Sunday, July 21, 2024

NBA Star Power Index: LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving drop 50-pieces; Russell Westbrook feeling heat

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. 

LeBron James turned on the thrusters against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, scoring 56 points, his highest output since joining the Los Angeles Lakers, in a much-needed victory. The good times didn’t last long. LeBron sat out the Lakers’ loss against the Spurs on Monday with a sore knee, and indeed it is the Spurs that represent the biggest threat to the Lakers missing the play-in series altogether. 

That San Antonio victory tied the Spurs-Lakers season series at 2-2. Neither team is going to be a division winner. Meaning the next tiebreaker is conference record, and at the moment San Antonio has a better one than L.A. Which is to say, if the Spurs somehow catch the Lakers (it’s not likely at four games back with 17 to play), they would have the tiebreaker as of right now. 

Kyrie Irving reminded everyone why teams continue to put up with the headaches he creates with 50 points in the Brooklyn Nets‘ victory over the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday. The most amazing part? He only needed 19 shots. He made 15 of them, including 9 of 12 from 3. Throw in 11 free throws in 13 attempts, and that’s what you call a highly efficient showing. Irving made a little history while he was at it. 

Speaking of 50-pieces, Jayson Tatum put 54 on the Nets on Sunday, hitting 8 of his 15 3-pointers and getting to the free-throw line 17 times, making 14. Tatum has been so much more decisive as the Celtics have gotten it rolling. Quicker decisions. More straight-line drives and fewer side-to-side jigs for contested pull-ups. 

The Celtics have won 16 of their last 19 games and are now projected to finish as a top-four seed in the East. We know Boston can play defense, but to compete for a conference crown they’re going to have to score with the big boys, and Tatum is the reason they have legitimate reason to believe they can. 

Joel Embiid is starting to feel like the somewhat clear MVP favorite, though you can bet this season’s voting is going to be all over the map. Embiid put up 43 points and 14 rebounds in a win over Chicago on Monday. 

The big man is averaging 30.8 points since James Harden arrived, and the Sixers are beating opponents by an astounding 29.4 points per 100 possessions when those two share the floor. 

Russell Westbrook’s Los Angeles homecoming has been something of a nightmare. He’s had an awful season for the Lakers, who are the most disappointing team in basketball in large part because of Westbrook’s shortcomings. He’s not the whole reason, but he’s at least central to the issues. 

Lakers fans have turned on him, and on Monday Westbrook’s wife, Nina, posted a thread of tweets calling out the media for what she feels is the “pejorative” slandering of her husband’s name, a clear nod to the mocking “Westbrick” moniker that is favored by a certain TV talking head and is trending just about every night the Lakers play. 

Nina went on to highlight the difference between criticism and childish name-calling, noting the “unwarranted hate and negativity” that her husband receives while revealing the obscenities and even death threats to which she, and others in her family, have been subjected.

After the Lakers’ loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, Westbrook was asked about his wife’s comments from earlier in the day. His answer, which ran some four minutes long, was pretty heartbreaking, and it deserves to be heard and considered by everyone, especially the people — myself included — who do what I do for a living. This was as honest and vulnerable as you’ll ever hear the normally prickly Westbrook being with the media.

Here’s the transcript of his comments followed by the video. 

“For one, I one-hundred percent stand behind my wife and how she’s feeling because it’s not just about this year,” Westbrook said. “Right now, she’s reached a point and my family has reached a point to where it’s really weighing on them. And it’s very unfortunate just for me personally because this is just a game. This is not the end-all, be-all. When it comes to basketball I don’t mind the criticism of missing and making shots, but the moment it becomes where my name is getting shamed it becomes an issue. 

“I’ve kind of let it go in the past just because it never really bothered me, but it really kind of hit me the other day honestly,” Westbrook continued. “My wife and I were at a teacher-parent conference for my son, and the teacher told me: ‘Noah, he’s so proud of his last name. He writes it everywhere, he writes it on everything, he tells everybody, he walks around and says ‘I’m Westbrook,’ that’s his last name. And I kind of sat there in shock, and it kind of hit me, like damn. I can no longer allow people — for example, Westbrick, to me is now shaming, like it’s shaming my name, my legacy for my kids. It’s a name that means more not just to me, but to my wife, my mom, my dad. The ones that kind of paved the way for me. And that’s just one example. It kind of hit myself and my wife in a place where it’s not great, man. And I think a lot of times I let it slide, but it’s now time to put a stop to that and put it on notice. Like, there’s a difference [between criticism and name-shaming] , and we need to make sure that it’s understood. And every time I do hear it now I will make sure that I address it and make sure that I nip that in the bud.

“I’ve been blessed, and I’m super thankful for the ones around me and the ones that support me. But it’s really the shaming of my name, the shaming of my character, the shaming of who I am as a person, to me is not warranted. I haven’t done anything to anybody. I haven’t hurt anyone. I haven’t done anything but play basketball a way that people may not like. And this is just a game. This is not my entire life. I don’t like to harp on it, it’s kind of just in one ear out the other, but once it starts affecting my family, my wife, even today, my mom said something about it today. It affects them even going to games. I don’t even want to bring my kids to the game because I don’t want them to hear people calling their dad nicknames and other names for no reason, because he’s playing the game that he loves. It’s gotten so bad where my family doesn’t even want to go to home games, any game, because of the media across the globe using their platform to constantly shame, shame, shame me. It’s just super unfortunate. And it’s super upsetting to me. I’m at a point where I’m going to continue to address it. It’s just unfortunate.” 

Earlier this week, I laid out my feelings, for whatever they’re worth, on this situation. They haven’t changed. So here they are again. 

To me, there’s a pretty clear line here and it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is crossing it. I’ve been as critical of Westbrook the basketball player as the next writer, and there’s no problem with that. He’s getting paid hundreds of millions of dollars to play great basketball and it’s the nature of the profession chose to be held accountable for falling short of that standard. 

I would also add that Westbrook has never exactly been a gentleman with the media. He’s been outright rude and dismissive for much of his career, to be frank. Respect goes both ways. And people tend to treat you the way you treat them. 

That said, Westbrook is obviously right: When it starts affecting his family, it’s way over the line. Death threats? Obscenities being screamed at his wife? What is wrong with people? Westbrook has had altercations with fans on multiple occasions, and I’m all for fans being held accountable when they decide to play tough guy because they know Westbrook can’t do anything about it. These people would never say some of these things to Westbrook’s face if they knew they’d actually have to answer for them. Cowards. That’s all they are. 

But those idiots are the exceptions. Most people criticize Westbrook the same way they criticize other players who don’t live up to the obscene amount of money they make. It’s just the way it goes. 

As far as the “Westbrick” moniker that has caught on like wild fire, I’m kind of torn on that one. I can see where Westbrook is coming from. That’s his family name. A lot of people worked hard to put honor and respect on that name, and to Russ’ credit, he’s never done anything to sully that name. He’s been a world-class athlete and a family man committed to giving back to his communities and to the less fortunate all over the world. 

But also, like, it’s just a silly play on words. Is it kind of childish? I guess. But it’s not a shot at the guy’s familial legacy. It’s a shot at one of the worst shooters in history who, for years, has continued to jack up bad shots. Personally, I don’t use the term. I find it kind of lazy, to be honest. A cliché at this point. I do think Westbrook is overreacting to that part of this, but hey, it’s his name. Not mine. I respect that. Like I said, I don’t think I’ve ever printed or even used that term, but if I have, I won’t anymore. 

To me, Westbrook’s reaction on Monday night wasn’t about any one thing. He used the “Westbrick” example, but the larger point is this guy has been taking a beating in the media for years now. He can say he never let it bother him, that it went in one ear and out the other, but his tone here suggested otherwise. He’s a human being. Too often that gets lost in all this. He has feeling and emotions and he’s entitled to all of them. 

Again, it’s not to say the criticism is unfair. I’ve dished out plenty of it myself. But you can understand how it would weigh on a man when people start going at his family. That’s where the line is. And if you’re one of the people who has crossed it, shame on you. 

On Wednesday, our NBA Insider Bill Reiter laid out why playing within LeBron James’ orbit has “ratcheted up the tension, exacerbated the nerves and weighed down on a once-great player,” and I couldn’t agree more. 

Westbrook getting hounded for being a bad shooter who takes bad shots and won’t, or can’t, adapt his game to the new realities of his diminished abilities is nothing new. What’s new is that it’s all happening alongside LeBron James. While playing for the Lakers. The magnifying glass is out. And it gets real hot under there when things are going even a little bit sideways. Let alone when the train is coming completely off the tracks. 

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