Picking the Eastern Conference All-Stars

NBA All-Star season is back! As I prefaced in my West picks, there’s a good chance that almost half of the 2020 All-Stars will be first-timers — a rarity in a league filled star veteran talent. As a refresher, here are my ground rules for this fun exercise: 

  • I start from scratch, picking the entire 12-man roster without considering the fan vote or whom the coaches will pick.
  • The starters consist of three frontcourt players and two guards, while the reserves consist of three frontcourt players, two guards, and two wildcards. Positions are determined by the NBA. 
  • I prioritize player performance (Availability matters!) from this particular season. Team success is secondary. 
  • My picks will be divided into the starters, the reserves that should be locks, and the reserves that are up for debate.

Without further ado, here are my Eastern Conference All-Star picks:

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STARTERS

G Kemba Walker
G Ben Simmons
FC Giannis Antetokounmpo
FC Jimmy Butler
FC Joel Embiid

For millionth straight year, the East All-Star hopefuls pale in comparison to the best of the West. The talent level is underwhelming. Save for Giannis, I could argue that none of these dudes would even be in contention for a starting spot in the West. I’d even go as far to say that that only half of the potential East roster would crack a West spot. Guys like Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker would be starters in East. In the West, they’re far from locks.

We’ll have to make do with what we have. In my count, there are only two other starting locks aside from Antetokounmpo: Walker, who is thriving as the guy in Boston with the shooting volume and efficiency only matched by peak Steph Curry, and Butler, who remains a two-way monster while also assisting and rebounding in career high rates.

The final frontcourt spot went down to Embiid and Pascal Siakam. Both would have been starting locks if not for their injury woes (they’ve each missed 13 and 11 games, respectively) and if the NBA the common sense decision to classify Butler, who has been the de facto point guard for many parts of the season, as a backcourt player.

I ended up going with Embiid. He’s had an up-and-down season, but when engaged (as shown in the Sixers’ wins over the Celtics and Bucks last December), he’s the single most dominant force in the league. His defensive prowess can even turn a Giannis from Zeus to a mere mortal — which is crazy considering no one, aside from Embiid, has been able to stop the Greek Freak this season. 

Much like Embiid, Siakam has floated in the periphery of MVP talk when healthy. Siakam is also a pretty good defender and gives a more consistent game-to-game effort than his Cameroonian counterpart. But with the margins so tight, I went with the better player. Embiid’s two-way dominance gives him the slight nod. 

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The final guard slot was easier than expected. Simmons’ non-existent jumper has made him the league’s preeminent hot-take fodder, which glosses over the fact that the dude is a devastating fastbreak demon, preternatural playmaker, and one of the best defenders in the entire NBA. 

With Embiid sidelined, Simmons has stepped up. He’s been averaging 21.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 7.9 APG, while seemingly amping up his defense despite the heavier offensive burden. Oh, and Philly have won five of their last seven. 

As I mentioned in a Sixers piece last week: Simmons is one of the few players that you can build a team around. And without Embiid clogging the lane, we’re starting to see how great a team can be when built to accentuate the Aussie’s rare talent. Don’t let his jumper distract you from the fact that he has been the second-best guard in the East. 

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RESERVE (LOCKS)

G Bradley Beal
FC Bam Adebayo
FC Pascal Siakam

The 14-28 Washington Wizards, somehow, have the 11th best offense in the NBA. Okay, maybe ‘somehow’ isn’t right qualifier. Let me rephrase: The 14-28 Washington Wizards, led by Bradley freaking Beal, have the 11th best offense in the NBA. 

To put that in perspective, they have a better attack than nine teams in the playoff hunt. Meanwhile, Basketball Reference gives the Wizards a 2.7% chance to make the postseason.

That fact is a big reason why Beal, who is sixth in the league in scoring, should be a lock to make his third-straight appearance. With a talent pool so underwhelming, averaging a nightly 27-5-6 is hard to argue against.

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On the other hand, Adebayo’s Miami Heat is a good bet to make noise in the postseason, largely due to his improved play. Bam’s one of the most fun players in the league; he brings down the ball like a guard, drives with the nimbleness of a wing, but still finishes home with the kind of force you’d expect from such an athletic big.

He’s also a switchable and fluid defender and is averaging 4.7 assists per game — an extremely high number for a center. Bam’s diverse skill set and ability to do various things at such a high level should give him his All-Star debut. 

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RESERVES (UP FOR DEBATE)

G Trae Young
FC Jayson Tatum
WC Domantas Sabonis
WC Khris Middleton

This…was a crapshoot. You could switch up any of these players for one (or all) of Kyle Lowry, Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, or Tobias Harris. But with the margins so tight, each of these four snubs had a major factor that eliminated them from the race.

For Lowry and Brogdon, it was their 12 missed games (Brogdon also tailed off a bit after a hot start). It’s difficult to argue for a non-superstar that has missed a significant chunk of the season. As for Harris and Brown, it didn’t feel right the give the Sixers and Celtics three All-Stars each when the Bucks’ only lock is Antetokounmpo. 

The debate between Brown and Tatum as the Celtics’ second All-Star was tight. The advanced numbers favor Tatum: ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus rates him at the same stratosphere as superstars like Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard, partly because Tatum thrives while leading Boston’s bench lineups. Tatum is a pretty good defender as well, argurably on par with Brown. 

Some might have Brown on here instead because of his superior shooting and efficiency. I understand that. But for me, Tatum looks more the part of an offensive fulcrum, giving him a slight nod.

Middleton’s case hinges on the fact that the Bucks have annihilated the rest of the league to the extent that it feels weird to give Milwaukee only one All-Star. But Middleton is no Mo Williams. He has a legitimate All-Star case, and the Bucks’ dominance was the small bump needed to nudge him into one of the final spots.

Middleton is averaging 19.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and 3.9 APG, but what stands out is his efficiency — 50% from the floor, 42.1% from three (on 5.2 attempts), and 88.9% from the line. He is (basically) having an 50-40-90 season with pretty good counting stats on a historically dominant team. That’s a pretty solid All-Star case.

Sabonis was pretty close to being a lock, but his mediocre defense was the difference between he and Adebayo, who has put up similar numbers. But on the other end of the floor, Sabonis’ efficient scoring and elbow playmaking has been the fulcrum for the 29-16 Pacers. Indiana needs at least one representative, and Sabonis has simply been their best player.

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As for Young, him not being a lock may surprise people, but c’mon: Young is playing for the worst team in the NBA and is possibly the worst defensive player in the league. That matters. But much like Beal, averages of 29.2 PPG and 8.6 APG (on pretty efficient shooting splits) is pretty hard to argue against. 

Trae doesn’t need to be a defensive stalwart to be a perennial All-Star lock. He just needs to start trying. His effort on the less glamorous end of the floor will spell the difference between Young being an annual East starter, or Young becoming the face of Good Stats, Bad Team club. Until then he is far from a lock, but in the dreadful Eastern Conference, he is, somewhat begrudgingly, an All-Star.