Tuesday, January 25, 2022

NBA Star Power Index: Klay Thompson makes Warriors title favorite; Trae Young joins Michael Jordan in rare air

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. 

Irving is set to make his season debut for the Nets on Wednesday in Indiana. He can only play in road games (except in Toronto and New York), but the Nets, notably Kevin Durant and James Harden who are carrying a huge scoring burden (Brooklyn is losing non-Durant/Harden minutes by 12.5 points per 100 possessions, per CTG), will take what they can get. 

Stat to watch: Brooklyn makes just 11.5 3-pointers per game, sixth lowest in the league. Kyrie should help lift that number and the extra spacing comes with it. Brooklyn’s half-court offense is cramped

Problem is, again, Irving isn’t back full time, so how will the Nets adjust? Will his presence merely be positive when he’s there, or will the challenge of having to flip-flop between having him and not having him be too much inconsistency to allow for a steady rhythm? 

If Irving were to play every game in which he’s eligible for the rest of the season, the Nets will have him for 22 games and only for more than three straight games twice. Once they get to the postseason, again, Irving only being able to play road games is a big hinderance to Brooklyn’s title hopes. 

There’s been no official word yet, but indications are Thompson could be making his return to the Warriors when they host Cleveland on Sunday. This is going to be one raucous scene in the Bay, where Thompson — who hasn’t played in an NBA game in over two-and-a-half calendar years — is wildly popular. 

This is really a rich getting richer situation for a Golden State team that has the best record in the league. The Warriors are already operating a near neutral level in non-Curry minutes (which is a big win); moving Jordan Poole to the sixth man and playing Klay when Curry rests can only help that number even more. 

If you want to nitpick, the Warriors are quietly just the 19th-ranked offense since Dec. 1. Curry is struggling with his shot and has been being hounded by multiple defenders all season. Since Dec. 1, Curry is shooting under 40 percent from the field and just 36 percent from 3, and even that number is being propped up by a few big games. 

Thompson should ease some of that stress on Curry. No longer can teams double and triple team without running the risk of leaving one of greatest shooters ever with an open look. Even if Thompson isn’t hitting a bunch of shots at the start (which I think he will), just having the extra spacer is going to make all of the Warriors’ movement and cutting actions even more impossible to guard. 

Right now, I’m not sure I would call the Warriors the clear title favorite. This is not an unbeatable team by any stretch, especially if Curry somehow lands in another one of these shooting funks in the wrong postseason series. But with Thompson back, assuming he’ll be pretty close to the same player he was before the injuries, Golden State, to me, definitely becomes the team to beat. 

A little over a week ago, Morant scored the game-winning bucket against the Phoenix Suns with this hanging, double-clutch finish on the left side.

On Tuesday, Morant hit the Cavs with a nearly identical game-winning bucket from the right side. 

Memphis, which sits at No. 4 in the Western Conference, has won six straight, and over that span Morant is averaging 30.6 points on 61-percent 3-point shooting (14 for 23). Last Wednesday, Morant hung 41 on the Lakers. On Monday, he came out on fire in the first quarter en route to 36 points against the Nets. 

Young has scored at least 25 points in 16 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the league this season. On Monday, he went nuts for a career-high 56 against the Blazers, adding 14 assists to join some pretty elite company. 

Somehow the Hawks, who register as the 27th-ranked defense and have the East’s fourth-worst record, still lost this game, giving up 136 points to an offense operating without Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. 

On Tuesday, Atlanta GM Travis Schlenk strongly hinted that changes could be coming before the trade deadline. 

Young is no help with the porous defense, which registers in the 13th percentile when he’s on the court, per CTG, but he is playing perhaps better than any point guard not named Stephen Curry on the offensive end this season. Young is shooting a career high 37 percent from 3 and is back to getting to the free-throw line north of eight time per game since Dec. 1. 

Embiid, who was voted the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for December, has scored 30-plus in six of his last seven games and the Sixers have won four straight. He is doing everything. On Monday, Embiid posted the third triple-double of his career with 31 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists against the Rockets. 

The Sixers are 20-16 with a a basically neutral plus-0.7 point differential. Translation: they play in a lot of close games. With a razor-thin margin down the stretch, Embiid is making the difference with 96 points — on 52 percent shooting, including 46 percent from 3 — in clutch situations (when a game is within five points with five minutes or fewer to play), which leads the league by a mile. 

Second only to Embiid in total clutch scoring, DeRozan furthered his fringe MVP case by becoming the first player in history to hit a buzzer-beating game-winner on consecutive days. 

First against Indiana on New Year’s Eve:

Then against Washington on New Year’s Day:

DeRozan makes more pull-up jumpers than anyone in the league, 5.7 per game, with a higher effective field-goal percentage on such shots than Kevin Durant. If he gets to his midrange spots, which he almost always does, forget about it. The Bulls have won eight straight and own the best record in the Eastern Conference. 

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