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Five top storylines to watch as the NBA season pushes toward postseason drive

Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

We have arrived at the point in the season where the landscape of the NBA is solidified. The trade deadline has come and gone, and barring a few more buyout candidate signings, the rosters for
the playoffs are set.

We still might see one or two more coaching firings from now until the end of the season, especially from the teams stuck in purgatory. But for the most part, we have a pretty good idea of who will make the playoffs. From here on out, it’s a race toward seeding.

There are still unanswered and highly intriguing storylines for us to salivate. Here are the five biggest inquiries that could shape the NBA moving forward for this postseason and beyond.

Can Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving co-exist with Dallas Mavericks?

dallas mavericks
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There has been healthy debate among former NBA greats, pundits, and casuals alike on the nuance of two superstar guards sharing the ball. The point of origin was when Earl “The Pearl” Monroe came to New York to team up in a superstar backcourt with former rival Walt “Clyde the Glide” Frazier. The tandem not only made it work, but they also won a championship together in 1973.

Fast-forward almost 30 years later when the Knicks tried to make alchemy again by pairing Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis, leading to the single-most infamous and dysfunctional
season in team history.

Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić are just as good as Monroe and Frazier and have already formed some good chemistry on and off the court since being paired a week before the trade deadline. But the pressure is intense in Dallas right now to appease their Slovenian superstar guard with a competitive team.

The Mavs are 0-3, with both stars healthy and sharing the court. It’s ridiculous to think that won’t
improve sooner rather than later. The two will figure it out and thrive. But will it equal a deep
playoff run? The Mavs lost their heart and glue guy in Dorian Finney-Smith. The roster surrounding the star duo is among the worst in the NBA. If the Mavs get bounced in the first round, and Irving walks for nothing in this summer’s free agency, a la Jalen Brunson last season, heads should roll. Even worse, Dončić could, and should, ask out.

Will GM Sam Presti end Oklahoma City Thunder tank?

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City General Manager and cult leader Sam Presti have executed one of the more
perverse tank jobs in recent memory, sitting players, extending injury recoveries, and shipping
off veterans to improve his team’s draft odds. But the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as a candidate for both Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player awards this season has the Thunder one game under .500 as the season resumes after the All-Star Break.

SGA’s ascension has accelerated the rebuilding process and has the Thunder in a position to compete for a playoff spot. It will be up to Presti to abandon his wack obsession with NBA Draft Lottery hoarding and put his young core in a position to learn and grow in the playoffs.

The last four seasons of draft capital have netted the Thunder valuable pieces with high upside
(Lu Dort, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams), not to mention the return of No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren next season.

Presti needs to turn his cache of draft picks into meaningful veterans. Nobody is ever going to
choose OKC in free agency. So he must leverage the trade market like he has the draft and be
willing to overpay for a star wing to join his talented young core. The time is now to embrace this
team’s competitive nature and reverse course toward meaningful basketball. If not, the much-
lauded “Thunder culture” will be tainted by their executive golden boy refusing to end his
egregious tank job.

Can Zion Williamson lead a deep New Orleans Pelicans playoff run?

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Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans were the darling dark horse of last year’s playoffs. Fresh off
acquiring CJ McCollum on a value trade, they gave the Phoenix Suns a feisty six-game slugfest. Most surprisingly, they did it without Zion Williamson, who was out with a foot injury.

The rest of the league was put on notice when Williamson came into training fit and in peak
physical shape. Although he has battled minor injuries here and there this season, he’s
averaging 26 points and seven rebounds while dominating at the basket, hitting 60.8 percent of his shots Suppose Williamson can stay healthy going into the playoffs. In that case, his first postseason appearance could make the Pelicans the toughest out in the West, with Williamson providing the Pels with the perfect inside presence to pair with Brandon Ingram and McCollum’s outside scoring abilities.

No scheme, concept, or player can slow down, much less stop Williamson when he’s healthy. No team projected to be in the playoffs for the Western Conference even has the frontcourt players to guard him straight up. Williamson would feast, even against Denver and Nikola Jokic. No team has a better X-Factor than the Pels.

Of course, it all depends on his health. The Pels have already shown expediated chemistry amongst their young core. McCollum gives them a veteran presence at lead guard, while Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, and Jonas Valančiūnas provide grit and defensive versatility. Is there a better offensive trio than Willaimson, Ingram, and McCullom? Short answer — no.

Will the New York Knicks reach 50 wins?

new york knicks
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks have been the laughingstock of the NBA for over 20 years. But since Leon Rose
took over in 2020, they have made incremental yet significant gains toward competitive
basketball and front-office legitimacy.

Their cross-town rival Nets have taken the mantle of the league’s poverty franchise by squandering three superstars’ prime without a Finals appearance to show for it. The Knicks, meanwhile, are currently in sixth place in the East at 33-27, with 22 games to go and the seventh toughest schedule to end the season. They are also equipped with a top 10 offensive net rating and a top 10 overall net rating.

Julius Randle is fresh off his second All-Star Game appearance and holds the No. 7 spot in NBA.com’s MVP Ladder. Jalen Brunson is playing the best basketball of his career, and they just added a “dawg” in Josh Hart. It’s not crazy to think the Knicks could win 17 of their next 22 games. Doing so would give them their first 50-win season since 2012-2013.

While winning 50 games would undoubtedly signal a quantifiable benchmark to the rest of the league, even winning half of their games moving forward would give them their best season in over a decade. With depth, two stars, and the youngest core of any team with a winning record, the Knicks are moving in the right direction. They have made themselves appealing to disgruntled stars across the league looking to join a winning culture. Almost hard to believe we’re talking about the Knicks, right? We should all get used to it.

Can the Lakers make a playoff push?

It took some major roster renovations, but Lakers executive Rob Pelinka could finally retool the
roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to fit their strengths.

Dumping Russell Westbrook was priority No. 1. And Pelinka not only moved on from the disgruntled “star,” he swapped him for the younger D’Angelo Russell. It took their lightly-protected 2027 first-round pick, but they added much-needed depth in Malik Beasley and swiss-army knife defender Jarred Vanderbilt.

When James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA scoring record against the Oklahoma City Thunder two weeks ago, it was hard not to feel a pinch of pity for James. Looking at the ill-fitting roster of aging vets surrounding James as they watched him dodge and weave toward the 28 points needed to break the record, it was clear the King needed more help. In a flurry of deadline deals, he got it.

Now the onus is on James, and especially Davis, to return to their 2020 championship level and make a run toward making the playoffs. They are in 13th place at 27-32, two games behind OKC for the final Play-In spot.

James already made one historic run this season. Can he lead the charge for his Lakers to make an improbable playoff push, too?

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo