Biggest storylines heading into 2018 NBA All-Star break

David Kenyon, YardBarker | Source, MSN Sports

Video by Sports Illustrated

The opening four months of the NBA season featured a couple of breakout teams, a few notable trades, too many injuries and a little bit of drama. Finally, the All-Star break will provide the NBA world a chance to breathe.

Every team has a notable topic, but what really matters moving forward? Those key storylines will define the post-All-Star portion of the campaign.

Cleveland trying to shake prolonged slump

LeBron James and Co. opened the season 23-8, which included an 11-game winning streak. The impending return of Isaiah Thomas offered hope Cleveland would continue rising in the standings. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the Cavs have dropped 14 of their last 21 contests, and only the Phoenix Suns have played worse defense in this stretch, per NBA.com. Plus, Kevin Love will be sidelined for about two months. The Cavs aren’t in real danger of missing the playoffs right now, but their pursuit of a fourth straight Eastern Conference title has real questions.

When will Kawhi Leonard return?

San Antonio is headed toward its 21st consecutive playoff appearance, but the roster desperately misses Kawhi Leonard. A two-time top-three finisher in MVP voting, he’s entered just nine games in 2017-18 and currently does not have a timetable for return. The Spurs have survived thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge and ever-improving depth pieces like Kyle Anderson and Bryn Forbes. But when the playoffs arrive, San Antonio won’t be more than a second-round contender if Leonard isn’t healthy.

Can Detroit sustain the Blake Griffin surge?

The Pistons have won four straight games since acquiring Blake Griffin, who has transitioned nicely into an exciting offense. In a matter of a week, Detroit has vaulted itself from “potential playoff team” to “how far can it rise?” But small samples have a nasty way of being just that. The Pistons must continue playing well over the next two months, and they’re certain to encounter a rough stretch eventually. How they respond will determine whether the franchise returns to the postseason for only the second time in nine years.

OKC’s struggle to recover quickly

It’s been a season of streaks for the new-look Thunder. In January alone, they dropped three consecutive games before ripping off eight consecutive wins, then lost four in a row. At other points in the season, the Russell Westbrook-led squad triumphed in six straight and also fell in four consecutive outings. OKC has 24 losses, but only four of those are sandwiched by victories. The Thunder have an issue bouncing back from a loss, and failing to shake that trend would create a major problem in the postseason.

Washington trying to survive without John Wall

The Wizards have enough talent to stay in the postseason race without John Wall, but they’ll be playing without an All-Star guard through February and into March. While the early returns are promising, Washington begins a 12-game stretch against likely playoff qualifiers Feb. 27. Throw in the Philadelphia 76ers, and that could be 13 straight postseason teams. Wall could return at some point during that brutal slate, but Bradley Beal and Co. cannot afford a letdown prior to that challenging period.

How much will Greg Monroe impact the Celtics?

Already standing atop the Eastern Conference, Boston is set to bolster the roster with Phoenix Suns castaway Greg Monroe. The center isn’t much of a defender, but head coach Brad Stevens continually finds ideal lineups to hide weaknesses. Plus, Monroe gives the Celtics a low-post presence on offense while offering decent passing ability. But it’s not right to call him a “missing piece” of a potential championship run, either. Monroe will hold a regular role, so will Boston noticeably improve or perform similarly, just with a bigger name?

Will Toronto start winning on the road?

Though no team has a better record at home than the Raptors, they’re trailing Boston in the standings because of issues on the road. Toronto is 22-4 at the Air Canada Centre but 15-12 away from the comfortable venue. Yes, the team’s dominance in the ACC will be a major strength for a postseason run. But if the Raptors fail to catch the Celtics in the East, home-court advantage could become the decisive factor in a playoff series — and that matchup, as of now, would be in the conference finals.

Can anyone catch James Harden in MVP chase?

Ranked first in points per game and third in assists, James Harden is on track to secure MVP honors for 2017-18. The left-hander is averaging 31.3 points, 9.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals, and the Rockets are 39-13. Harden, who has twice finished second in MVP voting, will attempt to hold off Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. Unless any of those players surge — or, unfortunately, an injury sidelines Harden — he should give the Rockets their first MVP since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94.

Battle for No. 1 seeds

Coincidentally, both conferences have a one-game separation between the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, as well as 7.5 between Nos. 1 and 3. The latter number is an enormous gap to close, so the East’s top team will likely be the Celtics or Raptors plus either the Warriors or Rockets out West. According to playoffstatus.com, Toronto has a slightly easier remaining schedule than Boston. Golden State, however, has the league’s third-easiest slatecompared to Houston, which has the 11th-toughest. Great teams win no matter the competition, but a larger margin for error might help the Raptors and Warriors.

The road to the West’s final playoff spots

Oklahoma City has a small edge on both the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers, who are fighting for the No. 6 seed. The New Orleans Pelicans, who are down DeMarcus Cousins but recently added Nikola Mirotic, sit closely behind and hold the No. 8 spot. And the playoff battle extends to 10 teams, since the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz are both within striking distance. Each of those clubs has a losing record on the road — except for New Orleans at 14-13 — so winning away from home will determine which four teams complete the West’s playoff picture.

Sorting a messy second tier in the East

The Charlotte Hornets probably aren’t good enough to catch up, and Kristaps Porzingis’ season-ending injury bounces the New York Knicks from the postseason conversation. Still, the final two months of the campaign should be wild in the East because only four games separate No. 3 from No. 9. Consequently, any short winning or losing streak can lead to a major rise or fall in the East. The Miami Heat, for example, have dropped four straight games and plunged from fourth to seventh. There could be lots of shuffling in the standings down the stretch.

Race to the bottom

As entertaining the playoff chase will be for both conferences, the “race” for the No. 1 overall pick will be painfully enjoyable. Nearly one-third of the league has a legitimate possibility of finishing with the NBA’s worst record. Each of the Nets, Grizzlies, Bulls, Suns, Kings, Magic, Hawks and Mavericks have between 17-19 victories, and Porzingis’ injury could mean the 23-win Knicks will begin plummeting, too. No franchise wants to find itself in this position, but the NBA world will be closely monitoring which team has the highest odds in the 2018 lottery.

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