Every team has important players to that franchise’s own goals, but when considering the most important players to the NBA’s final stretch, as we’ll do here, we need to take a step back. Let’s take a look at which players can swing championship expectations or, based on these next couple of months, impact the shape of the league. Here are the six most important players after the All-Star break.

Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns: During his introductory press conference as a member of the Suns, Kevin Durant made it clear that a championship was the expectation.

"I think we've got all the pieces to be successful," he said.

Durant, of course, is that final piece. Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Monty Williams are less than two years removed from The Finals. Injuries to Booker, Paul and Cam Johnson derailed the first few months of the season and yet the Suns still find themselves in fifth place in the West coming out of the break. 

Durant could return from a knee injury as soon as Friday night, giving him and his new teammates 20-plus games to hash out the Suns’ new composition. It should be seamless. Durant has managed to fit alongside stars of every form and temperament – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving – and put up Hall-of-Fame worthy numbers. He’ll do the same with Paul, Booker and Deandre Ayton.

Before the trade, the Suns were perhaps a fringe contender at best. The team has grown stagnant and injuries sapped Paul of his powers in their last two postseasons. Durant changes everything. He props open the championship window, takes more off Paul’s plate and gives the Suns – who thrived as an ensemble cast of All-Stars and high-end role players – a bonafide No. 1 with Finals MVP credentials.

A small thing I’m watching: How does Williams pair up his top four players throughout the game? Will he play one of Paul and Booker with Durant and Ayton, keeping a ball-handler and 7-footer on the floor at all times? That is the most practical route. Lineups with Paul and Ayton have not been as good this season as in the past, while Booker and Ayton have clicked a bit more. That would leave Paul and Durant paired up to let it rain from the mid-range and create some sweet, HOF music.

Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers: It’s been a long time coming, but Kawhi Leonard looks like he’s back. After missing the entire 21-22 season with a torn ACL and 19 of the Clippers’ first 24 games of this season with knee and ankle issues, Kawhi has put together his best stretch of basketball since the 2021 playoffs.

Over 16 games before posting a dud in the Clippers final game before the All-Star break, Leonard averaged 28.3 points on 52.9% shooting (49.4% on 3s), 6.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists. If this is a sign of what Leonard will do after the break, the Clippers are nothing short of title contenders.

Kawhi is moving better on the court. Even when he played earlier in the season, Kawhi appeared drained of his trademark strength and defensive proclivity. A lot of his shots fruitlessly front-rimmed and he became more bystander than agitator on defense. That’s not the case lately. 

He’s muscling his way into tough mid-range jumpers, using his strength to create space and his high release to get off shots. 


On defense, Kawhi has gone from averaging fewer than one steal to nearly two over those 16 games. While he may not be at his Defensive Player of the Year peak, opposing ball-handlers still need to think twice before dribbling near him.

The Clippers are 22-11 when Kawhi plays and 10-17 when he does not. They are outscoring teams by a juicy 14.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays, according to Cleaning the Glass. Although Kawhi isn’t appearing in back-to-backs (and has yet to play in more than five straight games), the Clippers added Eric Gordon, Mason Plumlee and Bones Hyland before the trade deadline – valuable reinforcements for the stretch run.

The Nuggets and Suns should still be considered the favorites in the West, but the Clippers are a threat if Kawhi and Co. keep playing like this into the postseason. 

Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks: Since Kyrie Irving joined the Mavericks, he and Luka Doncic have run only three pick-and-rolls between them through two games. Beyond that, it’s mostly taking turns smacking the same piñata.  

For them to maximize their partnership, the pick-and-roll needs to be more of a staple late in the game.

Both can act as screener or ball-handler. If defenses stay home, they risk Kyrie popping open for 3s or Luka getting a runway to the basket. Switch, and Luka can pummel mismatches. The rest of the regular season should be used to beta test this partnership, build chemistry, find out how opponents will defend it and come up with counters.

Irving has valuable experience in this regard, having forged a two-man game with LeBron James that became the engine of the Cavaliers’ 2016 championship run. It’s up to him (and head coach Jason Kidd) to embrace screening and bring Luka along. 

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers are 10-6 in games Anthony Davis scores 27 points or more and 6-13 when he scores 25 or fewer. 

During the Lakers’ best stretch of the season – when they won 8 of 10 in November and December – he averaged 35.3 points on 64.8%/45.5%/88% shooting splits, 15.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.9 blocks and 1.2 steals. Nothing short of MVP-caliber play. 

Shortly after, Davis missed 20 straight games with a foot injury, the Lakers tumbled out of the playoff picture and reshaped the roster before the trade deadline. Adding D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba and Rui Hachimura makes the Lakers better, but it doesn’t make them contenders. Only Davis, playing like he did in November or during the 2020 playoff run in the bubble, does.

There are games when Davis looks the part (31 points and 14 rebounds against the Pacers on Feb. 2; 34 points and 14 rebounds against the Pelicans on Feb. 4) and others that make you scratch your head (13 points on nine shots against the Thunder on Feb. 7). Davis needs to string together another elite stretch. The Lakers need more of this:

The Lakers are two games back of the play-in tournament. They likely have to go 14-9 the rest of the way (3.5 wins better than their current pace) to make the playoffs. LeBron James will do what he can to give the Lakers a chance and the new additions will help, but there’s only so much ground they can cover if their second-best player isn’t scoring, protecting the paint and playing with energy.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans: Flash back to Dec. 30, when the Pelicans were 23-12, tied for first place in the Western Conference, and looked every bit a contender. Things have changed quite a bit since then. On Jan. 2, Zion Williamson tweaked his right hamstring, forcing him to miss every game since. After a setback, it’s unclear if he will play again this season. 

The Pelicans are 7-15 since Zion’s injury – a stretch that included a 10-game losing streak – and have tumbled to seventh place. Fortunately for the Pels, Brandon Ingram recently returned from a toe injury and helped lift the Pelicans to a game over .500 coming out of the All-Star break. After Ingram injured his toe on Nov. 25, Williamson led the Pelicans into the thick of the playoff race. Now it’s up to Ingram to return the favor.

Since using a handful of games to knock off the rust, Ingram is playing as well as ever. In six games in February, Ingram averaged 29.2 points on near 50-40-90 shooting splits (54% overall, 43.8% on 3s, 86.5% on free throws) 4.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists. 

His 25-point, eight-assist performance against the Cavaliers earlier this month is an example of what the Pelicans need from Ingram going forward. The point totals and tough shot-making will help bail out the offense, but to really make things hum, Ingram needs to continue to get teammates involved. Ingram has always racked up assists because he’s a willing passer, but he’s gotten better at setting up teammates by drawing help defenders with the threat of his mid-range shot.

New Orleans is 3-3 in Ingram’s last six games. They will need Ingram to keep carrying the offense in Zion’s absence to make the playoffs.

Despite the speculation that Williamson could shut it down, he hasn’t been ruled out for the season. The Pelicans are on shaky ground now but, if Ingram can help stabilize things and get them into the playoffs, the Pelicans should be dangerous if Williamson can return. 

Although Williamson, Ingram and CJ McCollum have played just 172 minutes in 10 games together this season, the Pelicans outscored their opponents by 16.5 points per 100 possessions with that trio on the court. Some had them pegged as contenders in the West if they stayed healthy. While they won’t get a top seed, they could still be a team nobody wants to face in the playoff round with their size, physicality and talent. Williamson raised their ceiling, but it’s up to Ingram to get them far enough to where Williamson can make a difference.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Things are going pretty well for the Timberwolves. They are 15-9 since Jan. 1, clawing their way back into the Western Conference playoff picture after an embarrassing start to the season. Only the Nuggets, Bucks, 76ers and Celtics have a better record this calendar year.

Minnesota is a respectable 10th in defensive rating and 16th in offensive rating in that timeframe, but lineups with Anthony Edwards and without D’Angelo Russell (traded to the Lakers before the deadline) are scoring 117.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass – a mark that would be tied for the second-best offensive rating this season. 

There’s a moment in every great young player’s career when he takes the reins of the franchise and declares it’s his team now. Anthony Edwards has done that. Over his last 15 games, Edwards is averaging 28.3 points on 48.3% shooting. Only LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged more shot attempts per game over that span, and Edwards is tied with Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving at 21.3 attempts. He’s emerged as Minnesota’s best offensive weapon.

This creates an interesting dynamic when Karl-Anthony Towns returns from a calf injury that has sidelined him since late November. This is Edwards’ team, and it’s up to Towns to find ways to fit in – not vice versa. Edwards needs to improve as a playmaker (averaging 4.8 assists to 4.0 turnovers over the last 15 games) but the introduction of Mike Conley gives this offense a responsible caretaker. Chris Finch could buoy his offense by staggering Towns and Edwards, but they’ll have to find ways to coexist – along with Rudy Gobert in the middle – to maximize the potential team president Tim Connelly envisioned when he assembled this group.