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The 10 questions that will define the second half of the NBA season

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Who’s winning MVP? Can the Warriors be stopped? Are the Lakers really going to miss the playoffs?

Here’s a brief history of things that demanded our attention during the first half of the NBA season:

That’s … a lot. It’s also a very incomplete list of the storylines that spun through the 24/7 media cycle so far this season.

So what’s in store for the second half? All of the above, plus the trade deadline, playoff jockeying, and a Most Valuable Player race that is just taking shape.

1. So who’s winning MVP?

Right up until mid-December, the discussion belonged to Giannis Antetokounmpo. There were other contenders for sure, but the conversation inevitably found its way back to Milwaukee, where Antetokounmpo has taken several long strides toward superstardom.

The numbers are outrageous: 26.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 58 percent field goal shooting. More importantly, Giannis’ Bucks have ascended from a middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference playoff team to one of the league’s very best. It’s the oldest MVP narrative in the book, and it’s the way my hypothetical vote would go at midseason.

This was an easier case to make before James Harden went Code Red on the rest of the league. Harden has averaged better than 40 points a game since Dec. 13, in addition to dishing out almost 10 assists and gobbling up more than seven rebounds per contest. He’s impossible to guard and even harder to officiate. In short, Harden is the most complete offensive player in the world right now.

Harden has the second-oldest MVP narrative in the book: that of the lone star keeping his undermanned team afloat and defying all odds. Without Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, the Beard has led a Rocket revival. As if his challenge couldn’t get even more absurd, Harden will now have to do it without center Clint Capela, who will be out 4-6 weeks with a thumb injury.

So, it’s a two-person contest at the halfway point, but don’t discount late charges from oh, a dozen other players. From Anthony Davis to Paul George, with Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid in between Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard, there will be no shortage of contenders.

That’s an awful lot of superstar talent playing at an elite level at one time. It’s also the biggest reason why the NBA in in such a healthy place during a period of one-team dominance. Save for that one notable super-team in Oakland, the star power is spread throughout the league in an era where offensive ability is at a premium.

Here are my picks for the other award races at the midway point.

Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer with numerous others chasing.

Defensive Player: Paul George for now, but way too early to make a clear assessment.

Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic in a landslide, but watch the development of DeAndre Ayton and Jaren Jackson Jr. anyway.

Sixth Man: Domantas Sabonis narrowly over Montrezl Harrell.

Most Improved: Pascal Siakam, along with De’Aaron Fox and John Collins.

2. Are we ready for a world in which Game 1 of the NBA Finals is held in either Milwaukee or Toronto?

It says something about our perceptions of both clubs that while they have clearly been the class of the conference, they are far from prohibitive favorites. The Raptors have all that negative playoff history, while the Bucks don’t have any positive moments of recent vintage.

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost two decades since Milwaukee got within a seventh game of reaching the Finals, but that 2001 run was the last time the Bucks advanced past the first round. (Shoutout to Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, Big Dog Robinson, the other Ervin Johnson, and George Karl.)

That has nothing to do with this current Bucks squad, but it does speak to a lack of postseason experience among its core members. There’s also the notion that Mike Budenholzer’s teams are better equipped for the regular season than the postseason, a theory that will be put to the test this spring.

As for the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have given this team a new energy, while Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka bring new dimensions to their age-old playoff dilemmas. As always, however, it comes down to Kyle Lowry. If the NBA’s most endearing grump stays fresh for the spring, then maybe, just maybe, the NBA Finals will begin in Canada.

As an aside, could Kawhi really leave if that happens?

3. What are the Celtics?

Despite their latest struggles with identity — now it’s the defense that’s gone missing — there are many people in the league who still feel like the C’s are the favorites to come out the East. I remain unconvinced, and that was before their latest three-game losing streak brought their weird vibes into the open.

Minor injuries have been an issue — not having Aron Baynes is a big deal — but lots of teams go through injuries and find ways to prosper. The Celtics have overcome those ailments, sometimes. Other times, not so much. They’ve had winning streaks interrupted by frustrating losing skids and seem to lack resolve when things get hard.

That’s bad, but there’s more. They’ve blown teams out of the building on occasion and also developed a maddening habit of kicking away games on the road. They’ve had team meetings to clear the air and still get caught arguing with each other during games. On and on it goes.

This will be framed as a referendum on Kyrie Irving’s leadership abilities. Even if it was deserved, calling out young players in the same manner he was called out in Cleveland was a curious move. Until they learn how to play for one another every night, they will remain polarizing. The question for Danny Ainge is whether it’s worth shaking things up with a deadline deal. He’s resisted, so far.

So much of their fate ultimately relies on Al Horford being healthy and energized for the playoffs.

4. Who are the Sixers?

Since adding Jimmy Butler and inserting J.J. Redick and Wilson Chandler into the starting lineup, Philly’s starting five is a monster, outscoring opponents by more than 14 points per 100 possessions. It may be an unwieldy monster at times, but it’s still a mighty beast.

Now imagine how good they could be if their chemistry comes together.

Sussing out team dynamics is always a dangerous game, but the circumstantial evidence points to three stars vying for elements of control. That’s alright in January. It might even be healthy in the long run to let Butler slowly develop a working relationship with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who are still working out the kinks with one another.

The pessimistic take is that Butler will destroy the team from within, which he’s done in his two previous stops, and then take his game somewhere else in the offseason.

Come May, the Sixers need to have a clearer view of how they intend to win games.

Given their star power, and the personalities involved, the Sixers are the conference’s wild card. Of note: Like last season, when they picked up Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, they have room to be a player on the buyout market. Those moves surged Philadelphia into the No. 3 seed when they were previously closer to .500. The Sixers are a developing situation.

5. Are the Pacers legit?

Sure, in that Indiana is a good basketball team that plays defense consistently and doesn’t beat itself. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the league who thinks the Pacers have a ceiling beyond being a very good basketball team, but they have people’s respect.

Teams don’t get enough praise for improving organically, and there might be more to this club than meets the eye. Going 7-4 without Victor Oladipo showed that they’re more than the Vic Show, and Oladipo still hasn’t played his best basketball yet. Myles Turner has quietly begun to come into his own on the defensive end and Domantas Sabonis is a handful.

If they can avoid the 4-5 matchup of death, the Pacers have a viable chance at making some noise this postseason. Credit to them for improving. That’s supposed to be the whole point of this league.

6. Is the race for the East’s lower seeds actually compelling?

While not the logjam in the West, there are still six teams vying for three playoff spots. If nothing else, their desire to stay in the race will play a part in the evolving trade market prior to the Feb. 7 deadline.

Of the six, Miami has the most pedigree. Charlotte has the biggest star in Kemba Walker, who is also about to be a free agent. Detroit has two stars in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond and really should be better than it is. Brooklyn is feisty, Orlando is hanging around, and Washington’s recent play behind Bradley Beal is damn near inspiring.

Half those teams will make the playoffs, while the other half will have top-10 picks. All of them will have decisions to make soon about how hard they want to push or pull back. Each of those decisions will impact a trade market that has yet to take shape. The trade deadline has been a dud in recent years, but it only takes one pivotal move to start a chain reaction.

7. How much do the Warriors need DeMarcus Cousins?

This is really another way of asking if the Dubs are actually in some sort of trouble. The working assumption all season is that as long as all of their core four are healthy, then the Warriors will roll to another championship. To put it another way: the Warriors were never supposed to actually need DeMarcus Cousins to win a championship.

Semantics, perhaps, but Boogie’s return this week from an Achilles injury comes at a good time for the Warriors, who are getting into one of their periodic grooves. Assuming his body will allow him to play meaningful minutes, Cousins is a top-notch passer from the high post in addition to being a reliable catch-and-shoot 3-point threat and a 10-rebound banger on the boards. Even in limited doses, all of those skills will benefit the Warriors tremendously.

Steve Kerr plans to start Cousins, so it will be fascinating to see how he blends with Golden State’s other stars, especially on the defensive end. Transition defense has never been is strong suit, but it hasn’t exactly been a team strength this season either.

At the very least, Boogie’s return should keep things interesting for the Warriors as they prepare for their real season in April.

8. Who’s the second best team in the West?

On paper and in the standings, it’s the Nuggets, who have depth and defense around a developing superstar in Nikola Jokic. The offense added even more firepower when the invaluable Will Barton returned from injury last week. If their defense holds up (which hasn’t happened of late), the only thing holding Denver back is a lack of postseason experience. There will be no gimmes in the West come playoff time.

The team with the second-most starpower is probably Oklahoma City. The Thunder have the league’s best defense and an MVP candidate in Paul George, but as always, 3-point shooting is a major issue.

It might still be Houston if Chris Paul can recapture his form. Harden is playing out of his mind, but we’ve seen how the one-man show wears down in the spring.

It could be San Antonio. The NBA’s luddites live in the mid-range, but come to play with size and a revamped defense. They won’t go easy. Neither will the Clippers, who play hard and come at you in waves. Both are effective regular season tactics. The Blazers are always the right matchup away from a playoff run, or a wrong one from a short stay.

Utah? Did someone say Utah? (I think it might really be Utah.)

9. Will the Lakers miss the playoffs?

For a brief period of time toward the end of the 2018 calendar year, it looked like the Lakers had something cooking. Thanks to the addition of Tyson Chandler, their defense was locking into place right when LeBron James was making his MVP case.

Then Bron got hurt, and the young Laker supporting cast looks like it might be years away.

It’s still hard to imagine a playoffs without LeBron involved, and assuming he does get back before the All-Star break, there’s every reason to believe the Lakers will also get back on track. Still, a number of deserving teams in the West will be home early this spring, and the Lakers have already lost their cushion.

The real question all along is whether they’re building something with their young core or if this current iteration is just a transition phase to a future filled with free agent superstar teammates for LeBron. It’s hard to see a playoff run changing that calculus.

10. What of the decent West teams that get left out?

No matter how this turns out, Dallas and Sacramento are fine. Both have better days ahead of them. Even if they sneak into the postseason, Memphis and Minnesota need to do some soul searching.

The big issue that affects everything this summer is whether Anthony Davis yearns to leave New Orleans if the Pelicans come up short. Teams have been waiting years for that fantasy to become a reality, but the Pels won’t let him go without a fight. New Orleans has traditionally been a second-half team and will be among those willing to make a deal at the deadline.

As with the bottom half of the East bracket, the line between playoff contender and lottery participant is a thin one. However fleeting, there are still 25 teams with playoff hopes remaining. The ones that blink will be the most active at the deadline.

No doubt between now and April there will be dozens of other absurdities to occupy our time. The NBA lives to generate storylines and even in its most predictable state, this whole season has felt like a giant question mark. We’re all waiting for whatever happens next. Resolution is less than six months away.