Tuesday, January 25, 2022

NBA Star Power Index: LeBron James fighting uphill battle; Joel Embiid, DeMar DeRozan continue clutch mastery

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. 

Embiid choked the life out of the Celtics down the stretch on Monday, scoring 17 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter as the Sixers ground out a win. Embiid has not shot well from the midrange, dipping from elite territory last season to sub-50th percentile overall, per Cleaning the Glass, and just the 37th percentile from 4-14 feet. But he certainly found his form on these jumpers Monday night:

Let’s take another look at all the angles of that dagger with the Sixers up two and under 15 seconds to play:

Watching this live, I was just about to call this an awful late-game possession when Embiid ripped that shot. Embiid attacking two defenders off the dribble for a 20-foot fadeaway jumper is not ideal, but hey, he stuck it, and I suppose this season’s most clutch players deserves some leeway to make plays in money time. 

Entering play on Tuesday, Embiid’s 6.3 clutch points per game (when a game is within five points with five or fewer minutes to play) leads the league by a healthy distance, almost two full PPG ahead of LeBron James, and he’s shooting 52 percent, including 41.7 percent from 3, in those minutes. 

Lillard is looking closer and closer to his old self in terms of his movement, and the production is coming around. On Sunday, Lillard scored 17 points in the first quarter of Portland’s win over Memphis, ending up with 32. 

Two days earlier, Lillard went for 43 against the Hornets, hitting six of his 11 3-pointers, after which he let it be known that he hasn’t appreciated the criticism he has faced as he and the Blazers have struggled out of the gate. 

If Lillard thinks the media calling attention to the struggles of a 13-18 team with just two road victories and the 27th-ranked defense in the league, and a superstar who is shooting 39 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3, constitutes some sort of disrespect, then he’s gotten way too comfortable in the cushy, largely criticism-free confines of an NBA small market. 

The romance of Lillard’s loyalty to Portland has long shielded him from the “disrespect” other superstars like James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who’ve consistently fallen short of the highest standards of success, have endured for years. Part of the job, man. 

That said, if this is fueling Lillard’s fire, terrific. He isn’t the first athlete to create a narrative in his head that people are disrespecting him in an effort to motivate himself. Mostly, I just think he’s getting healthier more than he’s decided to prove these newfound critics wrong, though the knee he took to his already sensitive abdomen against the Grizzlies didn’t look like it felt too good. 

LeBron is doing everything he can, but the Lakers are starting Isaiah Thomas for crying out loud. Anthony Davis is out for at least a month with a sprained MCL, and the Lakers have five players in COVID-19 health and safety protocol. 

It’s all the Lakers can do to tread water, even as other teams are equally disabled. They’re 4-4 over their last eight, and that’s only a credit to LeBron dipping back into fringe-MVP form, scoring 30-plus in seven of his last 11 games. 

Also, this is absolutely wild:

Literally, half of LeBron’s life he’s been in the NBA. Unreal. 

In his first game back after two weeks in the league’s health and safety protocol, DeRozan hung 38 points on the Lakers as the Bulls were victorious in their return to the court after two postponed games. DeRozan scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, a career high, including the effective game-winner with under a minute to play. 

DeRozan remains a professional pull-up artist. The Bulls run a variety of actions to get him into one-on-one situations at the top, and when he rhythm dribbles his way into his midrange office, you can forget it. Per Synergy Sports tracking, DeRozan ranks in the 97th percentile as an isolation scorer while hitting 53 percent of his jumpers off the dribble. 

As evidenced by the clip above, DeRozan has been at his deadliest in the biggest moments all season. Entering play on Tuesday, he has scored 55 points in the clutch this season, which ranks 6th league-wide, and he is shooting 55 percent from the field and 100 percent from the free-throw line (21 for 21) in those minutes. 

Towns, who says he’s playing the best all-around basketball of his career, has been running on high emotion lately, and it’s working. The Wolves have won four straight, and over that span Towns is averaging just under 27 points on 51 percent shooting. On Friday, Towns put 28 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks on the Lakers. 

Over the last week, Minnesota has beaten the Blazers, Nuggets, Lakers and Mavericks, all teams that could well be hovering around the play-in line come late March and April. Indeed, these are the teams with which the Wolves figure to be in pretty direct competition as they try to make the playoffs for just the second time in the last 18 seasons. 

Entering play on Tuesday, Minnesota’s starting lineup has outscored opponents by 124 points in 127 minutes, the best mark of any five-man unit in the league, and Towns is one of just five players — along with Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid — averaging at least 20 points and nine rebounds. Of those five, Towns is the only one shooting 40 percent from 3 (41.8, to be exact). 

And these are not just stretch-big stand-still 3s: Towns is 16 for 30 on pull-up 3s on the season, and among all players who’ve taken at least 50 pull-up jumpers, his 62.5 effective field goal percentage is the highest mark in the league. This is a big man who is deadly on the move and off the dribble, a truly unique force at basically seven feet tall. 

The Nets announced that Irving is coming back to play road games (except in New York and Toronto), only for the guard to almost immediately land in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, where he joins eight other Brooklyn players: Kevin Durant, Day’Ron SharpeLaMarcus AldridgeDeAndre’ BembryBruce BrownJevon Carter, James Harden, James Johnson and Paul Millsap

Once Irving is cleared to play, here’s a look at the stiffer protocols he’ll face as an unvaccinated player. 

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