5 NBA stars who must step up in second half of the season

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is now at its All-Star break. While the second half of the season has already started, the “unofficial” second half represents a time that teams get more serious.

Contenders vie for playoff positioning. Stars attempt to step their game up. Those who struggled through ho-hum starts to the season look to turn the corner.

From Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn to Victor Oladipo in Indiana, multiple star players in the Eastern Conference must step up to put their teams in a better position.

Out west, it’s going to be a dog fight for positioning and playoff spots. Can Kristaps Porzingis continue his recent stellar performance and propel his Mavericks to a top-four seed?

These are among the five NBA stars who must step up big time once the All-Star break comes to a conclusion late next week.

Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn heads into the All-Star Break with Irving having missed 34 of the team’s 54 games. It really is something to behold. He has suffered setback after setback on the injury front.

When on the court, this former NBA champ has not elevated the level of play, either. The Nets boast a 8-12 record in games Irving has suited up in. The backdrop here being some drama between the enigmatic point guard and his new team.

If the Nets are going to make noise come playoff team. Heck, if the Nets are going to make the playoffs. Irving simply must get healthy and prove signing him to a max contract was not a mistake. It really is that simple.

Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

After struggling throughout the season, the Unicorn has picked it up big time for his Mavericks recently. It has also coincided with MVP candidate Luka Doncic’s most-recent ankle injury. Porzingis averaged 28.5 points and 10.5 rebounds on 52% shooting in the six games heading into the break.

Not only does Dallas need Doncic to remain healthy, Porzingis must play at this All-Star level if the team wants to earn home-court advantage in the first round. Dallas finished the first half with a 17-16 record after starting 16-6. Ouch!

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

This is not to say that Simmons has failed to step up recently. The All-Star has been great since the turn of the calendar, averaging 20.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 2.1 steals over the past 18 games. He’s also a top Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

At issue here is drama surrounding fellow star Joel Embiid and Philadelphia’s status as merely the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the break. Heck, head coach Brett Brown is on the hot seat.

In order for the Sixers to make a “second half run,” Simmons needs to elevate his game on offense. It might be too late to expand his shooting this season, but a better and more consistent all-around performance would help Philly live up to what were lofty pre-season expectations.

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Out of shape. That’s been the word surrounding Jokic in the Mile High City thus far this season. His performance in an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers heading into the break added another level to this narrative.

Overall, the Joker is performing at nearly the same basic statistical level as last season. He’s just been too inconsistent for a Nuggets team that’s looking to vie for the Western Conference title.

Consider this. Jokic has scored 15 points or less 14 times this season. That total stood at 17 times all of last year. He’s also finished negative in the plus-minus territory as many times (23) as he did all of last season. If the surprising Nuggets want to be seen as legit contenders, Jokic must step up.

Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

It’s understandable that Oladipo has struggled out of the gate in seven games since returning from a year-long absence. He must get his proverbial sea legs under him. Maybe the All-Star Break will provide that.

What we do know is this star guard is averaging just over 11 points on a disastrous 33% shooting from the field on the season. He’s also minus-38 when on the court during that span.

Indiana has the talent to make waves in the postseason back east. Unfortunately, recent struggles have coincided with Oladipo’s return to the court. The Pacers lost six of the seven games he suited up in prior to the break. This must change in short order.