Top Storylines Heading Into The Final Quarter Of The NBA Season| Will Super Team Energy Or Team Chemistry Prevail?

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With All-Star weekend behind us, it’s crunch time in the NBA. There are 20 to 23 games left, which means we are in the final quarter before the playoffs. Four teams have a legitimate shot at winning the title, and another five could be in the mix. As we enter the home stretch, what are the most intriguing storylines?

The Phoenix Suns have been the best team all season but will be without Chris Paul for six to eight weeks. Will they lose the No. 1 seed?

For those that say the regular season doesn’t matter, the Suns are the use case that it does. At 48-10 they have the league’s best record and are 6 1/2 games ahead of the Golden State Warriors. That provides them some cushion as they deal with the Point God’s hand injury.

If they decided to coast this regular season and “turn it on” come playoffs, they’d likely have a far worse record. If they were in the fifth or sixth spot and had this injury to deal with, they would almost assuredly fall into the play-in tournament.

Instead, this injury could be a blessing in disguise. Head coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones have instilled a culture in Phoenix. This team is bonded and players believe in one another. Paul’s injury will be an opportunity for Cam Payne, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Holiday to show who should get the backup minutes in the playoffs.

Paul’s hand injury is one that will allow him to remain in excellent physical condition, and more importantly give the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer some much-needed rest. A rested Chris Paul heading into the playoffs could be the edge the Suns need to win the title.

The fallout from the Ben Simmons and James Harden trade will impact the Eastern Conference playoffs

This is a foregone conclusion. But what we’re really asking is which team, the Nets or 76ers, will figure out their team chemistry first?

The 76ers have fewer moving parts to deal with. They are essentially swapping Seth Curry for James Harden on the floor. A former MVP and perennial All-NBA performer paired with possibly this year’s MVP is an easy fit on paper. But we don’t play the games on paper.

While Harden and Joel Embiid are high-IQ players, it will take some time for them to adjust to playing with one another. Then there is Tyrese Maxey, who has operated as a de facto point guard for a lot of the season. Now that Harden’s here, Maxey will be off the ball when the two share the court. That will be an adjustment as well.

Still, there is reason for optimism in Philadelphia.

As far as the Nets go, they have an entirely different team. Harden and Paul Milsap are gone. Replaced by Ben Simmons, Curry and Andre Drummond. They also released DeAndre’ Bembry and Jevon Carter and added Goran Dragic. Kevin Durant is still out with injury, and Kyrie Irving is only eligible to play in road games.

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You can see why there is cause for concern among Nets fans. The team is currently in the play-in, eighth in the Eastern Conference. Twenty-three games is not a lot of time to build any kind of cohesion or chemistry.

Will the Lakers make the playoffs?

The Lakers are currently 27-31 and projected to finish ninth in the Western Conference. That puts them in the play-in tournament. They will have to win two games in the play-im to make the playoffs.

As it stands now, the Lakers would host the Portland Trail Blazers in the “Nine-Ten” game. The Lakers split the season series with the Blazers 2-2. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are better than anyone on the Blazers roster by a wide margin. This should be an easy win, on paper. But we don’t play …

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Let’s give the Lakers the benefit of the doubt and say they win that game. They would next go on the road to take on either the Minnesota Timberwolves or Los Angeles Clippers. The Wolves are 2-1 against the Lakers this season with one more game to play. Yes, LeBron and AD are still the best players in this game, but Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell are no pushovers.

The Clippers would be a “road” game in name only as the two teams share the arena. Lakers fans will be loud and out in full force in this potential matchup. The Clippers are 2-0 against the Lakers this season, with two games still to play.

If Paul George and/or Kawhi Leonard were going to return for the Clippers the Lakers’ chances would be even less. But as it stands, it doesn’t appear that either will be back this season. Still, the Clippers are the seventh-ranked defense in the league and the Lakers are the 24th-ranked offense.

Betting against the Lakers making the playoffs is betting against LeBron James, maybe the greatest player of all time. Still, we have almost an entire season’s worth of evidence that suggests the Lakers aren’t good.

Who will win the MVP?

Contrary to what FS1’s Nick Wright thinks, the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is in the conversation for the award. The top three candidates are Jokic, Embiid, and the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.

As is always the case, this award comes down to how the voters define the word “value.” Unfortunately, it seems that value doesn’t have a fixed definition as it changes based on narratives.

Regardless, this year’s winner is coming from this group. Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo are one, two, and three, respectively, in EPM. They are first, fourth and second, respectively, in WS/48. The leader in this category has won nine of the past ten MVP awards.

FiveThirtyEight predicts the Nuggets and Bucks to finish with identical records of 49-33 and the 76ers at 50-32. This is where narrative will come into play.

Giannis has already won two MVPs and is the reigning Finals MVP, so we’ve “moved on” from that story. Jokic won MVP last year, and even though what he’s doing this season is more valuable given he’s down his second- and third-best teammates, that story won’t be as compelling as Embiid winning his first MVP.

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