Whether you enjoyed All-Star weekend (Jayson Tatum, Mac McClung) or not (Paul George, Mike Malone), it's time to transition back to in-game dunks, hard fouls, instant replays and something we haven't seen on the NBA hardwood in about a week -- defense.
With the playoffs starting in early April, the next six weeks will determine which teams are going to get an early start on the 2023-24 season and which ones are all-in on the playoffs. The trade deadline (and fallout from it) provided a bounty of storylines, especially in the Western Conference after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks, and the enigmatic Russell Westbrook both "left" and "joined" Los Angeles.
And, don't worry, we're not leaving the Eastern Conference out of the party. The top three teams, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers will combine for five games down the stretch. The Ben Simmons Experience returns to Brooklyn. And with the firing Nate McMillan, all eyes will be on Trae Young for any indication for how the Atlanta Hawks will move forward with a permanent head coach.
So with the NBA schedule resuming Thursday night, here are 10 storylines worth watching.
1. Durant's fit with Phoenix
How will Kevin Durant and Devin Booker play off each other? Which version of Chris Paul will Phoenix get? How will Deandre Ayton adjust with Durant's arrival? What about Phoenix's defense without Mikal Bridges? What will the depth look like? These are the questions the Suns will have to solve in just 22 games. This team has enough talent to win the title this season, but there's very little time for the Suns to build meaningful chemistry. Durant's superstar talent immediately vaults Phoenix to the top of the list of title favorites, but just because this team is built to win now doesn't mean that it will happen.
2. Lakers chasing the playoffs
During the All-Star break LeBron James said the remaining games on the Lakers' schedule are "23 of the most important games of my career for the regular season." A little dramatic, but James knows how it will look if he and the Lakers can't make the playoffs for the second-straight season. L.A. should earn a play-in spot based on their trade deadline roster improvements, chief among them being the combo move of unloading Russell Westbrook and the return of D'Angelo Russell. In the one game Russell, James and Anthony Davis played together prior to the All-Star break, the trio combined for 70 points in a win against the New Orleans Pelicans. A small sample size, sure, but it indicated that the Lakers can be a dynamic force on offense. They've got the sixth-easiest remaining schedule in the league and they play 13 of their 23 games at home, so L.A. is in prime position to secure a play-in spot in the West.
3. The Irving-Doncic experiment
Well, you certainly can't say the Mavericks didn't get Luka Doncic help at the trade deadline, though the cost might prove to be too high if Kyrie Irving doesn't re-sign in the summer. But that's a topic for another day. Right now, the focus is on making the Irving-Doncic duo work. We got a tiny glimpse of what it may look like prior to the All-Star festivities, when Doncic and Irving combined for 69 points in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Talent-wise, those two might be the most fearsome backcourt in the NBA, but Dallas has to figure out how to feature both of its stars without getting into a cycle of "you go, I go." There's also the very real issue of the Mavericks defense which ranks 24th in the league.
4. Atlanta after McMillan
Nate McMillan's exit brings a fresh start for an Atlanta team that has severely disappointed after trading for Dejounte Murray last summer. A 29-30 record isn't what most expected from a backcourt featuring Murray and Trae Young, and yet here we are. Interim head coach Joe Prunty has 23 games to try and do what McMillan couldn't do in 59 games -- harness the talent of Young and Murray into a successful offensive attack. If the Hawks get bounced in the first round again, there's going to be some important questions the newly-shuffled front office will have to address in the offseason that goes far beyond who will be the next head coach.
5. Jokic chases MVP history
Nikola Jokic has the potential to do something that's only been done three other times in NBA history, and not since Larry Bird did it in 1986 -- three-peat as league MVP. At the start of the season that would've been an insane possibility to grasp, as the typical narrative of voter fatigue has usually kept players from winning the award three times in a row. But Jokic is performing at a level above his prior MVP seasons, and he's leading a Nuggets team that sits atop the West. His scoring has decreased by a little over three points a night, yet he's as efficient as ever shooting a career-high 63.2 percent from the field while averaging a triple-double (24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists). Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum have perhaps the best cases to make against Jokic, but while those two players have had their ups and downs this season, the Joker has remained a constant, dominant force.
6. Anticipated returns of several stars
Durant's return is certainly the most anticipated, and it has already been reported that he plans to make his Suns debut on March 1 against the Charlotte Hornets. But there are several other stars around the league who are expected to make a comeback that could impact the playoff picture. Zion Williamson's return could potentially have the most impact on playoff seeding, as the Pelicans looked like world beaters when he was healthy at the start of the season. He hasn't played since early January with a hamstring injury, but could return sometime in March just in time for a final playoff push. Stephen Curry is another player who was sidelined prior to the All-Star break who could return soon. His return will be at least a week out, though, as the Warriors announced recently that he's made "good progress" but will be reevaluated again in a week.
7. Westbrook's cruise to nowhere
Russell Westbrook's time with the Lakers didn't go well, and after being traded at the deadline to the Utah Jazz, and then agreeing to a contract buyout, he decided to stay in Los Angeles and sign with the Clippers. Paul George -- who went 0 for 9 from 3 in Sunday night's All-Star "shoot around" -- lobbied pretty hard publicly for Westbrook to sign with the Clippers, despite L.A. having great success with Terrance Mann at point guard this season. It could be viewed as a low-risk option for the Clippers, as Westbrook will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. But for a team that has failed to live up to championship aspirations primarily due to injuries, there's a possibility that Westbrook could hinder the Clippers in a season where they could make a deep run in the postseason. That is, if Kawhi Leonard and George stay healthy.
8. Kings to end 16-year playoff drought
It truly is wild how the Kings have managed to miss the playoffs for 16-consecutive years in a league where over 50 percent of teams make the postseason each year. Though Sacramento has long been the butt of jokes in the NBA about their lack of success over the last decade-plus, this season looks to be the one where the laughing stops. Sacramento sits third (!!) in the Western Conference, owning the second-best offense with a roster that features two All-Stars in De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, plus sharpshooter Kevin Huerter and rookie Keegan Murray. The only cause for concern is Sacramento has the fourth-hardest schedule over the rest of the season, and in a crowded West where only 4.5 games separate them and the 11th spot, things could get even tighter real fast down the stretch.
9. All eyes on Simmons
With no more superstars on the Nets, and far less pressure on the team to do much of anything, Ben Simmons is in a great position to rebuild some of his value. After being dealt to the Nets from Philadelphia at last season's trade deadline, Simmons hasn't looked anything like the All-Star, All-Defensive guard he used to be. It's been reported that Brooklyn is planning on gauging his trade value this summer. That isn't surprising given Simmons is averaging a career-low 6.9 points and was pushed to a bench role the last four games prior to the All-Star break. But the last 24 games of the season are an opportunity for Simmons to prove that he can get back to being the floor general and lockdown defender he once was.
10. A battle atop the East
The Celtics have maintained control of the Eastern Conference for most of the season, but the Bucks are lurking at just a half-game back and the Sixers are also within striking distance. But each team has challenges. All three of Boston's games against Philadelphia and Milwaukee will be on the road. Milwaukee is on a 12-game win streak, though Giannis Antetokounmpo will likely miss some time with a wrist injury. And Philadelphia, while only three games out of first, will have to leapfrog over Milwaukee at some point in order to continue the city's string of seeing its teams reach the league's title game because whoever has home-court advantage in the East will have the inside track on reaching the NBA Finals.