Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the 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 as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week throughout the regular season.
Precedent suggests the punishment easily could’ve been harsher. Back in 2015, J.R. Smith was suspended two playoff games for a similar strike on Jae Crowder.
The Lakers are now just 4-7 without LeBron in the lineup. Even with him they’re barely treading water: 5-3 with three of those wins over the Pistons and Rockets (twice) and a negative point differential, per Cleaning the Glass. The Lakers just don’t have the horses to survive without LeBron, even in the short term.
Tatum has had a horrific start to his season, but he’s turning it around of late. Over his last four games, he’s averaging 33.5 points on 50 percent shooting. Boston has won three straight, though let’s keep this in proper perspective: Those wins came over the Lakers (in LeBron’s first game back from injury), Rockets and Thunder. Tatum went 1 of 9 from 3 against Houston, his most recent outing.
All of which is to say, Tatum and the Celtics, 10-8 on the season and winners of six of their last eight, are far from out of the woods; disturbing trends remain, such as Tatum’s isolation insistence. Entering play on Wednesday, Tatum is averaging 6.2 isolation possessions per game, third most in the league, but he’s shooting just 32 percent on those possessions with a sub-40 effective field goal percentage.
We know Tatum is a one-on-one player by nature. And he’s a great individual scorer, don’t get it twisted. When he’s feeling himself, he borders on indefensible.
But when those shots are not going in, that’s a lot of dribbling. Marcus Smart has already called out Tatum (and Jaylen Brown) for basically wanting to play on their terms, not being willing passers (Tatum is the biggest threat the Celtics have yet he’s only using that leverage to create 3.5 assists per game). And now there is this quote — albeit anonymous — from an Eastern Conference assistant coach in Tim Bontempts’ recent story on ESPN.com:
“I don’t think [Tatum] cares about winning now, and if he does, it is on his terms. He doesn’t want to score 15 and win. He wants to score 39 and win.”
Stay tuned in Boston.
Lillard’s ice-cold start to the season has been well chronicled. Like Tatum, he’s finding his rhythm of late. The Blazers have quietly won five of their last six. Lillard scorched the Sixers for 39 points on Saturday. He’s 10 for his last 21 from 3 and has been heating up for a while now.
There’s been a lot of talk about Lillard having to adjust to a different offensive approach under new coach Chauncey Billups, who has stressed more ball movement and (marginally) less reliance on individual creation from Lillard and CJ McCollum. It doesn’t go far in explaining Lillard’s early struggles; he’s still in total control of the offense and he’s getting the same amount of shots.
But it’s true, he is not dominating the ball quite as much. Pick-and-rolls account for 40 percent of his shots this season, down from 46 percent last season, per Synergy.
Overall, Lillard’s usage is down from 34.1 last season to 31.6 percent entering play on Wednesday, per CTG. Last season, Lillard, on average, held onto the ball for 6.14 seconds every time he touched it, per NBA.com. This season that number is down to 5.14. Lillard is also taking one fewer dribble per touch this season, which adds up.
As a team, the Blazers are averaging about 20 more passes per game than last season. That’s translating to six more points per game via assist. Their secondary assists are also up almost one per game — in part a reflection of the backside ball movement out of Lillard and McCollum double-teams.
Are these subtle shifts making a difference for Portland as an overall offense? It depends on your perspective. The Blazers are scoring five fewer points per game this season, per CTG, but offense is down across the board. Relative to league average production, Portland is actually a point better per 100 on the field this year, per Basketball-Reference.com.
That might sound like hair-splitting, but like Portland’s defense, which statistically looks about the same as last season (awful), these are strategic shifts intended to diversify their postseason profile. Dallas is doing the same thing with Luka Doncic. Relying on one guy to play hero every night has proven to have a postseason ceiling. The Blazers are trying to break through that a little bit at a time, and Lillard is still finding his (slightly) new way.
Don’t look now, but Porzingis is playing the best basketball of his Mavericks career. He’s scored at least 20 points in seven straight games, the longest such streak of his career. Over that stretch, he’s averaging 26 points on 52.8/40.5/94.3 shooting splits.
On Tuesday night, Porzingis hung 30 points and seven boards on the Clippers. He had thee huge buckets in overtime, all courtesy of attacking, downhill movement; one on a slick drive and finish, another on his own putback after a beautiful cut, and a pull-up jumper.
There are some slight changes to Porzingis’ role. Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd is posting him up and facilitating offense through him a bit more; he’s assisting on almost 13 percent of Dallas’ buckets, by far a career-high rate. Porzingis remains a perimeter-based player, but when he’s in rhythm, which he is right now, he’s a three-level threat. He scores on offensive boards. He hangs around the rim for Doncic drop-offs. He cuts here and there. You saw it all on Tuesday night.
This is a visibly livelier, springier, more energetic version of Porzingis. And he’s enjoying himself, probably the most important element of all. Porzingis, in a Luka-centric offense, is one of those players who is easy to spot when he’s bummed out.
“I’m just feeling free to play my game,” Porzingis said after Dallas’ win over the Clippers. “My teammates are trusting me. My coaches are trusting me and I’m out there just having fun. If you’re not having fun then it’s tough to play and give your all, but I feel like this year we have that kind of environment. We’re just playing hard for each other and having fun out there.”