PHOENIX SUNS

Gauging the NBA contenders at the All-Star break

Feb 19, 2022, 8:10 AM
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, right, looks to pass under pressure from Phoenix Suns center Dean...

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, right, looks to pass under pressure from Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) and forward Jae Crowder during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

Playoff season is just two months away, and the Valley of the Sun is still home to the best team in the league.

The Phoenix Suns enter the All-Star break with a lot to celebrate but still with the goal of bringing home the franchise’s first championship.

They are not the only ones looking to capture an NBA Finals win.

Here are the big storylines at the All-Star break for all the contending teams and a few with fringe potential:

Western Conference

Phoenix Suns (48-10)

What has worked so far: Through 58 games, there is no question who the best team in entire league is. Playing as hot as the sun, Phoenix carries a seven-game win streak into the final week before the All-Star break with Devin Booker and Chris Paul playing at MVP levels.

No team can compete with the Suns in clutch-time.

What could stop them: The real threat to the Suns is injuries. If the Suns remain healthy for the remainder of the season, a title is a real possibility.

However, Paul’s hand injury suffered Wednesday against the Rockets, however serious, is just one of many in his career. Suns fans saw Paul suffer a shoulder injury in the Lakers series last season, then require surgery on his left wrist. With the abundance of minutes the 36-year-old point guard is playing this year, the addition of Aaron Holiday from the trade deadline should allow head coach Monty Williams to rest Paul and the other Suns regulars. Bringing back Torrey Craig also adds depth for the frontcourt and should help fill in any holes the team may have on the back end of the season.

Golden State Warriors (42-17)

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

What has worked so farAfter two seasons of missing the playoffs, the Warriors are back in the running to win another NBA championship. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have led the Golden State out of the basement with the help of All-Star starter Andrew Wiggins and the return of Klay Thompson.

In 15 games, Thompson has averaged 17.1 points per game, adding a jolt back into the Warriors offense after missing two whole seasons due to a torn ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors and a torn Achilles prior to 2020-21.

What could stop them: Defense and struggling shooting performances carrying over into the playoffs. Recently, the Warriors’ defense has taken a hit after losing Green to a back injury and forcing younger, less experienced players to step up. It was not working, as Golden State lose four of the last five games before heading into the All-Star break. They were giving up 115.6 points per game, way more than the 103.7 average for the season.

Throughout the year, there have been some ugly and inaccurate shooting games for the Splash Brothers as Thompson works his way back. Curry is shooting 42.7% from the field and 37.9% from three-point range; both are second-worst after his five-game season back in 2019-20. Thompson is also shooting 41.8% and 38.1% on three-pointers, marking a career-lows for him.

Golden State has shown it can flip a switch in the postseason and dominate everyone else, but if Curry’s and Thompson’s struggles continue throughout the season, can the two trust a player like Wiggins or Green to pick up enough slack offensively?

Memphis Grizzlies (41-19)

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

What has worked so far: Ja Morant. What else is there to say? Morant has been playing lights out since Christmas, placing himself in the MVP conversation and leading the Grizzlies to the third best record in the NBA. But even when health and safety protocols and injuries have kept Morant out during the season, the Grizzlies have managed to string wins together without him.

Jaren Jackson Jr. has continued to improve following his meniscus injury in 2020. Steven Adams, Dilon Brooks and Desmond Bane are also keys to the success.

What could stop them: Inexperience. The Grizzlies knocked out the Warriors in last season’s play-in tournament but were overwhelmed by the West’s best team, the Utah Jazz, losing 4-1 in the first round. Morant shared a glimpse in that series of what he has become this season, scoring 30.2 points per game, but he desperately needed help from others.

Jackson Jr. can be the No. 2 guy that can elevate the Grizzlies and advance them deeper into the postseason, but the entire team has yet to experience the challenges of making a decent a playoff run.

Utah Jazz (36-22)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

What has worked so farDonovan Mitchell on the offensive side of the ball and Rudy Gobert on defense. It has been the bread and butter for the Utah Jazz once again and it continues to produce wins. Mitchell scores 25.7 points per game, 10th best in the league, while Gobert’s 14.8 rebounds per game are the most in the NBA. Gobert continues to dominate in the paint and is attempting to win his fourth KIA Defensive Player of the Year award, which would tie Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace for most in NBA history.

What could stop them: Perimeter defense and the bench. With Gobert missing time due to injury, Hassan Whiteside has stepped up and provided some reinforcement on defense. On the perimeter, it is a different story. After Joe Ingles went down with a knee injury and was traded away, Jordan Clarkson is the only proven player who has put up consistent numbers this season.

A big reason the Jazz were eliminated in the playoffs last season by the Los Angeles Clippers had to do with the defense outside the paint, allowing 43.3% of three-point shots to be made in the series. This season, Utah sits at 11th in the league with 34.2% of opponent’s threes being made. If the Jazz can force opposing offenses into the paint and prevent three-point shots, Utah will have a strong chance at advancing in the playoffs.

Dallas Mavericks (35-24)

(AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

What has worked so farMVP candidate Luka Doncic. Almost averaging a triple-double this season with 27 points, 9.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists, Doncic has been dominating recently for Dallas. The Mavs have a top-five defensive rating and play at the league’s slowest pace, allowing Doncic to carry the offensive burden.

What could stop them: Does Doncic have anyone who can help him? Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. were the two that stood out over the past season and contributed well into this year. Porzingis was traded to the Washington Wizards and at the end of January, Hardaway Jr. fractured his foot. In the Mavericks’ end of the deal, Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans are two new faces that can fill in those new roles.

Jalen Brunson is another name to keep an eye on. Averaging 16.1 points and 5.4 assist per game, Brunson along Dorian Finney-Smith will continue to be heavily relied upon. Finney-Smith has started 57 games this season, most among all Maverick players and plays the second most minutes, behind Doncic, with 32.8.

Denver Nuggets (33-25)

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

What has worked so farReigning MVP Nikola Jokic continues to dominate the front court, earning his fourth All-Star appearance with averages of 26 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists. He continues to impress the league and put his name amongst the best players in the West. The addition of Aaron Gordon last season is also beginning to pay off; he’s putting up 14.5 points with 5.8 rebounds per game.

What could stop them: The backcourt. Since Jamal Murray tore his ACL, there has been an absence of a true threat in the backcourt. Will Barton has filled Murray’s role and Monte Morris has done what he can at the point guard spot. However, a knee injury has kept Morris out lately. Rookie Bones Hyland has gotten his chances, but the bench production remains slim.

Jokic is good enough to be the facilitator on offense but needs help. Without Murray, it is very tough for the Nuggets to make a deep postseason run.

Los Angeles Lakers (27-31)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

What has worked so farNot a whole lot. When LeBron James and Anthony Davis are on the floor, the Lakers can compete with anyone. This season, injury has kept both stars off the floor; James has played 41 of 58 games, while Davis appeared in 37. That’s left the team with one player to lead Los Angeles: Russell Westbrook.

The acquisition in the offseason that gutted the depth and fallen flat as he’s struggled to integrate with the other two stars. Lakers fans have been unimpressed with Westbrook and seem ready to be done with the 33-year-old point guard.

Currently the ninth seed in the West, there are plenty of games to play and ground to make up entering the final stretch of the season. With Davis going down with a sprained ankle injury against the Jazz right before the break, the Lakers will have a tougher time trying to climb up the Western Conference ladder.

What could stop them: The depth on this Lakers team, destroyed after the Westbrook trade, has produced below .500 basketball and will continue to be a problem after not being bolstered at the trade deadline. After the big three, Los Angeles has been relying on Malik Monk, the aging Carmelo Anthony, the struggling Talen Horton-Tucker and midseason free agent signing Stanely Johnson.

James and Davis could be a problem in the Western Conference in the postseason. They just have to make it there first.

Eastern Conference

Miami Heat (38-21)

(AP Photo/Matt Kelley)

What has worked so far: A strong backcourt. Jimmy Butler obviously headlines the entire team with another strong season but Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro have elevated Miami to the top spot. Lowry’s eight assists per game leads the team, while Herro has put up 20 points per game, primarily off the bench. Miami is just two years removed from a Finals appearance and with a healthy Butler, the Heat can make compete with the best in the East.

What could stop them: Miami doesn’t have many flaws, but facing any team with a dominant big man might be the one. Last year, it was the Bucks who swept the Heat in the first round of the playoffs and Antetokounmpo was a big reason why. Bam Adebayo has been great at the five spot for the Heat and P.J. Tucker adds additional help defensively, but the two will have to handle Antetokounmpo and/or Joel Embiid in the postseason.

Chicago Bulls (38-21)

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

What has worked so far: The DeMar DeRozan-Zach LaVine combination. They have lit the East on fire with averages of 28.1 and 24.6 points per game, respectively. Nikola Vucevic is also continuing to play his best stretch of basketball in his career, averaging 18.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. The bench has juice with Coby White and Alex Caruso contributing to keep the Bulls among the top teams in the East.

What could stop them: Injuries causing a lack of chemistry. The starting lineup the Bulls originally began the season with has played a total of five games on the season. LaVine has missed time lately due to a lingering knee injury and Patrick Williams, who was expected to take over the power forward position, has missed most of the season following a wrist injury.

Rookie Ayo Dosunmu and White have been starting a bit lately, forcing backend players into the rotation. If the Bulls enter the postseason without a consistent lineup, it could be trouble.

Philadelphia 76ers (35-23)

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

What has worked so far: Joel Embiid as the frontrunner for MVP. In 2022, he is first in the NBA in scoring at 29.6 points per game with the eigth most rebounds per game at 11.2. Surrounding players have also stepped up, like Tyrese Maxey. In just his second year in the league, he has jumped from 8.9 to 16.9 points per game.

It keeps getting better for Philadelphia. Joining Maxey in the backcourt is the former Arizona State Sun Devil James Harden. The Sixers acquired Harden and Paul Millsap hours before the trade deadline in exchange for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond.

What could stop them: Harden not living up to expectations. Similar to Jimmy Butler back in 2019, the Sixers are hoping Harden can add to the offense as a shooting threat. If Harden plays the way he did with the Rockets from 2017-19, he can complement the team well. If he continues to play lazy, regresses and causes problems with Embiid and other players, the Sixers could be exiting title talks very quickly.

Milwaukee Bucks (36-24)

(AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

What has worked so far: Giannis Antetokounmpo being Giannis Antetokounmpo. Averaging an NBA lead 29.4 points, along with 11.3 rebounds per game, Antetokounmpo continues to be unstoppable. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are also again producing solid seasons, looking to run it back and repeat as NBA champions.

What could stop them: Being overwhelmed by a deeper team. A prime example of how to stop the Bucks was seen on Feb. 10 when the Suns handled them soundly, 131-107. The starting five put up 79 points, with just 18 coming from the bench. Pat Connaughton’s injury in that showed why the Bucks made a trade for Serge Ibaka. The Bucks have a tremendous starting lineup but might falter due to the production off the bench.

Brooklyn Nets (31-28)

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

What has worked so far: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the floor together. With James Harden, the trio won 81.25% of the games they played for the Nets. That win percentage came from a very small sample size of 16 games. When Durant has been healthy, the Nets have looked like favorites to win the East. Since he sprained his MCL, it’s been a nightmare for the team to replace.

The blockbuster trade with the 76ers added some depth for the Nets, with Curry and Drummond along with a potential replacement for Irving in Ben Simmons. If Simmons can improve his game, add some defense and complement the scorers in Durant and Irving in a more welcoming environment, the Nets should pose a significant threat once again.

What could stop them: Irving missing playoff action. Due to Brooklyn’s vaccination policies, Irving has been unable to play at home and has seen action in only 14 of 58 games this season. Durant is talented enough to take the Nets past the first couple rounds of the playoffs, but if Irving was able to play 100% of the games, there is much less doubt that the Nets would be the favorites to win it all.

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