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Top 16 NBA storylines heading into the home stretch

The NBA season is flying by. With the All-Star break this weekend, some teams have already played nearly 60 games. The playoffs start in less than two months. It doesn’t feel like it, but the home stretch is coming up. And what an array of NBA storylines there are.

There’s never a shortage of fun in the NBA, but the next eight weeks are going to take it to another level. From the Cleveland Cavaliers’ potential turnaround to playing detective with Philadelphia 76ers point guard Markelle Fultz’s shoulder injury, there’s so much to digest.

Here are the 16 biggest NBA storylines right now.

Can the Cavs get it together?

Since completely overhauling their roster at the trade deadline — dealing Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert and Dwyane Wade in three separate deals (along with some draft assets) — Cleveland has looked better.

Though it’s only been two games with the new-look lineup — featuring George Hill at point guard with Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance coming off the bench — the Cavs walloped the Boston Celtics and won an impressive game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, both coming on the road. We shouldn’t get carried away because of two games though. Cleveland’s defensive rating at OKC on Tuesday was 120.4, per Cleaning the Glass, a sign that things probably aren’t completely fixed. The Cavs were always a sound offensive team. If they manage to lose in the Eastern Conference playoffs, it will be defense that does them in.

Cleveland is 28th in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass, which simply isn’t good enough to beat Boston or the Toronto Raptors in a playoff series. None of the players the Cavs added at the deadline — saving perhaps Nance — are especially good on the defensive end either (in fairness, shedding Thomas, Rose and Wade might be addition by subtraction on defense). Whethe that changes will be the thing to watch for in the coming weeks.

Will the Rockets challenge Golden State in the West?

The Warriors didn’t really have a serious competitor in the Western Conference last season, winning every game they played in the postseason until the Finals. Houston seems likely to change that this season, but exactly how serious of a challenger they are to Golden State remains to be seen.

The Rockets have the league’s best offense, scoring at a marginally better rate than last season, but what’s really improved is their defense. Houston has jumped into the top-10 in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass, and will need to stay at that level to beat the Warriors. The Rockets have moved Ryan Anderson out of their starting lineup recently for just this reason. Anderson has been better on defense this season, but winning late-round playoff games with him playing 28 minutes is close to a non-sequitur.

When James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela have all been in the lineup, Houston is 27-1, including two wins against Golden State. Sure, the regular season is different, but the Rockets are just tough to beat. Houston has as good a chance as anyone else if their shots are falling.

The Warriors have gone to the Finals three straight years — the last team to do it four times in a row was the Celtics from 1984-87 and the last of those took Kevin McHale permanently damaging his foot to get there. Forget about how good a team is — playing that many games at such a high level is really, really hard. Golden State is capable, but don’t think for a second it isn’t vulnerable.

LeBron to L.A.

The rumor that LeBron James could sign with the Lakers this offseason is officially hanging over everything the Cavs do. At this point, it might be inaccurate to call it a rumor so much as an expectation.

Reports indicate that James’ relationship with the front office has frayed — and we already know about his relationship (or lack thereof) with Dan Gilbert. Cleveland threw everything it had at the trade deadline to change up a toxic locker room, but the Cavs held onto the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick, a sign they might be gearing up for a rebuild, or at least want the possibility open.

Coming to the Lakers doesn’t really make sense from a basketball standpoint. Los Angeles isn’t good enough to mount a challenge in the West, even with James. However, due to cap maneuvering at the deadline, the Lakers have enough space for James and another max contract (Paul George is also widely rumored to be signing there this offseason). Clearly, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are just as open to the possibility as Cleveland.

Markelle Fultz can’t shoot a basketball

The No. 1 pick in last summer’s draft has played in four games this season, a shoulder injury having kept him out since October. It’s possible Fultz misses the entire year and — more alarming — there are periodic videos coming out of him taking what can technically be considered shots. And they look disastrous.

A 41.3 percent 3-point shooter in college, Fultz’s mechanics look like he’s never shot a basketball before. He seems to be pushing the ball thanks to the shoulder injury — and is missing shots badly. It’s almost weird this isn’t a bigger story (unless you’re JJ Redick) — the top pick in the draft might not play for the rest of the season and it looks like he can’t shoot!

Maybe it’ll end up being nothing over the long run, but this is worth being worried about. If something doesn’t change, Fultz’s career will be over before it starts.

Kawhi Leonard’s injury saga

Speaking of injury sagas, Leonard — one of the best five basketball players alive — has played nine games this season. He’s out for an indefinite amount of time with a quad injury and is reportedly unhappy with the way the Spurs handled the situation.

With Leonard at 100 percent, the Spurs are capable of mounting a formidable challenge to Houston and Golden State. They probably won’t beat either, but crazier things have happened. LaMarcus Aldridge is having a resurgent season, Leonard is a soul-snatching defensive wizard who can score 25 points per game on efficient shooting, and Gregg Popovich is the best coach of all time. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Without Leonard, it is. As well as the Spurs have played, putting up a 35-24 record, San Antonio doesn’t have the star power (or, for that matter, the athleticism) to keep up with the best in the West. The Spurs will always be well-coached enough to make it through the regular season, but it’s hard to win a playoff series when you’re dependent on Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, ages 37 and 35, neither of whom have played good defense in over five years.

We have sparingly little information on when — or if — Leonard will return. But the Spurs’ season will likely depend on it.

Can Blake Griffin get the Pistons into the postseason?

Detroit won its first four games after trading for Griffin. All of them were at home, against a team on the second night of a back-to-back. Since then, the Pistons have dropped three straight.

Griffin won’t catapult the Pistons into a first-round win, but he’s good enough to get them into the playoffs. The Pistons are 2.5 games behind the Heat for the eight-seed heading into Wednesday’s games. With the season about to start winding down, that’s a greater deficit than you think. Much of Griffin’s contributions with Detroit thus far have been on defense — the Pistons’ scoring output has gotten worse with him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.

The only lineup to see real playing time featuring Griffin and Andre Drummond at the ‘4’ and ‘5’ has scored a lackluster 100.8 points per possession, per Cleaning the Glass. It doesn’t help that Reggie Bullock is the good shooter in the group — which also features Stanley Johnson and Ish Smith — but the Pistons knew what they signed up for when they made the trade. Trading Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley for Griffin meant sacrificing spacing for star power. They knew Griffin would have to play alongside Drummond in lineups that didn’t feature a lot of shooting. That’s not an excuse.

Anything less than the playoffs should be objectively considered a disappointment for Detroit. Drummond has gotten better, though he’s far from a star offensive player, and Griffin is the type of player who can raise a team’s offensive ceiling by himself. The Pistons are good enough to get the eight-seed in the middling East. They should expect nothing less.

How bad will the Brooklyn pick be?

At 19-39, the Nets are slotted in the seventh spot in the lottery heading into Friday. However, there are two stipulations. The first: only one game separates them from the top spot. The second: the Nets are the only bottom-feeder without any incentive to tank, having given up their pick to Boston in the Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett trade all the way back in 2013 (the pick is now owed to Cleveland, having changed hands again in the Kyrie Irving deal last summer).

Brooklyn is more talented than in the last few years, when things were abjectly miserable at the Barclays Center. Spencer Dinwiddie is having a fun breakout year, Caris Levert is developing into a real player, there are a bevy of interesting, young players. Not good enough to win many games, but trying will get the Nets places late in the season.

Exactly where the pick falls will make a huge difference. The upcoming draft is stacked to the gills. The difference between seventh and third might be the difference between a superstar and a solid player. That has massive ramifications for Cleveland, whether the Cavs decide to keep the pick or hold onto it. This has been one of the league’s more valuable assets for years. We’re finally going to see just how valuable it ends up being in the next few weeks.

Tankapalooza 2018

As mentioned previously, the battle for the No. 1 pick is off-the-charts good (or bad, depending on your point of view). The Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies are all tied in the win column with 18, heading into Friday. Brooklyn trails close behind with 19 and Chicago is still in the race with 20. That’s eight teams within a game of each other for the top spot.

This is also one of the most enticing years to tank in a while. Luka Doncic looks like an immediate star at the top. DeAndre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba, Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter Jr., and Trae Young all have that kind of potential as well. The last two months of the year always takes tanking to absurd heights, but we’re going to a new level this year.

The lottery odds flatten a little bit (though not enough to stop tanking) after this season. There’s never been this much incentive to tank and the top lottery slot could come down to one or two games. Get excited. Tankapalooza 2018 is going to take it up a notch.

How big a threat are the Thunder?

Oklahoma City Thunder Paul George Carmelo Anthony Russell Westbrook

Oklahoma City has rebounded from a slow start in full, ripping through December and January. But some doubt over the team’s playoff capability remains well-founded. The Thunder are 2-5 in February, having lost shooting guard Andre Roberson for the year a ruptured left patellar tendon.

It’s no coincidence their defense has gotten worse since then, but OKC missed a chance to trade for Joe Johnson or Rodney Hood at the deadline. Starting Terrance Ferguson or Alex Abrines in the postseason isn’t going to cut it — at least not if the Thunder want to get past the second round.

Winning a title is probably out of reach for this team. The goal right now is to stay competitive and hold onto Paul George, who will likely only stay if it’s clear the Thunder have a chance of winning something next season. That’s still possible, but crashing out in the playoffs won’t help the case.

OKC has a high ceiling — a core of George and Russell Westbrook, with Carmelo Anthony as the third wheel, gives them as much. But the depth isn’t there and Billy Donovan has a tendency to trip over himself. After all, the Thunder are just 32-26 — only 1.5 games up on the Clippers, the nine-seed heading into Wednesday’s games. It’s still unclear just how good this team is and, for that matter, how good it should be. We’re going to find out in the next couple months.

Can the Pelicans hang on without DeMarcus Cousins?

New Orleans is in the middle of a playoff bloodbath from the fifth through tenth spots in the West, hanging onto the eight seed by a half-game going into Wednesday. Since Cousins was lost for the year with a torn Achilles, the Pels are 3-5 and it’s tough to find a good long-term outlook.

Even after dealing for Nikola Mirotic at the deadline, New Orleans lacks scoring punch from the wings. Anthony Davis is a world-beater down low and a healthy Jrue Holiday can play with the best of them at point. But the situation is rough at the ‘2’ and ‘3’. E’Twaun Moore is a solid player, but he shouldn’t be starting on a playoff team. Ditto for Rajon Rondo.

Head coach Alvin Gentry also inexplicably moved Emeka Okafor — who is currently on a 10-day contract — into the starting lineup over Mirotic on Monday. It’s frankly tough to have faith in Gentry at this point, who has largely failed to get results out of the Pelicans since being hired before the 2016 season.

Below them, the Jazz are red hot and the Clippers — thought to be starting a tank-job after the Griffin trade — ultimately kept Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan at the trade deadline. On Wednesday, FiveThirtyEight projected the Pelicans to have a 43-39 record — and miss the playoffs. New Orleans has to play above its talent to keep pace, and it’s hard to believe the Pelicans are capable of doing so.

The Jabari Parker comeback tour

After nearly a calendar year, Parker is back from his torn ACL. The early returns have been, uh, not great. In five games, Parker has a 43.9 effective field goal percentage (which is flat-out bad), a 5.2 assist percentage (ditto), and a -2.7 defensive box plus-minus (you get the point).

Whatever. Five games is the smallest of small sample sizes. It’s not a good sign, but being alarmed over 89 total minutes is crazy. Parker is a 22-year old phenom who looked to be taking the next step before getting hurt last season. If he continues on that pathway, he raises Milwaukee’s ceiling — maybe drastically so. That won’t happen this season. It’s too late in the year and the Bucks have an interim head coach, Joe Prunty. But we could start to see signs.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is arguably a top-five player in the league already. Between Parker, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon, there’s enough talent around him to make some noise in the playoffs. Milwaukee is 9-2 since firing Jason Kidd, its defense having gone to another level without the frantic trapping and rotating Kidd required. Parker makes them even better, even if he has to work his way back. There’s some really fun potential for them in the East playoffs. If Parker is himself, that will get ratcheted up a notch.

Tom Thibodeau is overworking the Timberwolves

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota’s starting lineup — Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns — has played 1,044 minutes going into Wednesday’s games, the most of any group in the league. The group behind them has played 691. 1,044 is already more than all but one lineup played during the entire 2016-17 season.

Thibodeau has always had a reputation for overworking his players and it doesn’t seem to have left him in Minnesota. We’re going to start hearing about this a lot in the next couple months, mostly because it isn’t necessary. The T-Wolves are fourth in the West, relatively secure in terms of a playoff bid, and have more depth than you’d think. Jamal Crawford is still capable, at least in the regular season. Tyus Jones is a solid, young point guard with potential, Gorgui Dieng is a solid rotation player, and Nemanja Bjelica — if nothing else — can score. There simply isn’t much reason for the starting five to all be averaging over 33 minutes per game during the regular season — especially when Wiggins and Towns are both 22 years old.

This is the trade-off Minnesota knew it was getting when it hired Thibs. Thing is, the Timberwolves aren’t winning games with defense — they rank 25th in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass, and third in offensive rating. Thibodeau is a defensive coach, which begs the question, what exactly is he doing here? It’s tough to criticize a franchise that’s about to make its first playoff appearance in over a decade, but if Minnesota crashes out in the first round, there are going to be a lot of questions swirling about Thibs’ minute management.

The Rookie of the Year race is pretty great right about now

Simmons, predictably, has been wonderful, with a 32.8 assist percentage that ranks in the 96th percentile for combo guards, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s also been a better scorer than most expected, shooting 52.7 percent from the field, albeit without a 3-point shot, and has impressive rebound, steal and block rates for his position. Normally, Simmons would be a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year, and it looked that way for the early part of the season.

And then came Donovan Mitchell.

It’s pretty rare that a rookie helps propel a team to playoff contention after said team loses its best player to free agency. Mitchell has done that, averaging 19.5 points per game and putting himself in the conversation for Rookie of the Year alongside Simmons. Right now, Mitchell has to be considered the underdog. He hasn’t done enough outside of scoring to compete with Simmons, but that could change.

This rookie class has been nothing short of wonderful, led by these two. It’ll be a lot of fun to watch them down the home stretch.

James Harden is cruising to the MVP

After the insanity of the MVP debate last season, things have been relatively smooth this year. If the season ended today, James Harden would win the MVP and the vote wouldn’t be especially close.

Harden leads the league in scoring, with 31.4 points per game, and PER, at 30.6. He’s averaging nine assists per game as well, and runs the best offense in the league. He ranks in the 100th percentile among combo guards in usage rate, points per shot, and assist percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. It doesn’t hurt his case that Harden has lost two close MVP votes in the last three years — to Stephen Curry in 2015 and Russell Westbrook last year. He won’t lose another close one.

Harden deserves an MVP and the competition hasn’t measured up to snuff this year. It’s worth giving the competition a better look than its been getting — hell, Westbrook might average a triple-double again — but momentum hasn’t lasted for Giannis Antetokounmpo in the MVP race and injuries (as well as winning twice previously) will keep Stephen Curry out of the discussion. The bar has been set so high for LeBron James that he almost can’t win another. Combined with the season Harden is having, that adds up to an MVP making its way to Houston.

The Process takes hold in Philly

After four years of tanking, the Sixers are seeing the fruits of Sam Hinkie’s work. Led by Simmons and Joel Embiid, Philly is going to make the playoffs barring total collapse — and the long-term outlook looks wonderful.

The Sixers aren’t good enough to do much in the postseason, at least not yet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy watching them. Simmons, as covered earlier, is an absolute delight. Embiid is a behemoth with the potential to be one of the best big men ever if he stays healthy. Philly is going to be a title contender sooner rather than later, at least assuming good health.

Right now, they’re one of the most fun teams in the league. That isn’t about to change. Embiid is one of the best Twitter follows in basketball, J.J. Redick hosts his own podcast and the fans bought into The Process so deeply that some sociologist will probably do a study on it within the next 10 years. Watching the Sixers has been as good a way to spend time as watching any other team this year.

What’s the point of the Hornets?

Charlotte has become exactly what Sam Hinkie strove to avoid by having the Sixers tank so egregiously: a middling team, not good enough to contend for the playoffs — let alone a title — and not bad enough to get a high draft pick.

Instead of tearing down at the deadline, the Hornets stayed put. Their roster right now is Kemba Walker and a whole lot of nothing. Big contracts handed out to Marvin Williams and Nicolas Batum in the wake of the 2016 cap spike have amounted to nothing. Cody Zeller has regressed amid injuries this season, the difference in the 2012 lottery balls falling against Charlotte — in other words, between Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — is exacerbated every day with compound interest.

The Hornets have made the playoffs once with this core, blowing a first-round series to Miami in 2016 because Purple Shirt Guy got Dwyane Wade angry in Game 6 (this is quietly one of the most underrated playoff games in recent history, and will probably be the last big playoff moment of Wade’s career). At some point, the Hornets have to figure out a direction. And yet, that doesn’t look like it’s about to happen anytime soon.

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