Guard Kyrie Irving has missed 34 of the Nets' 53 games this season. Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is at its All-Star break. While the second half of  the season has already started, the “unofficial” second half represents a  time that teams get more serious.

Contenders vie for  playoff positioning. Stars attempt to make an impact. Those who  struggled through ho-hum starts to the season look to turn the corner.  From Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn to Victor Oladipo in Indiana, multiple  star players in the Eastern Conference must step up to put their teams  in a better position.

Out West, it’s going to be a dog  fight for positioning and playoff spots. Can Kristaps Porzingis continue  his recent stellar performance and propel his Mavericks to a top-four  seed?

Here are five NBA stars who must step up once the All-Star break comes to a conclusion next week.

Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn heads into the break with Irving having missed 34 of the team’s 53 games. It really is something to behold. He has suffered setback after setback on the injury front.

When on the court, this former NBA champion has not elevated the level of his play. The Nets are 8-12 in games where Irving has suited up. The backdrop here being some drama between the enigmatic point guard and his new team.

If the Nets (25-28) are going to make noise come playoff time — heck, if the Nets are going to make the playoffs — Irving simply must get healthy and prove that signing him to a max contract was not a mistake. It really is that simple.


Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis has surged in recent games. Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks 

After struggling at times this season, the Unicorn has picked it up recently for the Mavericks. It has also coincided with MVP candidate Luka Doncic’s most-recent ankle injury. Porzingis averaged 28.5 points and 10.5 rebounds on 52 percent shooting in the six games heading into the  break.

Not only does Dallas need Doncic to remain healthy, Porzingis must play at this All-Star level if the Mavs want to earn home-court advantage in the first round. Dallas finished the first half with a 17-16 record after starting 16-6. Ouch!


Sixers guard Ben Simmons is averaging nearly 21 points a game in his past 18 games. Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

This is not to say Simmons has failed to step it up recently. The All-Star has been great since the turn of the calendar, averaging 20.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 2.1 steals over the past 18 games. He’s also a top Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

At issue here is the drama surrounding fellow star Joel Embiid and Philadelphia’s status as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the break. Heck, head coach Brett Brown is on the hot seat.

In order for the Sixers (34-21) to make a second half run, Simmons needs to elevate his game on offense. It might be too late to expand his shooting this season, but a more consistent all-around performance would help Philly live up to what were lofty preseason expectations.


Center Nikola Jokic has been inconsistent for the Nuggets this season. Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets 

Out of shape. That has been the word surrounding Jokic in the Mile High City this season. His performance in an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers heading into the break added another level to this narrative.

Overall, the Joker is performing at nearly the same statistical level as last season. He has just been too inconsistent for a Nuggets team that’s looking to vie for the Western Conference title.

Consider this. Jokic has scored 15  points or less 14 times this season. That total stood at 17 times all of last season. He has also finished negative in the plus-minus territory as many times (23) as he did all of last season. If the surprising Nuggets want to be seen as legit contenders, Jokic must step up.


It's been slow going for Pacers guard Victor Oladipo since returning from a long layoff. Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers 

It’s understandable that Oladipo has struggled out of the gate in seven games since returning from a year-long absence. He must get his legs under him. Maybe the All-Star break will help provide that.

What we do know is this star guard is averaging just over 11 points on a disastrous 33 percent shooting from the field this season. He’s also minus-38 when on the court during that span.

Indiana (32-23) has the  talent to make waves in the postseason. Unfortunately, recent struggles have coincided with Oladipo’s return to the court. The Pacers lost six of the seven games he suited up in prior to the break. This must change in short order.

This article first appeared on Sportsnaut and was syndicated with permission.

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