The biggest NBA storylines to watch during the stretch run of the regular season

Hey! You made it via NBA All-Star Weekend, and the following several-day break in NBA-related actions!

(Effectively, non-“franchise in tumult fires its head coach, franchise in ascent retains its stabilizing agent, and players reduce wrestling promos on each other over a head coach who was alleged to be a stabilizing agent for a franchise that simply is likely to be in tumult” NBA-related actions, anyway. Man. For a Monday and Tuesday with no video games, that was a fairly busy couple of days!)

How will we have fun this momentous achievement? Commissioner Silver, would you love to do the honors?

With Adam’s enthusiastic wind in our sails, a music in our hearts and a pep in our step, allow us to flip now to the NBA’s annual dash to the end line. Simply over seven weeks separate Thursday’s resumption of play from the top of the 2023-24 NBA common season, and there’s nonetheless loads to determine.

Let’s set the desk for the stretch run by highlighting a few of the most vital issues to control between now and mid-April, beginning with the biggest-ticket merchandise of all of them:

Who’s received the very best shot of profitable the 2024 NBA championship?

That’d be the Celtics, house owners of a six-game cushion atop the East and a four-game edge over the very best within the West — and thus wanting like a near-certainty to have home-court benefit in each playoff sequence they enter.

Led by the NBA’s most fearsome high six — perennial MVP candidate Jayson Tatum, All-Star swingman Jaylen Brown, superior stats darling Derrick White, stalwart large man Al Horford, perfect-fit offseason additions Kristaps Porziņģis and Jrue Vacation — Boston sprinted out of the gates, going a league-best 26-6 in 2023. The Celtics outscored opponents by greater than 11 factors per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in that span; that will’ve been the second-highest internet score of any group for the reason that peak Kevin Durant-era Warriors. (Hey there, 2020-21 Jazz!) They cooled off a bit as soon as the calendar flipped — three residence losses in 31 days? For disgrace! — however headed into the All-Star break on a six-game heater, capped by a 50-point demolition of the Nets that marked the top of the street in Brooklyn for Jacque Vaughn.

There are holes to poke: They don’t get to the rim sufficient (twenty seventh within the NBA in each drives per recreation and subject purpose makes an attempt inside 5 ft); their offense is simply too 3-point-dependent (they’re 36-6 after they make not less than 15 triples, and simply 7-6 after they don’t); they’re closely reliant on a big-man battery of Porziņģis and Horford, whose sturdiness is likely to be the largest X-factor within the postseason image. However by way of top-end expertise, playable depth and two-way versatility, the Celtics profile because the favorites not simply to return out of the East, however to win the entire thing.

Who’s received the very best shot of constructing positive that doesn’t occur?

That stated: Favorites with home-court benefit lose on a regular basis. (Like, say, final yr’s Celtics.)

Boston figures to face some stiff challenges within the East. The Cavaliers have been the most popular group within the NBA since mid-December, winners of 18 of their final 20 behind Donovan Mitchell and the league’s stingiest protection. The Bucks, for all their foibles, have seen their protection tick up since Doc Rivers’ arrival, and nonetheless function two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and defense-breaker Damian Lillard.

The Knicks had been scorching in January behind the All-Star play of Jalen Brunson, landed reinforcements on the commerce deadline, and will see multiple injured rotation pieces return from harm quickly. The 76ers — whose commerce for Buddy Hield is wanting good, and who simply added Kyle Lowry on the buyout market — proceed to function like they consider they’re getting the league’s reigning MVP, middle Joel Embiid, again in time for the postseason … which, previous Philly shortfalls however, would make them a really completely different class of risk in a playoff sequence. Heck, with Tyrese Haliburton’s go-go Pacers and the alligator-blood Warmth lurking, even a first-round sequence towards a play-in group could possibly be fraught.

Make it out of the East, and also you’re seemingly staring down the barrel of a behemoth. The West-leading Timberwolves come to the occasion with the NBA’s most misery-inducing protection and a pair of All-Star offensive weapons, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Cities, able to decreasing your protection to cinders all by themselves. The Thunder boast top-five models on each side of the ball — the one group moreover Boston that may say that — because of a veritable armada of menacing and multifaceted youth, led by MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Rookie of the 12 months candidate Chet Holmgren and Most Improved Participant candidate Jalen Williams.

The Clippers have the NBA’s second-best file and finest offense since shifting Russell Westbrook to the bench in mid-November, a transfer that unlocked probably the most ferocious model of the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George-James Harden hydra. The fourth-seeded Nuggets — , the dudes who hoisted the Larry O’B again in June — nonetheless, FYI, make use of Nikola Jokić, which is a golden ticket into the inside circle of significant rivalry. Oh, and there’s the Suns, who gained 14 of their final 18 heading into the break, and have blitzed opponents by 12 factors per 100 when Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal share the ground.

So, yeah: In a league teeming with expertise, even the favourite faces a treacherous climb to the highest of the mountain. A studying from the Letter of Zaza to the ATLiens:

What’s probably the most confounding variable in all of this?

On the danger of being overly simplistic: well being.

Boston’s high six is sensational; it’s additionally closely depending on Porziņģis, who has missed 15 video games this season with a wide range of knee, calf, ankle and again accidents, and Horford, who will flip 38 three days earlier than the beginning of the NBA Finals. The Bucks are most harmful when Khris Middleton is within the combine — Milwaukee has outscored opponents by 16.9 factors per 100 when he shares the ground with Giannis, Dame and Brook Lopez, practically thrice as a lot as when these three play with out Middleton, in line with PBP Stats — which is why it bears monitoring that he missed all however eight minutes of their final six contests earlier than the break with a sprained ankle.

Embiid’s standing — how lengthy he misses, what he appears to be like like when he comes again — casts by far the most important shadow, however the Sixers’ odds of each holding down the fort whereas he recovers and making critical noise when he returns would additionally enhance vastly if De’Anthony Melton, Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington can be part of the occasion, too. New York’s possibilities of making a deep run hinge on OG Anunoby coming off of elbow surgical procedure, Mitchell Robinson coming off of ankle surgical procedure and Julius Randle hoping to stave off shoulder surgical procedure. And the Warmth — who made the Finals eight months in the past, and now sit a half-game out of sixth place and three video games south of fourth — is likely to be an actual nuisance to take care of if they might ever get all of their primary guys on the ground on the identical time.

Within the West, as ever, a lot relies upon upon the structural integrity of the limbs of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. (Particularly as a result of, whereas Kawhi has already inked a multi-year contract extension to stay a Clipper, PG has but to take action — and, in consequence, could possibly be the belle of the ball in free company this summer time.) The Nuggets have rolled at a 60-win clip when Jokić has Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. within the lineup with him; holding them, Swiss Military knife Aaron Gordon and 3-and-D ace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who missed time with a hamstring harm earlier than the break) ambulatory is paramount to their title protection. The second tier of hopefuls every have harm dangers — Beal in Phoenix, Zion Williamson in New Orleans, Kyrie Irving in Dallas, et al. — that they should maintain as much as have an opportunity at grabbing the brass ring, too.

It’s not precisely revelatory to say that groups don’t operate as nicely with out their finest expertise, and usually want all fingers on deck to win the title. However one thing doesn’t have to be shocking to be true; which group survives the subsequent seven weeks unscathed will seemingly go a great distance towards figuring out which ones can survive the postseason gauntlet, too.

Can Jayson Tatum lead the Celtics to a championship and win the league’s MVP award alongside the way in which? (Picture by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald through Getty Pictures)

You have got already written the acronym “MVP” 5 instances. The place are we within the Most Beneficial Participant dialog?

Very a lot within the thick of it! (Shouts to Armando Iannucci.)

For starters, Embiid — whom I voted for final yr, who gained final yr, and who I believed was on a path to repeating at midseason — is probably going out of it. After some early-season absences adopted by a meniscus tear that required surgical restore, the Philadelphia celebrity has already missed 21 video games; that drops him under the 65-game minimal for consideration for main year-end awards that was instituted in the latest collective bargaining settlement between NBA house owners and the gamers’ union.

It’s nonetheless technically doable for the large fella to get himself on the poll; the part of the 2023 CBA that covers the video games performed requirement for sure league honors contains the chance for a participant to file “both an Award Eligibility Grievance or an Extraordinary Circumstances Problem.” However since Embiid’s absence stems from a reliable harm reasonably than both the Sixers conspiring to maintain him from the court docket or, like, an acute onset of tornadoes lifting up his home on the basis and transporting him to Oz, he’s in all probability out of the operating.

With that in thoughts, my Yahoo Sports activities colleague Ben Rohrbach reset the sector in print (nicely, pixels) simply earlier than the All-Star break, and I talked about it on final week’s episode of Devine Intervention with ESPN’s Chris Herring …

In brief: Heading into the ultimate 25ish video games, Jokić (averaging about 26 factors, 12 rebounds and 9 assists per recreation on .646 true capturing), SGA (31 factors, 5.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and a league-leading 2.2 steals per recreation on .647 true capturing) and Giannis (31-12-6 on .651 true capturing) are up on the high of the listing. Luka Dončić could be very a lot within the combine, too, together with his league-leading 34.2 factors, 8.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists per recreation largely accountable for holding the Mavericks inside hailing distance of a top-four seed regardless of a slew of key items — Irving, Dereck Full of life II, Dante Exum, Josh Inexperienced — lacking vital time. Tatum, the proverbial finest participant on the very best group, deserves consideration, too.

Different gamers may very nicely climb the poll because the season winds down: Leonard, the Clippers’ high canine, who appears to be like pretty much as good as he has in years; Mitchell, the straw that stirs the drink in Cleveland, taking part in the very best protection of his profession; possibly somebody like Brunson or KD/Booker, if their groups climb the standings. For probably the most half, although, these are the dudes who’ll be jockeying for place, and fascinating in a nightly recreation of Can You Prime This?, over the subsequent month and a half.

Talking of “jockeying for place,” which components of the standings ought to we be keeping track of?

Within the West? Um … all of them?

First-place Minnesota is three video games away from fourth-place Denver; only a recreation and a half separates OKC in second, the Clips in third and the Nuggets in fourth. The house-court benefit spots — and, with them, the added weight that profitable the convention would possibly give to the groups’ respective year-end award candidates — will in all probability be a nightly recreation of Musical Chairs from now till the music stops on April 14.

Under the highest 4 lies an excellent gnarlier site visitors jam. Only one.5 video games separate Phoenix and New Orleans, tied for the fifth seed, and eighth-place Sacramento. Three video games out of fifth? The immediately surging Lakers, in ninth. A recreation and a half behind them? The downright-respectable-looking Warriors, in tenth. Think about seventh-place Dallas, and that’s six groups with All-NBA expertise, all trying to both safe one of many final two assured playoff spots or, worst-case, get out of the underside half of the play-in image, which requires you to win two video games simply to snare the No. 8 seed and a sequence towards a rested first-place favourite. That race may get frantic.

The struggle for the highest is a bit much less dramatic within the East, because of Boston blowing everybody’s doorways off early and Cleveland getting fresh-dipped in flames for 2 straight months; the Celtics and Cavaliers, almost definitely, would be the high two seeds. Beneath them, although, the reeling Bucks, Knicks and Sixers are all clustered inside two video games of one another within the race for third — which might A) get them out of Boston’s bracket for the primary two rounds and B) imply avoiding what guarantees to be a knife-fight within the 4-vs.-5 matchup.

Damage-plagued Philly’s two video games forward of Indiana, and solely a half-game separates the Pacers, Warmth and Magic in sixth, seventh and eighth place. Relying on how the Sixers come out of the break, that could possibly be a slugfest to get out of the play-in, and keep away from slumming it with the Bulls and Hawks, who, by league fiat, have the ninth and tenth spots on lock, with the just-fired-their-coach Nets and Raptors fading farther from rivalry, and getting nearer to “excessive lottery decide” territory, with every passing second.

Talking of “excessive lottery decide territory,” who’s going to win Rookie of the 12 months?

It could possibly be Holmgren, my midseason decide, who got here off a medical redshirt freshman season, stepped into the beginning middle spot for a Thunder group that made the play-in match final season however had a obtrusive gap within the center, and has crammed it completely:

Averaging practically 17 factors, eight rebounds, three assists and three blocks in half-hour per recreation whereas capturing 62% contained in the arc and 39% past it as the inside linchpin of a top-five protection for a legit title contender — as a rookie — is very spectacular. The query is whether or not sufficient voters will suppose it’s extra spectacular than this:

On December 8, after a quarter-season of experimentation, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich moved Zach Collins to the bench, making house to slip No. 1 total draft decide Victor Wembanyama from energy ahead to middle. Since then, the 7-foot-4 font of ludicrousness has averaged 21.6 factors, 10.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 3.5 blocks and a steal … in simply 27.3 minutes per recreation. He’s accomplished that on 49/36/81 capturing splits — good for a .590 true capturing share — whereas ending greater than a 3rd of San Antonio’s offensive possessions with a shot try, foul drawn or turnover, which is a mixture of utilization charge and capturing effectivity most usually related to Corridor of Fame wings.

Simply earlier than the break, Wembanyama posted 27 factors, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks in a blowout victory over the Raptors. That’s the primary triple-double with blocks in additional than three years, and solely the fifteenth such recreation with 5 or extra assists for the reason that league started recording blocked pictures in 1973.

Oh, and in that span, the Spurs — who, once more, only for the file, are horrible — have clamped down like a top-five protection with Huge Vic on the ground.

Voters must select between how gracefully and seamlessly Holmgren slid into an ideal place, elevating the younger Thunder to title rivalry within the course of, and the way dumbfoundingly overwhelming Wembanyama’s been, and the way he’s continued to blossom even amid the stultifying circumstances at this stage of the Spurs’ rebuilding course of. Whichever method the vote goes, this a lot not less than is obvious: Everybody else is taking part in for third. (Apologies to Brandon Miller, Jaime Jaquez Jr., and the remainder of the rookie class.)

Talking of transformational rookies … what’s the State of Our Tanking Union in 2024?

For probably the most half, the identical because it’s been for the reason that early days of the season, with 5 groups completely head and shoulders — or, I suppose, ft and kneecaps? — under everybody else.

The three worst groups within the NBA — the 8-46 Pistons, 9-45 Wizards and 11-44 Spurs — are presently in place to have the very best odds of touchdown the No. 1 total decide within the 2024 NBA Draft. (Which, in Yahoo Sports activities NBA draft analyst Krysteen Peek’s newest mock draft, is 7-foot-1 French middle Alex Sarr.) Simply behind them: the 13-41 Hornets and the 15-39 Path Blazers.

Fall into the underside 5, and also you’ve received not less than a ten.5% probability of profitable the draft lottery, and not less than a 42% probability of a top-four decide. There’s some drama, then, surrounding whether or not the Raptors (19-36, losers of 15 of their final 19) or Grizzlies (20-36, losers of 9 of their final 11) can sink to the underside sufficient to oust Portland for a bottom-five spot.

In Memphis’ case, which may imply benching Vince Williams and GG Jackson, as a result of these dudes seem to rule:

Another bottom-of-the-standings issues to control:

  • You understand how Toronto’s been one of many worst groups within the league for the reason that first three or 4 video games after sending Anunoby to the Knicks for Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett and the Pistons’ 2024 second-round decide? That’s form of not the worst factor for the Raptors, who owe their 2024 first-round decide to San Antonio as a part of final February’s Jakob Poeltl deal … however provided that it falls exterior the primary six picks within the draft. If the ping-pong balls wind up placing Toronto seventh or worse, the choice goes to the Spurs — which is why, now that the Scottie Barnes All-Star marketing campaign is within the rear-view mirror, it’s in all probability within the Raps’ finest curiosity to only type of take it straightforward over these previous couple of weeks. Discretion is the higher a part of valour, and all that. (We add the “u” as a result of Canada.)

  • The Nets, who’ve been horrible for practically two months — ever since they sat/extreme-load-managed a number of gamers towards the Bucks in late December — and, once more, simply fired their coach, now personal the NBA’s eighth-worst file, with only one extra win than Memphis. Who stands to learn as Brooklyn’s season circles the drain? The Rockets, who personal the Nets’ unprotected 2024 first-round draft decide from the 2021 commerce that despatched James Harden to Brooklyn. The more severe the Nets get, the higher it’s for Houston.

  • Bear in mind how the Jazz traded away three rotation gamers on the deadline? It’s maybe value noting that Utah’s 2024 first-round decide will go to the Thunder if it falls exterior the highest 10, because of the Nice Derrick Favors Wage Dump of 2021. If the decide lands at tenth or decrease, although, the Jazz maintain it. It’s additionally maybe value noting, then, that after shedding the 4 video games they performed after the commerce deadline, the Jazz now sit 2.5 video games out of the play-in — with the Eleventh-worst file within the NBA. So in case you see Danny Ainge and Co. publicly rooting for, say, the 24-30 Rockets and 24-31 Hawks to go on a run right here down the stretch, you’ll know why.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - FEBRUARY 18: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Western Conference All-Stars reacts prior to the start of the 2024 NBA All-Star Game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on February 18, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

What does the long run maintain for King James and the Lakers? (Picture by Stacy Revere/Getty Pictures)

Not for nothing, however you haven’t talked about LeBron James as soon as.

[hits Ctrl+F]

Holy crap, you’re proper! I suppose that’s what occurs when the Lakers spend greater than half the season scuffling within the play-in combine and by no means actually wanting like a bona fide contender.

Now that you simply point out it, although, that’s value monitoring in and of itself, isn’t it?

No matter you consider the entire “Golden State requested about LeBron?!?!?” story that broke on the eve of All-Star, it did shine a highlight on the truth that James holds a $51.4 million participant possibility for subsequent season. That possibility offers LeBron — who, by the way in which, solely wants 132 factors to push his all-time file whole to 40,000 in his illustrious profession — one thing he’s lengthy prioritized practically as a lot as championship rivalry and a hand-picked supporting forged: the luxurious to maneuver as he pleases.

If the Lakers go on a run over the subsequent couple of months, finding sufficient offensive punch to pair with a snarling Anthony Davis-led protection in a mix potent sufficient to win a few playoff sequence, then James can train the choice to re-up in L.A., maybe on a one-plus-one deal that preserves his freedom of motion come the summer time of 2025 whereas additionally locking in a elevate for subsequent season. If issues go south, although? Effectively, you don’t need to pressure your mind too onerous to think about some championship hopefuls making a pitch to welcome the King for an additional run at a fifth ring.

Perhaps the way in which the season ends has no bearing on LeBron’s decision-making course of. Perhaps, because the rumblings have lengthy instructed, he’s pleased sufficient with life in Los Angeles and as a Laker that no particular result’s going to vary that.

“I’m a Laker, and I have been very pleased being a Laker the final six years, and hopefully it stays that method,” James stated throughout an All-Star Weekend press convention, in line with our Ben Rohrbach.

The particular outcome may, nevertheless, inform how the Lakers transfer round James — whether or not they rekindle conversations with Atlanta about Dejounte Murray, or even perhaps Trae Younger, or attempt to make a run at whichever different star would possibly wind up shaking free.

How the Lakers play over the subsequent a number of weeks may go a great distance towards figuring out the form of the Western playoffs; we’re simply 10 months eliminated, bear in mind, from L.A. making a run to the convention finals on the power of LeBron, AD and Simply Sufficient Taking pictures and Playmaking. It may additionally, although, go a great distance towards figuring out the form of what comes subsequent — in June, July and past.

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