NBA:10 biggest questions …

The All-Star break has arrived, and so have questions. With the league on pause until Thursday, it’s time to rest, reflect and project. Therefore, here are the league’s 10 most pressing questions entering the home stretch:

1. If Joel Embiid doesn’t return, are Sixers bound for Play-In Tournament?

Short answer: It’s very possible. That’s how much he means in the grand scheme. It’s not just his numbers, but his presence. Game planning for Philly is much easier now.

This means more double-teams are coming Tyrese Maxey’s way, and while the young All-Star is somewhat used to it now, that’s a heavy burden to carry.

2. Which team will hold best record in the West?

Well, let’s rephrase the question — how badly do the Clippers want it? If the hottest team since early December makes this a priority, then favor LA. However, given their history, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Clippers pump the brakes the final few weeks and rest their stars.

Same for the defending champion Denver Nuggets. But not the Minnesota Timberwolves or Oklahoma City Thunder, young and thirsty teams who would love the status that comes with first place and, more importantly, the benefit of home-court advantage.

3. Can the Bucks recalibrate under Doc Rivers?

The initial getting-to-know-you process under the new coach went over as well in Milwaukee as flat beer. That said, maybe this was to be expected. Rivers arrived in midseason under duress. Roles had to be redefined. A system needed to be put in place.

This a society of thin patience, and when you add the level of urgency expressed by the resident franchise player, the pressure gets thick. Everything depends on three factors: can the Bucks (with Patrick Beverley) prioritize defense, will Damian Lillard reduce his clunky shooting nights, and are Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton capable of slowing their decline?

4. Is the worst finally over for the Warriors?

Just last month they were five games under .500 and drowning from issues. Golden State is now frisky and, dare we say, starting to flex a bit.

So yeah, perhaps the worst is over. Which doesn’t mean the Warriors are ready to do an abrupt about-face. Lots depends on Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, two veterans who saw their production dip to start the season.

The good news is the young players, especially Jonathan Kuminga and Brandin Podziemski, are proving worthy of crunch time minutes. Escaping the Play-In Tournament is the Warriors’ goal, but they’ll need to leapfrog some decent teams.

5. Is the worst finally over for the Lakers?

After their post-In-Season Tournament swoon, the Lakers have collected themselves. Lucky for them, they didn’t lose too much ground in the West during those dark days. There’s nothing that a five-game win streak can’t cure.

That said, the Lakers wasted the good health of LeBron James and Anthony Davis during that stretch. Now Los Angeles must cross its fingers, hope for a continuation of health and this time, take advantage of it.

Can Spencer Dinwiddie, snatched on the buyout market, make a difference? In some ways, yes, but he’s not an impact player, or else he wouldn’t have been available. The Lakers must get help from the collective — and give their two stars less of a load.

6. Will Mavs’ frontline additions help them avoid Play-In Tournament?

Daniel Gafford and PJ Washington made the Mavericks a big winner at the trade deadline, if only because Dallas added exactly what was needed — some frontline balance for a starry backcourt.

Gafford in particular gives the Mavericks added size, and they’ll tinker with the best way to use him and fellow center Dereck Lively II, who’s having an encouraging rookie season.

More rebounds and more paint presence at both ends will help. Of course, Dallas will mainly rise if Luka Doncic keeps looking like a Kia MVP finalist.

7. What team will be on the spot in March and April?

Last season, the Sacramento Kings were the feel-good story in the NBA. They lit the beam and finally broke through the playoff hex. So imagine if they followed up … by missing the playoffs altogether.

That would leave a sour taste in Sacramento. The town and franchise came into this season with a next-step mindset, and missing the postseason seemingly would represent a retreat for De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis.

Right now they’re in Play-In Tournament territory, a place where anything can happen.

8. What team can still salvage a poor start?

This is a coin flip between the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls with both squads choosing to keep their important pieces at the trade deadline, which was surprising. Given their losing records and roster setup, both teams appeared to be sellers.

Now it’s all about salvaging what’s left of a fractured season and making the playoffs. Give the edge to the Hawks, only because the Bulls won’t get Zach LaVine back. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray have another shot, and maybe their last, at redemption in Atlanta.

9. Will anyone in the East catch the Celtics?

Doesn’t appear so. The Sixers are minus Embiid and the Bucks are still working on defense four months after the season tipped.

The Knicks will be without injured OG Anunoby and Julius Randle perhaps into next month. That leaves only the Cleveland Cavaliers in pursuit — and trailing the Celtics by six games as the All-Star break ends.

The East is surely the Celtics’ to lose, and a stumble doesn’t appear realistic as long as Jayson Tatum and a deep roster refuse to allow any hint of a slump. Six of their last seven are at home, where Boston has lost only three times all season.

10. Who’ll finish with the worst record in the NBA?

Although the San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets lurk, this appears to be a two-team race between the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, both weakened further after dumping assets at the trade deadline and through buyouts.

What a season for both. Losing streaks aside, the Pistons and Wizards didn’t see much growth on the roster, the most crucial stage of rebuilding.

Just by chance that it’s the Pistons or Spurs tossup for worst record, they meet in the season finale. Stay tuned.

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.

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