The biggest NBA storylines to watch during the stretch run of the regular season

Hey! You made it through NBA All-Star Weekend, and the subsequent several-day break in NBA-related activities!

(Well, non-“franchise in tumult fires its head coach, franchise in ascent retains its stabilizing agent, and players cut wrestling promos on each other over a head coach who was supposed to be a stabilizing agent for a franchise that just might be in tumult” NBA-related activities, anyway. Man. For a Monday and Tuesday with no games, that was a pretty busy couple of days!)

How do we celebrate this momentous achievement? Commissioner Silver, would you like to do the honors?

With Adam’s enthusiastic wind in our sails, a song in our hearts and a pep in our step, let us turn now to the NBA’s annual sprint to the finish line. Just over seven weeks separate Thursday’s resumption of play from the end of the 2023-24 NBA regular season, and there’s still plenty to figure out.

Let’s set the table for the stretch run by highlighting some of the most important things to keep an eye on between now and mid-April, starting with the biggest-ticket item of them all:

Who’s got the best shot of winning the 2024 NBA championship?

That’d be the Celtics, owners of a six-game cushion atop the East and a four-game edge over the best in the West — and thus looking like a near-certainty to have home-court advantage in every playoff series they enter.

Led by the NBA’s most fearsome top six — perennial MVP candidate Jayson Tatum, All-Star swingman Jaylen Brown, advanced stats darling Derrick White, stalwart big man Al Horford, perfect-fit offseason additions Kristaps Porziņģis and Jrue Holiday — Boston sprinted out of the gates, going a league-best 26-6 in 2023. The Celtics outscored opponents by more than 11 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in that span; that would’ve been the second-highest net rating of any team since the peak Kevin Durant-era Warriors. (Hey there, 2020-21 Jazz!) They cooled off a bit once the calendar flipped — threehomelosses in 31 days? For shame! — but headed into the All-Star break on a six-game heater, capped by a 50-point demolition of the Nets that marked the end of the road in Brooklyn for Jacque Vaughn.

There are holes to poke: They don’t get to the rim enough (27th in the NBA in both drives per game and field-goal attempts within 5 feet); their offense is too 3-point-dependent (they’re 36-6 when they make at least 15 triples and just 7-6 when they don’t); they’re heavily reliant on a big-man battery of Porziņģis and Horford, whose durability might be the biggest X-factor in the postseason picture. But in terms of top-end talent, playable depth and two-way versatility, the Celtics profile as the favorites not just to come out of the East, but to win the whole thing (+260 at BetMGM).

Who’s got the best shot of making sure that doesn’t happen?

That said: Favorites with home-court advantage lose all the time. (Like, say, last year’s Celtics.)

Boston figures to face some stiff challenges in the East. The Cavaliers have been the hottest team in the NBA since mid-December, winners of 18 of their last 20 behind Donovan Mitchell and the league’s stingiest defense. The Bucks, for all their foibles, have seen their defense tick up since Doc Rivers’ arrival and still feature two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and defense-breaker Damian Lillard.

The Knicks were scorching in January behind the All-Star play of Jalen Brunson, landed reinforcements at the trade deadline and could see multipleinjuredrotationpieces return from injury soon. The 76ers — whose trade for Buddy Hield is looking good and who just added Kyle Lowry on the buyout market — continue to operate like they believe they’re getting the league’s reigning MVP, center Joel Embiid, back in time for the postseason … which, past Philly shortfalls notwithstanding, would make them a very different class of threat in a playoff series. Heck, with Tyrese Haliburton’s go-go Pacers and the alligator-blood Heat lurking, even a first-round series against a play-in team could be fraught.

Make it out of the East, and you’re likely staring down the barrel of a behemoth. The West-leading Timberwolves come to the party with the NBA’s most misery-inducing defense and a pair of All-Star offensive weapons, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, capable of reducing your coverage to cinders all by themselves. The Thunder boast top-five units on both sides of the ball — the only team besides Boston that can say that — thanks to a veritable armada of menacing and multifaceted youth, led by MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Rookie of the Year candidate Chet Holmgren and Most Improved Player candidate Jalen Williams.

The Clippers have the NBA’s second-best record and best offense since moving Russell Westbrook to the bench in mid-November, a move that unlocked the most ferocious version of the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George-James Harden hydra. The fourth-seeded Nuggets — you know, the dudes who hoisted the Larry O’B back in June — still, FYI, employ Nikola Jokić, which is a golden ticket into the inner circle of serious contention. Oh, and there’s the Suns, who won 14 of their last 18 heading into the break and have blitzed opponents by 12 points per 100 when Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal share the floor.

So, yeah: In a league teeming with talent, even the favorite faces a treacherous climb to the top of the mountain. A reading from the Letter of Zaza to the ATLiens:

What’s the most confounding variable in all of this?

At the risk of being overly simplistic: health.

Boston’s top six are sensational; they're also heavily dependent on Porziņģis, who has missed 15 games this season with a variety of knee, calf, ankle and back injuries, and Horford, who will turn 38 three days before the start of the NBA Finals. The Bucks are most dangerous when Khris Middleton is in the mix — Milwaukee has outscored opponents by 16.9 points per 100 when he shares the floor with Giannis, Dame and Brook Lopez, nearly three times as much as when those three play without Middleton, according to PBP Stats — which is why it bears monitoring that he missed all but eight minutes of their last six contests before the break with a sprained ankle.

Embiid’s status — how long he misses, what he looks like when he comes back — casts by far the largest shadow, but the Sixers’ odds of both holding down the fort while he recovers and making serious noise when he returns would also improve greatly if De’Anthony Melton, Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington can join the party, too. New York’s chances of making a deep run hinge on OG Anunoby coming off elbow surgery, Mitchell Robinson coming off ankle surgery and Julius Randle hoping to stave off shoulder surgery. And the Heat — who made the Finals eight months ago and now sit a half-game out of sixth place and three games south of fourth — might be a real nuisance to deal with if they could ever get all of their main guys on the floor at the same time.

In the West, as ever, so much depends upon the structural integrity of the limbs of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. (Especially because, while Kawhi has already inked a multi-year contract extension to remain a Clipper, PG has yet to do so — and, as a result, could be the belle of the ball in free agency this summer.) The Nuggets have rolled at a 60-win clip when Jokić has Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in the lineup with him; keeping them, Swiss Army knife Aaron Gordon and 3-and-D ace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who missed time with a hamstring injury before the break) ambulatory is paramount to their title defense. The second tier of hopefuls each have injury risks — Beal in Phoenix, Zion Williamson in New Orleans, Kyrie Irving in Dallas, et al. — that they need to hold up to have a chance at grabbing the brass ring, too.

It’s not exactly revelatory to say that teams don’t function as well without their best talent, and typically need all hands on deck to win the title. But something doesn’t need to be surprising to be true; which teams survive the next seven weeks unscathed will likely go a long way toward determining which can survive the postseason gauntlet, too.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)

You have already written the acronym “MVP” five times. Where are we in the Most Valuable Player conversation?

Very much in the thick of it! (Shouts to Armando Iannucci.)

For starters, Embiid — whom I voted for last year, who won last year and who I thought was on a path to repeating at midseason — is likely out of it. After some early-season absences followed by a meniscus tear that required surgical repair, the Philadelphia superstar has already missed 21 games; that drops him below the 65-game minimum for consideration for major year-end awards that was instituted in the most recent collective bargaining agreement between NBA owners and the players’ union.

It’s still technically possible for the big fella to get himself on the ballot; the section of the 2023 CBA that covers the games played requirement for certain league honors includes the opportunity for a player to file “either an Award Eligibility Grievance or an Extraordinary Circumstances Challenge.” But since Embiid’s absence stems from a legitimate injury rather than either the Sixers conspiring to keep him from the court or, like, an acute onset of tornadoes lifting up his house at the foundation and transporting him to Oz, he’s probably out of the running.

With that in mind, my Yahoo Sports colleague Ben Rohrbach reset the field in print (well, pixels) just before the All-Star break, and I talked about it on last week’s episode of Devine Intervention with ESPN’s Chris Herring

In short: Heading into the final 25-ish games, Jokić (averaging about 26 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists per game on .646 true shooting), SGA (31 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and a league-leading 2.2 steals per game on .647 true shooting) and Giannis (31-12-6 on .651 true shooting) are up at the top of the list. Luka Dončić is very much in the mix, too, with his league-leading 34.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game largely responsible for keeping the Mavericks within hailing distance of a top-four seed despite a slew of key pieces — Irving, Dereck Lively II, Dante Exum, Josh Green — missing significant time. Tatum, the proverbial best player on the best team, merits consideration, too.

Other players could very well climb the ballot as the season winds down: Leonard, the Clippers’ top dog, who looks as good as he has in years; Mitchell, the straw that stirs the drink in Cleveland, playing the best defense of his career; maybe someone like Brunson or KD/Booker, if their teams climb the standings. For the most part, though, these are the dudes who’ll be jockeying for position, and engaging in a nightly game of Can You Top This? over the next month and a half.

Speaking of “jockeying for position,” which parts of the standings should we be keeping an eye on?

In the West? Um … all of them?

First-place Minnesota is three games clear of fourth-place Denver; just a game and a half separates OKC in second, the Clips in third and the Nuggets in fourth. The home-court advantage spots — and, with them, the added weight that winning the conference might give to the teams’ respective year-end award candidates — will probably be a nightly game of Musical Chairs from now until the music stops on April 14.

Below the top four lies an even gnarlier traffic jam. Only 1.5 games separate Phoenix and New Orleans, tied for the fifth seed, and eighth-place Sacramento. Three games out of fifth? The suddenly surging Lakers, in ninth. A game and a half behind them? The downright-respectable-looking Warriors, in 10th. Factor in seventh-place Dallas, and that’s six teams with All-NBA talent, all looking to either secure one of the last two guaranteed playoff spots or, worst-case, get out of the bottom half of the play-in picture, which requires you to win two games just to snare the No. 8 seed and a series against a rested first-place favorite. That race could get frantic.

The fight for the top is a bit less dramatic in the East, thanks to Boston blowing everyone’s doors off early and Cleveland getting fresh-dipped in flames for two straight months; the Celtics and Cavaliers, most likely, will be the top two seeds. Beneath them, though, the reeling Bucks, Knicks and Sixers are all clustered within two games of each other in the race for third — which would A) get them out of Boston’s bracket for the first two rounds and B) mean avoiding what promises to be a knife fight in the 4-vs.-5 matchup.

Injury-plagued Philly’s two games ahead of Indiana, and only a half-game separates the Pacers, Heat and Magic in sixth, seventh and eighth place. Depending on how the Sixers come out of the break, that could be a slugfest to get out of the play-in and avoid slumming it with the Bulls and Hawks, who, by league fiat, have the ninth and 10th spots on lock, with the just-fired-their-coach Nets and Raptors fading further from contention and getting closer to “high lottery pick” territory with each passing second.

Speaking of “high lottery pick territory,” who’s going to win Rookie of the Year?

It could be Holmgren, my midseason pick, who came off a medical redshirt freshman season, stepped into the starting center spot for a Thunder team that made the play-in tournament last season but had a glaring hole in the middle and has filled it perfectly:

Averaging nearly 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three blocks in 30 minutes per game while shooting 62% inside the arc and 39% beyond it as the interior linchpin of a top-five defense for a legit title contender — as a rookie — is awfully impressive. The question is whether enough voters will think it’s more impressive than this:

On Dec. 8, after a quarter-season of experimentation, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich moved Zach Collins to the bench, making space to slide No. 1 overall draft pick Victor Wembanyama from power forward to center. Since then, the 7-foot-4 font of ludicrousness has averaged 21.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 3.5 blocks and a steal … in just 27.3 minutes per game. He’s done that on 49/36/81 shooting splits — good for a .590 true shooting percentage — while finishing more than a third of San Antonio’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover, which is a combination of usage rate and shooting efficiency most typically associated with Hall of Fame wings.

Just before the break, Wembanyama posted 27 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks in a blowout victory over the Raptors. That’s the first triple-double with blocks in more than three years, and only the 15th such game with five or more assists since the league began recording blocked shots in 1973.

Oh, and in that span, the Spurs — who, again, just for the record, are terrible — have clamped down like a top-five defense with Big Vic on the floor.

Voters will have to choose between how gracefully and seamlessly Holmgren slid into a perfect position, elevating the young Thunder to title contention in the process, and how dumbfoundingly overwhelming Wembanyama’s been, and how he’s continued to blossom even amid the stultifying conditions at this stage of the Spurs’ rebuilding process. Whichever way the vote goes, this much at least is clear: Everyone else is playing for third. (Apologies to Brandon Miller, Jaime Jaquez Jr., and the rest of the rookie class.)

Speaking of transformational rookies … what’s the State of Our Tanking Union in 2024?

For the most part, the same as it’s been since the early days of the season, with five teams absolutely head and shoulders — or, I guess, feet and kneecaps? — below everyone else.

The three worst teams in the NBA — the 8-46 Pistons, 9-45 Wizards and 11-44 Spurs — are currently in position to have the best odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. (Which, in Yahoo Sports NBA draft analyst Krysteen Peek’s latest mock draft, is 7-foot-1 French center Alex Sarr.) Just behind them: the 13-41 Hornets and the 15-39 Trail Blazers.

Fall into the bottom five, and you’ve got at least a 10.5% chance of winning the draft lottery and at least a 42% chance of a top-four pick. There’s some drama, then, surrounding whether the Raptors (19-36, losers of 15 of their last 19) or Grizzlies (20-36, losers of nine of their last 11) can sink to the bottom enough to oust Portland for a bottom-five spot.

In Memphis’ case, that might mean benching Vince Williams and GG Jackson, because those dudes appear to rule:

Some other bottom-of-the-standings things to keep an eye on:

  • You know how Toronto’s been one of the worst teams in the league since the first three or four games after sending Anunoby to the Knicks for Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett and the Pistons’ 2024 second-round pick? That’s kind of not the worst thing for the Raptors, who owe their 2024 first-round pick to San Antonio as part of last February’s Jakob Poeltl deal … but only if it falls outside the first six picks in the draft. If the ping-pong balls wind up putting Toronto seventh or worse, the selection goes to the Spurs — which is why, now that the Scottie Barnes All-Star campaign is in the rear-view mirror, it’s probably in the Raps’ best interest to just sort of take it easy over these last few weeks. Discretion is the better part of valour, and all that. (We add the “u” because Canada.)

  • The Nets, who have been terrible for nearly two months — ever since they sat/extreme-load-managed multiple players against the Bucks in late December — and, again, just fired their coach, now own the NBA’s eighth-worst record, with just one more win than Memphis. Who stands to benefit as Brooklyn’s season circles the drain? The Rockets, who own the Nets’ unprotected 2024 first-round draft pick from the 2021 trade that sent James Harden to Brooklyn. The worse the Nets get, the better it is for Houston.

  • Remember how the Jazz traded away three rotation players at the deadline? It’s perhaps worth noting that Utah’s 2024 first-round pick will go to the Thunder if it falls outside the top 10, thanks to the Great Derrick Favors Salary Dump of 2021. If the pick lands at 10th or higher though, the Jazz keep it. It is also perhaps worth noting, then, that after losing the four games they played after the trade deadline, the Jazz now sit 2.5 games out of the play-in — with the 11th-worst record in the NBA. So if you see Danny Ainge and Co. publicly rooting for, say, the 24-30 Rockets and 24-31 Hawks to go on a run here down the stretch, you’ll know why.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - FEBRUARY 18: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Western Conference All-Stars reacts prior to the start of the 2024 NBA All-Star Game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on February 18, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
What does the future hold for King James and the Lakers? (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) (Stacy Revere via Getty Images)

Not for nothing, but you haven’t mentioned LeBron James once.

[hits Ctrl+F]

Holy crap, you’re right! I guess that’s what happens when the Lakers spend more than half the season scuffling in the play-in mix and never really looking like a bona fide contender.

Now that you mention it, though, that’s worth monitoring in and of itself, isn’t it?

Whatever you think of the whole “Golden State asked about LeBron?!?!?” story that broke on the eve of All-Star, it did shine a spotlight on the fact that James holds a $51.4 million player option for next season. That option gives LeBron — who, by the way, only needs 132 points to push his all-time record total to 40,000 in his illustrious career — something he’s long prioritized nearly as much as championship contention and a hand-picked supporting cast: the luxury to move as he pleases.

If the Lakers go on a run over the next couple of months, locating enough offensive punch to pair with a snarling Anthony Davis-led defense in a mixture potent enough to win a couple of playoff series, then James can exercise the option to re-up in L.A., perhaps on a one-plus-one deal that preserves his freedom of movement come the summer of 2025 while also locking in a raise for next season. If things go south, though? Well, you don’t have to strain your brain too hard to imagine some championship hopefuls making a pitch to welcome the King for another run at a fifth ring.

Maybe the way the season ends has no bearing on LeBron’s decision-making process. Maybe, as the rumblings have long suggested, he’s happy enough with life in Los Angeles and as a Laker that no specific result is going to change that.

"I am a Laker, and I've been very happy being a Laker the last six years, and hopefully it stays that way," James said during an All-Star Weekend news conference.

The specific result could, however, inform how the Lakers move around James — whether they rekindle conversations with Atlanta about Dejounte Murray, or perhaps even Trae Young, or try to make a run at whichever other star might wind up shaking loose.

How the Lakers play over the next several weeks could go a long way toward determining the shape of the Western playoffs; we’re just 10 months removed, remember, from L.A. making a run to the conference finals on the strength of LeBron, AD and Just Enough Shooting and Playmaking. It could also, though, go a long way toward determining the shape of what comes next — in June, July and beyond.