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.
LeBron James' tenure with the Lakers can't be called a failure. He won them a championship. But this is his fourth season in L.A. and three of them have been a total mess. The first one, after LeBron and his agent, Rich Paul, maneuvered to get a quarter of the locker room and pretty much the entire Lakers future beyond the LeBron era traded for Anthony Davis, the team missed the playoffs. The third one, injuries piled up and the Lakers had to go through the play-in to earn the No. 7 seed before losing in the first round.
Now it's Year 4, and the Lakers, with Davis out for at least the next three-plus weeks, are four games under .500 coming out of the All-Star break. If the postseason started today, they would be the No. 9 seed, meaning they would have to win two play-in games just to make the playoff field as the No. 8 seed. They also have the hardest remaining schedule in the league.
It's no secret that LeBron wanted Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka to improve the roster at the trade deadline. He didn't. It's no coincidence, it wouldn't seem, that LeBron has since heaped praise upon Thunder GM Sam Presti, whom he called "the [OKC] MVP," as well as Les Snead, the Super Bowl-winning GM of the Los Angeles Rams who showed up to the championship parade in a T-shirt that read "f--- them picks" -- a reference to his strategy to trade a bevy of future draft picks for win-now players, which paid off with a ring.
LeBron calling Snead a "legend" and "my type of guy" in the aftermath of his own GM doing nothing to enhance the Lakers' chances of competing for a title was not an accident. Remember, the Lakers reportedly passed on a potential Westbrook trade because they didn't want to give up their 2027 first-round pick.
This is what LeBron is used to, after all. His organizations completely leverage the future in an effort to maximize whatever window they have to chase championships with one of the greatest players in history. The Heat did it. The Cavaliers did it. Thing is, the Lakers did it, too. As mentioned, in the Davis deal, they shipped out Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, the rights to 2019 No. 4 overall pick De'Andre Hunter, two more future first-round picks, a future first-round pick swap and cash to the Pelicans.
Then this past summer, at the reported behest of LeBron and Davis, they sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell to the Wizards for Russell Westbrook, who has been a disaster with the Lakers. If LeBron thinks the Lakers haven't mortgaged enough of their future for him already, he's mistaken. There wasn't a deal out there that was going to make them an elite team on the fly, especially with the uncertainty of Davis' injury.
That's not to say Pelinka deserves a break. He doesn't. He has not made smart moves, whether he was bending to LeBron on one of them or not. Jeanie Buss is still letting the Rambises pull some pretty powerful strings behind the scenes. She's still enlisting Magic Johnson for advice, which seems, well, inadvisable for too many reasons to list. The Lakers, who have more cash at their disposal than just about any other professional sports organization can dream of, cheaped out on Alex Caruso.
Bottom line: The Lakers have LeBron and Davis and the 2020 bubble championship not because anyone inside that organization did their job especially well, but merely because they're the Lakers. They have the historical and geographical luxury of being able to do everything bad and still wind up good, if only for one season of a four-year LeBron window.
But LeBron is still going strong, and you can bet all this passive-aggressive pressure he's laying on the Lakers through, as Marc Stein recently described, "thinly veiled press-conference statements and social media posts that he knows will be endlessly dissected," is an attempt to force the Lakers to make major moves this offseason.
Problem is, there aren't many moves to make. The ship has sailed on Talen Horton-Tucker being some prized asset, if he ever really was one in the first place. They'll have a couple future first-round picks to deal should they choose, but if they want off Westbrook, they'll almost surely have to attach at least one of those picks to do so. They don't have a lick of cap space. The cupboard is pretty bare beyond Davis, who simply cannot be depended on to remain healthy, and LeBron, who has announced his intention to finish his career playing for whatever team drafts his son, Bronny.
"My last year will be played with my son," James said. "Wherever Bronny is at, that's where I'll be. I would do whatever it takes to play with my son for one year. It's not about the money at that point."
*Side note: LeBron just pretty much guaranteed Bronny will be a relatively high pick, whether his actual game is worthy of that or not. Now it's a package deal. You get Dad, too.
During All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, LeBron also told Jason Lloyd of The Athletic that "the door's not closed" on a possible return to the Cavs.
"I'm not saying I'm coming back and playing, I don't know," James said. "I don't know what my future holds. I don't even know when I'm free."
That last part is a nod to when he'll be a free agent, and him claiming he doesn't know when that is would have a lie detector going haywire. He's a free agent next summer. He knows that. Everyone knows that. All of this is a far cry from when LeBron said "I truly hope that I can finish my career with the Lakers" last July.
Truth is, LeBron might finally be seeing what life is like when you're not bigger than the organization for which you play. That's a new calculus for him. And if he doesn't like it, he's going to leave. We've seen him do it three times (twice in Cleveland and once in Miami) and he's already delivered a championship to the Lakers. This is a guy who has half a decade left, at least, if he wants to keep going, and he's not going to do that as the Lakers toil in mediocrity.
I would suggest the prudent move, on both sides, might be to look for a trade before LeBron simple leaves for nothing in 2023. If I put that in the headline of this story, it would be dismissed as crazy clickbait. But is it? The Lakers have exactly two assets that can bring back enough capital to set up their next era. Their names are LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Trying to squeeze another title out of those guys at the expense of whatever chance you might have of setting the table for life after they leave might not be the best move.
I can't ever see the Lakers trading LeBron ... unless he did what so many stars do nowadays and demanded it. Would he do that? Not outright, in my opinion. LeBron saw what it was like to be the bad guy when he went to Miami, and he hated it. But that's how these passive-aggressive chess moves become worth analyzing. Make no mistake: This is LeBron saying he will, and probably is going to, leave if the Lakers don't get this right. The clock is ticking.
Through the first three years of his career, Greg Oden played 85 games and missed one entire season. Assuming Zion doesn't play this season, he will have played 85 games through the first three years of his career with one entirely scrapped season. That is not the comparison anyone wants to make, but it's impossible to ignore the possibility that Williamson's career could he headed down the "what could've been" road.
It's too early to say that for sure, and certainly nobody wants to think the worst. But Williamson's repeated foot and knee problems, at his size and considering the athletic force with which he plays, are looking like the brightest of red flags. He sprained his knee at Duke. He tore his meniscus his rookie year. He broke his foot this offseason and reportedly may require a second surgery. We have seen pictures of him that don't exactly suggest he's keeping himself in shape. You put 300 pounds, give or take, on top of recurring knee and foot problems, and you can start to do your own math.
The other possibility isn't very encouraging for the Pelicans, either. Is it possible that Zion simply doesn't want to play in New Orleans? There's been a report suggesting exactly that.
The harsh reality is the Pelicans needed the first three or four years of Zion's career to sell him on how good they could be, not the other way around. In a perfect world, Zion and Brandon Ingram would've jelled as co-stars over the past two seasons and change, but as it stands they've really only played together for one season. No chemistry has been built. No positive energy from making a playoff run together.
You want to believe Zion is dying to get back on the court and that he's fully invested in the Pelicans as they try everything they can to put a playoff product on the floor, but it reportedly took him more than two weeks to reach out to CJ McCollum after he was dealt to New Orleans from Portland, and it appears he only did that because McCollum went on TNT and said Zion was the only player he didn't hear from after the trade.
As reported on NBA Today: CJ McCollum told ESPN that since his interview over the weekend with the TNT Crew, Zion Williamson reached out and the two have spoken.— Malika Andrews (@malika_andrews) February 22, 2022
Meanwhile, former Pelican and fellow Duke alum JJ Redick, who's about as pro player as it gets and takes and relishes in every opportunity he gets to debunk media narratives, called out Williamson for being a "detached teammate" on ESPN on Tuesday.
"This is a little bit insane to me. There's a general decorum of behavior that you should apply as a teammate," Redick said. "I wasn't the best player on any team I was on, but if there was a buyout possibility, a trade possibility, I would always reach out to teammates. This just shows a complete lack of investment in your team, in the organization in the city. I get that he's [Zion] hurt and away from the team, but you just traded for one of the 50 best players in the league. A guy that's supposed to be paired with you. Reach out and say hello."
"This is a pattern of behavior with Zion that we are seeing again and again," Redick continued. "I was his teammate. I can describe him as a detached teammate. That is an accurate statement. This is basic level of humanity being a teammate. Send a text to a guy when he gets traded to your team. That is just normal behavior. That's the bare minimum that you have to do. And the Pelicans yesterday sent out an email for season tickets for next year, and guess whose name was not in the email? Zion's. What the heck is going on in New Orleans?"
Pay attention to that last bit: Williamson is the biggest draw the Pelicans have, and he's not a face of the season-ticket promotions? Zion has one more year left on his rookie contract. We all know the Pelicans can offer more money and years than another team, but what do contracts really mean these days? Ben Simmons just worked his way out of Philadelphia in the first year of the same rookie extension Zion will be eligible to sign this summer.
None of this is good for the Pelicans or for Williamson, who might be on his way from a guy everyone had pegged for stardom to a cautionary tale. Let's hope that's not the case. But let's also not pretend it isn't a possibility.
Right before the All-Star Game was about to tip, TNT sideline reporter Allie LaForce was the bearer of the bad news that Paul has a fractured thumb and will be reevaluated in six to eight weeks. The playoffs start April 16. Do the math, and there's a good chance Paul is done for the regular season.
This sounds like terrible news, and it's surely not great. But might there be a silver lining? We know Paul has a history of sustaining injuries at the absolute worst possible time, but this one comes as the Suns have a seven-game lead on the Warriors for the No. 1 overall seed with just 24 games to play. Not only is he going to be rested heading into the postseason, but simply not being on the court reduces his risk for an injury at a later regular-season date that could cut into more of this postseason availability.
And the Suns likely won't even lose any ground.
Even if Phoenix only plays .500 ball the rest of the way, the Warriors, who have the third-toughest remaining schedule, would have to finish at least 18-5 (maybe 19-4 depending on how the tiebreaker falls with one more matchup between the two left on March 30) to overtake them. Memphis, the No. 3 seed, would almost have to go undefeated.
The Suns are more than good enough to play .500 ball without Paul. They'll probably play even better. Yes, Paul will have to regain his rhythm and conditioning on the fly, and Phoenix's first-round series might not be a cakewalk. It could very well end up being vs. the Lakers just as Anthony Davis is getting healthy. Still, this injury, in a strange way, almost ensures that Paul, who turns 37 in May, will be healthy for the opening of the playoffs. That's a win for the Suns.
Curry went totally off the rails in the All-Star Game. Dude hit 16 3-pointers from distances totaling almost 500 feet. He went 7 for 14 on shots from 30-plus feet. All other players went a combined 4 for 15 on such shots, with no other player hitting more than one 30-footer, per ESPN Stats and Info.
You want to know what's crazy? I would argue the toughest shot Curry hit all night was the one that wasn't a 3-pointer. The degree of difficulty on this high-arcing baseline floater is off the charts.
Curry demolished the previous All-Star Game record of nine 3-pointers, set by Paul George in 2016, in taking home the first Kobe Bryant All-Star Game MVP Trophy. Now Curry turns his attention to the regular-season stretch run as the Warriors, who currently own the second-best record in the league, try to rediscover their winning form after losing four out of five heading into the break.