The NBA’s move to divide All-Star teams by captains’ vote last year was smart for a number of reasons. Players drew pride in being chosen by LeBron James and Steph Curry, and the re-cast rosters unlocked possibilities for teammate duos never before seen. Pairing Kevin Durant with Kyrie Irving was a delight. Ditto for James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the best reason for destroying the conference model was sheer fairness. The West roster selections far outpaced the East in talent and pedigree last year, and with LeBron now in Los Angeles, the gap is even wider in 2019.
But while we’ll likely see a better product from the evened rosters this year, it’s hard not to be wistful for what could have been. Have you seen the West starters? The crew of James, Durant, Harden, Steph Curry and Paul George boast a combined eight championships, eight MVPs (nine if Harden continues to drop 50 on a nightly basis) and 36 All-NBA selections. Replace George with Anthony Davis and the accolades tick up another degree. Curry and Harden could combine for 25-plus threes. Perhaps Durant goes for 50. The best player of his generation—and perhaps all-time—is in the West. What else could you ask for? The All-Star record for points by a team is 196, set by the West in 2016. This year’s group could cross 220.
We shouldn’t sneer at the East starters. It’s quite an impressive group. Irving, Kemba Walker, Giannis, Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid represent a terrific collection of talent, more than treading water without James carrying the conference. Yet it can’t compare to the West. None of the East starters have an MVP. Walker has never made an All-NBA team. Even in his home city, it’s hard to imagine him winning the All-Star Game MVP.
The conference divide will be further illuminated on Feb. 7 when the reserves are announced. Davis is arguably a top-five talent in the league. Nikola Jokic has a case to finish top-five in the MVP voting. Russell Westbrook is still averaging a triple double despite a downright concerning shooting performance in 2018-19, likely pairing with Damian Lillard for a dynamic backcourt duo. No disrespect to Bradley Beal and Ben Simmons, but the gap in prestige and performance is significant.
There are few previous starting fives that top this class of Western Conference stars. The 1990 squad of Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas is a near-flawless collection of talent. A matchup between this year’s West starters and the 2013 Western Conference crew (Kobe Bryant, Durant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul) is an exciting battle if you have a time machine or video-game console. Yet through the decades, it’s hard to find a collection of five players that would definitively top this year’s squad. The scoring power is overwhelming.
The NBA community will come together on Feb. 17 and marvel at the talent spread throughout Team LeBron and Team Giannis. It is among the best All-Star classes the league has ever produced, filled with exciting young stars as the league looks toward the next decade. But while the evened squads will likely produce a balanced outcome, don’t forget what could have been: the Western Conference’s collection of stars gunning for the game’s scoring record, unleashing rainbow threes and thunderous dunks with a historic starting five.