With the playoffs right around the corner, here's a look at a few significant variables, trends, storylines and questions around the NBA that may impact the postseason, ranked in order of importance (7 is mildly worrisome; 1 is a five-alarm fire).
7. Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee's co-existence
The Denver Nuggets looked foolish a few weeks ago when they shipped Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers for Mason Plumlee. Draft picks matter, and Plumlee, a 27-year-old restricted free agent to be, is not worth one -- especially as the backup to a 22-year-old franchise center.
But then something crazy happened: Plumlee became a starter. In its first 92 minutes, Denver has outscored opponents by 18 points with Plumlee and Nikola Jokic on the court. It's an offense that was already unstoppable before the trade deadline, but with two of the league's most creative passers (at any position) doubling as very large individuals, the Nuggets' assist rate has jumped up to 76.3 percent when those two share the floor, and spacing hasn't been as problematic as one might expect.
Plumlee's size and athleticism give Denver even more options on the defensive end, too. The Nuggets won't close big against a team like the Houston Rockets, but instead of going small and pushing all their chips in to maximize one side of the floor, Denver may still be able to have its cake and eat it too with two centers on the floor against most opponents.
If the Nuggets can grab the eight seed -- they're 0.5 games up on a Portland team that has one of the easiest remaining schedules in the conference -- how thorny will this frontcourt be against either the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs in a first-round series?
6. Steph Curry's slump
Entering Saturday night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks -- when he went ballistic -- the two-time defending MVP only made 33.8 percent of his shots between 25-29 feet since the All-Star break. Before it, he made 41.2 percent, and was 10-for-23 between 30-34 feet. The main event at a carnival.
Is this slump much ado about nothing? Probably (he had a great game on Sunday, hitting seven 3-pointers in a win over OKC on Monday). But it does remind us that Curry's struggled all year at the one thing he's best at: pull-up treys. When not knocking over 40 percent of them down, he's Damian Lillard: still very good but not the event-level icon we're used to seeing.
Curry is currently shooting 34.8 percent on pull-up threes, and just 32.1 percent since the All-Star break, per NBA.com. Making matters worse, Golden State's offense kicks the bucket whenever he's on the bench, and -- as we'll discuss later -- they have bigger issues to worry about.
5. Kyle Lowry's wrist
To the surprise of zero people, the Toronto Raptors are an inconsistent ball club without Lowry. Their offense ranks 19th since the All-Star break and can't score at all when DeMar DeRozan rests. (DeRozan's minutes and usage are ever-so-slightly down since Lowry's surgery, which is... interesting.)
Russell Westbrook mashed the Raptors into crumbs last Thursday night, a crushing home loss that propelled Toronto into a team meeting (they have recovered somewhat since, beating the Chicago Bulls by two on Wednesday night).
The big trade acquisitions have yet to impress. Toronto allows nine more points per 100 possessions with Serge Ibaka on the floor and P.J. Tucker is hurling stones at the backboard. A first-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks looks more likely than not. If they survive, the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers likely await as their probable prize.
Raptors fans need to start rooting for the Boston Celtics.
4. Taj Gibson in Oklahoma City's starting lineup
Before they were blown out (again) by the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder started 5-0 with wins over the Raptors, Spurs and Utah Jazz with Taj Gibson in the starting lineup instead of Domas Sabonis. That unit (Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo, Gibson and Steven Adams) started +37 in 70 minutes. They aren't turning it over (a pleasant surprise considering everyone's need to adjust), assisting over 60 percent of their baskets and rebounding the absolute crap out of the ball on both ends.
What does it mean? The Thunder were a flawed, frustrating, very young team before the trade deadline. They're still flawed, but much less frustrating, and way more experienced.
It's not enough to win a championship, but it does make Oklahoma City dangerous enough to play spoiler, and maybe even grab home-court in the first round (it's currently 2.5 games back of the fourth seeded Jazz). Nobody, including the Warriors, Spurs and Houston Rockets, should be pumped to face this team. Gibson makes them more solid than a sidewalk.
3. Chris Paul's greatness
This isn't the best season of Paul's career, but it's the most impressive example of his unparalleled intelligence. In the face of declining athleticism and near complete disinterest in getting to the basket, Paul has upped his efficiency to exceptional heights while ranking first in Real Plus-Minus by a wide margin all year long.
Before he went 0-for-5 Saturday night against the Cavaliers, Paul had made over half his threes since the All-Star break (a rate that led the league) and there was an absurd +18.9 points per 100 possessions swing when he played vs. when he didn't.
Meanwhile, Paul's team is falling apart. Before they spanked the LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love-free Cavaliers on Saturday, the Clippers ranked 25th in net rating and 29th in defense since the All-Star break, with tough losses against the Bucks, Jazz and Timberwolves (in which Paul only scored seven points). L.A. probably won't have home-court in the first round and is in serious danger of getting leapt by Oklahoma City in the standings. A drop to the six seed may not be the worst thing in the world, though. A showdown against the Houston Rockets in the first round is less ideal than Utah, but it'd also slot the Clips opposite Golden State's side of the bracket.
Is this finally the year Paul leads them past the second round? So much is on the line if he fails.
2. Cleveland's horrific defense
Defense matters, even when you have the best player of his generation arguably operating at the peak of his powers. The Cavs won the championship last year with a top-10 regular-season defense that went on to allow 103.5 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs.
The previous season Cleveland allowed only 100.3 points per 100 possession in the playoffs after ranking 20th during the regular season (with a defensive rating of 104.1).
2015 might be a roadmap for this year's Cavaliers to morph into barbed wire whenever they want, but it won't be that easy. For starters, they're really bad on defense. Few teams defend pick-and-rolls worse and none have been more exposed in transition. That latter point provides some optimism in a syrupy postseason atmosphere -- Synergy Sports has them 8th in overall half-court defense -- but they also rank 29th in defensive rating since the All-Star break. Even with a slight, asterisk-induced uptick from opposing shooters behind the three-point line, this is problematic.
Secondly, their path will be harder now than in year's past. Assuming they keep the one seed, the Raptors, who they defeated in an otherwise forgettable Conference Finals in 2016, added Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker and -- if Lowry is healthy -- will be much tougher than an average second-round opponent. The Celtics are no longer wide-eyed and impotent on offense. The Wizards know who they are and finally have a quality bench to support the best starting lineup in the league. The Miami Heat aren't paper tigers and the Milwaukee Bucks might have the second best player in the series.
Roll all these problems up and throw them on a scale. Do they outweigh LeBron, Irving and a platoon of sharp-shooters?
1. Kevin Durant's knee
This is far and away the most important story in the league right now. The Warriors are heavy favorites to win the championship if Durant's knee is 100 percent healthy and they may not reach the Finals if it isn't.
The Warriors are hovering around .500 since Zaza Pachulia fell into KD's leg on Feb. 28. Despite being Golden State's second-best defender, Durant's absence has been felt more on the offensive end. Steve Kerr is no longer able to stagger lineups so that at least one shot-creating megastar is on the floor at all times, and Klay Thompson isn't enough to prop them up when Curry isn't on the floor.
A huge chunk of the Warriors' offense springs from flickering hands on the other end (the Dubs lead the league in deflections), but they aren't utilizing the three-point line with the same level of effectiveness. Even if Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green all play as they have over the past two years, Golden State no longer has Harrison Barnes (an underrated role player on those two Finals teams), healthy Andrew Bogut, or consistent production from Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston (the latter of whom might be the most invisible rotation player in the league since Durant went down).
The Warriors can't survive four playoff rounds with Matt Barnes and JaVale McGee playing heavy minutes. Durant's health (in a free agent year) is everything.