Welcome back to the NBA Star Power 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.
When Chris Paul suffered what was deemed a right shoulder contusion in Game 1 of the Phoenix Suns’ first-round series vs. LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, just about everyone thought that was the end of the Suns as the worst-possible-time injury bug had stung the Point God again.
The Suns picked up their leader by staying alive long enough for Paul to return to what appears to be full health, or something pretty close to it, defeating the Lakers in six games before jumping out to a 2-0 lead on the Denver Nuggets with a convincing Game 2 victory Wednesday night in which Paul was absolutely brilliant with 17 points and 15 assists.
Paul, who is now the only player in NBA history to record a 15-assist, zero-turnover postseason game with three different franchises, has now tallied 38 assists against two turnovers over his last three playoff games. One of the clearest signs that Paul is back to his normal self is that he’s taking, and making, effort-free 3-pointers. He was not able to do this a few weeks ago:
Through seven playoff games, Kevin Durant is averaging 32 points on 55 percent shooting, which is the second-highest field-goal percentage among all postseason players (minimum 100 attempts) behind only Kawhi Leonard.
Brooklyn skunked Milwaukee in Game 2 to take command of that series. Durant went for 32 points and six assists. He shot 12 of 18 from the field and 4 of 6 from 3. There is literally no defense for this guy. Per StatMuse, 90 percent of Durant’s 3-pointers this postseason have been contested (highest mark among all players), and he’s still shooting 50 percent on over five attempts per game.
The skill, and the release point, are just too high:
But it’s not just the offense. Everyone wanted to know how the Nets were going to hold up defensively in the postseason, and they are looking better every game. Giannis Antetokounmpo is hitting his proverbial wall again, and Durant is a large part of that. He’s averaging two blocks per game — a postseason career high — and he’s on point with his rotations.
I love this play below. The Nets neglect Giannis for a split second and it appears he has a runway for a cut to the basket. He catches the ball on the move and Durant, who was initially tracking Brook Lopez down toward the baseline, quickly jumps up to cut Giannis off, then holds strong on Giannis’ second penetration attempt before forcing him into a one-foot fallaway:
We know the Nets can score a zillion points. But defense like that is how they’re going to win a championship. For his play on both ends, Durant is back to having a legit case as the best player in the world.
Mitchell erupted for 45 points (32 in the second half) in Utah’s Game 1 victory over the Clippers. Our Sam Quinn detailed how Mitchell mercilessly switch-hunted the Clips, waiting for the matchup he desired before putting the pedal down. It’s something the Clippers could stand to do a lot more of themselves. Too often, the Clippers just settle for whatever matchup they happen to find themselves in and go into random pull-up jumpers.
Back to Mitchell, who is quickly becoming one of the more bankable playoff performers in the league. He’s been doing it since he was a rookie. He averaged 36 a game in the bubble. He’s at 31.8 PPG so far this postseason, and look at the company in which his name now resides:
Utah, in case you haven’t noticed, is for real.
Damian Lillard is out of the postseason, but his name is still making headlines as the Trail Blazers search for a new coach. Lillard went on record that he wanted Jason Kidd, who promptly removed his name from consideration. The reasons for Kidd doing that are not exactly clear, but I would posit that he knows there’s a chance Lillard might not be long for Portland.
Which is the other part of Lillard’s headline making. Is he going to be traded? Blazers general manager Neil Olshey refused to even answer the question as to whether Portland might consider hitting the reset button and dealing Lillard, but Lillard has yet to demand anything. If he does, everything changes despite the fact that he is under contract with the Blazers through 2024.
Remember, James Harden was locked up for two more seasons (with a player option on a third) in Houston, and when he wanted out from a franchise that had appeared to have hit its ceiling, he got out. Nobody’s saying Lillard is going to do that; he’s been as committed to the local cause as any superstar in sports.
But Portland’s options for getting meaningfully better are minimal. They don’t have any cap space. They don’t have any young players anyone is going to be particularly interested in. Trading CJ McCollum is probably the only immediate route, and even his $100 million contract is reportedly seen as having negative value around the league. If the Blazers are indeed stuck where they stand, how long will Lillard remain patient?
Nikola Jokic was officially named the league’s MVP on Tuesday night, becoming the third European-born player to win the award (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dirk Nowitzki were the other two). Jokic was spectacular this season, and he just led the Nuggets past the Blazers despite his wingman, Jamal Murray, being out for the season.
Jokic already has a case as the greatest value draft pick in history. He was taken 41st overall in 2014 — by far the lowest slot a future MVP has gone (Steve Nash and Antetokounmpo, both of whom went No. 15 overall, previously held that distinction).
From our Sam Quinn, who also wrote an interesting piece making the case for Jokic as the most unlikely MVP in history:
Jokic became the first player in NBA history this season to average at least 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists on better than 52 percent shooting. He made 56.6 percent of his field goals, dwarfing those who approached his raw numbers. His 8.3 assists per game just barely missed Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 8.6 for most by a center in a season, and he came only three 3-pointers and 13 free throws away from becoming the first center ever to join the 50-40-90 club. He did all of it without missing a single regular-season game.