Thursday, July 18, 2024

NBA Star Power Index: Why Chet Holmgren has slight edge over Victor Wembanyama so far, Stephen Curry on heater

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. 

Wembanyama hasn’t been the best rookie; that early designation, for my money belongs to Chet Holmgren, whom we’ll get to later. That doesn’t mean Wembanyama hasn’t been sensational to start his NBA career, and he’s certainly generated more buzz than Holmgren or probably anyone else in the league thus far. 

Through seven games, Wemby is averaging 19.4 points. 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.3 steals per game on 46/32/75 shooting splits (57% true shooting). He already looks like a DPOY candidate; his 18 total blocked shots are second only to Anthony Davis’ 23, and he’s probably discouraged at least that many other shots. 

Wemby’s early signature performance was the 38 points he put on the Phoenix Suns as the Spurs got the win. He was off the charts, particularly in crunch time, in upstaging Kevin Durant in just his fifth NBA game. 

Curry, even by his standards, has started the season on a crazy heater as the first player in NBA history to make at least four 3-pointers in his first eight games of the season. The previous record was seven straight. Curry owned that mark as well. 

Curry, at just under 31 points per game, leads the league in total points and total 3-pointers on 53/47/91 shooting splits, which equates to a preposterous 73.0 true-shooting percentage (his career high for a full season is 67.5). His 86% finishing rate at the rim and his 148.8 points per 100 shots attempts, both per Cleaning the Glass, are actually laughable. 

Curry is carrying a massive scoring load for the Warriors, who haven’t had a single other player score more than 20 points in a game. The 14.3-point gap between Curry’s 30.9 PPG and the Warriors’ second-leading scorer (Klay Thompson, 16.6 PPG) is the biggest scoring discrepancy on any team with better than a .500 record. 

It comes as no surprises, then, that Curry is the first player age 35 or older in NBA history to lead his team in scoring in each of the first eight games of a season. Curry already has four games with 30 or more, two with 40 or more, and one game-winner.

I love this observation from our Colin Ward-Henninger, who details the subtle and unselfish cut that Curry made to open up a game-winning shot for Klay Thompson. 

James Harden got his way. Again. He was traded to the Clippers, who were sort of spanked by the Knicks in Harden’s debut. Harden played pretty well: 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting. He didn’t control much of the offense, but when he did we saw flashes of the things he can still do at an elite level, namely playmaking. 

Harden, who of course sees “unlimited possibilities” with the Clippers, as he did with the Nets, and the Sixers, before he got sick of them — feasted in the mid-range (still a strange sight, though he’s done more of it in recent years) and hit a couple 3s. But here’s something to chew on: 15 of Harden’s 17 points came with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook all on the bench, and the other two came with Leonard out. 

In other words, there is still no telling how Harden is going to fit and/or produce alongside the other stars when he isn’t controlling the entire offense. Or will he control the offense? We know he will deliver some nifty passes and make his share of 3s, but overall, is he willing to become a catch-and-shoot guy some parts of the game if he can’t, in his words, just be the system? 

Even though his catch-and-shoot 3-point percentages look good, Harden has become increasingly hesitant to shoot this way over recent years; my theory is he has literally gotten so used to shooting off the dribble that the muscle memory to just catch it and shoot it, without putting the ball on the floor at least once to trigger what has become his natural mechanical rhythm, has all but disappeared. 

Watch below as Harden has a wide-open catch-and-shoot but instinctively makes it a more difficult shot by putting it on the floor and side-stepping for a 3 (then, for good measure, he gets beat by Julius Randle on the other end, forcing Ivica Zubac up to cover for him, leading to a lob dunk for Mitchell Robinson).

A signature Dame Time performance in the opener notwithstanding, it’s been a relatively rocky start for Lillard in Milwaukee. He’s been a major defensive drag, and his shooting only recently ticked above 40% overall and 30% from 3. 

Milwaukee has since reverted back the defensive drop coverage, with Brook Lopez hanging sagging much deeper in the paint, that was a staple under Mike Budenholzer and it has delivered them consecutive wins. That’s the defense that was supposed to cover for Lillard, who is inevitably going to get going offensively. 

He had 30 against the Knicks last Friday. It won’t be long before we’re seeing a lot more of this:

Edwards is playing at an MVP level in the early going. On Monday, he hung 38 points on Boston, including eight in overtime, and the Wolves, after a shaky start, improved to 4-2 by handing the Celtics their first loss of the season. 

Edwards is averaging better than 28 PPG on elite 53/47/82 shooting splits. That 47% from 3, even if it’s not going to stay that high, on six attempts per game is a massive development in his game, as is the 54% he’s shooting from the long midrange (the most inefficient shot on the court, and a Edwards bugaboo in years past), per CTG. 

On top of this, Edwards is fast becoming an impact playmaker:

And a rabid defender …

If Doncic continues to make anywhere near 40% of his 3s (he’s over 41% on almost 11 attempts per game to start the year) he’s going to become officially unstoppable. Doncic, the league’s third-leading scorer, put on one of the early season’s best shows with 49 points in a thrilling win over Brooklyn. 

In that game, the Mavericks, who have jumped out to a 6-1 record and are playing a faster pace than we’ve come to expect from a Doncic-led team, trailed by five with three minutes remaining. Then Luka decided to knock down four consecutive 3-pointers, with the capper being an impossible bank shot while he was nearly falling out of bounds that proved to be the game-winner. 

One player in the league is averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. You guessed it: The Joker. And his numbers (28.4/12.9/8.4) are way better than those filtered baselines. 

The guy is making 63% of his shots, and the Nuggets look like, well, a defending champion that has been playing basketball together for years. A proverbial well-oiled machine. So far, with some new names on the bench, they’re even surviving the non-Jokic minutes, which was the only hope of beating them last year. 

Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports did a great job of illustrating Jokic’s mastery over every element of Denver’s offense:

Tatum has hit the 30-point mark in five of Boston’s first six games on top-end efficiency. Over the weekend, Tatum became just the 16th player in history, and the 10th youngest, to score 10,000 career points by the age of 25 — and he’s the first 25-or-under player to add 3,000 rebounds and 1,000 made 3s to that ledger. 

Pretty good company here:

See the tweet above: You might not think Maxey’s name belongs on a list with the likes of Curry, PG, Jokic, Donovan Mitchell and Tatum, but based on the way he’s playing to start this season, it does. 

While Joel Embiid is back to doing MVP things (tied with Mitchell for the league’s scoring lead). Maxey is the one getting more of the early season buzz for the way he’s not only stepped in as Philly’s lead guard in place of James Harden, but actually looked like an upgrade in Nick Nurse’s more inclusive and decisive up-tempo half-court attack. 

Maxey is averaging 25 points and seven assists on 50/44/93 shooting splits. He’s a better 3-point shooter than Harden ever was, and when you have to respect the shot to that degree his downhill speed is almost indefensible — especially as Nurse has made a priority of getting Maxey the ball on the move with a ton of dribble handoffs. 

I saved my favorite for last. Holmgren hasn’t gotten nearly the buzz he would be getting in any other Rookie of the Year race because of our collective, and understandable, fascination with Wembanyama, but he has actually been better, if only slightly, than Wemby. 

As you can see, Wemby is scoring a touch more but at a significantly less efficient rate. I’m firmly in the camp the believes Wemby is already a DPOY contender, but Holmgren is, too. 

Holmgren, at just 7-foot-1 with just a 7-6 wingspan (not quite Wemby’s 7-foot-4 and 8-0 marks), doesn’t deter drivers with quite the same level of intimidation, but he’s already a master rim protector who has logged a seven-block game and mastered the most important rule of shot-blocking

Offensively, Holmgren is doing it all. He’s not a great shooter spot-up for a big guy; he’s a great shooter for any size: 56/54/90 shooting splits on almost four 3-point attempts per game. That’s what has separated him from Wemby so far. The guy makes damn near everything.

And he’s got a lot of the same fluidity and and ball skills that we fawn over with Wemby. He can put it on the floor and create. He has superb footwork. He can grab rebounds and go without any assistance. He sees the floor. Let me tell you, if Wembanyama had made this pass — on the run, with his left hand — the Internet would’ve spontaneously combusted. 

It’s close, and there’s obviously a long way to go, but right now, Holmgren, over Wembanyama, would be my Rookie of the Year as a key part of a rally good Thunder team. 

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