Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players getting the most 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. This column will run every week throughout the regular season.
The Lakers are nearing rock bottom. After falling to the Mavericks on Tuesday — their third straight loss out of the All-Star break and sixth in their last seven games — they’re the West’s No. 9 seed at 27-34, three games back of the No. 8 Clippers and just two games from falling out of the play-in tournament entirely (it might be a a race with Portland to see who can lose more the rest of the season, except the Blazers are trying to lose). Anthony Davis could well be out the rest of the regular season.
Still, LeBron isn’t about to surrender.
“We still have games to play,” James said after the loss to Dallas. “Until you stomp me out, cut my head off, bury me 12 feet under, then I got a chance. So that’s my confidence.”
Against my every last logical thread of judgment, I’m with LeBron. I can’t rule any team on which he plays out of anything until the math says there’s no chance. The Lakers are likely going to make the play-in, unless San Antonio catches a real heater, and if Davis can get back, they have a chance.
A chance to do what? I’m not sure. The Lakers are simply not a good team. Most nights, they’re a flat-out bad one. At best, they’re probably a first-round appetizer. But there’s still a tiny corner of my mind — if an increasingly shrinking one — that can still visualize something more than that. It’s LeBron. He’s earned our delusional confidence. And he’s certainly earned his own.
Harden has been sensational in his first two games with the Sixers, averaging 28 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds on 58-percent shooting, becoming the first player in history to post at least 25 points and 10 assists in each of his first two games with a team. He’s 8 for 14 from 3. He’s turned it over a total of five times. He’s gotten to the free-throw line 19 times, making 18.
It’s this free-throw total we need to talk about. When Harden and Embiid teamed up, or when any two stars team up for that matter, all the talk is always about how they complement one another in live-ball action. Harden spaces for Embiid. They are tailor-made to run pick and roll/pop. But the thing we didn’t talk about enough in the wake of the trade is that these guys are going to lead a parade to the free-throw line.
In two games together, Harden and Embiid have combined to go 52 for 59 from the line. Fifty-nine free throws! This is a true pick-your-poison duo that leaves defenses constantly compromised with really no good options to bail themselves out, except to foul. Plus, both guys are master drawers of contact individually. Philly’s playoff games might take four hours, but it’s going to be tough to beat them if they keep getting to the line like this.
You think Embiid likes having Harden around? He’s averaging 35.5 points since his arrival and has only needed 18 shots per game to get there. Some of that is the insane amount of free throws he’s racked up (20 per game), but his workload is very clearly going to be lightened as Harden creates so much leverage that even when Embiid is shooting, he’s not having to do such heavy work to get the shot.
This is a pretty perfect partnership. The chemistry is already obvious. The Sixers have won the 53 minutes that Harden and Embiid have shared the court by 46 points. They have great pick-and-roll timing and Harden has found Embiid at the exact right moment for transition dunks on a couple occasions.
I had concerns about Harden’s willingness to cede control to Embiid in the post and actually move off the ball, but Harden already has his prints all over this offense. He’s in control. Sure, he could commit to moving more, but even as is, Embiid is going to be just fine scoring 30-plus a night with Harden dictating. After Philly’s win over the Knicks on Sunday, Embiid called the two-man game between he and Harden “unstoppable,” and he might be right.
Morant is the most exciting player in the league right now and it’s not particularly close. Morant now owns five of the top seven single-game scoring outputs in Grizzlies history, and three of them have come in the past two weeks.
One of the 44-point performances came against Portland in Memphis’ last game before the All-Star break, the 46 came on Saturday and the 52, obviously a career-high for Morant and the top scoring night in franchise history, came on Tuesday against the Spurs. In that game, Morant shot 22 for 30, including 4 of 4 from 3-point range, while logging arguably the Dunk of the Year and the Shot of the Year within a two-minute span to close the first half.
First he caught an outlet pass just past half court, casually angled toward the rim, and then, with one foot outside the paint, decided to try and end poor Jakob Poeltl’s life with an absolute hammer of a dunk.
Seriously, check out where Morant took off from, and try to wrap your head around how impossible it should’ve been for a human being to flush this jam.
That has a case for Dunk of the Year, and to think, it was merely a prologue to one of the most outrageous highlights you’ll see this season. It was just a few minutes later when Morant leaped into the air to catch a full-court pass from Steven Adams, and without coming down, all in one motion, twisting and falling out of bounds, tossed in about an 18-footer from the baseline to beat the first-half buzzer.
I don’t even know what to say about that. The combination of athleticism and power required to even get that shot to the rim, let alone make it, is extraordinary. Morant makes this stuff look effortless, even as herky-jerky as he can be. I mean my god. What an unbelievable basketball player and athlete this guy is.
Doncic has been back at an MVP level for a good while now, and the Mavericks, tied in the loss column with Denver for the No. 5 spot in the West, have won 21 of their last 28 games. For the month of February, Doncic averaged 34.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists on better than 41 percent 3-point shooting.
On Tuesday, Doncic got his March off to a good start with 25-8-5 in a win over the Lakers. It wasn’t his best performance, but even when he’s 9 for 21 and 0 for 5 from 3 he’s still getting wherever he wants to get and controlling every possession. He made a bunch of really tough shots down the stretch, three of which — two buckets for Doncic and a lob-layup for Dwight Powell — began with his switch-hunting LeBron James.
When you hear “switch hunt” in today’s NBA parlance, the implication is a weak defender is being targeted. A guy like Luka calls for a screen from the most vulnerable defender’s man, gets the switch, and then cooks the sitting duck.
But in this case, Doncic isolating LeBron was likely more about eliminating James as a help defender. It was actually a compliment. Or at least a knock against the Lakers’ other defenders. Malik Monk, Russell Westbrook, Stanley Johnson and Talen Horton-Tucker don’t represent the same threat coming to interrupt Doncic’s creative efforts.
If LeBron — a smart, anticipatory defender — is lingering off the ball, he’s a bigger threat to jump passing lanes or double Doncic late and affect his shot. With LeBron guarding Doncic heads-up, Luka knows the help is less of a factor and he can at least play one-on-one. Even against a better individual defender, Luka rightfully likes his isolation chances to create leverage either for his own shot or for a teammate. And he was right.
The Jazz are healthy again and have won eight of their last nine, and Mitchell has been scorching hot since the start of February. Coming out of the All-Star break, in two wins over two quality opponents in Dallas and Phoenix, Mitchell is averaging 29.5 points while hitting 56 percent of his 3-pointers (13 for 23).
This seems pretty good.
Utah is in good position to go into the postseason with a top-four seed, three games up on the No. 5 Mavericks and just two back of No. 3 Memphis. If the Jazz can stay healthy, with Mitchell a proven playoff superstar, they’ll be a factor.