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Seven Biggest Storylines to Watch During the NBA's Stretch Run

From Kawhi's mysterious injury to LeBron's captivating quest to the race for the No. 1 pick, The Crossover breaks down the seven biggest plot lines to watch the rest of the NBA season.

The All-Star Game is behind us, basketball finally returned to our lives on Thursday night, and we're about to hit the stretch run of the 2017-18 NBA campaign. It seems crazy, but we're already more two-thirds of the way through the regular season. Most teams only have about 25 games left on the schedule. That means awards races will be coming into focus sooner rather than later, while both the tanking race and the playoff races will be getting very real over the next few weeks. So what are the stories to track for the rest of the regular season?

Here are seven to keep a close eye on...

1. Donovan Mitchell vs. Ben Simmons. Utah fans are filled with fire right now, ready to go to war against anyone who dares question Donovan Mitchell. Sixers fans are in disbelief that anyone thinks this is even a debate. (Generally, Sixers fans are ready to fight anyone on the internet, at any time.) But the bottom line is that the race for Rookie of the Year is dead even as we hit the final six weeks.

The case for Simmons: He's been consistently excellent on both ends of the floor. He's been better than Mitchell in every category but scoring, he's probably a better player overall, and the only reason there's not more buzz about what he's doing is because he's made 16/7/7 on 52% shooting feel almost routine. On Thursday, he went to the next level (32, 11, and 7 against the Bulls) but really, even on nights when he's not scoring 30, all of this is just ridiculous. A rookie shouldn't make the NBA look this easy. He's also doing it all for a playoff team with a better record than Utah.

But then, the case for Mitchell: The Jazz are currently the hottest team in the whole league, and while Simmons has spent most of the year piggybacking on Joel Embiid, Mitchell has been his team's catalyst on offense for practically the entire season. He's delivered over and over and over again, and he's injected new life into the entire franchise. His highs are generally higher than anything Ben Simmons has accomplished in Philly, and the stakes in Utah are higher, too. If Simmons isn't playing well, Joel Embiid is still one of the ten most dominant players on the planet. If Mitchell's not playing well the next two months, the Jazz don't have a chance.

Anyway, this is the awards race that'll be most fun to watch the rest of the year. It involves two of the most irrational fanbases in the NBA. It also involves Simmons, a freak of nature who could easily win an MVP in five years, and Mitchell, whose game is "Damian Lillard with tomahawk dunks" and whose team is currently rising from the dead to make a playoff run. Best Rookie of the Year debate in a decade.

2. Kawhi Leonard. The Kawhi conversation would be the most interesting subplot in the NBA if there were any chance we'd learn anything new over the next two months. Alas, Spurs omerta will probably prevent us from ever getting much more than what we know based on Pop's comments and Woj's reporting: Kawhi is probably not coming back this year. The decision on when to return is reportedly up to him as he's been cleared to play, but he's remaining sidelined for reasons that aren't entirely clear. It's a strange situation. Communication between the Spurs and their MVP candidate hasn't been great, and even Popovich doesn't seem to have many answers for what's gone wrong or what comes next. Kawhi is eligible to sign a supermax extension to stay with the team this summer, or he can hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019. Both of those details add some drama to the next few months.

A source from another team told me recently that the distance between Leonard and the Spurs is real, but the Spurs aren't panicking. They'll wait until he comes back before making any franchise-altering decisions, even if that means waiting until next September. We'll see. Waiting to work things out when Kawhi returns seems like the prudent course, and that's probably the most likely outcome. But Kawhi playing basketball this year was also considered a foregone conclusion at one point, and what's happened since has been strange enough to make you wonder about the future.

For now, Kawhi Leonard's injury is like Markelle Fultz's jumpshot, but it's happening to one of the five most valuable players in the sport. If he shocks everyone and returns by the playoffs, it creates the most credible Warriors threat outside of Houston. If he doesn't return and the relationship doesn't improve, the rest of the league enters the offseason with a MVP-caliber superstar who might be more available than anyone would've ever imagined.

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3. The race for the No. 1 pick. This will play out in both college basketball and the NBA. Because, on the one hand, we have the tanking race. The bottom 10 teams in the league are separated by shockingly thin margins as we hit the final stretch, and yes, I crack up every single time someone like Tankathon releases a breakdown of the factors that could decide this.

Likewise: as the dust settles on the race at the bottom of the league, college basketball will be sorting itself out in March. All year long there's been a cluster of five or six top prospects—now closer to six or seven—but there hasn't been much separation between them. DeAndre Ayton is considered the top propsect for now. Trae Young has cooled off some, but there's still plenty of room for him to go scorching through March. Then there's also Mo Bamba, Jaren Jackson, Michael Porter Jr., and Marvin Bagley, any of whom could turn into the best player in the class. And of course there's Luka Doncic, who continues to put up unprecedented numbers for a teenager in Europe.

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This year's lottery is a mess of good options, all of which come with question marks. So as the tanks are turned up to full speed down the stretch—an emotional journey in the final year before lottery reform—it will be a wonderful trainwreck to follow. But it may also be a little bit misleading. In almost any other year, winning the No. 1 pick makes a team's life much simpler and its future much brighter. This season? It's a little more complex.

4. The Raptors. Do you believe in the Raptors? The Cavs are more vulnerable than they've been since LeBron's return and Toronto has been firing on all cylinders for months now. They are currently the only team in the league that's top five in both offensive rating and defensive rating. Their stars are playing more efficient than ever. The bench has emerged as a nightly threat (which keeps the stars rested). They've overtaken Boston to claim the best record in the East. And if there's ever been a year for the Raptors to break through, this is it.

Then again, the Raptors have been living this timeline for almost three years. How many times have we heard the "This year is DIFFERENT" story with the Raptors? How many times have we seen them completely disappear when it matters? Even in the series they've won—against the Heat two years ago, against the Bucks last year—they've had moments where they look incredibly shaky, and they've never looked half as good as they do in the regular season. All of which is to say, with all due respect to the offensive and defensive ratings, there's still a lot to prove.

So let's see where this goes. Cleveland once again looks like the favorite in the East, and looking across the rest of the conference, there's really only one team that looks like a viable threat to break up a fourth straight Warriors-Cavs Finals. So let's all watch the Raptors and try to guess what's real.

5. The middle of the West. Current West standings, from third place to tenth place:

• Spurs (35-24)
• Wolves (36-25)
• Thunder (34-26)
• Nuggets (32-26)
• Blazers (32-26)
• Pelicans (31-26)
• Clippers (30-26)
• Jazz (30-28)

Utah (10th) is only 4.5 games out of third, while the middle of the conference could flip over a dozen times in the next two months. It's beautiful. My only prediction is that the Spurs and Wolves maintain control at the top, mostly as a testament to the willpower of Gregg Popovich and Jimmy Butler. As for everything else, anything is possible. Every game will matter, and everyone should be watching. Let chaos reign.

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6. The Thunder. One more thought on the middle of the West: All of these teams will be tough to handicap, but the Thunder are basically impossible. About every two weeks, all year long, they've flip-flopped between looking like the third–best team in the West and looking like a failed superstar experiment that could honest-to-god miss the playoffs entirely. For example, the combination of their size and speed arguably makes them a better matchup with Golden State than any team in the league. But then they'll beat the Warriors and then go lose to someone like the Pelicans. They haven't found a real replacement for Andre Roberson, and that'll make them even less predictable from night to night (example: Thursday night's nail–biter against the tanking Kings). 

Here's to betting OKC keeps that theme going the rest of the way. In that case, here's the best–case scenario for the West: The Rockets steal the top seed, Golden State continues to sleepwalk through the season and slides to two, and then the whole world is welcomed to the playoffs with a Warriors-Thunder deathmatch. Russ vs. Steph, Draymond vs. Steven Adams, Paul George vs. free agency, KD vs. the world... Please call David Stern and make him rig the next six weeks in the Western Conference. There are lots of basketball reasons to make this happen.

7. And LeBron James. Even if the Warriors are still the favorites to actually win the title, the man looking to beat them remains more interesting. So in the interest of accuracy with this "Storylines to Watch" list, we should be clear at the end.

Regardless of what happens anywhere else in the league, basketball fans will all spend the rest of the season watching LeBron, freaking out after Cavs losses, reading too much into every Cavs win, decoding every cryptic quote, rolling our eyes at half of it, but following every twist, and trading elaborate theories about what's next. It's part of being a basketball fan in the modern era. Lean into the madness, and remember that all of this is hilarious. On that note, enjoy the rest of the regular season. Only two more months till Zero Dark Thirty 23.