The biggest NBA storylines after the All-Star break
The fun is over. The NBA All-Star festivities have concluded, and now, with just two months remaining in the regular season, things are about to get serious.
Not that the first four months of the regular season weren’t “serious,” but let’s be honest: in the NBA, it doesn’t really, really start to matter until the playoffs roll around.
The 2019-20 campaign has been a captivating one thus far, to say the least, as there has been no shortage of drama.
Here are the five biggest NBA storylines to watch throughout the stretch run:
Lakers Clippers 76ers Pacers Rockets
5. Can Victor Oladipo work himself back into shape?
Victor Oladipo returned to action for the Indiana Pacers late last month, and seven games he has played, the results have not been pretty, as he is averaging just 11.1 points per game while shooting 32.9 percent from the floor.
The Pacers have also gone just 2-6 since he made his return (he missed one game due to a back-to-back).
On one hand, this is to be expected, as Oladipo is coming off of major surgery and had not played basketball in a year, and he also has a very new roster to which he needs to become acclimated.
But on the other side of the coin, Oladipo only has two months to get himself in shape, which is not a very long period of time for a guy who is a year removed from a ruptured quad tendon.
If Oladipo can somehow get himself right between now and the playoffs, the Pacers could be incredibly dangerous, but if not, they are probably looking at a first-round knockout in the NBA Playoffs yet again
4. Do the Houston Rockets have enough to make a serious run?
The Rockets have James Harden, Russell Westbrook and…not much else.
Eric Gordon has been abysmal this season, Robert Covington is nothing more than a decent role player and relying on Danuel House, Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore to step up in the playoffs doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success.
Moreover, Houston no longer has a true center now that Clint Capela is gone, meaning that P.J. Tucker will probably have to take on that role for the rest of the year barring the Rockets picking someone up on the waiver wire.
In a Western Conference that not only includes the two Los Angeles clubs, but also the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets (heck, even the Dallas Mavericks), it seems rather hard to envision Houston making a deep playoff run.
Maybe Harden and Westbrook go nuts in the NBA postseason. Who knows? But unless those two absolutely explode, I have a hard time believing this Rockets team is a legitimate title contender.
3. Can the Philadelphia 76ers get it together?
Let’s call it what it is: the 76ers are a flawed team.
They have no spacing, they are slow, they have very limited depth, Joel Embiid is in and out of the lineup, they don’t seem to respect their head coach and they can’t win on the road.
They tried to address a couple of those issues by adding Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III at the trade deadline, and while those players will certainly help, they aren’t good enough to significantly move the needle.
Philadelphia has also been experiencing its fair share of locker-room issues this season, and it doesn’t seem to know what to do with Al Horford, who seems to be taking on the role of sixth man now.
The East is no joke this year. The Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat and Pacers are all good and are all capable of winning the conference, so unless the Sixers can somehow pull it all together over these final couple of months, they will be looking at another early NBA Playoffs exit this spring.
2. How will the Los Angeles Lakers handle LeBron James’ minutes?
If the Lakers are smart, they will employ load management with LeBron James in this closing stretch, but James himself doesn’t seem to want that.
Right now, James is averaging 34.9 minutes per game, which, to be fair, is the lowest mark of his career, but with LeBron being 34 years old and having the mileage of a 40-year-old, it’s still too much.
Los Angeles absolutely, positively needs LeBron to have a full tank once the playoffs arrive if it wants to have any chance of winning a championship.
Right now, the Lakers have a comfortable five-game lead in the loss column over the Nuggets for first place in the West, so they can afford to rest James here and there.
Will LeBron agree to it? Probably not, but it would be the wisest course of action for a Lakers squad that will probably have to get through the Clippers to reach the finals.
1. Can Paul George get healthy and stay healthy?
Whether it was the dual shoulder surgeries during the offseason that kept him sidelined early on this year or the nagging hamstring injury that has been bothering him recently, Paul George hasn’t seen much of the floor this season.
George has played in just 34 of a possible 55 games, and while that hasn’t stopped the Clippers from taking a 37-18 record into the break, it could become an issue if these injury issues persist.
Of course, Los Angeles is likely being extra cautious with George just like it is taking care to ensure that Kawhi Leonard is 100 percent once the postseason arrives, but let’s not get it twisted: the Clips need a healthy Paul George come playoff time.
Can the Clippers win a title without George? Probably, because Leonard is just that good, but they obviously become a heck of a lot more vulnerable with George out of the lineup.
When Leonard and George are firing on all cylinders, the Clippers are nearly unbeatable. We just haven’t been able to see much of that yet this season.
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