NBA Star Power Index: As Russell Westbrook hits rock bottom, Ja Morant and Jayson Tatum soar

Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of players getting the most buzz in the league. Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing — it just means you’re capturing the attention of the NBA world. Nor is it a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order. This column will air weekly throughout the regular season.

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If that’s not Russell Westbrook’s background, how bad can it get? He opened the season shooting 28%. He is 1 of 12 of 3. After an effective opening night, he is 4 of 26 in his last two games, which includes an 0 of 11 performance against the Clippers in which he later said that he had played “solid” because he had tried so hard. as he could.

Breaking news: The NBA isn’t about trying. It is about producing.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers outscore opponents by 13.2 points per 100 possessions when LeBron James and Anthony Davis play without Westbrook, but when you add Russ to the mix, they lose those minutes by 7.1 points per 100. Do it calculation, and Westbrook next to the two stars tips the Lakers net rating more than 20 points in the wrong direction.

You can do all the small sample justifications you want; it is like that, and it has been like that for a long time. Westbrook is no longer a good NBA player. He’s even worse in this particular Lakers situation. He’s listed as questionable (hamstring) for Wednesday’s game against Denver, and the Lakers are happy about that. That’s where it is. The Lakers prefer their $47 million player to be in street clothes. Like it or not, this is the biggest story in basketball right now. What, if anything, is Rob Pelinka going to do about this mess he’s created?

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Ja Morant, who has the Grizzlies 3-1, has been the league’s best player so far. He leads the league with over 35 points per game. he went for 49 against Houston. And get this: Morant is shooting 60% on 3 so far. And we’re not talking low volume. He attempted six 3s in three of Memphis’ four games. It’s 12 for 20 overall. If Morant is going to shoot the 3 anywhere north of 37%, he’s going to be an MVP favorite as long as he’s healthy.

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Damian Lillard was named Western Conference Player of the Week for his 34-5-3 average in Portland’s first three games — all wins. In the final five minutes of the win over the Lakers, Lillard, retracing his steps, scored 12 of Portland’s 18 points. The following night, Lillard snagged 31 for the Nuggets, but was happy to binge Anfernee Simons in the third quarter as Portland earned their fourth straight win to open the season. Lillard also devotes noticeable focus and energy to the defensive end. Portland couldn’t have asked for a better start.

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Jayson Tatum was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for averaging 34 points, 8.3 rebounds and three assists in Boston’s 3-0 start. He snagged 35 in Philadelphia on opening night and 40 at the Magic. Tatum emphasizes pace, rebounding and running. He’s shooting 55% overall, and his effective field goal percentage of 63.0 is the best among any forward, according to Cleaning the Glass.

The most encouraging number to date: at least seven free throw attempts in each game and eight per night on average, compared to 6.2 last season. Tatum isn’t descending as well as Jaylen Brown yet, but he’s emphasizing rim attack with what would be considered a career high frequency while finishing within four feet at a 76% clip, by CTG.

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James Harden came out scorching with 66 points in his first two games. He’s averaging just under 27 points and 10 assists in 48-37-95, but that only translated to a 1-3 record for the Sixers. Much of this is about Joel Embiid, who looked lifeless for long stretches. But something to consider: Is it the best thing for the Sixers to become such a disproportionately dependent offense on Harden?

Last season, after the Philly trade, Harden averaged 88.5 touches per game. This season, that number has increased to almost 98. He controls the ball for an average of 9.3 seconds per possession, up from 8.7 last season. It’s hard to oppose Harden’s offense as often as possible when he’s playing this well, but it risks alienating Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker and potentially incapacitating Tyrese Maxey, who for me is creating rotations tougher defenses than Harden. with its rate of descent.

Despite his continued effortless defense, this start is excellent for Harden offensively. Not so much for the Sixers as a whole. We’ll see how, or if, that dynamic changes when Embiid starts dominating the night again, assuming that happens soon.

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Paolo Banchero’s 27 points against Detroit were the most by a No. 1 pick in his NBA debut since Allen Iverson scored 30 in 1996. Also with nine rebounds and five assists, Banchero has only become as the third player out of the bottom three. decades to go 25-5-5 in his NBA debut, joining LeBron James and Grant Hill.

Banchero followed that up with 20 against Atlanta, 23 against Boston and 21 against New York, making him the first rookie since Grant Hill to score at least 20 points in his first four career games. This guy is pretty much the best offensive player you’ll ever see at 19. Orlando launches the attack with him as an effective playmaker. He is 6 feet 10 inches tall. Samesies for Franz Wagner. Magic is actually fun.

Plus, Banchero is already reaching the free-throw line like a seasoned vet. His 9.3 charity attempts per game ranks third in the league, tied with Kevin Durant. At his size, his ball skills are just too much to handle. He constantly puts defenders in vulnerable positions, and once he has leverage, he initiates contact. Again, extremely polished stuff from such a young player.

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Understanding all the layers of this situation and how long he was on the shelf, one indisputable fact remains: Ben Simmons is an absolute shell of what he was and certainly nothing close to what the Nets hoped he would be. . His defense is supposed to be his calling card in this team; Brooklyn has the league’s worst defense by a sizable margin.

Meanwhile, Simmons is averaging less than six points per night and has fouled out in two of his three games. Brooklyn’s starting five was outclassed by 25 points in 37 minutes with an abysmal 95.7 attack rating, which can be quite directly tied to playing Simmons alongside another non-shooter in Nic Claxton. .

Spacing just can’t survive with these two in the field together, even with the multitude of other shooters Brooklyn can field. It feels like Simmons is going to have to play center if he wants to be maxed out, but where does that leave Brooklyn’s rim protection and rebound? Even when he’s playing great defense and pushing the ball in transition and scoring 15-18 ppg, it’s still hard to figure out how to deal with Simmons’ spacing cramp. But when he doesn’t do any of these things, it becomes nearly impossible.

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Devin Booker definitely did or said something to get under the skin of Klay Thompson, who was hit with his first career ejection on Tuesday as Phoenix picked up a win over Golden State.

Booker isn’t too worried about the dust. He said afterwards that he had nothing but respect for Thompson and reminded everyone that when he came out of Kentucky, it was Klay Thompson he wanted to model his game on.

So far, Booker is making a pretty good impression of Thompson at 48% on 3. By the way, with 34 points against the Warriors, Booker became the first player in Suns history to score over 30 in three of the first team matches. four games and is averaging 32.5 points per night at the start.

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