If you’re not into the circus atmosphere of the Slam Dunk contest or the defense-optional style of the All-Star Game, then the best part of NBA All-Star Weekend is that it represents the calm before the storm that is the regular season’s finishing stretch.
After this weekend’s festival of light-hearted exhibitions, things will get serious.
Playoff spots will be up for grabs. Home-court advantage will be at stake. Superstars will go into winning-time superstar mode. Guys in contract years will try to go out with a bang. Rookies who survived the wall will be more confident and adjusted to the league.
After the All-Star break, the basketball is just better.
And there are a lot of players who will be better after the break than they were before. Here are five players set to blow up following this weekend in New Orleans:
Nikola Jokic, C, Nuggets
This wasn’t supposed to be Jokic’s spot.
When the Nuggets took the 6-foot-10 kid from Serbia in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft, it was 25 picks after the selection of a 7-foot kid from Bosnia, Jusuf Nurkic, whom Denver acquired in a draft-day trade.
Nurkic the almost-Lottery pick was the one labeled Denver’s center of the future. But somewhere along the way, Jokic – who played one more season in Serbia after being drafted, then came to the NBA – made it clear that he was the team’s best big man.
In his second NBA season, Jokic is averaging 16.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists. Around the time the calendar turned from 2016 to 2017, he turned into a regular 20-10-and-5 producer.
On Feb. 13, three days after Jokic scored a career-high 40 points against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to Portland – literally clearing up the lane for Jokic. That night, Jokic had his best game of the season: 17 points, 21 rebounds and 12 assists in a decisive upset win over the Warriors.
Jokic plays like the best combination of the Gasol brothers: smooth post moves, tough on the boards, pinpoint passing with uncommon coordination for somebody is size.
The next challenge for the Nuggets’ newly-crowned star is keeping the team that seemed destined for the Lottery in the Western Conference playoff picture. Denver is currently in eighth place, ahead of Sacramento and Portland.
Carmelo Anthony, F, Knicks
It would probably make more sense to put a series of question marks in place of where I typed “Knicks.”
At this point in another season of ridiculous drama and repeated losing for the franchise, Carmelo being traded before the Feb. 23 deadline seems inevitable. Knicks president Phil Jackson seems determined to send his best player packing, and Knicks owner James Dolan seems too busy trying to convince the world that some of his best friends are basketball players to stop a trade from happening.
It's not that Carmelo is having a bad season. Far from it. He’s averaging 23.4 points, tied for 15th in the league, and 6.1 rebounds per game. He was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team to replace injured Cleveland forward Kevin Love, making it eight straight All-Star nods for Melo.
That’s impressive for a 32-year-old who is in his 14th season in the league. While almost every member of the famous 2003 draft class is either out of the league or on their last legs, Melo joins LeBron James as the only two from that class still thriving.
But the Knicks are headed for another Lottery season, and as the face of the franchise, Melo is going to assume a lot of the blame for that. It seems a fresh start is needed.
Whether he stays in New York (unlikely) or lands somewhere else (Cleveland, Boston and the L.A. Clippers have been rumored), just the peace of mind in knowing where he stands should result in Melo playing better down the stretch.
Dion Waiters, G, Heat
Waiters took a gamble on himself last summer.
As a former top-5 draft pick who had put up decent numbers playing alongside LeBron and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland and seen some playoff success alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, Waiters could’ve cashed in big during a free agency period in which it seemed NBA teams were giving out eight-figure contracts like nightclub flyers. There were certainly some less-talented, less-accomplished players doing exactly that.
Waiters instead signed a modest two-year deal with Miami worth less than $6 million total. He took less money from the Heat for the opportunity to step into the starting two-guard spot recently vacated by Dwyane Wade – which came with the opportunity to showcase his skills for a more lucrative deal down the road.
Although injuries have been a nag, Waiters has delivered when he’s healthy.
During the Heat’s recent 13-game win streak, which vaulted them back into the Eastern Conference playoff chase, Waiters averaged 20.6 points and 4.8 assists, hitting 49 percent of his shots from the field and 49 percent from three-point range.
That stretch included game-winners against the Warriors and Nets, and back-to-back 33-point games against the Bucks and Warriors. But, typical to Waiters’ season so far, he had to miss the last two games of the streak with an ankle injury.
At 6-foot-4 and about 225 pounds, Waiters is kind of a throwback to the powerfully-built pure scoring guards of a past era. Picture a modern-day Vinnie Johnson.
Like “The Microwave” used to do, Waiters is heating up quickly. His scoring average has gone up every month this season. Now that Miami is challenging for a playoff spot, look for Waiters to keep cooking down the stretch.
Andrew Wiggins, F, Wolves
Minnesota lost its “Big Three” dynamic when shooting guard Zach LaVine suffered a season-ending ACL tear on Feb. 7. That leaves the young Wolves with Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns – back-to-back No. 1 draft picks and back-to-back Rookie of the Year award winners -- to carry a larger load. And Wiggins has responded like a superstar.
Wiggins was on a scoring binge at the time Minnesota played its last game before the All-Star break.
In the five games since LaVine went down, Wiggins has averaged 33.6 points on 57 percent shooting from the field and 45 percent beyond the arc. He scored 31 in a win over his hometown squad, the Toronto Raptors. He dropped 41 on the squad that originally drafted him No. 1 and then traded him before he ever suited up, the Cavaliers. And the next night, he scored 40 in a win over the Nuggets.
Wiggins was often compared to LeBron when he first hit the scene as a high school phenom, due to his explosive athleticism and limitless potential. Since then it’s become clear he isn’t the same kind of do-it-all player, but more of a pure scorer. And one of the best in the league at that.
Each year as a pro, Wiggins’ scoring and field-goal percentage has gone up. In Year 3, he’s averaging 22.9 points while making 46 percent of his shots.
The Wolves are within howling distance of a playoff spot (4.5 games out of eighth place). If Wiggins keeps up this recent tear he’s been on, he could be making his postseason debut this year.
Bradley Beal, G, Wizards
Even before Beal arrived in D.C., the Wizards’ recent history had been defined by talented teams full of potential that for whatever reason could not take that next step in becoming legit Eastern Conference contenders.
Now that Beal is hitting his prime in D.C., the Wizards appear on their way to writing a new narrative. They are currently third place in the East and have been one of the league’s best teams at home this season.
After signing a max-level contract last summer, Beal has been justifying it in his fifth pro season. The 6-foot-5 Ray Allen clone is averaging a career-high 22.3 points per game on a career-high 47 percent shooting from the field, along with a career-high 3.7 assists.
Beal had his mainstream breakout performance against the Cavs on Feb. 6, lighting up the defending champions for 41 points in an overtime loss that was probably the best game of the NBA season so far. It was Beal’s third 40-point performance of the season; he gave the Clippers 41 and the Suns 42 earlier in the schedule.
The MVP of the Wizards’ revolution is All-Star point guard John Wall, but Beal is becoming one of the better No. 2 options in the league.