Five storylines to watch for after the NBA All-Star break

Image Credit: New York Post

For better or worse, and whether it causes you anxiety or excitement, we’ve nearly reached the NBA All-Star break. Running from February 15th to 17th, the best talent the league has to offer will take the court in various contests. Beginning with an All-Star Celebrity Game and closing with the NBA’s own All-Star Game, basketball will be back before we know it.

With that said, there are still plenty of things left to be decided over the next couple of months until the postseason begins. While some teams are either near-locks for playoff spots or have been all but eliminated from contention, others’ hopes are still hanging in the balance. In an effort to not only recap the events of this season but also to help prepare you for the rest of it, we’ve compiled a list of five storylines to watch for after the break.

1. Will LeBron’s Lakers make the playoffs?

The Los Angeles Lakers may not be in rare air as of now, but they are according to LeBron James’ standards. At 28-29, this is the latest in the season a James-led team has been below .500 since 2003-04. This mediocrity can be attributed to multiple things. For starters, James missed 17 games with the most serious injury of his career thus far (groin strain). Rajon Rondo has missed a healthy chunk of the season himself due to injuries. Lonzo Ball hasn’t played since January 19th because of an ankle sprain. Health has been a huge issue with LA this year.

Speaking of huge issues, they certainly don’t stop at injuries. Turning the ball over at the second-highest rate in the NBA and ranking 26th out of 30 teams in three-point efficiency, Los Angeles has failed to execute in many areas. 21st in the league in offensive rating, things just haven’t clicked with so many moving parts in and out of the lineup. If the season ended today, Luke Walton’s bunch would be the 10th seed and would miss the Western Conference playoffs.

Something has got to – and will – give. From this point on, the Lakers face the league’s 9th-most difficult schedule. Playing in the highly-competitive West doesn’t help matters one bit. However, it’s not all doom-and-gloom. LeBron James is healthy. The drama of the trade deadline has passed. Lonzo Ball should be back within the next few weeks. The next 25 games will not only affect the Lakers’ young core, but could prove to be a career-defining moment for James. Buckle up.

2. Who will end up winning the MVP race?

James Harden. Paul George. Giannis Antetokounmpo. This year’s MVP race has been one of the more exciting ones in recent memory. Harden is in the midst of the second-longest 30-point streak in league history. George is averaging nearly 39 points in his last 8 games. If Antetokounmpo’s numbers hold up, he’ll be one of six players to ever average at least 27 points, 12 rebounds and six assists per game in a season. His team holds the best record in the East.

There may not be a wrong choice for MVP among these three. Harden’s scoring at a historic rate. George is not only leading Oklahoma City to a top-three seed in the West, but he’s doing so while performing at an elite level on both ends of the floor. Antetokounmpo has put up some legendary numbers of his own while converting on 58% of his attempts from the field. However you slice it, the top three players in the league this year have been extraordinary. That’s without mentioning the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Scary thought.

3. How will the top of the Eastern Conference shake out?

The four best teams in the Eastern Conference (no order) are the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics. Sorry, Indiana Pacers. Although Indy is the third-best team in the conference by record, no further damage can be done without Victor Oladipo. The difference between the fifth and sixth seeds in the East is 7.5 games. This means the top five teams are likely locked in, it’s just a matter of in what order.

Let’s focus on the aforementioned “top four.” The Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks are flourishing in their first year under head coach Mike Budenholzer. Leading the NBA in defensive rating while maintaining a top-5 mark on the offensive end, the balance of this team is magnificent. Acquiring forward Nikola Mirotic from the Pelicans was a chess move that not only adds another scorer to the lineup, but gears Milwaukee up for a playoff run. The Bucks mean business.

In Toronto, it’s been business as usual, but with a twist. Instead of DeMar DeRozan serving as the franchise’s star player under head coach Dwane Casey, it’s now Kawhi Leonard paired with Nick Nurse. The emergence of Paskal Siakam has helped lift the ceiling of this starting lineup by a considerable margin. Possessing one of the deepest benches in all of basketball, Toronto was already dangerous before the trade deadline. Acquiring three-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, is there anything Nurse’s squad can’t accomplish? Stay tuned to find out.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ “process” appeared to be nearly complete when the front office brought in Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Notice – I said nearly. In a move that shocked the NBA world, general manager Elton Brand acquired 20-PPG scorer Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. Fielding a starting lineup of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Butler, Harris and Joel Embiid, perhaps the only team in the NBA with as much firepower in its first five is Golden State. Good luck getting into a shootout with Philly, as it currently ranks third in the NBA in points per game.

Finally, the Boston Celtics. A team that had a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals last season returns the same lineup, but adds a healthy Gordon Hayward to the mix. On top of that, Kyrie Irving has improved as a facilitator and remains one of the more dynamic players in the league. If I told you before the season that’d be the case, would you take it? All hasn’t panned out as smoothly as Celtics fans anticipated, but the C’s remain just one game out of third place in the East. On top of that, Hayward is averaging nearly 15 points per game in February. He’s slowly rounding back into form. Could that be the case for the Celtics as well?

4. Can the Denver Nuggets keep a stronghold on the 2 seed in the West?

Behind dark horse MVP candidate Nikola Jokic and the league’s third-best offense, the young Denver Nuggets find themselves in sole possession of second place in the Western Conference. The Serbian center is averaging 20.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game while making a little over half of his shots. His defense leaves a bit to be desired but is far from the train-wreck it once was. Third year guard Jamal Murray has raised his scoring average to 18.3 PPG and is an integral part of the offense.

This doesn’t mean Denver is close to peaking, though. Paul Millsap has been banged up throughout the year. So has Will Barton. Add Gary Harris to the list. Point guard Isaiah Thomas literally made his season debut on 2/13. Oh yeah, rookie Michael Porter Jr. has yet to play a game. In addition to that, his debut this season has not yet been ruled out. Denver is just getting started. Youth will mature over time. Health is partially luck. If Denver can hold those off for another 25 games, it’ll be the two seed. For a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012-13, the present and future are bright.

5. Will an outside seed end up making the playoffs?

Could a team not currently in the playoff picture sneak into it by the end of the year? Let’s start with the Eastern Conference:

The only team I’m nearly certain about securing a playoff spot is Brooklyn. D’Angelo Russell’s newfound confidence and Caris LeVert’s return from injury should help Kenny Atkinson’s group make it in. Outside of that, 7-9 is a toss-up.

The Hornets have Kemba Walker, but that’s about it. It seems like Charlotte has been in that predicament for quite a while now. Detroit’s pairing of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond has only benefitted the former. A career-best year from Griffin (26.3/8.1/5.4 on 47.9% FG and 36.5% 3P) may not be enough to carry Detroit to the postseason. Miami has a deep roster, but a lack of top-end talent. The imminent return of Goran Dragic could either help a lot or disrupt Justise Winslow’s flow at PG.

After that, Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon are fun to watch in Orlando, but that doesn’t equal playoffs. The addition of Markelle Fultz is also intriguing – but see the last sentence. At the bottom of that list of teams will still somewhat of a chance is the Washington Wizards. With John Wall out for this season and maybe all of next, along with Otto Porter now shining as a Chicago Bull, stick a fork in Bradley Beal and the rest of his team.

Now, let’s go out West:

Not pictured: Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans. Dallas has traded 4/5 of its starting lineup. New Orleans’ drama with Anthony Davis is a deal of its own. You won’t have to worry about either of these teams making a post-ASB run.

Back to the table. Utah isn’t a lock to make the playoffs but with its swagger back and the second-easiest remaining schedule on the docket, Quin Snyder’s team should qualify. San Antonio has been one of the conference’s better teams at home, but struggles mightily on the road. It’s hard to get a read on them. The Clippers traded their best player away in Harris and appear to have thrown in the towel on 2018-19. Sacramento had never been more than three games above .500 until Sunday. While De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are extremely fun to watch, calling them a playoff-bound backcourt doesn’t sound right just yet. It is possible, though.

That brings us to the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota is another team that has hovered around .500 all season, but just doesn’t appear to have enough firepower to rise up the standings. Los Angeles, though, has the highest ceiling of any team currently seeded 7-11. 20-14 and the fourth-seeded team in the West on Christmas, head coach Luke Walton knew his work was cut out for him when LeBron James suffered a strained groin. In the 17 games James missed, Los Angeles won just six of them. It’s going to be an uphill battle to make the playoffs in LA. However, if James has taught us anything throughout his career, it’s to not count him out.

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