The NBA has paused its regular-season schedule for a week for one of its annual showcase events, All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, which began with the Rising Stars tournament Friday night.
Once all of the acrobatic dunks and 3-point displays and skills competitions have been executed, once another All-Star Game has been played, there will be no shortage of intriguing storylines for the remainder of the 2021-22 campaign — both on a local and league-wide level — when the games resume Thursday night.
Here are 10 of the biggest stories to follow across the league for the final two months of the regular season and into the postseason:
No sleep ’til …
Despite their recent 11-game losing streak, the Nets still are the more captivating team in the New York market, especially with the eventual addition of Ben Simmons to their rotation, the pending return of injured of Kevin Durant and the ongoing saga involving unvaccinated Kyrie Irving. How many games the newly assembled Big 3 will get to play together and how quickly they can develop chemistry should determine whether the Nets will be considered a viable postseason threat.
The skidding Knicks, on the other hand, hit the break losers of seven of eight to fall 3 ½ games out of the No. 10 play-in position in the Eastern Conference, prompting reports that coach Tom Thibodeau has lost support within the front office. They finished last season on a 16-4 kick and probably need something similar to even have a chance at a 7-10 play-in berth, so an attention shift towards younger players and the draft soon could be in the offing.
The king and his court
The Lakers continue to be the league’s highest-rated soap opera, with a ninth-place record of 27-31 in the Western Conference entering the break despite a 12-year high of 29.1 points per game from 37-year-old LeBron James. Russell Westbrook, their $44 million per year offseason acquisition, is often benched late in games, and their other star, Anthony Davis, is expected to miss at least a month with a foot injury. Carmelo Anthony’s last chance at an elusive title looks highly unlikely in Los Angeles.
Harden his heart
James Harden’s forced departure from the Nets was a terrible look, but the 10-time All-Star now will team with MVP candidate Joel Embiid to try to get the 76ers past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since an NBA Finals run in 2001. Tobias Harris goes back to being one of the league’s better No. 3 options, and second-year point guard Tyrese Maxey emerged as one of the league’s most improved players during Simmons’ season-long absence.
What about the Bucks?
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending league champions have quietly flown under the radar in an improved Eastern Conference, essentially in a three-way tie for the third, fourth and fifth seeds with the 76ers and the Cavaliers entering the stretch run. Their battle-tested Big 3 of Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have a record of 24-7 when in the lineup together this season, and Milwaukee could get another boost if veteran big man Brook Lopez can return down the stretch from December back surgery.
Here come the Suns
It’s all right. The Suns made it all the way to the NBA Finals last year after 10 consecutive years out of the playoffs, and they clearly were no fluke in posting easily the league’s best record (48-10) through the break. Devin Booker is a full-fledged superstar, former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton is a legit double-double threat and 36-year-old Chris Paul is the glue piece with his 12th career All-Star berth and a league-best 10.7 assists per game in his ongoing quest for a first championship ring.
New kids on the block
Much like Phoenix’s rise one year ago, there will be some exciting new blood in the playoffs this year, led by the Bulls, with the addition of MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan and point guard Lonzo Ball, joining two-time All-Star Zach LaVine. They are tied with the Heat atop the East at 38-21, already seven more wins than they posted last season (31-41). The Cavaliers — led by first-time All-Stars Darius Garland and former Net Jarrett Allen and rookie center Evan Mobley — have been an even bigger surprise with a 35-24 mark after finishing 22-50 in 2020-21. In the West, dynamic point guard Ja Morant and the rising Grizzlies (41-19) look like an immediate threat, while Alex Rodriguez’s new team, the Timberwolves (31-28) also are on target to make the playoffs for only the second time in 18 seasons.
Eyes wide open
The Knicks were the surprising No. 4 seed in the playoffs last year before losing to Trae Young and the fifth-seeded Hawks, who advanced to the conference finals. Those teams currently are the No. 12 and No. 10 teams in the East, respectively. The improvements made by the Heat, the Bulls and the Cavaliers should make for an interesting first few rounds of the playoffs for the favorites like the Bucks, the Nets (when at full strength) and the retooled 76ers. The Celtics (34-26) also vaulted back into the top six with a recent nine-game winning streak.
Come out and play
The Warriors, who made five consecutive trips to the Finals (with three titles) from 2015-19, have moved back into the upper-echelon of the NBA at 42-17, behind only the Suns in the entire league. Stephen Curry and fellow All-Star starter Andrew Wiggins didn’t even wait for Klay Thompson’s return in January from multiple major injuries to lead Steve Kerr’s team to its resurgence to elite status.
Many, many valuable players
You could easily make a strong case for 10 or so candidates for league MVP, many of whom have been discussed above. Embiid, reigning winner Nikola Jokic, and former winners Antetokounmpo and Curry are the current favorites, but it’s getting harder to overlook team-leading stars such as Morant, DeRozan and Luka Doncic. Booker and Paul are both deserving, but likely will split any Phoenix votes, while past winners such as James and Durant likely have missed too much time to have a shot at adding to their personal trophy cases this year.