The NBA All-Star break is over! You know what that means? We’ve finally reached the stretch run of the regular season.

Here are three non-stars whose performances will impact the final standings. 

1. The Sixers’ $40 million hole

We know what Tobias Harris is not — he’s not a star, and he’s not someone worth the nearly $40 million he’s earning this season, the last on that five-year, $180 deal he signed back in 2019. But he’s always been a reliable third-to-four option who can score a bit, shoot a bit, and hold his own on defense against different-sized players. And someone who, occasionally, can level-up on offense if needed. 

Without Joel Embiid in the lineup, the Sixers have needed Harris. But instead of helping an overworked Tyrese Maxey carry the load, he’s playing what might be his worst stretch of basketball since his early Orlando Magic days a decade ago. Watch the Sixers play, and you’ll see that the 17.3 points per game he’s averaging greatly overestimate the impact.

Harris once again looks mechanical on the court, like a player who’s thinking about the next move as opposed to just making it instinctively. He turns down too many open 3s (the 4.8 he’s attempting per 100 possessions is his lowest mark since 2016) and too often kills possessions by veering into the lane with no plan — only to hoist up a contested short-range jumper. 

Early in the season, Sixers head coach Nick Nurse urged Harris to attack the offensive glass more frequently, but Harris is no longer doing much of that, either (his offensive rebounding totals are in line with his career rate). 

To be fair to Harris, by this point he is who he is. And you can’t blame him for taking up a big chunk of the Sixers’ cap sheet. But his inability to step up for even a few of these Embiid-less weeks could wind up costing Sixers, who enter this final stretch just barely clinging to a non-play-in spot. 

2. A Suns bet paying off

One of the most interesting moves this past offseason was the Phoenix Suns’ decision to essentially swap out DeAndre Ayton for Jusuf Nurkic and Grayson Allen. At the time, the trade felt risky. Sure, Ayton had his issues, but he was still a 25-year-old former No. 1 pick who’d already had success in the NBA. Nurkic, on the other hand, was an injury-riddled 29-year-old average-at-best center. 

It hasn’t taken long for us to learn that the Suns knew exactly what they were doing. 

Ayton, for his part, has been bad, putting up middling numbers for a lottery-bound team. And Allen, in becoming one of the best long-range snipers in the NBA (hitting a league-leading 48.6% of his attempts), has given the Suns some much-needed wing depth and shooting.

But it’s Nurkic who’s been the revelation. For one, he’s only missed four games. He’s also playing some of the best basketball of his career (11.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game). It’s no coincidence that the Suns have been 14.1 points better per 100 non-garbage time possessions with Nurkic on the floor this season, per Cleaning the Glass, and that they’re 0-4 in games without him.

On defense, Nurkic isn’t Bill Russell, but he’s big enough to deter drivers and nimble enough to hang in and make plays against spread offenses. 

On offense, Nurkic has always been an adept passer, and the 6.6 assists he’s averaging per 100 possessions this season is the seventh-best mark among all centers. That, combined with his newfound touch in the paint (he’s hit 52% of his non-rim paint looks this season, a career-best mark and 10%-uptick from last season), has made him a threat in the short roll after opponents swarm or double one of Phoenix’s stars. 

Whether or not the Suns make a finals run this season will likely depend on the health of their Big Three. But Nurkic emerging as a legitimate playoff-caliber center certainly puts them in better position.   

3. OKC’s crunch time lineup change

Last week, coming out of halftime in a crucial game against the Clippers, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault made a lineup change, inserting Isaiah Joe for Josh Giddey. The Thunder went on to win the game, and, in doing so, offered a glimpse of what we can expect from them in the playoffs.

The reasoning for this move was simple. Joe is one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA (42.6% on 4.2 attempts per game). Giddey, who is shooting just 32.7% from deep despite being left open by opposing defenses, might be one of the worst. Giddey does lots of stuff well, but given all the talent already in the Thunder’s starting lineup what the team needs most is someone who helps space the floor. 

Joe does exactly that, and when he plays alongside the Thunder’s core for—Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren, Jalen Williams and Lu Dort — OKC becomes unstoppable. In 78 minutes together this season that lineup has scored at a cartoonish rate of 130.8 points per 100 possessions, while limiting opponents to 101.2. And the fact that more than half of that group’s minutes have come in the fourth quarter of games is a clear sign of how Daigneault feels. In other words: don’t be shocked if come April and May, this is the OKC lineup which we see close games. And, given how effective it’s been, it might be the group that propels this team into June.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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