Sagas, Monstars and Paloozas: The NBA’s second-half storylines

DeMarcus Cousins enjoys a moment during his Warriors debut with teammates Kevin Durant (left) and Draymond Green.

Eight stories to watch as the NBA’s All-Star break comes to a close and the playoff race officially begins…

The Anthony Davis saga

Let’s start with the obvious. The endless possibilities that have come out of the Anthony Davis trade request could be its own separate movie. The request not only impacts the league for years to come; but Davis’ next destination has the potential to shape the legacy of other superstars.

Despite the Lakers offering nearly everyone on the roster before the Feb. 4 trade deadline, the Pelicans weren’t interested in what Magic Johnson was dealing. Davis is a 6-foot-10 basketball enigma who can shoot from the outside and block anything that comes his way in the inside. At age 25, his best years are still ahead of him, making him a top trade priority for any team hoping to dethrone the Warriors.

But as New Orleans knows, Davis is also injury-prone. His shoulder contusion before All Star break was a reminder of how tricky this situation is. Even though Davis has a list of preferred destinations, the Pelicans hold the power this summer in determining what they get for him in return. How New Orleans handles their own front office dysfunction and what they decide to do with Davis for the rest of the season will be an uncomfortable mix of awkward encounters and head-scratching PR tactics. Get your popcorn, the dumpster fire is still burning in NOLA.

The Philly experiment

By picking up Tobias Harris from the Clippers, the Philadelphia 76ers won this year’s trade deadline. Harris was putting up career-high numbers in Los Angeles, averaging 20.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and shooting 42 percent from three. He makes a strong case for being the shot-maker Philadelphia desperately needs while joining a group of hungry stars in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler.

Although it’s a small sample size, Philadelphia has gone 3-1 since making the trade, with Harris averaging 17.8 points during that stretch. They have plenty of depth on their roster and offer a versatile lineup to challenge the top teams in the Eastern Conference. If head coach Brett Brown is able to find the magic formula, the Sixers could be turning heads at just the right time.

A LeBron-less playoffs

For the first time in 16 years, the NBA’s playoffs could be without LeBron James. The Lakers are currently 28-29 and are two spots behind the Clippers and Kings for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

There’s not a whole lot of smiles in Los Angeles these days. Lonzo Ball is still out with an ankle sprain, the entire roster is still mending after being on the trading block for a month and James is still recovering after being out of commission for the longest duration of his career. Sure, he is still averaging 23.2 points, 10.8 rebounds and 11 assists per game in the two weeks he has been back on the floor; but as Cleveland fans know, a triple-double lackluster LeBron looks a whole lot different than triple-double engaged LeBron.

We will know if LeBron is truly chalking this season up by mid-March. Despite a lackluster roster and impending superstar free agents on the horizon, it’s hard to believe that he won’t dial back in once fully healthy. History speaks for itself, and LeBron has a miraculous way of turning a team from rags to riches.

NBA Monstars and Boogie Cousins

Welcome to the Space Jam. The Warriors Monstars mode has officially been activated.

Four-time All Star DeMarcus Cousins made his return on Jan. 16 and in just a few statement dunks, Golden State was back to having fun again. The beauty of it all? Cousins is taking his comeback slowly and the Warriors are in no rush. They currently hold the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference and have gone 10-2 since adding Cousins to the lineup.

Kevin Durant’s free agency this summer is hovering, but in the meantime, the Warriors appear to be focused on taking advantage of what they have right now. If Cousins can gradually increase his minutes and find a pivotal role amidst a team of stars, the Warriors will be one step closer to securing their third straight championship.

Chris Paul’s hamstring

The Rockets came close to beating the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals; then Chris Paul strained his hamstring. Before the injury, Paul was playing some of his best basketball. In the series, he was averaging 19.8 points, 4.6 assists and 1.8 steals, giving Golden State all they could handle.

Unfortunately for Paul, the hamstring injury has lingered. After another strain in December, he was sidelined for over a month, leaving James Harden to carry a heavy load. The Rockets currently hold the fifth spot in the Western Conference behind Harden’s MVP numbers, but if they want another shot at the Warriors, the 33-year-old Paul needs to find his rhythm before a much-needed playoff push.

Paul George’s MVP campaign

Paul George’s All-Star moment came in the form of a step-back fadeaway three. It was nothing but net right over Harden, a top candidate for the league’s MVP award. But for George, amid the best season of his career, it looked effortless.

George is averaging a career-high 28.7 points and eight rebounds per game. He is shooting better than 40 percent from three and is still proving his worth on the defensive end with an average of 2.3 steals per game. After signing a four-year, $137 million max contract to stay in Oklahoma City this past summer, George is propelling the Thunder towards playoff legitimacy. With plenty of drama around the league, George and Russell Westbrook appear to be have found stable ground.  If George can continue what he started in the first half of the season, and if the Thunder can continue to climb, the NBA’s most valuable player award might be headed for Oklahoma City.

Luke Walton’s hot seat

Of course, the Lakers have another storyline. After all, they have LeBron on their team. Whether it’s fair or not, Luke Walton has been on the hot seat the moment James decided he was taking his talents to Los Angeles. Coaches come and go; LeBron’s, well, don’t.

Magic Johnson gave Walton a stern talking to after the Lakers started off the season 3-5. If the pressure was on after only eight games, it’s only going to ramp up. In January, Walton told The Athletic that his relationship with Johnson was secure:

“It’s been good,” he said of the relationship with Magic. “Honestly, it has. …Anytime I call him, he calls back within an hour or two, and we talk hoops. He wants to win, and I want to win. So as far as that (goes), we’re all trying to do the same thing, and I don’t feel like he’s trying to move me out of there.

As for LA’s King? James hasn’t said much about his new coach. He chooses his words carefully, and usually, a lack of words isn’t a great sign. The Lakers have plenty of unknowns ahead, but if there is one certainty dictating the Lakers future, it’s the clock that ticks on James’ prime. He is 34 years old, coming off one of the worst injuries of his career, and competing in a Western Conference that doesn’t appear to be getting any easier. With the Lakers needing to win at least 18 of their final 28 games to keep their playoff hopes alive, Walton has a hefty task with minimal room for error. It’s showtime…

Tanking palooza

The race for Duke’s Zion Williamson is on. The New York Knicks snapped their 18-game losing streak right before the All-Star break and currently dote the worst record in the league. Right behind the Knicks are the Phoenix Suns, who also happen to have the sixth most difficult remaining schedule in the league. Despite the return of five-time All-Star Kevin Love, the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers are doing everything they can to make room for the draft’s No. 1 pick. So far, so good. According to Basketball Reference, they have the worst defensive-rating in NBA history.

The Knicks dream of a Durant-Irving-Williamson lineup next year, the Suns want to emerge out of the Western Conference basement and the Cavaliers are desperate to see the light again after another James exit. Let the tanking palooza begin.

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