10 NBA stars who will impact championship race in second half of season

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·5 min read
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The NBA is pausing for a few days after the All-Star Game to rest and gear up for the stretch run. Once the regular season resumes Thursday, teams will be off on a six-week dash to the playoffs.

It’s shaping up to be an intense race for postseason spots and seeding. The top five teams in the Eastern Conference are separated by just 2½ games; the top eight are separated by seven games. There is more separation at the top of the Western Conference, but it will be a scramble for the final guaranteed playoff spots.

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Which marquee players will step up down the stretch and put their teams in position for postseason success? Here are 10 NBA stars who will impact the championship race in the second half:

James Harden, Sixers

Daryl Morey and the Sixers finally got their man at the trade deadline, and Harden is expected to make his debut in the first game after the break Friday. Philadelphia’s title hopes hang on how well Harden meshes with big man Joel Embiid, a leading MVP candidate averaging 29.6 points and 11.2 rebounds. Both are accustomed to handling the ball a lot, but they should be able to take pressure off one another. If the two superstars can get in sync quickly, the Sixers could emerge as the East favorite heading into the playoffs.

James Harden had been practicing with the Sixers and is expected to make his debut when the second half begins.
James Harden had been practicing with the Sixers and is expected to make his debut when the second half begins.

Ben Simmons, Nets

On the other side of the blockbuster Harden trade, Simmons gets a chance to reset his career in Brooklyn. Simmons’ shooting deficiencies are well known, and he’ll ultimately have to address them long term. But he’s also an elite, versatile defender and gifted passer in the open floor. Playing alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (more on him below), Simmons can focus on the things he’s good at without the pressure of being a top-tier scorer.

Kyrie Irving, Nets

Irving will have a major influence on the Nets down the stretch regardless of New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. If it gets lifted at some point this spring, Irving can be a full-time player again and appear in home games. The Nets would certainly benefit from his scoring and play-making after trading Harden. If the vaccine mandate stays in place and Irving remains a part-time player for road games only, Brooklyn could continue to flounder and be relegated to the play-in tournament.

Russell Westbrook, Lakers

Plenty has been said and written already this season about Westbrook’s impact on the Lakers’ championship prospects. There have been moments when Westbrook has filled the role the Lakers need as an off-ball scorer and playmaker. But he’s also been benched for key stretches during crunchtime. Los Angeles is likely destined for the play-in tournament. It may be too late for Westbrook to truly find his place in the Lakers' offense, but if he can, they’ll be a favorite to clinch one of the last two playoff seeds and a formidable first-round opponent.

Jimmy Butler, Heat

Miami enters the stretch run tied for first in the East despite numerous injuries to key players, including Butler, who played through a shoulder strain in the weeks leading up to the All-Star break. Butler has shown he can put a team on his back in the playoffs after guiding the Heat to the NBA Finals in 2020. This version of the Heat is even better, and with a healthy Butler leading the way, they have everything it takes to get back to the Finals.

Klay Thompson, Warriors

Thompson is getting closer and closer to looking like his old self after returning from two years of major injuries. At his best, he is a perfect floor spacer and complement alongside Steph Curry and Draymond Green in the Warriors' offense. As Thompson continues to increase his workload, having him at full strength could be pivotal for Golden State. If he is back to his pre-injury level of play by the postseason, the Warriors should be a top championship contender.

Devin Booker, Suns

The league-leading Suns were hit by a bombshell Sunday when they learned Chris Paul will miss 6-8 weeks with a right thumb fracture. With Booker taking charge in Paul’s absence, the Suns likely aren’t in danger of falling off much, if at all, and should still be the favorite for the top seed in the West. If Booker raises his game even higher without Paul, Phoenix can establish itself as the unquestioned title favorite heading into the playoffs.

Ja Morant, Grizzlies

Morant and the Grizzlies have been the breakout story of the NBA so far. They’ve taken a huge step forward as a young up-and-coming team. The season has already been a rousing success, but Morant and company don’t appear satisfied. Morant continues to grow as a player and leader. The team rallies around him and doesn’t back down from anyone. Memphis is still ahead of schedule, but with Morant’s emergence as a superstar, the Grizzlies are out to prove they’re ready for the next step to be true contenders.

Jayson Tatum, Celtics

The Celtics were one of the hottest teams in the league heading into the break, winning 11 of their last 13 games. Tatum has been the catalyst, averaging 27.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists during that stretch to help Boston climb to sixth in the East. Tatum has been good all season, but he’ll need to continue playing at an elevated level if the Celtics hope to challenge for a top-four seed or make any noise in the playoffs.

Jamal Murray, Nuggets

There is no timetable for Murray’s return, but the Nuggets are still expecting him back before the end of the regular season. It’s unrealistic to expect Murray to return at his normal level of play after tearing the ACL in his left knee last April. He can buoy a Denver team that has played well without him thanks to reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets are currently sixth in the West, but they could be a sleeper contender if Murray is close to top form by the playoffs.

Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA news, second half: 10 star players who will impact title race