Answering 5 crucial questions for the NBA stretch run
Ron Turenne / National Basketball Association / Getty

With All-Star Weekend in the books and the postseason a little under two months away, it's a great time to take stock of the NBA landscape. Let's try to answer five major questions that have stirred debate around the league.

Does the Raptors' hot streak prove they're contenders?

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Not only did the Toronto Raptors break a franchise record with 15 consecutive victories, but their month-long stretch also set a new mark for the longest winning streak by any major professional Canadian sports franchise.

Here's where it gets wild, however. When Toronto's streak began on Jan. 10 with a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Raptors, then in fourth in the Eastern Conference, trailed the first-place Milwaukee Bucks by nine games. After the Brooklyn Nets snapped their streak on Feb. 12, the Raptors were still 6 1/2 games behind Milwaukee. Toronto won 15 straight yet only managed to close the gap on the Bucks by 2 1/2 games. That illustrates the gulf between Milwaukee and the rest of the East, including the Raptors.

While winning 15 games in a row is nothing to scoff at, the quality of Toronto's opponents during its run wasn't great. The Raptors only played four games against teams above .500, and two of those contests were against the Indiana Pacers.

That's not to say that Toronto should be counted out entirely. The Raptors own the fourth-highest net rating in the NBA. They boast the league's third-best record despite their players missing 188 cumulative games to injury this season - the fifth-highest count in 2019-20, per Spotrac. But at this point, the Bucks, Clippers, and Lakers are still in a tier of their own and would all be rightly favored against the defending champs in the postseason.

Verdict: The Raptors will make a deep run in the playoffs, but they're still a tier below the true contenders. - Soveta

Can Zion make a push for Rookie of the Year?

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Excitement for one of the most hyped rookies in NBA history dissipated in October when it was announced that Zion Williamson would miss the start of the year due to knee surgery. Initially projected to be sidelined for six-to-eight weeks, Williamson didn't make his long-awaited professional debut for the New Orleans Pelicans until Jan. 22, 13 weeks after his procedure.

A number of other first-year players have thrived during his absence, most notably Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, who's put up 17.6 points and 7.1 assists per game. The second overall pick has lifted the Grizzlies to the eighth seed in the West, making him a Rookie of the Year favorite.

Williamson's return has introduced an interesting conundrum, though. The Duke product is averaging 22.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 10 games, putting him on pace for one of the best rookie seasons of the millennium. But even if he doesn't miss another contest for the Pelicans, Williamson is capped at 37 games this campaign. The fewest amount of games played by a Rookie of the Year winner is 50, which occurred twice: Vince Carter in a lockout-shortened 1998-99 year, and Patrick Ewing in 1985-86 in an otherwise tepid rookie class.

In short, unless Williamson propels the Pelicans past the Grizzlies for the eighth seed while also mustering an unfathomable stat line, the individual prize should go to Morant.

Verdict: Williamson shouldn't factor into Rookie of the Year consideration due to playing too few games. - Soveta

Is the Clippers' time in the L.A. spotlight already over?

Andrew D. Bernstein / National Basketball Association / Getty

The Los Angeles Clippers blew the roof off free agency last summer by simultaneously landing Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George. There was so much fanfare over the two All-Star additions that immediate debate followed about whether the Clippers - which have never progressed past the second round of the playoffs - had dethroned the Lakers as the Los Angeles team. It helped, of course, that Leonard and George, who both hail from the L.A. area, had been previously linked to the Lakers; the Clippers had won early Staples Center bragging rights.

Over halfway through the season, though, that notion appears thoroughly rebuffed. The Lakers, led by their own significant superstar duo, own the best record in the West and the second-best mark in the league. They're also dominating highlight reels. To make matters worse for the Clippers, there may be rifts in their locker room, as it was reported in January that some players are bothered by the team's preferential treatment of Leonard and George. It sure sounds like the Clippers' hold on L.A. is waning.

The issue there, though, is that the regular season has ultimately become meaningless. It was Leonard who made that clear last season, deeming the first 82 games of the year practice before leading the Raptors to their first title and erasing perceptions of them being playoff also-rans. These Clippers arguably have better depth than last year's Toronto squad and they boast a second certified superstar in George. They're still as much in the title conversation as their arena co-tenants, and any regular-season struggles will quickly be forgotten if they edge the Lakers to The Finals, further splitting city support.

Verdict: The Clippers have taken a back seat for now, but a Finals run would reestablish them as the best team in L.A. - Soveta

Can the Rockets ride (super) small ball to a title?

Bob Levey / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The Houston Rockets evidently concluded that jettisoning the currently injured and relatively pricey Clint Capela in favor of a (comically tiny) small-ball approach would tilt the team even further toward an analytically superior offense. After all, James Harden is one of the rare players who doesn't necessarily need a big to screen for him to break a defense down. Could an already prolific offense reach unseen heights by replacing an interior-oriented center with another stretch forward?

6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker, who played significant swaths of his career as a small forward, is now manning "center" in a conference where Houston's potential playoff opponents boast such Goliaths as Rudy Gobert (7-foot-1), Nikola Jokic (7-feet), Steven Adams (6-foot-11), and Anthony Davis (6-foot-10).

It's a huge gamble, but it might be one general manager Daryl Morey had to make. Last summer's addition of Russell Westbrook (and subtraction of Chris Paul) meant there would be at least one non-shooter on the floor for 75% of every Rockets game. Even with Harden's superhuman gravitational pull as a floor spacer, lineups featuring both Westbrook and Capela were scoring just 107.1 points per 100 possessions this season - well below the team's overall mark of 113.2, and on par with what the Minnesota Timberwolves, ranked 23rd in offensive rating, have mustered this season.

There are really two questions here: On a game-by-game basis, are the Rockets better than they were a month ago? Perhaps; they certainly gave the Los Angeles Lakers work earlier in February. But can the new-look Rockets (and Tucker specifically) survive the rest of the regular season and four increasingly intense playoff rounds? Probably not.

Verdict: If the Rockets' frontcourt can stay healthy, and the shooters get hot for a couple of series, look out - but a Finals run is way too much of an ask for such a unique roster. - Potter

Will Wiggins lock down a long-term role with the Warriors?

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It's become increasingly clear that there's no such thing as an untradeable player in today's NBA. The gargantuan contracts of Andrew Wiggins, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul have all been shuffled around the league since July. So it's probably overly simplistic to suggest that Wiggins' whopper of a deal - he's in the second year of a five-year, $147.7-million contract - ensures he'll be with the Golden State Warriors until the summer of 2023.

Still, Wiggins - only 24 - has a great opportunity for a fresh start with the Warriors. Coach Steve Kerr pointed out that unlike in Minnesota, the former first overall pick doesn't have to be a star. The dynastic trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are all under contract through at least the summer of 2022. There's no need for Wiggins to be a spiritual leader in the locker room.

The on-court fit has potential. While Wiggins' defense has not lived up to its billing since coming out of Kansas in 2014, he's a more natural fit alongside the Warriors' core pieces than guard D'Angelo Russell, the main outgoing piece in the Warriors-Wolves swap earlier this month. If there's still hope the Canadian can evolve into the 3-and-D role player many assumed was his worst-case scenario, Wiggins' best chance of fulfilling it is playing in a wide-open Warriors offense alongside ace defenders like Thompson and Green.

Verdict: The stakes have never been lower, making this the perfect second chance for "Maple Jordan." - Potter

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Answering 5 crucial questions for the NBA stretch run
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