Welcome back to the NBA Star Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz in and 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.
Leonard took home the first Kobe Bryant NBA All-Star Game MVP award, drilling eight 3-pointers en route to putting up 30 points in Team LeBron’s wild 157-155 win over Team Giannis.
If you haven’t noticed, Kawhi is quietly having the best season of his career — at least from a traditional-stat standpoint. His 27.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game are all career highs, as is his 89.5 percent clip from the free-throw line. The Clippers have won 10 of their last 15 and are one game back of the Nuggets for the No. 2 seed in the West.
They’re also tied with the Jazz in the loss column for the No. 4 spot. If they were to slip behind Utah, that would mean a likely second-round matchup with the Lakers rather than a potential conference finals showdown. I’m not sure it makes that much difference when the Clippers run into the Lakers. Barring an upset, they’re going to have to go through them at some point, and the logic that LeBron James would possibly be more fatigued by the third round also applies to Leonard.
On the same night Jayson Tatum hung 39 points on the Clippers heading into the All-Star break, Zion Williamson scored a career-high 32 points against the Thunder, albeit in a Pelicans loss. This came one game after Williamson scored a then-career-high 31 points on Portland.
Over his last three games, Williamson is literally scoring a point a minute — 28 points in 28 minutes per game. He is the only player over the last 30 years to score at least 20 points in seven of his first nine games, and he’s one of just three to do it in seven of his first 10. The other two are Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill. Not exactly bad company.
Ja Morant has been sensational this season and remains the clear-cut favorite for Rookie of the Year. It is only due to Williamson’s historic first-year greatness that he can still be considered even a long-shot candidate after missing the first three months of the season. If Williamson were to go on a tear over the final seven weeks, and the Pelicans were to somehow jump the Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the West, that ROY vote would get very, very interesting.
After putting on one of the greatest dunking shows anyone has ever seen in 2016, and losing, Aaron Gordon scored five perfect 50s and dunked over 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall in this year’s Slam Dunk Contest, and lost once again. He was not happy about. He said he’s done with Dunk Contests and will be moving on to the 3-Point Contest. At least he controls his own destiny there. No judges.
Rapper Common, who was one of the celebrity judges this year, said there was an agreement among the judges to award Gordon and Derrick Jones Jr. — who wound up winning the event (he was fantastic in his own right, to be clear) — to end up with the same scores so they end the overtime competition and deem them both winners. The NBA said that was never going to happen.
The only thing I’m certain of is a tie would’ve been the worst outcome. It was a electric final round between Gordon and Jones Jr. — and this is coming from someone who thinks the Slam Dunk Contest is, for the most part, pretty lame — and I would’ve been fine with continuing the competition. But Gordon ended it in an undeniably theatric way, and the Dunk Contest is nothing if not theatre. You stumble onto a perfect ending, with a guy jumping over a 7-5 giant after the fans called for it, call it good. Gordon was again robbed.
Prior to making his first All-Star appearance, Jayson Tatum put up 39 points on 14-of-23 shooting, including 5 of 15 from 3, in the Celtics’ big-time win over the Clippers, who incidentally played Kawhi Leonard 45 minutes trying to win that game.
Tatum may be Boston’s best player, and that’s no disrespect to Kemba Walker. That’s how great Tatum is offensively, and clearly the defense isn’t comparable. The fact that Boston has two legit stars who can create offense out of thin air, and a stable of two-way, versatile, All-Star-level players in support of Walker and Tatum, is what makes it the biggest threat to win a title outside of the top-tier group of the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks.
Tatum only scored six points in his All-Star debut.
He’ll have many, many chances to do better.