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.
If you’re looking for a high-stakes game of connect the dots, Kevin Durant’s got you covered. It goes like this: Knicks trade Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks, which clears enough salary to give New York room for two max contracts this summer. Kevin Durant is a free agent this summer. He has been tied to the Knicks for a long time, but in the wake of the Porzingis trade, speculation hit an all-time high, with some league insiders reportedly believing Durant to New York is all but done. The media obviously had questions, but Durant, for nine days, wasn’t interested in fielding any of them.
Yes, for nine straight days, coinciding almost directly with the Porzingis trade that sparked so many rumors of Durant’s relocation to New York, Durant avoided any and all media contact., he went guns blazing on the unfair, word-twisting media that wants to connect him to a team and story that he, in his mind, has nothing to do with.
That old saying that there are two sides to every story rings particularly true here. Yes, Durant could handle this stuff better. There is no doubt about that. You can’t keep signing short-term contracts that leave your possible departure hanging over every season and expect not to be asked about it. A lot. You can’t come to a 73-win team, on which nobody will ever be worshipped in the way sitting-hero Stephen Curry is, and expect to be the doll of the ball — even if your head-shaking talent and irreproachable accomplishments are irrefutably worthy of such.
Durant says he just wants to play basketball, then he doesn’t understand why he has to talk to the media although he knows that’s not the whole game. He’s a very smart guy. He knows if it was just about basketball he could go down to the YMCA and hoop his heart out for free. This is about entertainment. This is a Broadway show. Drama — which Durant knowingly invited when he went to Golden State in the first place, and continues to fuel with his defensive aura and woe-is-me whines — is entertainment. Entertainment is money. Durant isn’t complaining about his paycheck.
That said, we have gone so far in painting Durant as this insecure baby who resents the attention other superstars (LeBron James) and even his own teammates (Curry) get that if you didn’t know better, you’d think this guy was Terrell Owens doing sit-ups in his driveway. He has never done anything but make every team he’d been on a championship contender/favorite. He doesn’t split locker rooms. He’s an unselfish star in every imaginable way on the court. So he appears to be pretty insecure. He can be downright rude to the media, when he’s not avoiding it altogether.
Is he the only one that this can be said about?
Gregg Popovich goes beyond rude, venturing well into the disrespectful realm in his dealings with the media, but we don’t define him by those actions. He’s an all-time great coach first; his personality traits are a sideshow. We accept that one doesn’t have much of anything to do with the other. LeBron just tried to trade his whole team. He tries to get every coach he inherits fired. We talk about that stuff, but as a backdrop to the greatness of LeBron. As it should be.
With Durant, it’s almost become the opposite. We see him, talk about him and define him as an insecure, walking drama-creator first, and an all-time great player second. That is so ridiculous, but it’s true. He doesn’t give us any drama with anything he does on the court or in the locker room, at any stop at any point in his career, so we have to create some of it. It took us a year to let go of his leaving Oklahoma City because he supposedly didn’t like Russell Westbrook. When did Durant ever say that? Would you trust people who claim to know your innermost thoughts because some “source” claimed to be equally versed in reading your mind? We still use this quote Durant gave six years ago — that he’s “tired of being second” — like it remains the guiding light in his every career decision.
Tell me, what great player do you know that wants to be No. 2? Every player with even the thinnest claim to the throne claims he’s the best in the world. Anthony Davis has said it. James Harden has said it. LeBron, the only rightful one, says it all the time. Durant says he doesn’t like being No. 2, and six years later we act like he’s on an insecurity-driven crusade. Isn’t it possible that there is a nugget of truth in all these personality flaws, but it’s the constant watering of them by us that really makes them grow? In other words, do Kevin Durant’s very natural, very human characteristics encapsulate him any more than they do the rest of us? Or do his just create more buzz? And therefore generate more money?
Again, there is no doubt Durant brings a lot of this on himself. He could handle all this way better. But in reality, his not handling it better is exactly what we want. That’s the drama. That’s the money. If someone just asked him the question to which they already know the answer — “Hey, Kevin, have you already decided to join the Knicks? — and he gave them the boring, inevitable response that no, he hasn’t made up his mind about free agency, there would be nothing to it. But Durant skips out on all media. We love that. Because then we can speak for him. Connect all the dots we want. We love that drama. We need it, really. If we’re going to expect Durant to be completely honest about his role in this whole Broadway show, we have to be the same about ours.
LeBron played 43 minutes on Tuesday. He notched a triple-double with 28 points, 16 assists and 11 boards. It took all that for the Lakers to lose … to the Hawks. The Lakers have now lost four of their last five, and it would’ve been all five if not for a broken-play Rondo buzzer-beater to edge the Celtics. Hawks fans chanted “Kobe’s better” when LeBron was at the free-throw line, a strange and decidedly false taunt, but whatever. LeBron has much bigger concerns. Like making the playoffs. It’s not looking good right now.
Here’s the bare bones: To get to 50 wins, the Lakers have to go 22-3 the rest of the way. Not happening. Just to get to 47, which feels like the bare minimum to have any shot at the playoffs, they have to go 19-6. They still have to play the Bucks twice, the Rockets, the Warriors, the Celtics, the Raptors, the Thunder, the Jazz twice and the Blazers. You can do your own math. It doesn’t add up the same as it did for LeBron all those years in the East.
Damian Lillard used to be the most under-appreciated superstar in the league. George has now taken the mantle. But perhaps not for long with the way he’s playing. Markets still do matter, because if George was doing what he’s doing this season and playing for the Lakers, the MVP discussion would be a wrap. Lillard, for his part, thinks it’s getting close to that anyway.
George has just been so freaking great all season long. Check out the run he’s on:
This is to say nothing of George’s defense, which is Defensive Player of the Year worthy. Nobody challenges James Harden in nearly the same way. In the Thunder’s 26-point comeback win over the Rockets on Saturday, in which George scored 45 points on just 22 shots, P.G. was all over Harden in the third quarter to spark the run. Who else in the league can guard Harden, and legitimately put the clamps on him, while also dropping 45?
George has such a wide, athletic defensive stance. He’s long and instinctive. OKC as a group cuts off penetration probably better than any team in the league, but even on a great defensive team George stands head and shoulders above everyone else. When George is on the court, the Thunder have a 101.5 defensive rating. When he’s off, it falls to 109.1. That is such a gigantic impact.
Offensively, the Thunder depend even more heavily on George. When he’s on the court, the offense hums at a rating of 112.3 points per 100 possessions. When he’s off, it falls off a cliff to 97.7 points per 100. All told, the Thunder are a whopping 22.2 points per 100 possessions better when George is on the court. For some perspective on just how impactful that is, here are the net ratings of most people’s other three leading candidates for MVP:
- Stephen Curry: 14.9
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: 10.1
- James Harden: 2.5
Ten straight triple-doubles. Two straight seasons averaging a triple-double, and on his way to a third. It’s almost like the crazier stats get these days, the easier it is for us to dismiss them as gimmicky. If somebody is doing something that’s hard for us to believe, something must be up, right? We’re doing the same thing with James Harden.
It’s not that these statistical feats are completely beyond reproach. Over this 10-game triple-double run, Westbrook is shooting 39.4 percent from the field and 25.7 from 3. He’s turned into a legitimately terrible shooter. He’s never been great, but he used to be money enough on that mid-range pull-up and streaky enough from deep. Now you’re honestly surprised when a shot goes in. That said, Westbrook still puts incredible pressure on a defense, and if you’re actually paying attention to the Thunder, you can see he has adapted his game admirably.
This is Paul George’s offense now. For the most part, Westbrook is done with the trigger-happy manner of shooting 3s at the worst possible times. He plays below the 3-point line now, and he even looks hesitant to pull up a lot of the time. Usually that’s a bad thing, but with Westbrook, that he’s actually thinking about it is a great thing. Even if he disrupts the flow of a possession for a second by dribbling in too deep or passing up a shot and delivering some late kick-out pass, the simple truth is, the Thunder are better off — for the most part — when someone else shoots, regardless of how that shot comes about.
This is all Westbrook ever needed to do: Check his worst gunner instincts just a little bit. He still scores, still attacks and still puts a ton of pressure on the defense. And now all the other things he does can be highlighted rather than lost in the shadow of his faults. It is not a coincidence the Thunder are winning — knocking on the door for the No. 2 seed in the West and winners of 11 of their last 12 games.
A team leaning on Westbrook as the No. 1 guy isn’t going anywhere meaningful. But George is the best player now. And Westbrook is fine with that. All these years of people talking about how he could accept his role as a No. 2, it was always thin. Yeah, he’s always going to play like Westbrook to some degree, but he co-existed just fine with Durant. Now he’s doing it with George. Most superstars are willing to sacrifice and change when they have teammates they trust as much as they trust themselves.