NBA Star Power Index: As Russell Westbrook is hitting rock bottom, Ja Morant and Jayson Tatum are taking off

welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players getting the most 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. This column will run every week throughout the regular season.

If this isn’t Russell Westbrook’s rock bottom, how bad can this get? He’s opened the season shooting 28 percent. He’s 1 for 12 from 3. After an efficient opening night, he’s 4 for 26 over his last two games, which includes an 0-for-11 showing against the Clippers in which he said afterward he played “solid” because he tried as hard as he could.

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

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers are outscoring 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’re losing those minutes by 7.1 points per 100. Do the math, and Westbrook next to the two stars is swinging the Lakers’ net rating more than 20 points in the wrong direction.

You can make all the small-sample rationales you want; this is what it is, and it’s been this way for a long time. Westbrook is not a good NBA player anymore. He’s even worse in this particular Lakers situation. He’s listed as doubtful (hamstring) for Wednesday’s game vs. Denver, and the Lakers are happy about that. That’s where this 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?


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


Damian Lillard was named Western Conference Player of the Week for averaging 34-5-3 through Portland’s first three games — all wins. Over the final five minutes of the win over the Lakers, Lillard, getting back to his clutch ways, scored 12 of Portland’s 18 points. The next night Lillard hung 31 on the Nuggets yet was happy to force-feed the red-hot Anfernee Simons in the third quarter as Portland rolled to its fourth straight win to open the season. Lillard is also devoting noticeable focus and energy to the defensive end. Portland could not have asked for a better start.


Jayson Tatum was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for averaging 34 points, 8.3 rebounds and three assists through Boston’s 3-0 start. He hung 35 on Philadelphia on opening night and 40 on the Magic. Tatum is emphasizing pace, grabbing rebounds and running. He’s shooting 55 percent overall, and his 63.0 effective field-goal percentage is tops among all forwards, per Cleaning the Glass.

The most encouraging number so far: at least seven free-throw attempts in every game and eight per night on average, up from 6.2 last season. Tatum doesn’t get downhill quite as well as Jaylen Brown yet, but he’s putting an emphasis on attacking the rim with what would qualify as a career-high frequency while finishing inside four feet at a 76 percent clip, per CTG.


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

Last season after the trade to Philly, Harden averaged 88.5 touches per game. This season that number is up to almost 98. He is in control of the ball for an average of 9.3 seconds per possession, up from 8.7 last season. It’s hard to argue against running offense through Harden as often as possible when he’s playing this well, but it comes at the risk of alienating Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker and potentially neutralizing Tyrese Maxey, who, to me, creates more scrambling defensive rotations than Harden with his downhill speed.

His continued effortless defense notwithstanding, this start is great for offensive Harden. Not so much for the Sixers as a whole. We’ll see how, or if, this dynamic shifts when Embiid is back to dominating on a nightly basis, assuming that will happen at some point soon.


Paolo Banchero’s 27 points vs. Detroit were the most a No. 1 overall pick has scored in his NBA debut since Allen Iverson put up 30 in 1996. With nine rebounds and five assists as well, Banchero became just the third player over the last 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 about as polished an offensive player as you’ll ever see at 19 years old. Orlando is initiating offense with him as an effective point guard. He’s 6-foot-10. He samesies for Franz Wagner. Indeed the Magic are fun.

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


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

Meanwhile, Simmons is averaging under six points a night and has fouled out in two of his three games. Brooklyn’s starting five has been outscored by 25 points in 37 minutes together with an abysmal 95.7 offense rating, which can be pretty directly tied to playing Simmons alongside another non shooter in Nic Claxton.

The spacing just can’t survive with those two on the court together, even with the bevy of other shooters Brooklyn can deploy. It feels like Simmons is going to have to play center if he’s going to be maximized, but where does that leave Brooklyn’s rim protection and rebounding? Even when he’s playing great defense and pushing the ball in transition and scoring 15-18 points per game, figuring out how to deal with the Simmons spacing cramp is always challenging. But when he’s not doing any of those things, it becomes next to impossible.


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 rolled to a win over Golden State.

Booker isn’t too worried about the dustup. He said afterward that he has nothing but respect for Thompson and reminded everyone that when he was coming out of Kentucky it was Klay Thompson who he wanted to model his game after.

So far, Booker is doing a pretty good Thompson impression at a scorching 48 percent from 3. Oh by the way, with 34 points against the Warriors, Booker became the first player in Suns history to score 30-plus in three of the team’s first four games and is averaging 32.5 points a night in the early going.

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