The biggest questions facing the Lakers, Nets and more in the season's second half
The NBA's All-Star break is over, so it's time to look ahead and gear up for the home stretch of the regular season and the playoffs.
Here are the pressing questions that the NBA's postseason contenders must address in the second half of the regular season.
Can the Sixers break through their second-round ceiling?
Embiid is having an MVP-caliber season, averaging 30.2 points per game. If he can maintain that scoring pace in the postseason, in which his career average is 22.3 PPG on 43.7% shooting, the Sixers could finally reach the Eastern Conference finals.
What can stop the Nets' run to an NBA title?
To put it simply, it comes down to health and continuity.
The dynamic trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving has played only seven games together, going 5-2. One of those losses came against the Toronto Raptors in a game Durant did not start or finish because of COVID-19 protocols.
With Durant still out because of a lingering hamstring issue and the recent addition of Blake Griffin, the clock is ticking on the Nets to build chemistry with their full complement of players.
Their ability to mesh as a unit could determine how far they go.
After securing the best record in the NBA each of the past two seasons, the Bucks flamed out before reaching the NBA Finals, losing to the Raptors in 2019 and the Miami Heat in 2020.
The Bucks are in third in the Eastern Conference so far this season and appear to be flying under the radar while Antetokounmpo puts up another MVP-caliber campaign, with averages of 29 points, 11.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists.
With a retooled roster and the addition of Jrue Holiday, the Bucks might finally have the roster necessary to earn postseason glory.
Which version of Kemba Walker will show up in the second half?
Kemba Walker missed the big game this season and was replaced by teammate Jaylen Brown. This was in large part due to Walker's up-and-down play this season.
In 10 wins, Walker is averaging 22.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG and 5.2 APG while shooting 45.5% from the field and 45.0% from 3-point range. In 10 losses, he is averaging 14.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG and 3.9 APG while shooting 32.3% from the field and 28.4% from 3-point range.
Which version of Walker shows up is the biggest indicator in the Celtics' success, and if he can find consistency in the second half, there is no reason Boston can't make its fourth Eastern Conference finals appearance in five seasons.
If Randle has his way, the answer will be yes. The Knicks are currently 19-18 and fifth in the Eastern Conference. A lot of that has to do with the play of their first-time All-Star.
Randle leads the Knicks in points (23.2), assists (5.5), rebounds (11.1) and field-goal percentage (48.3%).
His strong play, combined with the NBA's best scoring defense (104.4 points allowed), could be the perfect recipe for a Knicks postseason appearance.
Can the Heat pull it together for another Finals run, or was last season a fluke?
But heading into the All-Star break, the Heat had won seven of their previous 10 games to climb to 18-18 and sixth in the Eastern Conference.
As they begin to get healthier, the Heat are starting to resemble the team that knocked off the Bucks and Celtics on their way to the NBA Finals last season. If that run of good health continues, they might prove that last season was no fluke.
Can LaMelo Ball keep up his stellar play?
Head of the class. That's the best way to describe Ball through the first half of his rookie season, a campaign that has seen him already win Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month twice.
For the season, he is averaging 15.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG and 6.3 APG, proving to be not only the best rookie but also one of the best young point guards in the NBA.
The Charlotte Hornets haven't made the playoffs since the 2015-16 season, and they haven't won a playoff series since the 2001-02 season.
Will Kyle Lowry finish the season with the Raptors?
The past seven years have marked the Raptors' most successful era, as they have reached the playoffs every season and won a championship in 2019. The common denominator through that run has been point guard Kyle Lowry.
But as the Raptors fight to keep their playoff streak alive this season, trade rumors have begun to swirl.
Lowry himself has denied the rumors.
The second half of the season could determine if Lowry continues with the Raptors or if this is the end of an era.
Can Zach LaVine turn the corner to superstardom?
For this to happen, LaVine would need to get the Bulls back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. The good news is Chicago is well-positioned for a run, sitting tied for the eighth seed in the East.
LaVine was an All-Star for the first time and is averaging 28.7 PPG, 5.1 APG and 5.2 RPG while shooting 52.5% from the field and 43.5% from 3-point range.
If he can get the Bulls to the postseason, LaVine could announce his arrival to superstardom on the main stage.
The Pacers were the third team involved in the trade that sent James Harden from Houston to Brooklyn, and after they shipped Victor Oladipo to the Rockets in the deal, they have yet to see a return on their end. That's because LeVert hasn't taken the floor with the team. He is still recovering from surgery to remove a mass from his kidney.
Recent reports have detailed that LeVert is on pace to make his debut for the Pacers in the second half of the season, but no timetable has been set.
As the Pacers fight for a playoff spot in the East, this addition could give them a boost.
Through January, the Wizards were a miserable 4-12.
Since then, they are 10-10, and their backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal has been the driving force behind their turnaround.
The Wizards have climbed to within two games of the eighth seed in the East and have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs after missing the postseason the past two seasons.
Can Utah really come out of the West?
The Jazz check all the boxes of a legitimate championship contender. They feature three All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert. They have the NBA's best record, at 27-9, and they have a devastating offense.
The Jazz have six players who average at least 11.5 points per game, and they are third in 3-point percentage, at 39.8%, behind only the Clippers and Nets. Since the inception of the 3-point line, that mark is better than that of all but one NBA championship team, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who shot 40.3%.
Three All-Stars combined with great offense and 3-point shooting could have the Jazz poised for a Finals run this summer.
Can Phoenix contend with the West's best?
After missing the playoffs the past 10 seasons, the Suns appear to be on their way to ending that drought in 2021, as they sit second in the Western Conference, at 24-11.
But here is the catch: Four of Phoenix's top seven scorers have never played in a playoff game.
The Suns have proven to be one of the NBA's elite teams this season, with the second-best record in the NBA, but will their inexperience catch up to them when the lights are brightest?
Will the Clippers' clutch-time woes persist?
One season after blowing a 3-1 lead against the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs, the Clippers have retooled their roster and hired a new coach in Tyron Lue.
In the fourth quarter this season, George is averaging 5.4 PPG, 1.6 RPG and 1.1 APG while shooting 41.1% from the field and 35.8% from 3-point range. Leonard hasn't been that much better, averaging 4.8 PPG, 1.3 RPG and 1.0 APG while shooting 44.7% from the field and 28.6% from 3.
Those numbers will need to improve in the postseason for the Clippers to avoid a repeat of last year.
This question could very well decide the 2021 NBA champion.
With Davis this season, the Lakers are 17-6, and they have looked like a well-oiled machine on both sides of the floor, averaging 112.7 PPG, 45.6 RPG and 25.0 APG while shooting 48.6% from the field and 36.4% from 3.
Without Davis, the Lakers are 7-7 and averaging 109.2 PPG, 45.1 RPG and 23.7 APG while shooting 47.3% from the field and 33.1% from 3-point range.
Despite this, the Lakers are still in third in the West.
If Davis is healthy, the Lakers should feel confident against any team. If he isn't, it's hard to envision them hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy for a second consecutive season.
Portland Trail Blazers
How far can "Dame Time" take Portland?
Damian Lillard is once again lighting up the NBA, averaging 29.8 PPG and shooting 38.4% from 3-point range.
But he won't take the Trail Blazers far if they don't improve their defense. The team is currently allowing 114.9 points per game, the most of any team currently in the Western Conference playoff picture.
CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic should be returning soon after missing extended time because of injuries, but if defense doesn't become a priority for the Blazers, it's difficult to envision a deep run for them.
Is this the postseason that Michael Porter Jr. emerges?
The Nuggets' second-year forward flashed potential in the previous postseason, averaging 11.4 points while helping the team reach the Western Conference Finals.
Denver is going to need that and more from Porter if it plans to make another deep playoff run this year.
San Antonio Spurs
Should the Spurs hold on or officially look to rebuild?
The Spurs missed the playoffs in 2020 for the first time in 22 years.
This season, they are in position to start a new streak, as they sit seventh in the West, at 18-16.
They are also enjoying the best of both worlds, able to contend for a playoff spot while developing a young and talented roster. Veteran guard DeMar DeRozan is still the Spurs' leading scorer, at 20 PPG, but he is followed by 24-year-old Dejounte Murray at 15.8 PPG and 21-year-old Keldon Johnson at 14.1 PPG.
The Spurs might not have to do a full rebuild and sacrifice playoff contention because there is a chance the future of the franchise is already on the roster.
Can Kristaps Porzingis stay healthy?
Porzingis has yet to play a full season in his NBA career, and this won't be the first time he accomplishes that feat, having already missed 14 of the Mavericks' 34 games.
But it's clear that the Mavericks are a much more dangerous team with Porzingis on the floor.
With him, the Mavericks are 11-9 while averaging 114.5 points. Without him, they are 7-7 while averaging 108 points.
Porzingis missed the final three games of the Mavericks' first-round series against the Clippers last postseason. They are hoping their big man will be available for the long haul this time around.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Warriors would be in the play-in round against the Mavericks. The Mavs boast two 20-plus PPG scorers, with Luka Doncic and Porzingis, while the Warriors have only Curry.
Curry is averaging 29.7 points, and the Warriors' second-leading scorer, Andrew Wiggins, is averaging 17. The Warriors have four players averaging double figures, with one of them being rookie center James Wiseman (11.8).
The Warriors' consistency beyond Curry will determine whether they return to the playoffs or miss the postseason for the second consecutive year after four straight trips to the NBA Finals.
The Grizzlies are 16-16, and for the second straight season, they are in playoff contention. This time, though, they are doing it without Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jackson was the Grizzlies' second-leading scorer a season ago, averaging 17.4 points before he tore his meniscus in July in the NBA bubble.
The young forward is expected to make his return at some point soon, but it remains to be seen what kind of player the Grizzlies will get when that happens.
Wild card: New Orleans Pelicans
With their talent, why aren't the Pelicans better?
Two things stand out in answering this question: spacing and defense.
The Pelicans have one of the best young cores in the league, with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, but the lack of shooting around that trio has been an issue. The Pelicans don't have one player in the rotation who shoots 40% from 3-point range.
Plus, on the other end of the floor, they are allowing 115.9 points per game, 26th in the NBA.
As talented as New Orleans' roster is, these two issues could prevent this team from making a legitimate run to the postseason.