Left to right: LeBron James, Joel Embiid

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With fantasy basketball combining two weeks due to the all-star break, we decided to switch up the format a little bit.

Like an early M. Night Shyamalan film, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered in the second half of the season to neatly conclude this chaotic NBA year.

Pending a big third-act twist ending the season prematurely, here are the questions that need answering the rest of the year.


1. What will the NBA do to improve their COVID protocols?

Mid-game positive tests, mask-related fines, regular stints in the NBA's safety protocol: The NBA's non-bubble COVID safety enforcement has left a lot to be desired. While players are enjoying their week-long break, the league executives are hopefully shoring up the protocols so that fans and athletes can safely enjoy the game.

No major announcements have been made thus far. Assuming that remains the case and the association decides to stand pat with their rules, the NBA is basically giving in to literal insanity and outbreaks like the Raptors will continue to occur. Multiple teams have postponed a number of games, so why not just stay the course, right?

It's gonna be a wild ride until the end.

2. Can the Utah Jazz sustain their reign atop the Western Conference?

With the Western Conference hosting both the reigning NBA Champions and their uber-talented crosstown rivals, only the most hardline Utah Jazz fan could have predicted their incredible season so far. They opened the season at +4000 to win the NBA title according to Sports Odds History, but their current claim as the best offensive team in the conference, and third-best defensive team in the West has their championship odds at +825 as of March 4 according to Sports Betting Dime.

While Utah does have the easiest remaining schedule according to the Positive Residual's NBA calendar, they have to travel almost 28,000 miles the rest of the season: That's a lot of tired legs.

But championship aspiring teams don't let things like travel get in the way of wins. If they want to really make a statement, getting over the mental and physical challenges of travel will go a long way in asserting their dominance in a stacked Western Conference.

3. How hard will the Lakers fight to win the West?

Being part of Lakers fandom is knowing the team is in a great position to repeat as NBA Champions and still panicking after every loss. Being third in the conference puts them in striking distance of the No. 1 seed, but whether they will go all out for that homecourt advantage until the NBA Finals is left to be seen.

No matter how you look at it, the road to the NBA Finals goes through Los Angeles. Unless a historic collapse occurs, the Lakers will be in the playoffs. No. 1 seeds have represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals 55 percent in the last 20 years. 15 percent of the time, a three-seed has represented the West in that same time span.

If Los Angeles continues on this third-seed road, the odds are against them to make the Finals. Head coach Frank Vogel and LeBron James will have to walk a tightrope to not only stay fresh for the playoffs but win enough games to get them in a better position to be successful in the postseason.

4. Are the New York Knicks back?

For the first time in seven years, the Knicks are a team that actually looks like they can somewhat live up to the lofty expectations of their fans. Head coach Tom Thibideau has transformed this team from punchline to defensive line in his first year and it doesn't look like they're going anywhere but up.

New York is giving up the fewest points per game while holding opponents to the worst field goal percentage out of all teams in the entire league. Julius Randle has developed into a bright star under the lights of Madison Square Garden, on pace to average 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per game for the season.

Still, while defense wins championships, offense wins games and the Knicks are nearly the bottom of the league in points per game. The lack of scoring has resulted in the team only one game above .500 at the All-Star Break, keeping their grip on even a play-in spot tenuous in a highly contested Eastern Conference.

5. How far will the Philadelphia 76ers go?

As successful as the Sixers have been the last four seasons, they have yet to break into the Eastern Conference Finals. So while they may have the best record in the East, there's a lot of doubt outside of Philadelphia about whether they will represent the conference at the NBA Finals.

They do have Joel Embiid, who is playing with an MVP-like stat line, providing 30.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. He has played in 83 percent of games this season, which would be a career high. However, if history holds true, he will miss a few more games. What the Sixers hope for is that he won't miss time with a major injury, which is always a concern with big men.

The road already won't be easy with the team finishing the season with the ninth most difficult schedule. Like a lot of other squads, how far the Sixers go will depend on how healthy their players will be.


6. How will the race for the Play-In Tournament play out?

For the first time in NBA history, NBA fans will care about the ninth and 10th worst teams in the league. The first year of the play-in tournament will pit the No. 7—No. 10 seeds against each other in each respective conference for the final two seeds in the NBA Playoffs, meaning teams that have been floundering have a chance to catch fire and make some noise in the postseason.

Usually, the race to the bottom starts after the All-Star break for many teams looking to improve their draft prospects in the offseason. While there are teams that will continue this time-honored tradition (*cough* Minnesota *cough*), it'll be interesting to see how teams on the bubble will approach the Play-In Tournament; whether they go all out for a chance to make a deep playoff run or tank to plan for the future.

Either way, the middle of the standings has never been so intriguing.

Paul George grabbing a rebound in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals

Barry Gossage/Getty Images

In a must win game for the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul George was finally able to look like the best player on the floor in a playoff game.

After a slow start, George poured it on in the second half on his way to a game high 41 points in Game 5. The performance elevated the Clippers over strong outings from the likes of Devin Booker and Chris Paul as L.A. outlasted Phoenix 116-102.

The Clippers don't have much time to bask in their win however as they have to turn around and play two more elimination games just to make it out of the West. The Suns jumped out to a 3-1 series lead as Los Angeles struggled to find their identity without Kawhi Leonard. If the Clippers are to stave off elimination any longer, George has to continue this level of play.

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Ben Simmons disappointed in the playoffs this season

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Following a Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Philadelphia 76ers and coach, Doc Rivers, are questioning if Ben Simmons is the right guy to be running their offense through moving forward.

Offense being the key word here.

Simmons is an all-world defender possessing the ability to guard virtually any opponent on the court from the perimeter to the rim. But it was his lack of offensive help throughout this playoff season that stood out beyond any accomplishments this year. Simmons joined Rudy Gobert as unanimous selections for the NBA's All-Defensive First Team this year and also finished fifth in the NBA in assists per game with 8.8 per contest.

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The Lakers looked lost in the Valley

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are just a win away from sending LeBron James home in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the King's illustrious career.

After stating that "These shoulders were built for a reason," James referring to facing the challenge of taking on added responsibilities after Anthony Davis was ruled out for Game 5, the Lakers and LeBron disappointed in a big way Tuesday night. L.A. started off hot jumping out to a 10-5 lead behind a couple shots from James and a three from Davis' replacement Markieff Morris. But it didn't take long for the wheels to completely fall off for the defending champion Lakers as they spent most of the first half trying to remember how basketball works.

LeBron James LeBron looking on during Game 5Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Two numbers stick out in the Game 5 loss for the Lakers and those are 34.5 and 12. Los Angeles shot 34.5% from the field on Tuesday night and were minus 12 in turnover ratio. No matter who's on your team, if you can't shoot and you can't protect the ball, the outcome is already determined.

The Suns weren't simply beneficiaries of a poor performance however as the Suns put it on the Lakers early and often and they never let their foot off the pedal for 48 minutes. Phoenix ended with 15 more assists, had seven more combined steals and blocks, and outscored L.A. in the paint by 12 points. Devin Booker and Cameron Payne were spectacular and they seemed to hit big shots every time the Lakers appeared to threaten a comeback. Mikal Bridges was effective on both sides of the ball adding three steals and two blocks to help electrify his team with the defensive effort.


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