NBA Star Index: LeBron James passing Kobe Bryant on career scoring list takes on a whole new meaning

Welcome back to the NBA Star Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week through the end of the regular season.

LeBron James passing Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA’s career scoring list was a cool moment for less than 24 hours — at which point the milestone became almost eerie in its timing. Of course, nobody knew it at the time, but LeBron passing Kobe when he did gave everyone a chance to remember Bryant the Hall of Fame icon, to honor his career and the way he went about it, while he was still alive. 

After the game in which LeBron passed Kobe, in Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia no less, he spoke about Kobe in a way no one could seem to find the words to do less than 24 hours later. 

Later that night, LeBron and Kobe reportedly shared a phone call

At some point, Kobe sent the following tweet to James:

This was all Saturday night, and by Sunday afternoon the NBA world had stopped spinning when the news broke that Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other people had died in a helicopter crash. It still feels crazy to even type those words. 

But again, the more you look back at the eerie timing of all this, the more it really does feel like a blessing that Kobe was able to be honored and thought about for not just the impact he had on the game of basketball, but on so many children and people around the world, while he was still around to hear and appreciate it. 

Shaquille O’Neal, in one of the most honest and moving tributes I’ve ever heard, admitted he’d gone a long time without talking to Kobe, and that generally speaking, like us all, he’d put talking to the people he cares about and telling them how he feels on the back burner. It’s a cliche to say you’re going to miss someone when they’re gone, but like most all cliches, it’s true. So call them. Tell them how you feel. Because you never know when it’s going to be too late. 

Had LeBron not passed Kobe on the all-time scoring list, he likely never would’ve talked to him Saturday night. But he did pass him. He did talk to him. The NBA world did reflect on Kobe the player before it lost Kobe the person. If there is some tiny slice of solace to be found in all this, perhaps it’s that. 

Williamson made his NBA debut last Wednesday. It started out like a dud, by in the fourth quarter Zion found his legs, his rhythm and his game, scoring 17 consecutive points for the Pelicans while going 4-for-4 from three over the course of one of the most electric three-minute stretches of basketball you’re likely to ever see from a rookie in his first game. 

But Zion was just getting started. Through four games, he’s averaging 18 points and eight rebounds on 63-percent shooting. He is a human mountain that can move like a big cat. His power and second-jump explosion makes him a terror when rebounding his own misses, which might legitimately become his signature scoring move: Miss, then go get his own miss before anyone else can react and score. 

Consider this stat, through Zion’s first three games, from this excellent piece by our Sam Quinn: “Williamson has missed 18 total shots. He has rebounded eight of them himself.”

Bully ball is supposed to be a middle school thing when one kid has hit puberty before everyone else. It’s not supposed to be a viable route to success in the NBA, let alone by a 19-year-old kid playing against grown men. If anything, that should be working the other way around. But Zion is a monster, man. Look at this block for crying out loud:

Listen, if you’re late to this party, there’s no Zion bandwagon to hop on. It’s a freight train. And it’s full and moving at full speed. If you’re anywhere near the tracks, you best get to stepping in the other direction. 

The 76ers have won eight of their last 11 games. During that stretch, Simmons has averaged 20.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 2.1 steals on better than 61-percent shooting. I know you’re going to try dismissing that shooting percentage by saying Simmons only shoots in the paint, which is fair and unfair at the same time. 

Yes, he’s going to shoot a higher percentage than other guard because of the proximity of his shots, but he’s also not taking any bad shots and a lot of his shots in close are pretty acrobatic, difficult finishes, oftentimes off-handed. 

For nine of those eleven games, Joel Embiid was out. Philly went 6-3 in those games with a 17-point win over the fully-loaded Lakers — a game in which Simmons posted 28 points,10 rebounds, eight assists and four steals on 12-for-15 shooting. All told, over the nine games Embiid was out, Simmons averaged 21.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game. 

We all know by this point that Simmons and Embiid are not the best fit. Embiid, in a perfect world, would have a shooter as his point guard to space the floor, and discourage digging double teams, while Simmons, in a different perfect world, would have a stretch center who plays outside the 3-point line and doesn’t clog the lane. Without Embiid, the Sixers have played faster and Simmons has been wide open in his attacks. 

Look at this play. With a big man in Al Horford, who’s a three-point threat and stretching out to the line as such, Simmons runs pick and roll with Tobias Harris, another shooter. Anthony Davis, who would normally be a rim protector, has to follow Harris to the 3-point line after the screen. No Embiid means nobody in the middle, which means this …

We know Simmons is a world-class playmaker and defender. But when you see him playing without Embiid, you see that he can also be a world-class scorer even without a jump shot. Of course, Embiid is back, and he’s a great player himself. The Sixers will continue to have to try to make it work between their two best players. 

To say Lillard’s last four games have been ridiculous would be a ridiculous understatement. The man has put up 61 points against the Warriors, 47 points against the Mavericks, 50 points against the Pacers, and, ho-hum, 36 points against the Rockets. During that stretch, he has made 54 percent of his 3-pointers, and we’re not exactly talking a low volume here. 

Even in a world where deep 3-pointers have become the norm, this casual pull-up from the logo (not near the logo, legitimately on the logo) is stupid.

Since these long-range bombs have become so take for granted in today’s game, I will continue to say this: Unless you’ve stood on and NBA court, at the logo, and looked at the basket, you have absolutely no idea how deep these shots are. These guys like Lillard and Steph Curry and Trae Young are completely bonkers with their wrist-flicking range. 

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