By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer
We’ve reached the midpoint of the season, making this a great time to take a step back and assess the greater NBA landscape.
Some people like to look back, but I figure it’s a New Year and better to look forward.
For this week’s Starting Five, we’re taking a look at the five most important storylines to keep an eye on in the second half of the NBA season.
1. The Ben Simmons saga
You know the deal here. Ben Simmons refuses to play for the Sixers (23-17). The Sixers refuse to just trade him. Round and round and round and round we go.
The trade deadline is Feb. 10, meaning we’re now less than a month away. Trade talks across the league are picking up, especially with the most recent COVID wave (maybe sort of) under control, leaving GMs with more time to focus on trades as opposed to which reserve guard to sign from the Greensboro Swarm.
The questions here are whether Philadelphia president of basketball operations Daryl Morey can find an adequate deal for Simmons before the deadline, and if not, if Simmons is really willing to sit out the entire season.
One issue is that Simmons is a difficult player to trade. He’s in this weird middle area in that he’s way too good to just give up, but not so good that every team in the league is leaping to acquire him. The Sixers, because of Joel Embiid, aren’t in a position to be taking back draft picks and raw prospects, and that just makes this whole exercise even more difficult.
There are some teams that have engaged the Sixers so far. You know who they are. The struggling Hawks (17-22, 28th in defense). The Kings, who could package players like De’Aaron Fox and Harrison Barnes. The Timberwolves, who would love to get Simmons but have two stars (Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards) who they refuse to give up and no other players the Sixers want.
Damian Lillard is now undergoing surgery, so it’s unlikely he becomes the target. The Celtics thus far have given no indication they have any intent of breaking up the Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum duo.
Will the Sixers blink and take a lesser offer? If they don’t get one, are they really ready to punt the season? And is Simmons ready to do the same? The deadline will give us more of an answer than we’ve had in about six months.
2. Can Klay Thompson save the Warriors’ offense?
The Warriors (30-10) have been awesome this season (second-best record in the West, second-best point differential), but, contrary to what you might think, it’s their defense that has been the catalyst. They lead the league in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions and are a full two points ahead of the No. 2 ranked Suns.
The offense, on the other, has struggled a bit. The Warriors are just 14th in points per 100 possessions, behind teams like the Pacers and Raptors. Steph Curry, despite averaging 26.4 points per game, is shooting just 42% from the field and just 38.4% from deep, both career lows.
This is where Klay Thompson comes in. We know what he can do on offense, and how seamlessly he can fit with other players. That might be his greatest super power: I don’t know if there’s a player in NBA history who has scored more points on fewer dribbles.
Thompson has looked bouncy and fluid since returning to the floor, even unleashing some nasty slams. There’s no reason to believe he can’t rediscover his old form. If he does, the Warriors should be able to become a top-five offense as well, and title favorites
3. The return of AD
It has been a rough first half out in L.A. The Russell Westbrook trade — as most of us predicted — has been a disaster. He’s shooting just 44.5% from the field and owns the league’s second-worst turnover rate.
The Lakers are 22nd in offense and 18th in defense and, at 21-21, appear poised to be fighting just to avoid the play-in tournament.
But there is one nice thing that has come out of this mess of a half-a-season: LeBron as a small ball center!
The Lakers were forced to go to these lineups when Anthony Davis sprained a ligament in his knee in mid-December, and they’ve been a revelation. They’ve outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with LeBron as the man in the middle, and their offense has been the league’s third-best over the past two weeks.
We don’t know yet when Davis will return, but Lakers coach Frank Vogel has already said that when he does he and LeBron will be two primary bigs the team plays.
Davis was struggling before he went down. But we know what he can do, especially as the lone big on the floor and especially on the defensive end. If the Lakers can hang around until he returns — and continue getting strong play from sharpshooter Malik Monk — they could climb above the play-in seeds and become a team no one wants to face.
4. A possibly historic MVP race
This is shaping up to be one of the closer and more fun MVP battles in a while.
The way I see it, if the season ended now the vote would be split among four players. There’s Kevin Durant (first in points per game, second in minutes per game), Curry (the best player and heart and soul of one of the league’s best teams), Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.4 points, 11.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game, second in PER, second in Win Shares) and Mr. Not Sexy himself, Nikola Jokic (26, 14 and 7) while leading the league in PER and boasting a video game-like plus-minus.
Each of these players is a worthy candidate. And recently we’ve seen Ja Morant and Joel Embiid enter the race as well. LeBron’s making a case, too (28.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, fourth in PER) and let’s not forget stars such as DeMar DeRozan and Chris Paul, the best players on the current top seeds in each conference.
Put it all together, and it’s very possible that come spring we have five or more players receiving first-place MVP votes.
5. Can this Kyrie Irving thing really work?
The Nets are inconsistent. They’ve lost five of eight. Their defense, which recently ranked as high as No. 5, has dipped to No. 13 as opponents have started connecting on a higher rate of their open looks. James Harden has yet to rediscover his Houston form. Durant is second in the NBA in minutes, which is not something you’re supposed to see from a star on a “super team.”
I bring this all up to say that I understand why the Nets decided to allow Kyrie Irving to participate as a part-time player. This is a championship-or-bust team, and it has become clear the Nets need Irving to win a championship.
But let’s not ignore just how strange this whole situation is. And from so many different standpoints. Chemistry. Continuity. Strategy. Game-planning. And this doesn’t even touch on how messy things could get playoff time, when every game matters and when we might get to a point where the Nets could actually be hurt by having home-court advantage.
We did learn this week via Stef Bondy of the New York Daily News that, if the Nets wished, they could let Irving play and just pay some small fines. Maybe that becomes an answer come playoff time.
With Kyrie on the floor, the Nets are probably the team to beat in the East. The question is, if that remains the case with him only on the floor half the time?
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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