NBA Star Power Index: Stephen Curry early MVP leader, Ja Morant enters mix; Carmelo Anthony the Lakers savior

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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. 

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Curry became the first player this season to score 50 points in a game, lighting up the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night as the Golden State Warriors improved to an NBA-best 9-1. It was the first time in Curry’s career that he posted 50 points and 10 assists in the same game as he unseated Wilt Chamberlain as the oldest player in history to put up that single-game line. 

Curry came into the Atlanta game having been held to 20 or fewer points in four consecutive games for the first time since 2014, and his shooting, by his historic standards, has been relatively sporadic. Still, he’s the early leader in the MVP race. As of Tuesday, Caesars Sportsbook had him at +325 to win the award, followed by Kevin Durant at +600 and Giannis Antetokounmpo at +650.

For my money, Durant has been the league’s best player thus far, but Curry’s impact (Golden State is plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor), as usual, extends so far beyond his own traditional numbers (which are again terrific) that Golden State’s success is disproportionately attributed to his presence and thus has him in the early MVP driver’s seat. 

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Anthony is blistering hot to start the season, and it’s not like his contributions are mere gravy. With LeBron James potentially out for a while with an abdominal strain and Russell Westbrook typically hit and miss, the Lakers have become heavily reliant on Anthony’s shooting and scoring to stay afloat in the early going. 

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After hitting seven 3-pointers in the Lakers’ win over Charlotte on Monday, Anthony is shooting 52 percent from 3, including 64 percent at home, entering play on Wednesday. He’s shooting 58 percent from 3 over his last six games and his 3.5 made 3-pointers per game is tied with Grayson Allen for the fourth-highest mark in the league; only Steph Curry, Buddy Hield  and CJ McCollum have made more total 3s than Melo. 

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Morant is doing things on a nightly basis that leave your hands on your head in disbelief. Like this:

And this:

And this, on consecutive possessions with the Grizzlies trailing by two and under a minute to play against the Timberwolves:

Morant should be in the top five of the MVP conversation and perhaps near the top of the Most Improved Player race, though he was probably already too good to be considered for that award. The number to know: 37 percent from 3, per Cleaning The Glass. Morant is impossible to keep out of the lane and his powerful, herky-jerky athleticism is young Derrick Rose-esque; if he’s going to be an above-average 3-point shooter as well, forget about it. 

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As stated above, Durant has probably been the league’s best player this season. He’s leading the league in scoring, and he’s having to do it under more difficult circumstances than he’s arguably ever faced. With Kyrie Irving out and James Harden just barely getting back to anything close to his old self, the Nets don’t really have anyone other than Durant who can create one-on-one offense on a consistent basis. It’s all on him. 

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The result: Durant is having to isolate on 24 percent of his possessions, which is a 71 percent increase from last season, per Synergy, and his spot-up 3-point frequency has dipped from somewhere near 20 percent of his shots during his final season in OKC and Golden State years to 7.9 percent this season, glaring evidence that he is no longer afforded the luxury of having the system in which he’s playing or his co-star(s) create good looks for him. 

These stats and more are outlined in this piece by Michael Pina of Sports Illustrated, which clearly paints the Durant picture. 

Not that Durant has ever needed anyone to do his work for him. He can get any shot he wants. Still can. That’s why, despite defenses loading up on him more than ever, he’s shooting a career-high 59 percent from the mid-range, including an absolutely absurd 69 percent from the long mid-range, per CTG. But even for a player as great as Durant, how long can that last, and how far can it carry it a team?

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There are some strange numbers playing out in Chicago. Zach LaVine has been really good, and yet the Bulls are getting beat by 21 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. It makes sense that the Bulls are plus-15.6 per 100 in DeMar DeRozan’s minutes, considering how great he’s been, but it’s a head-scratcher that he’s a net neutral on the offensive end with that entire 15-point impact coming on the defensive end. 

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Never mind all that. It’s early. Sample sizes are small and Nikola Vucevic’s drag start is messing with some numbers. What you need to know is that DeRozan has been awesome for the Bulls, who are 7-3 entering play on Wednesday and look absolutely for real. DeRozan had 28 points in Chicago’s win over Brooklyn on Tuesday, and he’s averaging 31.8 over his last five games with 58/45/86 shooting splits. 

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The league announced on Tuesday that Jokic has been suspended one game for laying out Markieff Morris at the end of the Heat-Nuggets game on Monday. Jokic took exception to Morris’ foul on him a few second earlier, and here was his response:

“It’s a stupid play, I feel bad,” Jokic said after the game. “I’m not supposed to react that way. I got hit. I saw him, but I thought it was just gonna be like a take foul. But he bumped me and I was like, I think it was a dirty play and I just needed to protect myself.”

The reigning MVP, Jokic is arguably having an even better season than he had a year ago. The guy is averaging over 25 points, 13 rebounds and five assists on 60 percent shooting, including 40 percent from 3. Nobody else is close to that level of across-the-board production as the Joker is keeping the Nuggets — who are already without Jamal Murray and are now down Michael Porter Jr., too — afloat in the Western Conference standings. 

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