Wednesday, July 24, 2024

NBA Star Power Index: Chris Paul likely won’t win MVP, but is there a more valuable player in the league?

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 Phoenix Suns have lost two games since the start of January. That calculates to 20 wins in 22 games and the possibility of a 65-win season looks downright likely. We talk about what LeBron James is doing at his age, but Chris Paul has proved equally defiant of Father Time. 

Paul, 36, leads the league in assists at 10.8 per game. He boasts as many 19-assist games in the past two weeks — two — as he’s had single-assist games in the past month. He served up 14 dimes in Phoenix’s win over the Clippers on Tuesday, and his season-long clutch-minute mastery continued. Paul broke a 90-90 tie with a 3-pointer just as the clock dipped under five minutes. 

Next possession: Paul casually pulls two defenders with him as he crosses the paint to open up a backside lob to DeAndre Ayton, who was the recipient of nine Paul presents on Tuesday. 

Next possession: Paul to Booker.

A little over a minute later Paul, going left, finished a delicate push-shot off the glass with his right. Then he sealed the game with 40 seconds left by luring Robert Covington, the short-corner defender, just a few steps in his direction with the threat of his step-back jumper, which left Mikal Bridges open in the corner for the coffin closer. 

Paul isn’t going to win the MVP award, but I’m not sure there’s a more valuable player to his team in the league right now. Booker is the young star, but the identity of this team, the poise, the execution, the winning energy, is a direct reflection of Paul’s influence. He remains one of the most skilled players in the world, expertly versed in the nuances of space and pace. He is going to get where he wants to go, and in that certainty lies the openings Phoenix is constantly leveraging. 

To state the obvious, Chris Paul isn’t even close done. In a way, it feels like he and the Suns are just getting started. 

During his Philadelphia introductory press conference on Tuesday, Harden admitted that the Sixers were his preferred team when he forced his way out of Houston last January. It took him an extra year and another reputation-sullying sellout job to get there, but hey, he got his way. No more Nets for Harden. 

On Tuesday, Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer released a wide-ranging report detailing Harden’s final chapter in Brooklyn, in which the growing animosity between Harden and Durant was described by a source as a “cold war” that “made everyone miserable.” 

Who knew Durant, or any teammate for that matter, would take issue with a disengaged star giving half effort and breaking off from the team to hit the clubs in Vegas and Houston before taking his own flight to rejoin the team in another city, showing up at halftime of games in which he wasn’t playing. 

From Fischer:

Until the week of the deadline, Harden maintained his commitment to Brooklyn in conversations with Nets staffers, sources said. But he began distancing himself from the team with a similar pattern to how he forced a trade from the Rockets.

After posting an emphatic 37-point triple-double on 13-of-24 shooting at the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 21, Harden left the team for Houston and a night of clubbing, B/R has learned. He rejoined the traveling party in Minnesota for a Jan. 23 game against the Timberwolves and scored just 13 points on 13 attempts.

Harden played against the Phoenix Suns in primetime Feb. 1, but that next night in Sacramento—which proved to be his final game in a Nets uniform—it became obvious to Brooklyn staffers that he was offering minimal effort, even less than he had in that subpar performance in Minnesota. He took just 11 shots and had more turnovers (six) than points (four).

When the Nets arrived in Utah for their fourth game of a five-game trip, members of the traveling party were openly discussing their desire to swap Harden for Simmons.

Harden didn’t arrive at the Jazz game until halftime, sources told B/R. When it concluded and Brooklyn continued with its planned itinerary to Denver, Harden flew to Las Vegas, sources said.

When asked to confirm the account, one person close to Harden chuckled before responding, “That sure sounds like James, doesn’t it?”

The short flight from Salt Lake City has made for frequent Vegas getaways for Harden dating back to his Rockets tenure, sources said. He would also stay behind following trips to Los Angeles and meet the team at its next destination.

By all accounts, Durant maintained that faith as long as he could. “Kevin always had a hope that this situation could get better,” one source close to Harden said.

That is until Harden finally voiced what he’d been telling confidants for some time. He wanted to be traded to Philadelphia. He arrived on the Nets bench well past tipoff for the Boston Celtics game that Tuesday. Harden left Brooklyn on Wednesday and retreated to his old stomping grounds in Houston once more. While Durant and management labored over the Nets’ impending conversations with the 76ers, Harden stepped into another night of clubbing.

“He knew [the trade] was gonna go down,” the source close to Harden said.

These retrospective reports always trickle out in the aftermath of dramatic divorces. This one isn’t surprising. Harden has shown he will do whatever he has to do to get his way, even at the expense of his teammates and the teams paying him tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. But hey, it’s fun for us. The Sixers are a real contender now and the Nets are way more interesting with Simmons. The Eastern Conference playoffs are going to be a thrill ride. 

Doncic went berserk against the Clippers last Thursday, scoring a career-high 51 points to tie Dirk Nowitzki for the highest output in Mavericks history (Dirk needed overtime for his 51). Doncic exploded out of the starting block with 28 first-quarter points. 

Two nights later, Doncic hung 45 on the same Clippers. The man ruthlessly tortures that franchise. Dallas has won five of its last six and sits at No. 5 in the West, three losses clear of the play-in tournament. 

Giannis put 50 points and 14 rebounds, on 17-of-21 shooting, on the Pacers on Tuesday. 

I’ll say that again. 50 points on 21 shots. Silly. 

The Bucks are up to No. 3 in the East, just two games back of the No. 1 spot. They are 24-6 when Giannis, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday play together. 

DeRozan just isn’t slowing down. The man has now scored at least 35 points on at least 50-percent shooting in six straight games. The last guy to do that was Wilt Chamberlain in 1963, and suffice it to say, Chamberlain wasn’t living on a diet of midrange jumpers. 

DeRozan has kept the Bulls afloat as they’ve been without Lonzo Ball for the past month and Alex Caruso for the past three weeks, with a two-week Zach LaVine absence sprinkled in there. Chicago has played exactly .500 ball over their last 22 games but it built enough of a cushion early in the season to keep its place in the standings — tied with Miami for the No. 1 spot in the East.

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