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Playoff Races, Injured Stars, and the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Second Half

Should the 76ers make a move before the deadline? Will the return of Kyrie Irving or Victor Oladipo make a bigger impact? And will LeBron or Giannis ease up on the gas down the stretch?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA news cycle moves faster than the Michael Porter Jr. hype train. So every Monday this season, we’ll be looking at the most important story lines, trends, and talking points for the week ahead. Welcome to the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Week.

This week, in honor of the regular season hitting its midway point, we’ll examine the questions that will define the second half. Let’s get to it.

Which Injured Player Will Make the Biggest Impact in the Playoff Race?

The trade deadline may not bring us the marquee trades we’ve been craving—Kevin Love and Andre Drummond may be the biggest names moved. But the second half of the season will have plenty of intriguing needle-moving returns to keep an eye on as several stars come back from injury.

In Indiana, Victor Oladipo will make his long-awaited return on January 29 following a year-long recovery from knee surgery. The Pacers’ patience has paid off. Indiana has jumped out to a surprising 24-15 start this season and is essentially a playoff lock with huge upside now that its best player is set to return. It will be fascinating to see not just how Oladipo looks after the long layoff, but how he likes the new digs. Last time he suited up, Malcolm Brogdon was a Buck and Domantas Sabonis wasn’t quite playing like an All-Star. Together, the trio could turn an overachieving Pacers team into an intriguing threat for the conference’s no. 2 seed.

Kyrie Irving made his return to the Nets’ lineup on Sunday after sitting out 26 games with a shoulder injury. In classic Kyrie fashion, the episode has been murky, mysterious, and peppered with quotes that nearly require a translator. The bottom of the East is Styrofoam weak and so the Nets, even without Kyrie, have remained in the playoff field. Spencer Dinwiddie has been a much-needed anchor and played like an All-Star. It will be fascinating to see how Kyrie’s ball-magnet dynamic fits with a team that has, at times, played better without a ball-dominant guard this season.

Both Brooklyn and Indiana are getting back star players, but the biggest and most important boost could occur in Portland. Jusuf Nurkic is likely to return sometime in the next few months, after he broke his leg before last season’s playoffs. His absence forced the Blazers to give Hassan Whiteside a shot at shoring up their big-man rotation. Let’s just say the results have been less than ideal for Portland (Whiteside, for his part, is still averaging a rather empty double-double). Portland’s terrible injury luck has continued into this season (Rodney Hood is finished with a torn Achilles), and has it on the outside of the playoffs looking in. We know Damian Lillard will do everything in his power to get the Blazers back into the postseason, and getting Nurkic on the floor at some point (he has yet to practice), may be exactly what the team needs to get them over the edge.

Will the Return of Zion or the Splash Brothers Bring More Excitement?

Imagine Zion cutting across the middle, the ball hits his hands in stride, and a lane opens up to the rim. You know what comes next. Or how about Steph at the top of the 3-point line, dribbling right, then dribbling left, before he pulls back. You know what comes next. Soon enough, we won’t have to visualize these scenarios in our heads or remember what they looked like. Both Steph and Zion, two of the game’s one-name stars, will be giving us fresh, new clips to add to their highlight reels. And I can’t wait. Steph is returning from a broken hand to a Warriors team that’s from an alternate reality at the bottom of the standings. Zion, the no. 1 overall pick, has the entire league waiting with bated breath for his first NBA appearance after undergoing knee surgery before the season.

I wrote about the Zion hype last Monday and how he could help the Pelicans make a real run at the wide-open 8-seed in the West (they are currently four games back). He could turn into a phenomenon quite quickly—Zion has already set that precedent at the high school and college levels. And the fact that his return could come on January 20, when the Pelicans face Ja Morant’s Grizzlies for a nationally televised game could make up for the league’s failed bet on the Pelicans, who were put on seemingly every prime-time slot to start the season.

While Zion’s return feels imminent, it could be a little longer before we see Steph on the court, but the Warriors have indicated that he will play this season. While we’ve had plenty of other exciting players to obsess over, Steph’s exuberance has felt noticeably absent. And though there was talk that the Warriors should not even bring him or Klay Thompson (returning from a torn ACL) back this season given the Warriors’ dismal record, the fact that we could see the Splash Brothers ride again, if only for a hot second, is enough to keep us interested in their regular-season games down the stretch.

What Will LeBron’s Second Half Look Like?

LeBron has been bending age to his will for so long that his mid-30s have become nothing but arbitrary figures we use to underline his greatness. Slowly though, those numbers—and perhaps more importantly, the 47,000 career regular-season minutes he’s logged—have begun to come into focus as reminders that, at some point, Father Time will strike. His groin injury last season was a hint, and though LeBron has missed only two games this season—one with an injured shoulder and the other with a cold—neither he nor the Lakers want to be known for what they do before the playoffs start.

Far be it from me to try and predict how LeBron, who knows himself better than anyone, will handle his workload during the second half, but the stakes here are hard to overstate. Is there a world in which this is LeBron’s best, last shot at a title? It’s possible, which makes every turn, dribble, and jump a fraught snapshot of potential danger as much as transcendence.

This season, LeBron’s minutes are down a touch, settling in at 34.9 per game, which would be the lowest of his entire career (his usage rate has remained the same). That’s because of a little thing called the Anthony Davis effect. And yet, LeBron’s numbers haven’t declined much—he’s also posting a career-high 10.7 assists—while the Lakers have raced out to a West-leading 32-7 record and top-five units on both ends of the floor. It’s all coalescing into a team that’s jelled rapidly and looks like a title contender. Right now, to take LeBron away from the Lakers, whether by rest or by injury, would be to remove a conductor from an orchestra, but it may be the savviest play. Sure, the Lakers could go all in for the top seed (they’re currently up five and a half games on the Clippers) at all costs, but it may behoove them and LeBron to take a page out of his 2016-17 playbook and consider limiting his minutes or even his games played down the stretch. LeBron has already insisted this season that if he’s healthy, he will play, but with a title on the line, maintaining both his health and his peak performance has never been more crucial.

Can the Bucks Win 70 Games?

It is nearly impossible to be on pace to win 70 games and still be considered under the radar, and yet here the Bucks are. Milwaukee is displaying bold shades of greatness that we’ve rarely, if ever, seen and yet it still feels like the team is underrated and portrayed as second tier relative to other contenders and their narratives. We did a version of this with the Spurs because their greatness became almost monotonous and even assumed. But the Bucks are not a dynasty; they are novel and feature the most dominant player in all of basketball, who routinely dunks on players and entire teams.

So, what is it about the Bucks? Is there a craving for conflict and drama we need to satisfy that they just don’t provide? Their style of play is modern while still providing us with some variety when Giannis Antetokounmpo decides to go into hyperdrive. Whatever the case, the Bucks’ greatness is undeniable, and it’s likely about to become more impressive. Should the Bucks continue at this exact pace, they’ll make a run at 70 wins, which has been done only twice in NBA history. The circumstances are helpful: They have the 14th-easiest schedule the rest of the way. Perhaps the only thing holding them back is how they choose to manage the second half of the season. Milwaukee is currently seven games up on Miami and losing the no. 1 seed would take a disastrous turn of events that just doesn’t seem plausible. If the Bucks decide to rest players, especially Giannis, 70 wins is probably out of the question. But for a team that won 60 last season and fell short in the conference finals, getting over that hurdle and into the Finals is the only thing that matters.

Will the Sixers Go All in at the Deadline … Again?

With the trade deadline less than a month away, the team that once again finds itself at the center of deadline buzz is the Sixers. Their glut of size and talent has fluctuated between unstoppable and incompetent. They need another playmaker, could use one catch-and-shoot shooter, and are burdened by expectations of their own making. Adding Al Horford hasn’t quite reaped the results they hoped for, and in return, the Sixers have an ill-fitting roster that already went all in at the deadline last season. Could they make a similar move this year?

Joel Embiid’s injury complicates things. He’ll be out for at least two weeks after undergoing hand surgery, which pauses any burgeoning chemistry and will instead let Ben Simmons drive Philly’s very large SUV of a lineup and try to turn it into a race car instead. Two games into this experiment, though, nothing seems to have changed about the Sixers’ identity: They play up to their competition (handling the Celtics without Embiid) and then inexplicably fall apart the following game (they lost by 18 to the Mavericks). This kind of inconsistency could require GM Elton Brand to take action, and he’s already been on the short end of a midseason trade after giving up Landry Shamet and picks for Jimmy Butler insurance. This is the handcuff Philly has to deal with. The Sixers have young stars that portend well for the future, but have made moves that mortgaged that future—demanding that they win in the present. This year’s trade market isn’t exactly built for a blockbuster move, but if any team has done too much to not go for it now, even if it’s a fringe deal, it’s the Sixers.