NBA’s biggest second-half questions, Finals predictions

At the All-Star break, The Post’s basketball crew takes a look at the most compelling questions and issues of the second half, the playoffs and the upcoming offseason.

The MVP right now should go to …

Peter Botte: Nikola Jokic — Averaging a triple-double for the Nuggets, the best team in the West, makes Joker the first three-peat MVP since Larry Bird.

Zach Braziller: Nikola Jokic — He’s averaging a triple-double of 24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10 assists while shooting an absurd 63.2 percent from the field for the best team in the Western Conference.

Brian Lewis: Nikola Jokic — The slick-passing 27-year-old center has the Nuggets running away with the Western Conference and looks like the favorite to claim a third straight MVP trophy.

Ian O’Connor: Nikola Jokic — When a guy has won MVP twice in a row, you almost look for reasons not to give him the three-peat. But Jokic is averaging a triple-double, and his team is in first place in the West. Just can’t deny him.

Mike Vaccaro: Nikola Jokic — He might be the unlikeliest three-peat MVP in NBA history, but he is appointment TV.

Nikola Jokic

The team to watch out for in the second half is the …

Peter Botte: Suns — Phoenix already has risen to the No. 5 spot in the West, and that is before newly acquired superstar Kevin Durant’s first game.

Zach Braziller: Clippers — They are now healthy and loaded, ripping off a 10-4 stretch heading into the break.

Brian Lewis: Suns — The fourth-seeded Suns should be on the rise now that Devin Booker is healthy and Kevin Durant is expected to make his debut after the All-Star break.

Ian O’Connor: Knicks (if only to avoid the obvious answer, the Suns) — Josh Hart is going to give them a ton, and I expect the Knicks to hurdle the Nets into the fifth spot in the East, landing them in a potential winnable first-round series against Donovan Mitchell’s Cavaliers.

Mike Vaccaro: Bucks — No surprise that as soon as the Bucks got healthy, they forgot how to lose.

The team that will drop off in the second half is the …

Peter Botte: Nets — Mikal Bridges isn’t going to score 45 every night, and the Nets will tumble in the standings, finishing in the 7-10 play-in group.

Zach Braziller: Kings — The teams behind them, particularly the Clippers and Suns, are better. They still have games against the Bucks, Celtics, Nuggets, 76ers and Clippers (twice).

Brian Lewis: Nets — They will come out of the break 10 games over .500, and will likely need that cushion because they lead the sixth-seeded Knicks by two games and the seventh-seeded Heat by 2 ½.

Ian O’Connor: Mavericks (if only to avoid the obvious answer, the Nets) — I still see Dallas making the playoffs or the play-in, but ball-dominant issues between Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving will prevent the Mavs from repeating last year’s stirring run to the conference finals.

Mike Vaccaro: Nets — They’ll still make the playoffs, but they’re no longer in anyone’s conversation to be a factor once they get there.

Kevin Durant’s time in Phoenix this season will result in …

Peter Botte: a Finals run — The combo of KD, Devin Booker and Chris Paul gives the Suns a legit chance at the first championship in franchise history.

Zach Braziller: a second-round playoff exit — The Suns left themselves thin on defenders on the wing with the Durant trade, and won’t have enough to get past the Nuggets after taking down Dallas in the first round.

Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant will try to lead the Suns to an NBA title.

Brian Lewis: a Finals berth — They could haul down the Kings and maybe even the Grizzlies, but more important will be what they get done in the playoffs in May, or even June.

Ian O’Connor: a trip to the Finals, but no cigar — I’ve got the Celtics winning it. But I do think Durant will get his in the desert. Though KD was reminded of just how hard it is to win a ring when he won only one playoff series with the Nets despite a star-studded roster, it will be almost impossible for him to not seize at least one with Devin Booker.

Mike Vaccaro: a loss in the conference Finals — There will be some wonderful moments between him and Chris Paul, but ultimately a loss to the Nuggets.

Kyrie Irving’s time in Dallas this season will result in …

Peter Botte: headaches — Kyrie averaged 28.3 points in his first four games with the Mavericks, but things always eventually go sideways with the former Nets star.

Zach Braziller: a first-round playoff loss to Durant and the Suns — The Mavericks can’t defend nearly well enough when it matters. Irving and Luka Doncic will average a combined 70 points per game, but those will be hollow points.

Brian Lewis: a second-round playoff exit — There will be spectacular offensive highlights, but little defense.

Ian O’Connor: an early playoff exit. That will be followed by a free-agent signing with the Lakers. Irving will finally reunite with the one superstar in the league who has wanted him most, LeBron James.

Mike Vaccaro: a first-round ouster. — All of Dallas realizes that Mark Cuban essentially traded in Jalen Brunson for Irving.

Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving’s stay in Dallas could be a short one.

A player who isn’t an All-Star this season, but will be next season is …

Peter Botte: Jalen Brunson — All of the snub talk surrounding the Knicks’ $104 million point guard will get Brunson a spot next year, as long as his scoring totals continue to surge.

Zach Braziller: Jalen Brunson — He should’ve been an All-Star this year, filling the decades-long void at point guard for the Knicks. The same mistake won’t be made again in a year.

Brian Lewis: Devin Booker — After Anthony Edwards, De’Aaron Fox and Pascal Siakam were late adds, Booker was the biggest snub and will see that corrected next season if he stays healthy.

Ian O’Connor: Jalen Brunson — The snub this year will help make him a regular pick. It never hurts to be the best quarterback in the biggest market.

Mike Vaccaro: Jalen Brunson — After snubbing him this year, no way he won’t be on the team next year if he’s healthy — maybe even as a starter.

LeBron James
LeBron James and the Lakers are on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

The Lakers will …

Peter Botte: miss the playoffs — Their deadline moves provided a better supporting cast around LeBron and Anthony Davis, but that won’t even assure a 7-10 play-in berth for the Lakers.

Zach Braziller: reach the playoffs — They are just two games behind the 10th-place Thunder, and they now have a suitable supporting cast for LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Plus, their remaining schedule is soft. They will face teams with a .483 winning percentage the rest of the way.

Brian Lewis: make the playoffs — They may have missed out on Irving (the merits of their trade offer is a topic for a longer piece), but they pivoted well and have given LeBron James enough to get in and win a play-in.

Ian O’Connor: make the playoffs, but only as a play-in team — They definitely got better, as their victory over the Pelicans showed, but they dug themselves too deep of a hole to get into the top six by season’s end.

Mike Vaccaro: sneak into the playoffs as an 8- or a 9-seed — They will make everyone think the Nuggets have to take pause before Denver sweeps them.

The result of the NBA Finals will be …

Peter Botte: Bucks over Suns — Giannis Antetokounmpo and a healthy Bucks team will survive Boston and Philadelphia in the East before ending KD’s run in the Finals.

Zach Braziller: Celtics over Clippers — Call it the Doc Rivers Bowl. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will be a fascinating watch of superstar wings.

Brian Lewis: Celtics over Suns — Yes, a Bucks-Suns rematch would be tantalizing, and Phoenix should hold up its end, but the Celtics have shown they can put the clamps on Durant.

Ian O’Connor: Celtics over Suns — Boston in six. So much for Ime Udoka taking down his team. The Celtics will benefit from their experience in the Finals last year, and Jayson Tatum is ready to join the storied franchise’s lords of the rings.

Mike Vaccaro: Bucks over Nuggets — It will take seven entertaining games, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s and Nikola Jokic’s stars will never shine brighter.

The next NBA star to be traded will be …

Peter Botte: Joel Embiid — After the Sixers fall short again in the playoffs, James Harden will opt out of the final year of his deal, and Philadelphia will blow it up and trade Embiid to reload.

Zach Braziller: Anthony Davis — He has predictably missed 24 games, and there are whispers he’s unhappy in Los Angeles. The injury-prone forward can be a free agent after next season.

Brian Lewis: Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby — Both were garnering significant interest at the trade deadline, and the Raptors held onto both, but will that be the case in the summer?

Pascal Siakam
Pascal Siakam makes a pass for the Raptors

Ian O’Connor: Zach LaVine or DeMar DeRozan — Their partnership isn’t working, and the Bulls might not even make the play-in tournament.

Mike Vaccaro: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — It makes too much sense for the Thunder to not try to maximize a return for a guy on the brink of elite status.

The NBA’s biggest offseason storyline will be …

Peter Botte: another swing for the Knicks — The summertime story in New York again will be whether the Knicks’ front office can fulfill its quest to add a top-flight star after falling short last year in pursuit of Donovan Mitchell.

Zach Braziller: the reunion of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving — That potentially would involve a sign-and-trade that would send Anthony Davis to the Mavericks. It’s no secret Irving wants to be a Laker, and after a quick exit from the postseason, that will become a reality this summer.

Brian Lewis: Kyrie Irving’s destination — Presuming James Harden stays put with the 76ers, expect Irving’s free agency in Dallas to monopolize the headlines with destinations like the Lakers (and maybe the Suns) looming.

Ian O’Connor: the new collective bargaining agreement, or lack thereof — And the negotiations on the load management issue, which needs to be solved for the sake of the fans and the future media rights deals.

Mike Vaccaro: what LeBron James and Kevin Durant choose to do — Will they stay the course in L.A. and Phoenix? Or will they muscle their way elsewhere?

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