Top 10 storylines for the second half of the NBA season

Clockwise, from far left: Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is seeking to become the first NBA player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season. Isaiah Thomas has shown that height is no big deal. The 1.75m Boston
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (above) is seeking to become the first NBA player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season.PHOTO: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Clockwise, from far left: Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is seeking to become the first NBA player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season. Isaiah Thomas has shown that height is no big deal. The 1.75m Boston
Isaiah Thomas (above) has shown that height is no big deal. The 1.75m Boston guard (29.9 points per game) is behind only Westbrook (31.1) in the league's scoring standings. PHOTO: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Clockwise, from far left: Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is seeking to become the first NBA player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season. Isaiah Thomas has shown that height is no big deal. The 1.75m Boston
Western Conference's Kevin Durant (left) with Stephen Curry and Eastern Conference's Kyrie Irving converging for the All-Star Game. The trio may meet again in the NBA Finals if the Warriors and the Cavaliers reach the title decider for a third straight time.PHOTO: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

While all National Basketball Association (NBA) teams have played more than half of their 82-game regular season by the All-Star Weekend, it has always been viewed as the "halfway" weekend separating the build-up and the business end of each season.

There are about 30 games remaining for each team before the play-offs, and they will either be jostling for the best seedings, battling desperately for the last few post-season berths, or being resigned to rebuild for next season.

As the NBA enters its unofficial second half, here are 10 storylines to look out for.

1. TRIPLE DOUBLE THREAT

Every NBA season needs either a superhuman feat, a long streak of excellence or an intriguing subplot to make it memorable.

This season belongs arguably to one player: Russell Westbrook. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard, who was a superb sidekick to Kevin Durant for eight seasons, pushed himself to a mind-boggling new level of versatility this season.

The "triple-double" - typically double figures for points, rebounds and assists in a game - is regarded as the epitome of a player's positive influence on a game. Greats like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson reached this mark regularly during their fabled careers - but not nearly as often as Westbrook does.

He is on pace to average a triple-double this season - 31.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game so far. And with the Thunder still not guaranteed a play-off spot, he is unlikely to ease off at the tail end of the season.

If he keeps up this standard, it will be a stunning testament to his will and intensity - a refusal to let his team slip into mediocrity after Durant bolted for the Warriors.

2. SLEEPWALKING CAVS?

They are the defending champions, and still the odds-on favourites for the Eastern Conference title, but the Cleveland Cavaliers have to start putting a bigger and better effort into each game.

Already the East is looking much stronger than last season, with the Toronto Raptors (33-24), the Boston Celtics (37-20) and the Washington Wizards (34-21) flying up the standings on winning runs. The Western Conference is even tougher - with the Warriors (47-9), the San Antonio Spurs (43-13) and the Houston Rockets (40-18) all having a better regular season record than the Cavs (39-16).

If LeBron and Co. think they can coast through the season, then flip on their winning switch during the play-offs, they will be making a big mistake. No wonder James was grumbling about the team needing new blood.

3. PINT-SIZED DYNAMOS

They may not be the tallest players in the NBA, but Rockets guard James Harden (1.96m, 29.2 points per game) and Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (1.75m, 29.9 points) have been tearing up every kind of defence put up by their rival teams.

It is a joy to see these (relatively) pint-sized dynamos recklessly driving past 2m centres for lay-ups and dunks. Size matters much less than heart for these scorers.

4. WINNING WARRIORS

They may have already lost as many games as their historic 73-win 2015-16 season, yet no one will dare say the Warriors have regressed.

Far from it. They are arguably more versatile with the seamless addition of Durant, more solid defensively (also thanks to Durant) and less weary (with rests given to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson along the way).

The much talked-about "Finals Trilogy" between them and the Cavs looks increasingly likely, and the Warriors need to tie down their Western Conference top seeding as soon as they can so Steve Kerr can give his stars more rest.

5. EVERGREEN SPURS

Whether he is clean-shaven or stubbled, the no-nonsense glare of coach Gregg Popovich has been the constant throughout the Spurs' consistent excellence throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

This is his first season without Tim Duncan, yet Popovich simply hands over the leadership duties to Kawhi Leonard, tweaks a couple of roster changes, and the Spurs continue to contend. Can they overcome the Warriors? It's a long shot, but never impossible.

6. LA LA LAND

In contrast, the city of Los Angeles is struggling in its first season without Kobe Bryant since 1996-97.

The Lakers are young, inexperienced and struggling with injuries after a decent start, and have looked to their former legend Johnson to guide their front office trades and signings.

Even the star-studded Clippers are floundering, as Blake Griffin and Chris Paul suffered lengthy injury lay-offs, hampering the team's quest for a successful season run. It could be their final season together, with rumours of dressing-room clashes.

7. KNICK-KNACKS

The New York Knicks - ironically the NBA's most valuable franchise - have been dysfunctional for much of the last decade.

Even when owner James Dolan handed the basketball operations to top coach Phil Jackson, the results remained moribund.

Talk is swirling that Jackson has fallen out with Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks' Brooklyn-born star. How it will be played out is yet unknown, but one thing is sure - it will be played out in public.

8. TRADE DEADLINE

Tomorrow morning's (Singapore time) trade deadline is nearing, with only one trade made that is of interest - DeMarcus Cousins' move from the Sacramento Kings to join Anthony Davis at New Orleans.

The Pelicans may get an instant boost with the two talented big men, but the bigger interest will come next season, when all eyes will be on whether the temperamental Cousins can fit in with the All-Star Game MVP Davis.

9. BREAKOUT YOUTHS

Usually, NBA teams with little chance of reaching the play-offs tend to let their young talents play with more freedom in their final, inconsequential games.

Fans will be eager to see how top draft picks like Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves) develop into NBA superstars in the coming years.

10. RETIREMENT PARTIES

The end of the road is imminent for ageing NBA stars Paul Pierce, 39, Dirk Nowitzki, 38, and Manu Ginobili, 39. Will the end of the season mean that they hang up their shoes?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2017, with the headline 'Top 10 storylines for the second half of the NBA season'. Print Edition | Subscribe