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. This column will run every week through the end of the regular season.
In his long-awaited Warriors debut against the Clippers last Friday, after nearly spending a full year recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, — scoring 14 points in 15 minutes, on 3-of-4 shooting from three, to go with six boards, three assists and a block.
Cousins followed that up with eight points, nine boards and five assists against the Lakers on Monday. People ask: How does Cousins change the Warriors? He doesn’t change them. That’s the key. If Golden State was prioritizing Cousins’ touches on the block at the cost of their pace, that would be one thing. But true to Steve Kerr’s word, the Warriors aren’t slowing down for the big man. They’re doing what they do, running and gunning, same sets, only now they have an extra floor spacer as Cousins is a legit 3-point shooter, not to mention a terrific passer through which they can run many of their half-court actions, notably in the high post. He hit Curry for a backdoor layup, and Iguodala on a lightning-quick skip pass for a three, in his first game back. There will be more of this to come.
Add all this up, and though it’s a tiny sample size the Warriors are an incredible plus-45 in Cousins’ 36 minutes so far. Look at what he’s doing with the starters — taking the place of Andre Iguodala to round out a bigger version of the Warriors’ vaunted Death lineup:
Before Cousins, the Warriors were starting two non-shooters in Draymond Green and Kevin Looney. Trimming that “liability” — that word is admittedly a stretch for a team that employs probably the three best shooters in the world — to only one player, Green, that the defense can sag off makes the spacing situation nearly impossible to cover for defenses. And as soon as they start switching all those actions to stay with the shooters, the Warriors can now batter teams in the post with Cousins when a small inevitably end up on him — a true big man star is the one luxury they haven’t had during this four-year run.
Cousins doesn’t yet look ready to go get one-on-one baskets on a consistent basis. He’s lumbering some in traffic. But he is going to see more single coverage than he’s ever seen in his life, and once he gets his feet under him, he’s going to feast. Out on the perimeter he looks smooth as part of the Warriors’ movement; he’s not holding the ball when before he may have back his guy down, opting to keep things moving and relocating; and and his shooting — the one thing he was able to work on for much of his recovery — looks pure.
Early indications suggest Cousins could well be back to an All-Star caliber by the playoffs, and all I keep thinking is: The Warriors got him for $5.7 million. The Lakers nearly paid as much for Lance Stephenson, and nearly twice as much for Rajon Rondo. You put Cousins, at even 80 percent of his full self, next to LeBron James and you have arguably the second best team in the West with a legit matchup advantage over Golden State in the post.
Now it’s Golden State that can match up with opposing centers in a way that used to stretch them having to play Green at the five more than they’d like. Nikola Jokic in Denver, Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic and Houston’s Clint Capela have both had big games against Golden State this year, in a potential Finals matchup they could see Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas or Philly’s Joel Embiid. With Cousins in the middle, just on size alone, Green will be free to roam as a safety defender making impromptu switches and doubles and just causing general chaos with his ball pressure.
Yeah, this seems to be working out pretty well for Golden State.
Thompson went on one of his shooting binges on Monday night against the Lakers, making his first 10 3-pointers — tying Ty Lawsons’s NBA record from 2011 — en route to 44 points on 10-of-11 from three and 17-of-20 shooting overall. He played just 27 minutes. Klay has been known to go on these runs, and when he does, there isn’t a better shooter in the world, and that includes Stephen Curry. But they are fewer and farther between than Curry’s flame-throwing spells, and are thus more celebrated– particularly by Thompson’s teammates, who were going out fo their way, as usual when he’s cooing like this, to get him the ball in position to launch.
Is there a prettier thing in basketball than this jumper?
Thompson’s cold streak to start the season was well chronicled, but his sizzling run over the last few weeks has gone less noticed. Entering Wednesday, Thompson is averaging 26 points on 52-percent 3-point shooting over his last 11 games. Not coincidentally, the Warriors have won 10 of those 11 games. Thompson is as consistent a barometer as there is on the Warriors; you pretty much know what you’re going to get from Curry and Durant, but when Thompson gets going, that’s when the Warriors simply spread you too thin to deal with. Want proof? Thompson has shot better than 40 percent from 3-point land in 21 games this season, and the Warriors are 19-2 in those games.
On Monday, Harden scored 37 against Philly on 6-of-13 from three and it’s hardly worth mentioning. Dude has scored 30 or more in 20 straight games. He’s averaging 42.2 points over that stretch. He leads the league with 35.7 points per game for the year. Prior to Monday, he’d scored 57, 58 and 48 in his previous three games. Seriously, what else can be said about the scoring binge Harden is laying down?
Problem is, it’s still not enough as the Rockets become more and more hobbled — now Clint Capela is out in addition to Chris Paul, who is, at least, expected back soon. Since beating Golden State on January 3rd, the Rockets have lost five of their last nine, and three of those losses have been to the Sixers, Bucks and Blazers. They did beat the Nuggets, but for the most part, the Rockets are simply treading water against bad teams and falling short against the good ones.
Don’t read anything into it other than the obvious: Houston is missing two of its best three players. The Warriors went 5-6 over an 11-game stretch when Steph Curry was sidelined. The Lakers are 5-9 without LeBron. What Harden is doing is miraculous in simply keeping the Rockets afloat until they get healthy, but you have to wonder: How far can Houston take the math game? The strategy is simple: Shoot more threes than your opponent. But as other teams continue to shoot more and more from deep, just how far can the Rockets go to maintain their math advantage? They’ve already hoisted 70 3-pointers in a single game. How far can this go and still add up?
Since Irving called out his teammates multiple times over a period of about a week, then apologized, he has been in quite a giving mood with 43 assists over his last four games entering Wednesday — including a career-high 18 dimes in perhaps Boston’s best win of the year over Toronto last Wednesday. Check his most recent week of action:
Say what you want about the way Kyrie has been trying to, shall we say, motivate his teammates. Leadership isn’t some switch you just turn on and off, and perhaps he’s not as natural at that as he is just playing basketball. He’s trying. And the bottom line is this: Irving has been sensational all season long on the court. From day one he has gone out of his way to make sure Boston’s bevy of offensive options get their touches. Perhaps he went a little too far with that to start the year at the cost of his own offensive rhythm, but he’s long found the balance and when Boston is humming, they’re a championship threat.
Here’s a dime for your time:
You can call Luka Doncic a forward all you want on the lineup card, but to the degree that positions still matter, he’s a point guard. Rick Carlisle has said as much. The ball needs to be in the hands of Doncic, who is such a unique player with handles and creativity like that at 6-foot-8. We know about his step-back 3-pointers. He’s fine off the ball, and the Mavericks move so much on offense that he ends up initiating plenty of actions anyway.
But that’s sort of the point, pun intended. You can just give Doncic the ball in the first place, permanently, officially, and perhaps get some nice value for Smith on the trade market while you’re at it. There is only so long you can watch Luka make plays like the one above and still try to force the ball into another point guard’s hands. Smith is shooting better. He’s settled down a bit with his shot selection and decisions. He’s one of the best athletes in the league and was the No. 9 overall pick just two years ago. There aren’t many teams that need to sell out for a point guard, but the ones that do should be interested in Smith for a reasonable price. Dallas knows this.
Russell was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 28 points and seven assists on 53-percent shooting — including an identical 53 percent from 3-point land — in leading the Nets to three straight wins over Boston, Houston and Orlando. Brooklyn made it four straight with a wild win over Sacramento on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Russell was fantastic in that one, too, posting 31 points and eight assists on 7-of-14 shooting from three.
If there is one thing to pick at about this stretch, and Russell’s season overall, it’s that he continues to be a pretty tentative finisher at the rim, even soft to a degree, preferring to pull up short and from mid-range. Russell posted 71 points over his previous two games but hasn’t shot a single free throw in his last three entering Wednesday. Not one.
Still, you can hardly knock the way Russell is playing. He’s averaging 19 points and just under seven assists for the season and is shooting almost 38 percent from three. Since midway through December, he’s at 22 points per game on better than 40 percent from three. He makes some sensational passes, and his pace is really good right now. He’s never been an overly urgent, rushed player, perhaps just the opposite, but he’s really taking on double teams in traffic, and away from the basket, and keeping his dribble alive until the play opens up like a real pro. This is the best Russell has ever played, and the Nets have a big-time decision to make this offseason as he’ll be in line for a big payday.
The Nets can get in the neighborhood of $68 million of cap space if they renounce Russell, who has over a $20 million cap hold. It would be surprising if they did that as I would assume they’ll at least want to option to match offers on him. But if someone goes near a max deal, do the Nets value Russell that much? Do they even trust what they’ve seen this year enough to give him, say $15 million a year for four years? He’s definitely worth that at this rate, but the Nets also figure to be a major player for big-time free agents. How long can they delay a decision on Russell while they wait for someone better to ask them to the dance? This will be a very interesting offseason for a team, and player, that has suddenly become very interesting in their own right.