NBA Star Power Index: LeBron, Carmelo and Kevin Durant dominate headlines in a wild offseason
For the NBA, the most unpredictable time of year is after the season ends
Welcome back to our NBA Star Power Index -- a regular gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. A couple things: First, Inclusion on this list isn't necessarily a good thing. It simply means you're capturing the NBA world's attention, for better or worse. Second, this isn't limited to on-court discussion, which is convenient considering we haven't seen an NBA game in more than a month and still, somehow, the league damn-near feels like it's in full swing.
It's become a year-round sport, indeed. The Star Power Index will follow suit. Typically this is a weekly column, but since we're playing a little catch up, we're going to be a little lenient with the timeframe and discuss the players who have most controlled the buzz over the offseason to this point.
Finally, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they're generating.
NBA Star Power Index
The greatest basketball player in the world, if not in history, signed with the Los Angeles Lakers after a meeting with Magic Johnson. So, yeah, it's safe to say that constitutes a slight bit of buzz. That said, LeBron leaving Cleveland to join a marquee franchise didn't feel quite like the earth-shaking move it would seem to be on paper. It happened on a Sunday evening. No Player's Tribune essay. Certainly no ESPN specials. Not much to it, really.
Why? My guess is because this move was, more or less, expected. LeBron recently said that he gave real thought to other options -- particularly the Sixers, Rockets and of course the Cavs -- but people in the know will tell you it was always going to be the Lakers barring something unforeseen.
Looking at it from the opposite vantage point, LeBron's Cleveland departure wasn't the soul-crusher it was the first time around to his hometown fans. I talked with a lot of them at the Finals and asked them how the would feel if LeBron left again. Almost every single one had the same thing to say: "He did what he said he was going to do. He brought us a championship." Also, he has now brought something to the state of Ohio that is, and will continue to be, far more important than anything he ever did on the court: The LeBron James I Promise School in Akron, Ohio.
Words like "amazing" and "hero" get thrown around in sports all the time, and usually they're not warranted. This is different. What LeBron James has done with this school he has created for at-risk kids is amazing. The man is a hero. Never mind that he has put millions of dollars into this thing out of his own pocket and through his foundation -- every kid that graduates will also get their full college tuition paid for at the University of Akron. That's right. Full tuition. At current rates, that will run LeBron and his foundation more than $41 million.
This is what you call changing the world, for real. These kids would likely not have any chance at the kind of future LeBron is helping them to strive for. Please just take a look at all the things these kids, and their families, are getting as LeBron continues to enrich the community that once helped him through a tough childhood.
It goes without saying that LeBron in no way has to do this. He already gives a ton more to charity than most people, even people with his kind of money, would ever dream of giving. Fact is, he could pay for his own kids to have their own school if he felt like it. This is not for him or his family. Before you cynics even get started, this is not for public show or some stupid tax write-off, either. This is an act of pure humanity from the bottom of this guy's heart, and it is freaking amazing.
This, right here, is why the NBA is quickly closing the gap on the NFL as America's preeminent league -- because the off-court drama never ends. Recently, Durant went on CJ McCollum's podcast and straight up laughed at McCollum's assertion that the Blazers are a championship contender. Told him to not worry about what goes on at the top. This after McCollum had this to say with regard to Durant's decision to join the Warriors in 2016 less than two months after his Oklahoma City Thunder lost to Golden State in the conference finals.
Durant doesn't take kindly to the 'soft' label, and he's been Twitter-beefing with anyone and everyone pretty much since the day he signed with the Warriors because of it. He sounds insecure, like a guy who cares immensely what people think, like a guy that deep down doesn't feel great about what he did in joining the Warriors and is getting overly defensive. Durant, of course, says that's not the case, that he's not insecure and that he's just tired of holding stuff in. In other words, if you have something to say to him, don't expect him to not come right back like any other person would, NBA player or not. Fair enough.
Either way, people eat this Durant-McCollum stuff up. I mean, trash talking among athletes is always entertaining, but there's just something different about it when it's basketball players. It's woven into the fabric of the game. For instance, I thought it was funny when the recently retired NFL defensive back DeAngelo Hall said he would've been a Hall of Famer had he played more against Jay Cutler, which was an obvious dig at Cutler's propensity for throwing the ball to the wrong team. But you might not have even heard about that. It's a blip on the social media radar. Comments like this only carry so much zing in other sports.
On the other hand, you get basketball players going back and forth, and it's something wholly different. It's an event. Don't ask me why, it just is, and this is why we're still talking about the NBA every day in August.
At this point, Carmelo Anthony is, at best, a potentially effective role player, and yet he's still at the forefront of the news cycle and has been for the majority of the summer. Name value, baby. It dies hard.
As has been expected for some time, Melo -- after being traded from the Thunder to the Hawks, who promptly waived him -- will reportedly sign with the Rockets. There's been a lot of talk about what Melo might add to the Rockets, who've had a tough offseason losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. In theory, through the most optimistic of lenses, he is a guy who can space the floor for James Harden and Chris Paul to operate, knock down spot-up and trail threes in transition, and punish switches against smaller defenders with selective half-court isolations. In a best-case scenario, he can win you a game or two in the playoffs if he gets hot at the right time. He still has that puncher's-chance element to his game.
Problem is, Melo doesn't see himself as a puncher's-chance guy. He still thinks he's a top-flight heavyweight. He has already said, just as he did in OKC, that he has no intentions of coming of the bench for Houston. Look, let's just set aside the debate of whether Carmelo is still a legitimate starter-level NBA player on a good-to-great team, and let's just focus on what it says about the guy that he is so quick to dismiss the notion of taking a step back before even considering what might be best for, you know, the team. You want pretty clear evidence that a guy is more about the name on the back of his jersey than the one on the front, well, there it is.
In the end, some guys just can't make the transition from superstar to role player. It's just not in their basketball blood. Kobe Bryant was never able to do it. Allen Iverson couldn't do it. It's looking more and more like Melo is going to be one of those guys who just can't shake the ego the he has, admittedly, earned. That said, it doesn't really matter if he starts or not, at least not to anyone other than him. The question will be whether Mike D'Antoni can play him in winning time, or whether his defensive shortcomings (to put it lightly) simply become too exploitable to keep him on the floor when it counts or even for prolonged mid-game stretches.
And that's the big problem here. The defense. The main reason Houston was able to push the Warriors to seven games in last year's conference finals was its defense, specifically its length and athleticism and collective ability to switch all Golden State's screens for its shooters. Ariza was a major part of that. Mbah a Moute brought the same kind of game. Melo doesn't replace any of that, clearly, and the idea that what brings on the offensive side will offset his defensive liabilities, let alone be productive enough to make him a plus-player overall, is a bold bet. We shall see.
Once it became apparent that his relationship with the Spurs was not going to be repaired, and that he was likely going to be traded, Leonard became the NBA offseason's focal point for an extended time. For a while, it seemed the Lakers were the likely destination, where he would become the second or even third piece (back when people still thought Paul George was going there, too) alongside LeBron in the formation of an overnight super-team.
But then George didn't even give the Lakers a meeting before he decided to return to OKC, Leonard ended up with the Raptors, and now the Lakers are forced to hope they can lure him next summer in the same way they hoped they could lure George this summer. We'll see.
For now, Leonard is with the Raptors, who suddenly look really dangerous as a team that can match up any way you'd like. You want to play big? Cool, we'll counter with Jonas Valanciunas. You want to play small? Fine, we'll pay Serge Ibaka at the five and run out a lineup with four like-sized switchable defenders led by two legit one-on-one stoppers in Leonard and OG Anunoby, who already has a reputation as a big-game defensive hunter after just one season. That Toronto defense, which was already top-five last year and has now upgraded from a below-average defender in DeMar DeRozan to maybe the best defender in the league in Leonard, is going to be something.
As for the offense, well, that should be better, too. No disrespect to DeRozan, who gave a lot of really good years to the Raptors and was caught way off guard when he was sent to San Antonio, but Leonard is the better offensive player, too, even if the gap isn't nearly as wide as the defensive one.
Ultimately, this is a team that won 59 games last year and just added a top-five player in the league when he's healthy, which it appears Leonard is after he passed his physical with Toronto. Leonard might have initially balked at the idea of going to the Raptors, but he'll get over that when they're competing for a Finals berth, which they absolutely will be health permitting. I'd still put the Celtics at the top of the East, but the Raptors are right there.
New coach Nick Nurse, who says he's chasing perfection in Toronto, said Leonard "lit up like a Christmas tree" when they had their first meeting, in which they went over different ways the Raptors will use Leonard. I have a sneaking suspicion this is going to work really well, which is going to make the Raptors really interesting not only this season but into next year's free agency period as a possible long-term home for Leonard.
George's decision to return to the Thunder shook the league in three ways. First, it basically ended the premature assumption that the Lakers were about to become a championship contender, as a lot of people had been assuming for the past year George would end up there. Second, it makes the Thunder -- when you also factor in the subtraction of Anthony's draining defense, the return of Andre Roberson as an elite defender and the solid additions of Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder -- a really good team, perhaps even a fringe contender as one of the best defensive teams around. And third, and probably most important from a league-wide perspective, it completely changed the game in terms of how teams might handle these dicey, potential one-year rental situations moving forward.
It's still scary to trade good players or young assets for a player that is eligible to leave the following year as a free agent,as the Thunder did for George when he made it known he wanted out of Indiana, but with his decision to stay with the team that took the risk in acquiring him in the first place, you'll likely see more teams willing to go for it behind that example.
That potentially changes everything, because now the teams that are maybe one player away from getting over the hump in the short term, or teams that might not be typical big-time free-agent destinations, can justify these kinds of trades to get their hands on a player they might otherwise have no shot at landing, even if it's only for one guaranteed year.
Star players control everything these days with their ability to back teams into a corner with the threat of leaving for nothing. George did it to Indiana. Kyrie Irving did it to Cleveland. Leonard did it to San Antonio. In a perfect scenario, now both teams can win -- as now appears to be the case with the Pacers, who got a star in Victor Oladipo out of the George deal when they were going to lose him anyway, and of course OKC, which retained its man long-term.
Suffice it to say, people were just a little bit shocked when the Warriors signed Boogie to a one-year, $5.3 million mid-level exception deal. Yes, we all know he's coming off a ruptured Achilles, and that there's no guarantee he'll ever be the same player he was before. Heck, he might not even get on the court until January for Golden State.
But who cares? The Warriors are arguably the greatest team ever assembled without him. If he comes back at anything close to 100 percent, it's gravy, and they immediately become the most talented team in NBA history bar none. Debate over. That's five All-NBA players smack dab in the middle of their prime and Andre Iguodala, a borderline Hall of Famer, coming off the bench for good measure. It's just silly.
And to top it off, they basically got the guy for free, as the $5.3 million they gave him is basically the exact discount amount Durant took in signing his new deal. The guy could end up being incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time and the Warriors still won't have lost a thing. This is pure upside.
So did you hear Tristan Thompson sucker-punched Draymond Green at a party hosted by LeBron James, and that Kevin Durant had to intervene? Did someone say something about the NBA offseason being full of drama? Cavs fans may or may not be planning an actual parade -- no, seriously -- to honor Thompson finally getting a lick in on the talkative Green, who in reality they ought to be thanking for that crotch-shot he threw at James in the 2016 Finals, without which the Cavs likely never would've won that title.
At any rate, Green, for his part, says Thompson didn't punch him, that everyone's got their story confused thinking there's any chance in the world Green would ever be dissed by anyone, and he threw in a little dig on the Cavs just for old-times sake.
Real Housewives of the NBA.
Would you be surprised if Bravo had something in the works?