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5 Storylines to Watch in the NBA's Second Half

Image Credit: FreeDawkins/YouTube
Image Credit: FreeDawkins/YouTube

Now that the NBA All-Star break is behind us, many teams may change their approaches to the rest of the season. Contenders will be looking to get their squads into playoff form as they jockey for seeding position, while teams with no playoff aspirations will hand the reins to their young players in hope of developing talent for the future. The NBA will be back in action Thursday night with a slate of six games. Let's take a look at some of the storylines to watch throughout the rest of the season.

John Wall and the Washington Wizards

When All-Star point guard John Wall (knee surgery) was ruled out for the Washington Wizards' game on January 27, the team was on a skid that saw them drop four of its past five games. Since then, however, the team has posted a record of 7-2, with both losses (one of which was in overtime) coming to teams that are currently in position for the playoffs.

To suggest that the Wizards are a better team without Wall because of a successful nine-game stretch would be a bit silly, as Wall is a five-time All-Star and one of the most talented players in the league. In fact, Wall's backcourt-mate Bradley Beal called the suggestion “comical,” per Chase Hughes of NBC Sports, adding that Wall is “the head of our franchise.” Wall's 6-8 week timetable has him expected to return sometime between March 13 and 27, and the Wizards will welcome him back with open arms whenever he's ready to play.

But it's still worth noting that Wall has seen most of his numbers drop this season, the most concerning of which is a 41.7 field-goal percentage—his worst mark since his rookie year. At 33-24, the Wizards are currently the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and Wall has the talent to take them to the next level and make some noise in the playoffs, but it will be interesting to see whether there are some growing pains as a team that has been playing well looks to get a star player back into the mix.

Can the New-Look Cavaliers Keep It Up?

Many experts' pick to win the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers found themselves in a horrible slump leading up to the trade deadline, posting a record of 8-14. Since making a bevy of moves on deadline day, however, the team has ripped off three consecutive wins, all of which came on the road and one of which was a dominant 121-99 win over the Boston Celtics.

The struggling Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder are out of town, while players like George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Larry Nance have provided a nice boost in their limited action with LeBron James and company. It seems like the exodus of slumping players and addition of foreign talent has given the Cavaliers new life. Will they be able to keep it up throughout the rest of the season? The only way to find the answer to that question is to watch the next few months unfold.

MVP Race

Since regular-season records don't matter all that much in the NBA, it's always exciting to follow stories like the MVP race.

James Harden appears to be the leader at the moment, as he has the Houston Rockets at the top of the NBA with a 44-13 record thanks to ridiculous averages of 31.3 points (first in the league), 9.0 assists, and 5.1 rebounds. He even posted the NBA's first-ever 60-point triple-double.

LeBron James, of course, is unlikely to let anyone coast to MVP honors. If the King, averaging a career-high in assists (8.9), can get his new-look Cavaliers closer to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, he could be a candidate for the award.

Last year's MVP, Russell Westbrook, is leading the league in assists and is just 0.6 rebounds away from averaging a triple-double for the second consecutive season. Despite what has seemed like a disappointing season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook has his team with the fifth-best record in the Western Conference.

Finally, we have the studs of the reigning champs, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. The Golden State Warriors are just half a game behind the Rockets for the league's best record, thanks in large part to the two aforementioned players. Of course, with so much talent on the Golden State roster, voters may not consider Durant or Curry to be quite as valuable as the other candidates, who don't have quite as much help around them.

What's Up with Kawhi?

It has been a bizarre season for a player and team around which there is typically no drama or controversy.

Leonard missed the start of the season with a quad injury, returned, suffered a partial tear in his shoulder, returned again, and then was ruled out indefinitely due to the lingering quad issue. A report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN then suggested that Leonard feels “disconnected” from the San Antonio Spurs. Former NBA player Jalen Rose later added on ESPN (h/t Nick Schwartz of USA Today) that Leonard wants out of San Antonio.

All of this is somewhat difficult to believe, but the fact of the matter is that if the Spurs—who are currently tied for the third seed in the Western Conference but a full 10 games back of the first-place Rockets—want a chance to knock off teams like the Rockets and Warriors, they are going to need their best player to be healthy and committed. Whether that happens this season remains to be seen.

UPDATE: Since this piece's publication, Wojnarowski has reported that Leonard “has been medically cleared to return” but “has elected against returning to the active roster.” It is apparently up to Leonard to decide whether he can deal with the pain in his injured quad—of course, if it's a pain-tolerance issue, one has to wonder whether his reportedly weak relationship with the organization could make him a little less likely to push himself onto the hardwood. Wojnarowski reiterated in his most recent report that Leonard's injury and recovery are “causing tension and fraying the fabric” of his relationship with the team.

For what it's worth, head coach Gregg Popovich said Wednesday that he'll “be surprised if [Leonard] gets back this year.”

This storyline has already gotten more interesting.

Can the Pistons Make a Push?

By trading for five-time All-Star Blake Griffin, the Detroit Pistons made it clear that they want to take their roster to the next level. Eight games into Griffin's Pistons tenure, however, the team is still ninth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 28-29. Heading into the All-Star break, the Pistons dropped three of four games with a 13-point loss to Griffin's former team, the Los Angeles Clippers, as well as a loss to the league-worst Atlanta Hawks.

With Griffin and NBA rebound-leader Andre Drummond, the Pistons have one of the most talented frontcourts in the NBA, but they need Griffin—who is shooting 40.6 percent from the field as a Piston—to step up his game and give the team's 26th-ranked offense a boost. If Detroit can't fight its way into the playoffs, the Griffin trade will be a big disappointment—at least initially. Even if the Pistons weasel their way into the seventh or eighth spot, prompt elimination from the playoffs won't look good for the future of the organization.

It will be interesting to see if the tandem of Griffin and Drummond has what it takes to be the driving force of a legitimate playoff threat.

This article was originally published on @matthewshovlin