Whether you loved All-Star weekend (Jayson Tatum, Mac McClung) or not (Paul George, Mike Malone), it is time to transition again to in-game dunks, arduous fouls, immediate replays and one thing we have not seen on the NBA hardwood in a few week — protection.
With the playoffs beginning in early April, the following six weeks will decide which groups are going to get an early begin on the 2023-24 season and which of them are all-in on the playoffs. The commerce deadline (and fallout from it) supplied a bounty of storylines, particularly within the Western Conference after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks, and the enigmatic Russell Westbrook each “left” and “joined” Los Angeles.
And, don’t be concerned, we’re not leaving the Eastern Conference out of the celebration. The high three groups, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers will mix for 5 video games down the stretch. The Ben Simmons Experience returns to Brooklyn. And with the firing Nate McMillan, all eyes will probably be on Trae Young for any indication for a way the Atlanta Hawks will transfer ahead with a everlasting head coach.
So with the NBA schedule resuming Thursday evening, listed here are 10 storylines value watching.
1. Durant’s match with Phoenix
How will Kevin Durant and Devin Booker play off one another? Which model of Chris Paul will Phoenix get? How will Deandre Ayton modify with Durant’s arrival? What about Phoenix’s protection with out Mikal Bridges? What will the depth seem like? These are the questions the Suns must resolve in simply 22 video games. This staff has sufficient expertise to win the title this season, however there’s little or no time for the Suns to construct significant chemistry. Durant’s celebrity expertise instantly vaults Phoenix to the highest of the listing of title favorites, however simply because this staff is constructed to win now doesn’t suggest that it’s going to occur.
2. Lakers chasing the playoffs
During the All-Star break LeBron James stated the remaining video games on the Lakers’ schedule are “23 of an important video games of my profession for the common season.” Somewhat dramatic, however James is aware of the way it will look if he and the Lakers cannot make the playoffs for the second-straight season. L.A. ought to earn a play-in spot based mostly on their commerce deadline roster enhancements, chief amongst them being the combo transfer of unloading Russell Westbrook and the return of D’Angelo Russell. In the one recreation Russell, James and Anthony Davis performed collectively previous to the All-Star break, the trio mixed for 70 factors in a win in opposition to the New Orleans Pelicans. A small pattern dimension, certain, nevertheless it indicated that the Lakers generally is a dynamic power on offense. They’ve obtained the sixth-easiest remaining schedule within the league they usually play 13 of their 23 video games at residence, so L.A. is in prime place to safe a play-in spot within the West.
3. The Irving-Doncic experiment
Well, you actually cannot say the Mavericks did not get Luka Doncic assist on the commerce deadline, although the price would possibly show to be too excessive if Kyrie Irving would not re-sign in the summertime. But that is a subject for an additional day. Right now, the main focus is on making the Irving-Doncic duo work. We obtained a tiny glimpse of what it might seem like previous to the All-Star festivities, when Doncic and Irving mixed for 69 factors in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Talent-wise, these two is perhaps probably the most fearsome backcourt within the NBA, however Dallas has to determine tips on how to function each of its stars with out getting right into a cycle of “you go, I’m going.” There’s additionally the very actual situation of the Mavericks protection which ranks twenty fourth within the league.
4. Atlanta after McMillan
Nate McMillan’s exit brings a recent begin for an Atlanta staff that has severely disenchanted after buying and selling for Dejounte Murray final summer season. A 29-30 file is not what most anticipated from a backcourt that includes Murray and Trae Young, and but right here we’re. Interim head coach Joe Prunty has 23 video games to attempt to do what McMillan could not do in 59 video games — harness the expertise of Young and Murray right into a profitable offensive assault. If the Hawks get bounced within the first spherical once more, there’s going to be some vital questions the newly-shuffled entrance workplace must handle within the offseason that goes far past who would be the subsequent head coach.
5. Jokic chases MVP historical past
Nikola Jokic has the potential to do one thing that is solely been accomplished three different instances in NBA historical past, and never since Larry Bird did it in 1986 — three-peat as league MVP. At the beginning of the season that will’ve been an insane chance to understand, as the everyday narrative of voter fatigue has normally saved gamers from successful the award thrice in a row. But Jokic is acting at a stage above his prior MVP seasons, and he is main a Nuggets staff that sits atop the West. His scoring has decreased by somewhat over three factors an evening, but he is as environment friendly as ever taking pictures a career-high 63.2 % from the sphere whereas averaging a triple-double (24.7 factors, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists). Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum have maybe the very best circumstances to make in opposition to Jokic, however whereas these two gamers have had their ups and downs this season, the Joker has remained a relentless, dominant power.
6. Anticipated returns of a number of stars
Durant’s return is actually probably the most anticipated, and it has already been reported that he plans to make his Suns debut on March 1 in opposition to the Charlotte Hornets. But there are a number of different stars across the league who’re anticipated to make a comeback that might affect the playoff image. Zion Williamson’s return may doubtlessly have probably the most affect on playoff seeding, because the Pelicans appeared like world beaters when he was wholesome at the beginning of the season. He hasn’t performed since early January with a hamstring damage, however may return someday in March simply in time for a closing playoff push. Stephen Curry is one other participant who was sidelined previous to the All-Star break who may return quickly. His return will probably be not less than per week out, although, because the Warriors introduced lately that he is made “good progress” however will probably be reevaluated once more in per week.
7. Westbrook’s cruise to nowhere
Russell Westbrook’s time with the Lakers did not go effectively, and after being traded on the deadline to the Utah Jazz, after which agreeing to a contract buyout, he determined to remain in Los Angeles and signal with the Clippers. Paul George — who went 0 for 9 from 3 in Sunday evening’s All-Star “shoot round” — lobbied fairly arduous publicly for Westbrook to signal with the Clippers, regardless of L.A. having nice success with Terrance Mann at level guard this season. It may very well be seen as a low-risk possibility for the Clippers, as Westbrook will probably be an unrestricted free agent this summer season. But for a staff that has didn’t dwell as much as championship aspirations primarily on account of accidents, there is a chance that Westbrook may hinder the Clippers in a season the place they might make a deep run within the postseason. That is, if Kawhi Leonard and George keep wholesome.
8. Kings to finish 16-year playoff drought
It really is wild how the Kings have managed to overlook the playoffs for 16-consecutive years in a league the place over 50 % of groups make the postseason every year. Though Sacramento has lengthy been the butt of jokes within the NBA about their lack of success over the past decade-plus, this season appears to be the one the place the laughing stops. Sacramento sits third (!!) within the Western Conference, proudly owning the second-best offense with a roster that options two All-Stars in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, plus sharpshooter Kevin Huerter and rookie Keegan Murray. The solely trigger for concern is Sacramento has the fourth-hardest schedule over the remainder of the season, and in a crowded West the place solely 4.5 video games separate them and the eleventh spot, issues may get even tighter actual quick down the stretch.
9. All eyes on Simmons
With no extra superstars on the Nets, and much much less stress on the staff to do a lot of something, Ben Simmons is in an incredible place to rebuild a few of his worth. After being dealt to the Nets from Philadelphia ultimately season’s commerce deadline, Simmons hasn’t appeared something just like the All-Star, All-Defensive guard he was. It’s been reported that Brooklyn is planning on gauging his commerce worth this summer season. That is not stunning given Simmons is averaging a career-low 6.9 factors and was pushed to a bench position the final 4 video games previous to the All-Star break. But the final 24 video games of the season are a chance for Simmons to show that he can get again to being the ground basic and lockdown defender he as soon as was.
10. A battle atop the East
The Celtics have maintained management of the Eastern Conference for a lot of the season, however the Bucks are lurking at only a half-game again and the Sixers are additionally inside putting distance. But every staff has challenges. All three of Boston’s video games in opposition to Philadelphia and Milwaukee will probably be on the street. Milwaukee is on a 12-game win streak, although Giannis Antetokounmpo will doubtless miss a while with a wrist damage. And Philadelphia, whereas solely three video games out of first, must leapfrog over Milwaukee in some unspecified time in the future as a way to proceed town’s string of seeing its groups attain the league’s title recreation as a result of whoever has home-court benefit within the East could have the within monitor on reaching the NBA Finals.
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