Monday, March 20, 2023

NBA Star Power Index: LeBron James has never lost this much in his career; Luka Doncic deserves more MVP buzz

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 were eliminated from play-in contention on Wednesday when they lost to the Suns. It was the 48th loss of the season for the Lakers, which is the most losses a LeBron James team has ever endured. It really is astonishing how far south this has all gone. The Lakers have endured injuries to their two best players, sure, but who hasn’t? And besides that, the Lakers haven’t even been good with LeBron on the court, just 25-31. 

LeBron had only missed the playoffs four times over his 19-year career, and half of them have come in his time with the Lakers (the other two were his first two seasons in the league). Throw in the first-round exit last season, and let’s just say that Lakers front office better be thanking its lucky stars they got that weird bubble title, because if not for that the LeBron Lakers era has been a complete disaster. 

Doncic has gone for at least 32 points in his last five games (the longest 30-point streak of his career), resulting in four wins as Dallas has moved inside the West’s top four. On Sunday, Doncic posted 32 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds in a win over Milwaukee, and over a three-minute closing stretch he put away the Bucks by specifically targeting Giannis Antetokounmpo on switches

Doncic didn’t do this because Antetokounmpo is a weak defender. Quite the opposite, he was trying to eliminate Antetokounmpo as a help defender. Doncic did the same thing to LeBron James earlier this season and had the same success. Even the best defenders in the league can’t check Doncic one-on-one, but Giannis could bother Doncic by coming over as a help defender at the last second. 

Doncic got everything he wanted over this stretch. He scored for himself. He drew fouls. He beat Giannis off the dribble and then found shooters when the help collapsed. A master class. Luka, for me, has to be a top-five MVP finisher, and you could argue he should be among the realistic candidates to win, though that’s not going to happen. 

However you slice it, he should be getting more MVP discussion. One of the core arguments on behalf of the top two candidates, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, is the lack of help they’ve had around them; go look at Dallas’ roster. There are some nice players, surely, but that is not a stacked team by any means. There isn’t anything close to a second All-Star on the squad. And yet, here Dallas is with more wins than Jokic’s Nuggets and the same amount of wins as Embiid’s Sixers. 

Do with that what you will, but it’s pretty hard to argue Doncic shouldn’t be getting more MVP love. 

Young has been cooking of late, averaging 30 points and 12 assists over his last six games. The Hawks have won five of those games, but they missed a big opportunity to tie the No. 7 Cavaliers in the loss column by falling to the Raptors on Tuesday. With three games to go, the Hawks have fallen back to the No. 9 seed, tied with the No. 8 Nets who own the tiebreaker. 

For me, one of the two most fascinating All-NBA cases is whether Young belongs on the second or third team (along with whether Jayson Tatum or Kevin Durant deserves the second first-team forward spot next to Giannis). 

For my money, Devin Booker and Luka Doncic are the first team guards. After that, Young, who leads the league in both total points and total assists, Stephen Curry and Ja Morant are all worthy of second-team selection. One of them is going to get pushed to the third team. 

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Embiid has posted a combined 89 points and 30 rebounds over his last two games, with his most recent being a 45-point showing in a win over Indiana on Tuesday to jump LeBron James as the league’s leading scorer. After racking 44 points in a win over Cleveland on Sunday, Embiid had this to say about the MVP debate. 

“If [winning MVP] happens, great,” Embiid said. “If it doesn’t, I don’t know what I have to do. I’ll feel like they hate me. I feel like the standard for guys in Philly or for me is different than everyone else.”

This is at once fair and misguided. Embiid is right to say he doesn’t know what else he can do to win MVP; it’s hard to play better than he has this season, particularly under some pretty trying circumstances through the whole Ben Simmons ordeal. 

That said, it’s also pretty hard to play any better than Nikola Jokic and/or Giannis Antetokounmpo have. If Embiid doesn’t win — which I don’t think he’s going to — it won’t be because anyone hates him or because he’s being held to some higher Philly standard, it will be because Jokic, by a razor-thin margin, was better, which I believe to be the case. 

Durant went for a career-high 55 points on Saturday. He shot 19-of-28 from the field, including 8-of-10 from 3. He had Kyrie Irving combined for 86 points … and somehow the Nets still lost to the Hawks. You aren’t going to see that very often. 

Brooklyn bounced back to beat the Rockets on Tuesday. With the Hawks and Hornets both losing, Brooklyn, by way of owning the tiebreaker over Atlanta, moves back into the No. 8 seed, where they would currently face Cleveland in the 7-8 play-in game. 

What’s more, the Nets play Cleveland, which they trail by one game, on Friday, and if they win they will own the tiebreaker, which is a long way of saying the Nets control their own destiny for the No. 7 seed. Durant, for his part, doesn’t care who the Nets face or even that they have to go through the play-in. 

These are the words of a man who knows he can beat anyone, anywhere, any time. 

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