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Top NBA second-half storylines: Lakers drama, Ben Simmons trade, Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status and more

The first half of the 2021-22 NBA season has come and gone, believe it or not, and it hasn’t been without its specific flavor of drama and intrigue. Many of the issues we worried about at the beginning of the season still linger as we inch nearer and nearer to the All-Star break. With the number of players in protocols and omicron infections *knock on wood* hopefully decreasing, perhaps the second half of the season can focus more on basketball and less on who’s available from night to night.

Remember the old days when fans would complain about the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meeting in the NBA Finals every postseason? How far we’ve come, as the first-half 2021-22 standings offer several teams with a legitimate shot to win the title, and a handful of others within striking distance if things break the right way.

In case you haven’t been following the league as closely as you’d like, or you just want a quick refresher, here are seven storylines to watch in the second half of the NBA season.

1. Benjamin. David. Simmons.

We’re all sick of talking about it, but it’s unavoidable. A Ben Simmons trade has the potential to shake up the NBA for multiple teams, especially the Philadelphia 76ers and the team that eventually lands him. Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey has shown patience and restraint thus far, but Joel Embiid’s transcendent play of late has admittedly given Morey second thoughts about holding out for an ideal Simmons package laden with All-Stars and picks.

The thinking was that a non-All-Stars like CJ McCollum or Buddy Hield wouldn’t increase Philadelphia’s championship odds enough to make the deal worth it, but Embiid is proving that one extra piece might just be enough to get them into contention in the East. Either way, the Simmons situation is going to be paramount among NBA storylines in the second half. If he’s traded, it’s huge. If he’s not traded, that’s huge too. We’ll all be keeping our eye on this one.

2. Kyrie’s vaccination status

Kevin Durant is expected to miss four-to-six weeks with his knee injury, but the Brooklyn Nets have been extremely cautious with their stars coming back from injury over the past couple of seasons, so it could be even longer. Irving has stated that he’s “standing rooted” in his decision not to get the vaccine despite Durant’s injury, which means he’s unable to play home games in Brooklyn or road games in select cities. That leaves James Harden as the only star for roughly half of the Nets’ games while Durant remains sidelined, and they’ve been significantly worse when that’s the case — understandably so.

With Durant, Irving and Harden on the court together, the Nets have basically been unbeatable for the past two seasons. When Harden is on the floor without his co-stars, however, Brooklyn’s net rating falls to plus-1.8 — still good, but nowhere near the margin of a full-strength superteam. The Nets have already fallen out of first place in the East, with three teams within three games of their current No. 3 spot. How far will they have to drop before teammates and/or the organization starts putting pressure on Irving to make himself fully available by getting vaccinated? Will that be enough to change Kyrie’s mind?

Brooklyn is also in the unique situation of “home-court advantage” in the postseason actually being a disadvantage if Irving can only play on the road, so you could see them positioning themselves (aka tanking) to get into the No. 5 spot rather than No. 4 if it comes down to it. Simply remarkable, unprecedented stuff to watch as the season unfolds.

3. Klay being Klay … maybe

We’ve already seen improvement in just a handful of games, and it goes without saying that Klay Thompson’s potential to approximate his previous production could shift the landscape of the NBA. The Warriors have sputtered on offense after a hot start, and Thompson is the ideal floor spacer/creator to play alongside Steph Curry and Draymond Green, as years of evidence prove. The question is whether Thompson can get back to that level and whether he’ll be able to keep up on the other side of the court for the league’s best defense.

If he can, the Warriors have to be considered favorites, or at least co-favorites, to win the NBA title — depending on the aforementioned issues with Brooklyn. If he can’t, Warriors coach Steve Kerr is going to have some difficult decisions ahead of him, since benching Thompson in crunch time of a playoff series won’t be easy to stomach for Kerr, the fans or Thompson himself.

4. As the Lakers turn

This season’s Lakers would be perfect for one of those old Stefon skits on SNL. “This team has everything: A coach who may or may not be fired after every game, a $44 million player getting benched in crunch time, an aging superstar desperately trying to hold it all together … MTV’s Dan Cortese.”

Well, maybe not that last one, but the Lakers have served up a heaping spoonful of drama heading into the second half of the season. The glimmer of hope is that Anthony Davis will return and make things all better, though he wasn’t exactly setting the NBA world on fire before his injury, shooting just 18 percent from 3-point range. Some of the biggest questions surround Westbrook, who has in recent history gotten better in the second halves of seasons. However, that has generally required teams to cater to his skill set (i.e., the Rockets trading Clint Capela), which it seems like the Lakers are either unwilling or unable to do given their roster construction.

Westbrook has already scoffed at being called the Lakers’ point guard and reportedly left the arena before his teammates were done showering, so we’ll see how things unfold if he continues to spend crunch time on the bench. If it comes down to Russ or head coach Frank Vogel, it sounds like Vogel will be the one to go. But who does the front office bring in, and how would a new coach suddenly make things work? Tune in next week to find out. And the week after that. And the week after that …

5. Operation shutdown in Portland?

Even with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the floor, the Portland Trail Blazers were suffering through a disappointing season. Now that Lillard has undergone abdominal surgery and McCollum is coming back from a serious lung issue, it’s certainly reasonable for the Blazers front office to start counting the potential lottery balls. Their first-round pick is lottery protected this year, so do they really want to fight and scratch and claw to get to the No. 8 seed, only to see their first-round pick go to the Bulls?

Instead, Portland might decide to continue to let young players like Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little develop while they give Lillard and McCollum a much-deserved vacation, possibly trading players like Larry Nance Jr., Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic for assets in the process. That could allow the team to slip into the top half of the lottery and draft a player who can either help immediately next season or can be used as a sweetener in a win-now move. As much as everyone hates the “t” word, it’s definitely something to think about.

6. Watch out for the Bucks’ stampede

The Milwaukee Bucks had a relatively disappointing record in the first half of the season, but it’s a bit deceiving because of the players who have not been on the court. When their three stars — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — have played in the same game this season, the Bucks have gone 17-3. With the trio on the court together, the Bucks have a plus-9.1 net rating in over 300 minutes. Milwaukee has a tough remaining schedule, but if those three can stay on the floor, they may be primed for a big second-half run as they attempt to repeat as NBA champions.

7. How far can the Cavs and Grizzlies go?

Two rebuilding teams way ahead of schedule, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies are both firmly in the playoff mix just over halfway through the season. The good news for the up-and-coming squads? The Cavs and Grizzlies are tied for the most favorable remaining schedule in the entire NBA in terms of opponent winning percentage, according to Tankathon. That means if they continue to play the way they have, the wins should keep piling up. Contrast that with the teams around them in the standings like the Jazz, Clippers, Nets and 76ers, all of whom have more difficult roads in the second half, and it potentially spells home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for Cleveland and/or Memphis. That would be quite an accomplishment for either franchise.

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