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. 7β€”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.

DMX on the Madison Square Garden marquee

Madison Square Garden

For many managers, their playoff prospects are dark and hot as hell heading into the final week of the fantasy basketball regular season.

But before you can compete to be grand champ, you need to stop, drop, shut your duds down and open up the waiver wire for your last gasp this regular season. Here are some names you should be looking for to give you that push you need.

Rest in peace, DMX.

Booms

Kyle Anderson Forward Memphis Grizzlies

The former UCLA star might have taken the tale of the tortoise and the hare a little too seriously, but the "slow and steady" mantra has given him a successful NBA career and impressive fantasy numbers. For the past week, Slow Mo has averaged 16.3 points on 48.9 percent shooting, seven rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.3 made threes, two steals and one turnover a game.

Anderson has been a consistent contributor throughout the season and it's tough to see his numbers take a hit even when Jaren Jackson Jr. returns at the end of the month. If you haven't rostered him yet, it would be a huge mistake.

Jalen McDaniels Forward/Center Charlotte Hornets

Staying on the court has been a problem for McDaniels this season, but the absence of Gordon Hayward has forced the Hornets to look for other options on the court and the second-year player has been one of the beneficiaries. In the last three games, the San Diego State product averaged 16.3 points on 62.5 percent shooting, two made threes, five rebounds and 3.3 assists. He even threw in 1.3 steals and one block per game.

Hayward is expected to be out for at least three more weeks. Until he's back, expect McDaniels to continue his more proactive approach on this team.

Miles Bridges Forward Charlotte Hornets

McDaniels isn't the only one who has taken advantage of Hayward's injury. Bridges has cranked his game up a notch, averaging 21.7 points on 60.5 percent shooting, three made threes, six rebounds and one steal in the last three games. He may have even had the dunk of the year, posterizing Clint Capela on Sunday.

Until Hayward is back, Bridges will get a lot more freedom to operate and that means more fantasy contribution in the coming weeks.

Reggie Jackson Guard Los Angeles Clippers

Depth has not been a problem for the Clippers the last few seasons, but it has been trouble for fantasy managers looking for consistent contributors on that team. Rest and injuries haven't slowed the Clippers' winning ways this week because Reggie Jackson stepped up for them and gives fantasy participants a short-term high performer to lean on for the week.

In a week where Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo and Paul George missed time, Jackson thrived, averaging 17.3 points on 61 percent shooting, three made threes, 4.8 assists, and 1.3 turnovers in four games.

With Beverley out with a fractured hand and Rondo/George/Kawhi undoubtedly taking games off to save themselves for the playoffs, Jackson may not be a bad desperation option in standard fantasy and worth tracking in daily fantasy formats.

Busts

Tim Hardwaway Jr Guard/Forward Dallas Mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks' recent success has not translated into numbers for all players. Tim Hardaway Jr. is one of them.

The Michigan product averaged 12 points on 37.5 percent shooting, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists in four games last week. He did make two three-pointers per game in that span, but that is like threading a silver lining on a used rag.

Hardaway is still the third scoring option on the team, so he will get more chances to increase his production, but this week was a tough pill to swallow for a lot of fantasy managers.

Derrick Rose Guard New York Knicks

Rose has found a home with the New York Knicks, but his role has not been kind to fantasy managers. We all know the former MVP can still score, but head coach Tom Thibodeau hasn't asked him to do much else.

In the last four games, Rose has averaged 14.3 points on 43.1 percent shooting, 0.8 made threes, 1.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists. That kind of one-dimensional play is a killer of many fantasy teams looking for a more diverse portfolio of contributions.

If you need a boost in scoring, Rose isn't a terrible option to consider, but if you need anything else, you should leave him on the waiver.

Lou Williams Guard Atlanta Hawks

Like Rose, Williams isn't asked to do anything other than score at this point in his career. But even in the past week, he can't even do that at an elite fantasy level. Only averaging 11.8 points per game, 1.8 made threes, 2.8 assists and basically non-existent in every other category in fantasy sports.

It's safe to say that Lemon Pepper Lou's effectiveness as a fantasy star is gone.

Jusuf Nurkic Center Portland Trail Blazers

Okay, I know Trail Blazers have been trying to ease Nurkic back into the lineup and giving him restricted minutes. However, with the fantasy managers looking for that final push to the postseason, there might have to be an executive decision on whether Nurkic needs to be played or pitched.

Teams firmly in playoff position can hold out for him to be used properly again, but other managers won't be able to stomach another week of missed games and low-end production.

Bogdan Bogdanovic

USA Today

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Shane Bieber faced off against the Dodgers in Spring Training. He bested Trevor Bauer, allowing only two runs, and striking out nine

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