Wednesday, February 28, 2024

NBA Star Power Index: LeBron James on 30-point scoring tear; Stephen Curry hits 3,000th 3-pointer

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 finally decided to start LeBron at center on Tuesday (which is to say they played small, without a traditional big man, and it’s just fine to call LeBron the “center” in those lineups), and he rewarded them with a 32-point, 11-assist, 11-rebound triple-double in a Lakers victory that snapped a five-game losing streak. 

LeBron has been doing all he can to lift this flawed Lakers team that has also been decimated by injuries and COVID. At 37 years old, he is tied for the league lead with 13 30-point games, in the company of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Trae Young. He has scored 30-plus in his last five games. 

Don’t get too excited about this most recent one. It was against the Rockets. But there were encouraging signs in terms of the shots the Lakers got with a more spaced floor. LeBron has played plenty of minutes this season without a traditional big man (no Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard), and the Lakers have won those minutes by 7.2 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. 

But this was first time the Lakers started a game with such a lineup. 

Playing LeBron as the de facto center in a small lineup accomplishes many things relative to the Lakers’ personnel, but mostly it gives Russell Westbrook, who also registered an actual efficient triple-double on Tuesday, a fighting chance to be a useful player without a second non-shooting player next to him further cramping the Lakers’ already claustrophobic spacing. 

It allows for things like this, with LeBron becoming a screener/roller/cutter with Westbrook at the top and an unclogged lane. 

The reverse is also true, with the ball in LeBron’s hands and Westbrook flashing to the open lane.

Memo to Anthony Davis: The Lakers need to lose the two-big lineups. If they had three other respected shooters on the floor, fine. But they don’t. They have Westbrook. And two non-shooters is too many, particularly when Davis is also shooting, well, like Westbrook. 

Ditch DeAndre. Spot play Howard. Spread the floor as best as possible and let LeBron pick his on- and off-ball spots as he sees fit while Davis, heaven forbid, guards opposing bigs once he returns. Until then, small-ball it is. It’s the only logical conclusion to draw. 

Curry is already the all-time leader in 3-pointers made, so every number he hits from this point forward is going to be a number nobody else has ever hit. But we love round numbers, so Curry hitting his 3,000th career 3 on Tuesday was a thing. 

The irony here is this 3,000th 3-pointer was Curry’s first of the game after what was arguably the worst first-half performance of his career. Curry got hot in the fourth quarter, hitting four more 3s, and nearly pulled off a crazy comeback, but the Warriors fell short vs. Denver. 

Steph finished with 23 points on 5 of 14 from 3, where he is converting at just a 35 percent clip over his last eight games and 37.5 percent for the month of December. He’s also under 40 percent for the season, and his overall shooting percentage — 43.3 percent — is by far the worst mark of his career. 

Golden State’s aforementioned run at a crazy comeback vs. Denver on Tuesday was turned away by Jokic, who blocked Jonathan Kuminga’s potential game-tying shot at the rim with under five seconds to play.  

If you watch the play again, you’ll see Curry fade wide open out to the 3-point line after he initially gives it up to Otto Porter Jr., who should have gone right back to Curry for a potential game-winning 3. That’s a split-second read, though, and Porter continued to force the action toward the basket, where Jokic was waiting. 

This is turning into a thing, Jokic blocking shots to save games. He’s already done it three times this season and the calendar hasn’t even flipped yet. 

Jokic finished with 22 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, four steals and that one massive block against the Warriors, falling two boards shy of his third straight 20-20 game. 

What a beast this guy is. 

Speaking of beasts, Embiid is averaging 33.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 56/44/87 shooting splits over his last five games. This also seems pretty good:

The Sixers have been a good team with Embiid on the court — plus-5.2 per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Their starting lineup of Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tobias Harris is plus-59 for the season, the fifth-best mark of any five-man unit in the league and the second-best mark of any unit that has played at least 175 minutes together, trailing only Utah’s starting five. 

All told, the Sixers are 15-8 with Embiid and 3-8 without him. It adds up to a water-treading 18-16 mark, just above the play-in line in the Eastern Conference.  

Newsflash: The Grizzlies are not better without Morant, despite their 10-2 run without him that propelled them into the West’s No. 4 seed. Morant said he felt “hurt” when he heard fans telling him to “sit back out” during his first game back, a 102-99 loss to an OKC team the Grizzlies had previously throttled by an NBA-record 73 points in Morant’s absence. 

On Monday, Morant reminded these few ignorant fans what Memphis was missing without its star point guard — an electric downhill creator — with 33 points and the game-winning bucket against the Phoenix Suns. 

The Grizzlies’ defense has been much better without Morant, but offensively they can only survive for so long on offensive rebounds and transition buckets. They were a bottom-10 half-court offensive team without Morant, who breaks defenses down as effectively as any player in the league. If Memphis is going to make postseason noise, it will be, first and foremost, because of Morant. 

That isn’t to say the Grizzlies aren’t full of good supporting players. They are. That organization has done a great job in surrounding Morant with two-way players, shooters/scorers and top-shelf defenders like Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr., in a way, say, the Blazers have failed Damian Lillard. 

But Morant stirs the drink. If you were one of those ignorant fans who thought otherwise, don’t forget that again. 

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