5 storylines to watch during the NBA's stretch run

The NBA All-Star break serves as a weeklong intermission before the final act of the regular season. It's a chance to reflect, and an opportunity to look ahead.

So, with the league gearing up for the stretch run, here are five storylines that should define the remainder of the 2018-19 campaign.

Discovering the Sixers' ceiling

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The battle royale set to take place at the top of the Eastern Conference promises to be one of the league's most compelling developments from now through the spring. And of the four teams in that mix, none is quite as interesting as Philadelphia.

The 76ers finally cashed in their chips after years of voluntary bottom-feeding led them to this: A roster anchored by two young unicorns with Hall of Fame potential, a perennial All-Star squarely in his prime, a budding offensive star just entering his, and a veteran sniper who's one of the league's finest shooting specialists. On paper, they might be the East's most formidable team.

But in practice, things are more complicated. Two massive in-season trades have forced the team to focus on integration, and that process has often been bumpy. The Sixers are still lacking in frontcourt and point guard depth. Their transitional lineups are still a work in progress. They still have a bogeyman in Boston. All of this stuff can and should be improved or papered over, but the Sixers don't have a ton of time, while Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris - their two pricey midseason additions - are both heading toward unrestricted free agency. This campaign has been injected with a healthy dose of urgency.

Between Joel Embiid wrecking worlds (when he isn't crash-landing on Planet Horford), Ben Simmons trying to adapt his game to the pieces around him (up to and possibly including shooting threes), Butler looking to find the balance between assertion and deferral, Harris attempting to fill the surrounding gaps, and the sheer potential of the roster that houses all of them, there may not be a more fun, fluid, or challenging question than this: How good can this Philadelphia team actually be?

The King chasing the Kings

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Imagine being told last summer, after LeBron James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, that he'd have to run down the little-brother Clippers and the woebegone Sacramento Kings just to grab one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference this season. That would've seemed laughable, man. HAA-HA!

Yet here we are. It's late February, and the Lakers are three games out of the postseason picture, as close to 13th in the conference as they are to eighth. A public bid to acquire Anthony Davis before the trade deadline - in a deal that would've shipped out the entire young core James agreed to join less than eight months ago - failed in humiliating fashion, leaving the team in shambles. Now it's on James to pick up the pieces, rebuild trust in the locker room he helped fracture, and try to avoid the ignominy of a lottery season, something he hasn't experienced in 14 years.

It's still hard to fathom LeBron letting that happen, even if he isn't fully recovered from a groin injury that's reportedly concerning his team in private. If he gets healthy, and if the Lakers can just sneak into the playoffs and stay out of the Warriors' bracket, they'll have a decent chance to rewrite the narrative of their so-far calamitous campaign. For all the questionable roster moves, internal dysfunction, and self-inflicted wounds, the Lakers would be a frightening postseason opponent for any team outside Golden State.

The Clippers currently occupy the eighth seed, but they recently traded their best player in Harris and it's unclear if they even want to make the playoffs. The Lakers' biggest roadblock might just be the upstart Kings, who've gone nearly as long without making the postseason as LeBron's gone without missing it.

Despite being infinitely less hyped coming into the season, Sacramento's young talent has dramatically outperformed that of the Lakers. Behind turbocharged sophomore De'Aaron Fox, the Kings have been the league's most unexpected feel-good story. How will their youth respond to the pressures of their first playoff race, as they try to end a 13-year drought? We might have an answer sooner than later; Sacramento's schedule coming out of the All-Star break is murderous.

A magic fix for Fultz?

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When the Orlando Magic acquired Markelle Fultz at the trade deadline, it seemed like he was going to a low-stakes situation, far from the prying eyes and ears in Philadelphia, that would provide plenty of breathing room as he tried to work out the kinks and mend his broken jump shot. Point guard had long been a position of dire need for Orlando, and the team could seemingly afford to be patient with the recent No. 1 overall pick.

Since the deadline, though, the Magic have rattled off five straight wins by an average margin of 23 points to surge back into the playoff mix. With a soft finishing slate, they've put themselves in position to not only make their first postseason appearance in seven years, but to win the moribund Southeast Division and climb as high as sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Does that change their plans where Fultz is concerned? Because from what we've seen of him as an NBA player so far, he'd more likely hurt than help Orlando's playoff hopes, especially given the way D.J. Augustin has shot the ball this season.

Fultz's health also remains a complete mystery. It's been 11 weeks since he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome in the nerves between his neck and shooting shoulder. At the time, he was given a rough recovery time frame of three-to-six weeks, but nearly three months on, there's been no word on when or if he'll get back on the floor this season. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Fultz clearly didn't benefit from being paraded in front of cameras as he worked through his mystifying struggles during his rookie campaign. Still, it further clouds the picture.

The Sixers traded Fultz because they could no longer afford to wait as he figured things out. The Magic have a chance to take a different route. How accommodating will they be?

The Rockets refuel

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James Harden has done Atlas-level work in carrying Houston through what's been a strange, injury-ravaged campaign. Now, at long last, reinforcements are coming. Chris Paul returned from a five-week absence shortly before the break, and Clint Capela is set to be activated following his own six-week absence when the Rockets' season resumes Thursday.

Of course, Paul hasn't looked like himself this season - neither before his hamstring injury, nor after. For what feels like the first time in his career, he's struggling to break guys down off the dribble, to create separation on his jumpers, to finish at the rim, and to defend at the point of attack. The question of whether Paul can get back to something resembling last year's level, or whether this is simply who he is now (still a very good player, for the record) will have a lot to say about how the Western Conference shakes out.

Ditto for Capela, who, before suffering his thumb injury, wasn't quite the impact defender he was a season ago; a bit slower on big-small switches, and a bit less of an obstacle protecting the rim. Even the Rockets' defensive rebounding, a struggle for them all season, has been far better with Capela on the bench.

But for all that's ailed them this season, the Rockets are just a game back of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs (though they'll need to make up four games to reach the third seed and stay out of the Warriors' bracket). Paul and Capela alone won't fix all of Houston's problems - the team is still paper-thin on the wing and Eric Gordon's still shooting 32 percent from deep - but if those two can approximate their 2017-18 production, the Rockets should once again look like the second-best team in the West.

The 3-legged MVP race

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The NBA's as flush with talent as it's ever been, and as such, the bar for MVP candidacy seems to get raised every year. This season's race has been defined by a trio of transcendent and wholly distinct performances.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has felt like the front-runner almost from opening night. The Milwaukee Bucks sensation is undefinable; he's so much more than a point forward, and so much more than a unicorn. It's hard to even take the proper measure of all the ways he impacts a game. Suffice it to say, he's averaging 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, and six assists while playing world-class defense and elevating all the players around him on a team with the league's best record. And what separates him from the other contenders is the consistency with which he's done it. All season, every night, at both ends - there's been no let-up.

But even if Giannis does nothing to lose the league's top individual honor, James Harden might take it from him. While the former's helped his teammates be the best versions of themselves, the latter's taken it upon himself to do what his teammates cannot, embarking on a campaign of unprecedented self-creation. At 36.6 points per game, Harden's having the most prolific scoring season in 32 years. He's doing it with a staggering combination of volume (40.3 percent usage) and efficiency (62.2 percent true shooting). And he's doing it with 88 percent of his baskets coming unassisted. Harden's exiting the break on a 31-game streak of recording at least 30 points. Necessity's been the mother of the scoring barrage, and we'll see if he adapts now that help has returned.

Paul George has been on the fringes of this race all season, but he's improbably jumped into the thick of it over the past six weeks with an all-out blitz that's seen him pair Harden-like scoring efficiency with the most disruptive perimeter defense in the league. George may not have the counting stats of the two guys he's chasing, but he leads the NBA in Real Plus-Minus and owns the league's most dramatic on/off net-rating split.

It says a lot about Harden's and Antetokounmpo's seasons that it still feels like George has a lot of ground to make up. It would frankly come as a shock if one of the former two doesn't win the award. But one way or another, watching the race unfold down the stretch is going to be incredible.

5 storylines to watch during the NBA's stretch run
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