All-Star weekend is just under a month away, and with the starters being announced this week, here’s my official ballot for the Eastern Conference. The five starters consist of three frontcourt players and two from the backcourt. The seven reserves aren’t as closely tied to their respective position. You can read our Western Conference predictions here.
Backcourt starters: Trae Young, DeMar DeRozan
The Hawks embody their 23-year-old superstar, for better and worse. They rank second in offensive rating and go from having the most efficient attack in basketball with Young on the floor to being 0.2 points per 100 possessions better than the 30th-ranked Thunder when he’s out. Combine his vision, speed, creativity and confidence with showstopping step-back threes, pull-up twos and a floater/lob that makes guarding his pick-and-rolls with two defenders in a drop just about the worst idea, and what you have is one of the five or six most unstoppable offensive weapons in basketball.
Defense, once again, is a different story, whether Young is getting lost on the weakside, targeted in a ball screen or jacking up a deep three when his teammates aren’t positioned to get back in transition. The Hawks have the NBA’s worst defense with Young on the floor and only the Warriors, Suns and Cavs are more stout when he’s off it.
The good ultimately outweighs the bad, though. Young’s pick-and-rolls sizzle and discombobulate. The next defense that figures out how to slow him down will be the first.
DeRozan is also an easy choice. When he signed with Chicago, I wrote a column predicting his bounce back to the All-Star Game in 2022. DeRozan was awesome in San Antonio, but overlooked in a losing situation, surrounded by players who didn’t quite complement his skill set. He evolved there, though, becoming a better playmaker.
In Chicago, DeRozan’s usage is all the way up to 31.3%, too, far exceeding what it was during his entire stint with the Spurs, only topped when he was 27 years old on the Raptors. With a bit more room to operate, he’s absolutely cooking people in space, unleashing all the feints and pump fakes that make guarding him an exercise in discipline and restraint above anything else.
He’s leading the league with 10.9 pull-up twos per game and drilling an unreal 51% (which is also pretty much better than everyone else). What’s fascinating is he’s migrated back out closer to the three-point line—aka his degree of difficulty is even higher!
DeRozan is averaging more points than Nikola Jokić and Steph Curry and for the very first time his (very good) team is way better with him on the court than off. Positional quibbling aside, DeRozan deserves a starting spot as much as anyone in the conference.
Frontcourt starters: Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant
Enjoy Embiid’s prime, because we’ve never quite seen anything like it. In a game that’s dictated by size and physicality, few are more destructive than Embiid. When he seals his defender on the block, catches an entry pass and pivots into the restricted area, there’s almost always no resistance. It’s like a bullet train colliding with a flower petal.
Double-teaming Embiid is a must, even though he’s fluent in every which way there is to pulverize them. His assist rate is significantly up—partially thanks to the absence of Ben Simmons, which Embiid recently spoke about—and his turnover rate is a career low. He’s also second in usage and PER, third in scoring and a top-tier paint protector who convinces ballhandlers that midrange jump shots are a good play when he’s in the game.
The technical skill is what really pops, though. Embiid flows around the court like a guard, handling the ball 50 feet from the basket or dribbling in a crowd. I mean, what is anyone supposed to do with this?
Giannis, meanwhile, may win his third MVP (before his 28th birthday) this spring. He’ll also contend for his second Defensive Player of the Year Award. There’s very little he can’t do that opponents want him to try. Giannis confronts chaos with calm, never more evident than some of the tight interior passes he makes on drives that force smart defenders to make impossible decisions.
Building off last year’s title run, Antetokounmpo has established himself as a lethal screen-setter, particularly when Khris Middleton is initiating the pick-and-roll. No longer a last resort, the Bucks open games with that action. It’s a staple of their attack, especially with Giannis spending more time as a center than he ever has before.
Then there’s Durant, who was a fountain of midrange pull-ups, leaners, fadeaways, turnarounds and dead-eye daggers before a sprained knee interrupted another fantastic season. Only DeRozan has taken more midrange shots, and of the 65 players who’ve attempted at least 75, only Seth Curry and LaMarcus Aldridge top Durant’s 55.1%. Barely holding LeBron James off for what could be his fifth scoring title, Durant’s jumper still reigns over 29 teams that will never find a solution.
The buckets are inevitable, whether he’s curling off screens or wreaking havoc from the mid-post. He wouldn’t have to be one of the most complete all-around defenders at his position to start on a team like this. But it doesn’t hurt, either. Durant’s blocks are rude. The way he swivels his hips and slides his feet in front of ballhandlers who think forcing Durant to work for a stop will lead to his own exhaustion is, frankly, terrifying. He’s never made an All-Defensive team but might’ve been headed for his first before his knee derailed things. Still, don’t overlook that side of Durant’s game, which is elite on its own.
Backcourt reserves: James Harden, Fred VanVleet
Harden’s peak was mind-numbing. From 2018 to '20 he averaged 33.7 points, 7.9 assists and 6.2 rebounds per game. His usage was 37.7% and his true shooting was 62.0. These numbers read altogether do not compute. Even though he’s no longer an MVP candidate or top-10 player, Harden is still an absolute force, nearly averaging a triple double, still ranking in the 100th percentile at his position for the percentage of shots that draw a foul.
He’s also still unguardable one-on-one and isolates more frequently than anybody else in the NBA. (According to Synergy, there are 27 players who’ve isolated at least 100 times this season; only DeRozan is more efficient than Harden.) So while he isn’t a shoo-in for first-team All-NBA or single-handedly pushing the analytic era into unprecedented territory, there’s still no making an All-Star team without the Beard.
VanVleet’s journey is exalted for good reason. He’s gone from an undrafted G League standout to an endearing backup on a championship winner, to a four-year, $85 million contract that solidified him as the Bet on Yourself king. After that type of trajectory, why should anyone be surprised about everything he’s done in the first half of this season?
VanVleet (aka “Freddie All-Star,” an overeager nickname used way too often by Raptors play-by-play broadcaster Matt Devlin) is not only Toronto’s best player but one of the best two-way point guards in the entire league. Advanced catch-all metrics adore him: He ranks sixth in estimated plus/minus, with five leading MVP candidates ahead of him. (The three players behind VanVleet are Chris Paul, Rudy Gobert and Kevin Durant.)
The Raptors know how important VanVleet is to everything they do on both ends. He’s averaging a league-leading 38.3 minutes per game with a midrange game that’s better than ever. VanVleet is also 0.1 three-point attempts per game from joining Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Harden and Buddy Hield as the only players to launch 10 per game. (Only Curry and Lillard have ever averaged at least 10 threes while making more than 40% of them; VanVleet is currently at 39.3%.)
Frontcourt reserves: Jarrett Allen, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler
As the franchise player on a flailing team that entered the season with high expectations, Tatum’s flaws and inconsistencies are subject to louder criticism. In leading the league in missed shots by 30 tries, he has … not been efficient. Only 29% of Tatum’s pull-up threes have gone in and he’s below league average in the restricted area, the paint and from the midrange. From eight to 16 feet, he’s shooting … 28.6%.
But despite shooting percentages that are below what he’s capable of, Tatum has also scored a ton of points and impacts the game in so many positive ways that make it hardly a surprise to see the Celtics outscore their opposition by 5.0 points per 100 possessions when he plays and outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions when he sits. That data is raw and messy, but watch Tatum kickstart five straight successful possessions by drawing two (or three) defenders before finding the open man and it’s also no coincidence.
On defense, he’s as versatile as Durant, Giannis and LeBron James, a committed on-ball hound who loves slapping layups off the backboard in those rare instances when ballhandlers slither around his 6'11" wingspan. He doesn’t screw up closeouts on the second side and doesn’t shrink away from potential rebounds.
Tatum’s shot hasn’t been consistent, but there are plenty of games this year in which he’s had it going. Those nights are a reminder that he’s one of the most boundless and accomplished 23-year-old talents in recent NBA history.
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Butler is the best player on arguably the Eastern Conference’s best team, having a typical Jimmy Butler season. He’d have a case for a starting spot if he didn’t miss almost 40% of the Heat’s games.
And last but not least, my case for Allen can be found right here.
Wild-card reserves: Jrue Holiday, Zach LaVine
Short of watching people play a round of Jenga during an earthquake, there’s nothing like Holiday when he locks in for 30 seconds and decides to humble an offensive action. He can switch a pick-and-roll, stonewall a center, cut off a drive and then grab the rebound without breaking a sweat. It’s hypnotic and visceral, with so much movement that fails to show up on a box score.
What does show up is pretty good, too, even if it’s basically identical to what he did last year. In the afterglow of a championship run, in which he was the game-changing ingredient Milwaukee ultimately needed to get over the hump, a second All-Star Game feels appropriate. And right now, even when Antetokounmpo is on the bench, the Bucks look self-assured with Holiday on the floor.
LaVine has shown that last year’s absurd efficiency was no fluke. He’s flirting with 50/40/90 shooting splits and is once again one of the game’s premier isolation scorers. It’s worth mentioning that the Bulls aren’t very good when he’s on the floor without DeRozan, though.
Honorable mentions/potential injury replacement options: Domantas Sabonis, Khris Middleton, Jaylen Brown, Darius Garland, Bradley Beal, Pascal Siakam
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