morant leads the league in scoring though three games, and he nearly had the Grizzlies undefeated with 40 points and 10 assists against the Lakers on Sunday. With Memphis down three in the closing seconds, Morant was fouled on a 3-point attempt and had a chance to tie the game at the free-throw line, but after making the first two he hit back iron on the third as the Lakers held on.
Morant has looked good from deep, making 8 of 18 3s so far, and the scary thing is he hasn’t really started dominating with his floater yet, which is one of the more indefensible shots in the league.
Steve Nash called James Harden the “poster boy” for the emphasis officials have placed this season on not rewarding 3-point shooters with a foul call for non-basketball moves designed merely to create bogus contact; i.e. jumping into defenders, falling down, flailing legs, etc. Harden certainly took advantage of these situations for years (as did, to a lesser degree, guys like Steph Curry and Trae Young), and it was a major reason why he averaged double-digit free-throw attempts per game in seven of eight full seasons in Houston.
That has been flipped upside down this season, as so far Harden has only gotten to the line 12 times over four games. Perhaps not coincidentally, Harden is averaging just 17.3 points on 36 percent shooting, including 32 percent from 3. Harden has never been a particularly lethal shooter; his disproportionate 3-point and free-throw volume played the biggest role in his winning three scoring titles in Houston.
That’s not to say Harden is only a product of weak whistles and isn’t an elite scorer under these new circumstances. But it’s a factor. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Harden having to consistently make his tough step-back shots and merely having to sell a foul and make free throws are two entirely different things.
The Bulls are 4-0 entering play on Wednesday. Don’t freak out; they’ve played the Pelicans without Zion Williamson, the Raptors and the Pistons twice. Still, the Bulls look good, on both ends surprisingly, and Zach LaVine is cooking at over 25 points a night on better than 44 percent 3-point shooting.
Few players make scoring look as effortless as LaVine, who is seamlessly adjusting to a more off-ball role. He still initiates plenty of offense, but the Bulls are activating Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso as initiators quite a bit.
We’ll see if that’s a mechanism to get those guys going early in the season, or possibly to keep them engaged defensively (I don’t think either of them need to be coddled into playing hard on defense), or just to present a more balanced attack, but LaVine and DeMar DeRozan are clearly the best individual creators, and it’ll be interesting to see how quickly Chicago goes back to heavily relying on those two when it starts losing some games.