The top storylines to watch in the NBA's stretch run

NBA primed for stretch run (2:13)

Brian Windhorst breaks down what should be a very exciting playoff push following the All-Star break. (2:13)

After a three-day hiatus, the NBA will return Thursday for a frenetic sprint to the finish of the league's regular season. Over the next seven weeks, there will be a variety of storylines to follow that will tell the story of not only how this season will play out but also what will happen this postseason and beyond.

Here is a list of the six biggest stories to follow when the ball goes up again:

The race to the top of the East

After the Golden State Warriors, arguably the four best teams all reside in the Eastern Conference: the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.

That should make the final two rounds of the East playoffs as compelling as they've been in decades, assuming, of course, that the Indiana Pacers can't hang on to the third seed and force two of these teams to face off in the first round. The next several weeks will also be a fight among all four of those teams to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs.

Milwaukee holds the inside track for the top spot -- and with it, home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs -- as it leads Toronto by two games in the loss column. Because the Bucks won the season series and thus the head-to-head tiebreaker, it is functionally a three-loss lead. Given that the Bucks and Raptors have the fourth- and second-easiest remaining schedules, it's hard to see the Celtics or Sixers (tied for fourth place, 5.5 games behind Toronto) catching either of them.

The final stretch will begin with the Bucks hosting the Celtics on Thursday in what could be the preview of a second-round playoff series. Including that meeting, there are five games remaining to be played between some combination of these teams. The others: Celtics at Raptors on Feb. 26, Celtics at Sixers on March 20, and two between the Bucks and Sixers -- in Milwaukee on March 17 and in Philadelphia on April 4.

All of them will be on national television, and each will be scrutinized for clues to tell us about what lies ahead in what will assuredly be a vicious fight to escape the East this spring.

Will the Lakers make the playoffs?

When LeBron James chose to migrate to the Western Conference last summer by signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, it was universally understood that he would see his NBA Finals streak end at eight straight trips. Few people, though, considered the possibility that another streak -- 13 straight playoff appearances -- would come to an end, too.

Everyone is considering it now.

With 25 games remaining, the Lakers are 28-29, sit in 10th place in the Western Conference standings and are three games behind their Staples Center co-tenants, the Los Angeles Clippers, for the West's eighth and final playoff spot.

To say the Lakers have their work cut out for them is an understatement. They have the fourth-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, according to ESPN Stats & Information projections (the Clippers' schedule, by comparison, ranks 19th), with 16 of those final 25 games coming against playoff teams.

If the Lakers want to make the playoffs, they will almost certainly have to make up those three games on the Clippers -- and then some -- before the calendar flips to April. Once it does, the Lakers have a brutal final five games: at Oklahoma City, home against Golden State and the Clippers (on the second half of a back-to-back) and home against Utah and Portland.

If the Lakers have to make up ground by then, their chances of doing so would seem remote.

It will be all but essential for the Lakers to sweep their eight remaining games against teams currently in the bottom eight in the NBA (including three against the potentially Anthony Davis-less Pelicans). Considering that the Lakers have already lost three games to the lowly Knicks, Cavaliers and Hawks -- and if they had won, they'd be tied for eighth in the West today -- they can't afford to lose any more.

Who will get to stay away from the Warriors?

Whether the Lakers can squeak into the playoffs won't be the only thing worth watching out West. So, too, will be the maneuvering to avoid Golden State for as long as possible.

Because the NBA doesn't re-seed its playoffs, being second, third, sixth or seventh -- on the opposite side of the bracket from the likely top-seeded Warriors -- is vastly more appealing than being on the same side as Golden State.

Oklahoma City, which currently sits in third place in the West, has a three-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers and leads the Houston Rockets by four but faces the toughest remaining schedule of any NBA team, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Meanwhile, the Jazz and Spurs are tied for sixth -- and sit one game behind the fifth-place Rockets and one ahead of the eighth-place Clippers.

All of this will make for appointment viewing on a nightly basis out West in the final 25 games of the season, as a six-game spread from the Trail Blazers in fourth to the Lakers in 10th means the standings will fluctuate virtually every day.

With an opportunity to be on a side of the bracket led by the team going for a three-peat or one led by a team (Denver) that hasn't made the playoffs in five years, those fluctuations will have massive implications.

The ridiculous MVP race

Last season, James Harden was seen as a virtual lock to win the league's MVP award by season's end after he led Houston to the NBA's best record. This season, though, there should be a robust debate over who will be crowned this time around.

Harden will once again be in the conversation. He's currently in the midst of a scoring streak -- 31 straight games with 30 or more points -- that only Wilt Chamberlain has matched (which, given how absurd Chamberlain's career numbers are, is about as good as no one having done it before). The fact that Harden has resurrected the Rockets after an awful start with Chris Paul spending much of that stretch injured will also help his case.

Then there's Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been the face of a remarkable burst onto the scene by the Bucks. Milwaukee currently has the NBA's best record. Antetokounmpo is putting up absurd numbers (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks) and doesn't have another big-name star playing alongside him, though Khris Middleton did make his first All-Star Game this season. Houston travels to Milwaukee on March 26 for a nationally televised game that could play a role in determining the winner if either guy has a huge game on such a big stage.

Over the past few weeks, Paul George has forced himself into the conversation with an incredible stretch of play. George might be the favorite to win the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year Award, and the Thunder are a staggering 22 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the court than when he sits -- easily the best mark in the league.

This debate is destined to be the kind that is both endlessly entertaining and frustrating. All three players have compelling cases and, depending on one's perspective, can be reasonably argued to finish in any order.

That debate will rage for the next seven weeks -- and likely the two months afterward until the NBA's awards show in late June.

What will happen with Anthony Davis?

Ever since agent Rich Paul made Davis' trade request public on Jan. 28, the Pelicans have been in a frenzy.

They spent the following 10 days dealing with constant reporting about their franchise cornerstone potentially being dealt, only for him to not go anywhere. Then, after not trading him, the Pelicans agreed to allow Davis to return to the team, leading to an awkward dance that has seen his minutes vary and fluctuate and has created more awkwardness in New Orleans.

That culminated Thursday, when Davis left the arena before New Orleans had finished its win over Oklahoma City to get an MRI on his shoulder. The next day, the Pelicans parted ways with general manager Dell Demps, and Danny Ferry was named his interim replacement. Then Davis gave an extraordinary media conference at All-Star Weekend on Saturday in which he declared that his intention is to continue playing the remainder of the season (in addition to everything he said about potential future destinations).

Will Davis play for the Pelicans again this season? If so, how much will he play and for how much longer? Some around the league think he has played his last game now that the All-Star Game is in the rearview mirror. But whether he has or not, the only certainty in New Orleans moving forward is that this situation will stop being weird only when Davis is sent packing -- presumably sometime this summer.

The chase for picks

While there will be plenty of focus on the various playoff races in both conferences, there will be just as much jockeying for position at the other end of the standings. The combination of the NBA's new odds for its draft lottery and various pick protections will make for plenty of other things for people to pay attention to.

We'll start at the bottom of the lottery, where the Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers and Bulls are all jockeying to take advantage of the NBA's new lottery odds. The rule changes put in place for this season have the worst three teams in the league sharing even 14 percent chances of securing the No. 1 overall pick, the first of now four picks that are selected by the lottery process. The Knicks and Suns currently are tied with 11 wins, the Cavaliers have 12, and the Bulls have 14. There are several more meetings among them all, too, including the Cavaliers hosting the Suns on Thursday. Phoenix hosting New York on March 6 could also be a pivotal game.

Meanwhile, there are two teams in the middle of the lottery -- the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks -- that will be spending the next few weeks positioning themselves to either keep or give up their picks this season, depending where they wind up. Memphis will send its pick to Boston if it is outside the top eight, as part of a trade for Jeff Green five years ago, and Dallas will give its pick to Atlanta if it is outside the top five, as part of the Trae Young-Luka Doncic swap during last year's draft.

The Grizzlies sit in sixth place in the lottery standings with 23 wins, are 5-20 in their past 25 games and sold off pieces at the trade deadline -- most notably franchise icon Marc Gasol. But Memphis is only one win behind the Washington Wizards in seventh and three behind the Mavericks and Pelicans, who are tied for eighth. If Memphis could surpass them all, the Grizzlies would be able to send their pick this year -- so long as they don't jump up in the lottery themselves.

Given that Memphis is starting a rebuild, it would be in the Grizzlies' interest to attempt to move a weaker pick this year, given that it becomes top-six protected next season and unprotected in 2021.

Dallas, on the other hand, would love to keep its first-round pick. Leaping into the top five and getting one more young talent to pair with Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis would be huge for the Mavericks, who traded away two more future first-rounders (and 2017 first-round pick Dennis Smith Jr.) to the Knicks earlier this month in the Porzingis deal.

Every team the Mavericks can let past them over the next few weeks will increase their odds of doing so and, rather than giving the Hawks a mid-lottery pick this season, could mean sending them one outside of it in 2020 if Dallas can make the playoffs behind Doncic and Porzingis.

Then there are the Clippers, who will send their pick to the Celtics if they make the playoffs. Although the Clippers weakened themselves by trading away Tobias Harris at the deadline, they went on to add two solid contributors in Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green and should be in the mix right down to the season's end.