NBA Star Power Index: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas reaffirm value to Warriors, Cavs

Welcome back to our NBA Star Power Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz 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 for the rest of the season. 

NBA Star Power Index: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas reaffirm value to Warriors, Cavs

Isaiah Thomas

/ Cavaliers

No better place to start than with Thomas’ long-awaited Cavs debut which was a monster success as I.T. posted 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including 3 of 8 from downtown, for a plus-17 in just 19 minutes. And just you wait — the “Are the Cavs a threat to the Warriors with Thomas on board?” question is about to become a daily thing for a while. 

Here’s a hint: OF COURSE THEY ARE!

In case you forgot, Thomas is an All-NBA player. He’s proven he can all but single-handedly carry a team as far as the conference finals. Now he’s your No. 2? Or on some nights your No. 3? Next to LeBron?

Yes, Cleveland is a legit championship threat if Thomas can build off his debut and eventually slot it in as something close to what Dwyane Wade was next to LeBron during the Miami years — at least on the offensive end. You have to score to beat the Warriors, plain and simple, and we know Thomas can do that against anyone when healthy. And he certainly looked good on that front Tuesday night.

Thomas won’t play Wednesday night when Cleveland visits Boston as obviously the Cavs are going to ease him back, and there’s no reason to push a back-to-back in early January when your whole season comes down to May and June. But this was an awesome tribute Kyrie Irving paid the former Boston star when he was asked about Thomas returning to the city that fell in love with him as a Celtic. 

NBA Star Power Index: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas reaffirm value to Warriors, Cavs

Stephen Curry

/ Warriors

If you were thinking Curry might be a little rusty after missing 11 games and almost a month of action with a pretty severely sprained right ankle, you were mistaken. In his first game back, Curry made 10 of 13 threes — the most 3s anyone has made in a game this season — on his way to 38 points in 26 minutes. Per Elias, that’s the third-highest scoring output in NBA history by a player who had gone at least 25 days since his last game that season. 

You can get lulled into thinking the Warriors are fine without Curry, and indeed, they would perhaps still be the favorite to win it all without him, as evidenced by their Christmas Day win over Cleveland without Curry and their 9-2 record with him on the sideline. 

But nothing is the same without Curry. If Kevin Durant raises the team’s floor as a one-man half-court advantage, which is to say he makes them great even when they’re not shooting great, it is Curry who makes them historic. He changes everything. As Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted.

“That was remarkable, to do what he did in 25 minutes, it looked like he didn’t skip a beat,” Kerr said at his post-game press conference following Curry’s return. “He just makes it look so easy, and you can feel it in the building. Everything is different. The tempo, the energy, the crowd’s going nuts. Steph is special.”

NBA Star Power Index: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas reaffirm value to Warriors, Cavs

Giannis Antetokounmpo

/ Bucks

Giannis forced home a game-winner over Russell Westbrook as the Bucks edged the Thunder 97-95 on Friday. Only one problem: It shouldn’t have counted, as Giannis clearly stepped out of bounds as he was making his move along the baseline, as was confirmed by the NBA in its increasingly maddening Last Two Minute Report that acknowledges mistakes without taking any of the necessary steps with its replay protocol to fix them. 

Giannis’ usage rate has been steady declining of late, which makes some sense with Eric Bledsoe on board. But let’s be clear: Giannis is the Bucks’ best hope, or really their only hope, of making any kind of meaningful noise. Do not lose sight of this, Jason Kidd. Give the man the ball. 

The Bucks have lost six of their last 10 and three of their last five (and that includes that generous win at OKC), and yet, even with the team sliding and in position to pick up a big road win, Giannis didn’t touch the ball for the first three and a half minutes of the overtime session in Milwaukee’s loss to Toronto on Monday. 

To be clear, I didn’t say Giannis didn’t shoot for the first three and half minutes of the five-minute OT session. I said he didn’t even touch the ball. Not once. That cannot happen. 

NBA Star Power Index: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas reaffirm value to Warriors, Cavs

Russell Westbrook

/ Thunder

Westbrook and the Thunder got shafted on that Giannis no-call. OKC was rolling at that point, having won six straight and 12 of its last 15, and now the Thunder have lost two in a row just when we were starting to get excited about them. Russ has been balling of late; he went for a monster triple-double with 38 points, 15 boards and 11 assists in a loss to Dallas, and he went for 40 in that loss to Milwaukee. Interestingly, Westbrook has scored 40 or more points 35 times in his OKC career, but the Thunder are just 17-18 in those games. Make of that what you will. 

Personally, I’m of the belief that this OKC team doesn’t stand a chance unless Westbrook is playing his typical bat-out-of-hell style. And that’s proven out over this stretch of win for OKC. Westbrook hasn’t scored fewer than 30 since before Christmas, and both Carmelo Anthony and Paul George have talked numerous times about how much they need Russ to be Russ rather than deferring to them. You just can’t tame a beast like Westbrook. 

Oh, that reminds me. Shout out to Thon Maker for volunteering as Russ’ sacrificial lamb.

NBA Star Power Index: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas reaffirm value to Warriors, Cavs

Jimmy Butler

/ Timberwolves

The Wolves are playing as well as any team in the league right now. Over their last eight games, Minnesota is No. 1 in the league in offensive efficiency, net rating and turnover percentage. They’re No. 2 in true shooting and No. 4 in eFG percentage. Most importantly, they’re 7-1 over that stretch, and Butler is the two-way anchor that has turned this young, talented team into a consistent winner. 

Butler was magnificent in Minnesota’s overtime win over the Nuggets last Wednesday, scoring a season-high 39 points, including the Wolves’ first 11 points in OT, including this clutch jumper to put Minnesota up with just over a minute to play. 

“He’s got an unbelievable will to win, and that’s what makes him so special,” Tom Thibodeau told reporters after the game. “When his best is needed, he’s always at his best. Always been that way, and that’s not going to change.”

NBA Star Power Index: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas reaffirm value to Warriors, Cavs

Chris Paul

/ Rockets

There’s been a lot of talk going around about how the Rockets are 16-2 with Paul and only 10-7 without him, as if to imply he’s perhaps the most valuable player on the team. One sort of important thing to keep in mind: In those 16 wins, James Harden was also playing. Kind of a decent player, that Harden. 

This, of course, means that Harden was playing as the lone star in those seven losses. You don’t win at any sort of meaningful level with just one star in today’s game. What makes the Rockets great is that they have an All-NBA point guard on the floor for pretty much the entire game when Mike D’Antoni staggers Harden and Paul’s minutes. Against the Lakers on New Year’s Eve, Harden had 40 points and 11 assists before he left with a hamstring injury, Paul then dominated from that point forward, scoring 15 of his 28 points in overtime. 

In case you’re wondering, that was every Houston point in OT. 

That’s an amazing luxury to have when your superstar goes to the locker room and you still have Paul, who can clearly be the man for stretches of games. But can he do it for two weeks, which is how long Harden is expected to be out with the hamstring injury? We’ll see. 

NBA Star Power Index: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas reaffirm value to Warriors, Cavs

Kyrie Irving

/ Celtics

The Celtics pulled off what was, in my opinion, the most impressive NBA win of the season when they rallied from 26 down to beat the Rockets. They had every excuse to concede that loss. They were on a back-to-back. The 39 games they had played at that point were the most in the league by far, thanks to a heavily front-loaded schedule to account for their game against the Sixers in London later this month. They were exhausted. And yet, they just kept fighting. 

Irving had 26 in that win. He had 28 two nights later against the Nets. He hasn’t scored less than 20, in fact, since Dec. 10. That said, you’d like to see the assists start creeping back up. He’s at fewer than five a game coming into Wednesday. Boston has steadied the ship with three straight wins following a 10-game stretch that saw them struggle to a 5-5 record on sheer Celtics will. 

NBA Star Power Index: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas reaffirm value to Warriors, Cavs

DeMar DeRozan

/ Raptors

DeMar hung a Raptors franchise-record 52 points on the Bucks on Monday on a wildly efficient 17 of 29 from the field. He also had eight assists as he continues to evolve as a playmaker and 3-point shooter — he had five triples as well. I was asked during a video shoot this week if DeRozan is overlooked as an elite player in the league, and right now, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. 

I don’t think DeRozan can get to a James Harden or Steph Curry level until he becomes a consistent 3-point threat, but even without that he’s having a phenomenal season and is a true go-to scorer who can get to the line like a star. Most importantly, the Raptors look like a different team this season. They’re launching threes like never before, and DeRozan is playing in more space because of it. 

Give the man credit. He’s scoring from all over. Check out the shot chart in the upper left.