Blakely: A very early look at potential Eastern Conference All-Stars
Blakely: A very early look at potential Eastern Conference All-Stars
BOSTON – It’s hard to ignore the narrative heading into this upcoming NBA season that the Eastern Conference is significantly weaker than its Western Conference brethren.
Of the 13 players selected as All-Stars in the East last season (Kevin Love was picked but did not play due to injury), three - Jimmy Butler (Chicago, now Minnesota), Paul George (Indiana, now Oklahoma City) and Paul Millsap (Atlanta, now Denver) - are in the West now, with a fourth (Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving) potentially heading out West if his trade demand is met.
The only Western Conference All-Star from a year ago to bring his talents Eastward is Gordon Hayward who signed a four-year, $127.8 million contract with the Celtics after spending the previous seven seasons with the Utah Jazz.
Not only does the move alter the balance of power in each conference, but it also shakes up the potential All-Stars in each conference.
Here's a very early look at front-runners for an All-Star berth in the Eastern Conference:
John Wall, Washington: Wall is coming off arguably his best season in the NBA and gave the Celtics all they could handle in a second-round, seven-game series won by Boston. As his floor game continues to improve, so will his increased ability to dominate games. His speed, size and overall feel for the game positions him as one of the more complete playmakers in the East.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston: It’s a contract year for the Celtics’ point guard and it comes at a time when the C's have their most talented team in the post-Big Three Era. Thomas led all scorers in the East last season with a 28.9 points per game average. Don’t expect him to put up those kinds of scoring numbers this season. But a noticeable improvement on his assist numbers? Yeah. That’s a prop bet worth gambling on as the Celtics will once again be among the top teams in the East.
STARTERS: BIG MEN
LeBron James, Cleveland: He’s 32 with 14 NBA seasons under his belt, a time when you would think his game would show signs of tapering off. Nope. More than anything else, it’s his talent and versatility that keeps him atop everyone’s list as the best player in the East and, arguably, the NBA. He doesn’t re-invent himself every year. He just slaps another coat of Teflon-toughness over a game that revs at a rate this generation hasn’t seen. He continues to be too big, too strong and too fast for anyone to really slow down consistently. Look for him to once again keep the Cavs in the title-contending conversation while putting up numbers that stack up favorably with the best in the game.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee: The Greek Freak will look to build off of what was, in the eyes of many, a breakout season. He was named to his first All-Star team. At 6-foot-11, it appears he has finally stopped growing physically. But his game? That’s a different story. The continued evolution of his jumper will go far in determining whether his game continues to soar to heights few anticipated would come so quickly.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia: If he stays on the floor, he can dominate. We saw that last season, although not as much as most would have liked courtesy of – what else? – injuries. He only played 33 games last season which would be the only reason he wasn’t last year’s rookie of the year. If he can stay healthy, Embiid would indeed establish himself as the best true center in the East. And with his social media popularity, coupled with a strong between-the-lines game, seeing him as a first-time All-Star this season really isn’t that big a stretch.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland (for now): Irving should be an All-Star starter, but I anticipate there will be a bit of a backlash if he’s still in a Cavs uniform after asking to be traded. They want guys who are all-in for them, which is understandable. Irving’s not there; not now, for sure. If he’s traded to another team in the East, all bets are off. He’ll be a starter. Either way, he’ll be voted on to the All-Star team by the coaches whose fandom never comes into play when it comes to choosing All-Star reserves.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto: The Raptors have their own Big Three of DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan is coming off his first All-Star start, but look for him to take a slight step back this season as he will likely assume more play-making responsibilities which he did a decent job with when Kyle Lowry went down with a wrist injury in March. Also, Ibaka is going to have a more prominent scoring role this season which will cut down on DeRozan’s looks offensively. However, it should allow him to be an even more efficient scorer and make the Raptors a better, more balanced team that will look to build off a strong regular-season finish that saw them win 12 of their final 14 games.
RESERVES: BIG MEN
Gordon Hayward, Boston: His numbers are likely to be good, but probably not a big as those he posted a year ago in Utah. And that’s OK. He wasn’t brought to Boston to put up huge numbers. He came here to win. Doing that will lead to him being rewarded not only in terms of success and postseason potential but also as an All-Star to what should be one of the top teams in the East.
Kevin Love, Cleveland: If Irving is on the move, Love will indeed be the Cavs' “other” All-Star besides James. He remains one of the most effective double-double players in the NBA, and it’s hard to imagine his role or its impact will significantly alter this season. He played off of LeBron James with Irving in the mix, and that’s not likely to change this season if Irving gets traded.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York: With Carmelo Anthony’s reign as the top dog in New York all but over regardless of whether he’s traded, this will be Porzingis’ chance to break out and become the new face of the franchise. He has been a consistent, seven-plus rebounds per game performer in his first two seasons with the potential to be even better with what should be a greater focus on him being the primary scorer for New York.
Bradley Beal, Washington: He was in the conversation a year ago as an All-Star and should break through in 2018. He is one of the best pure shooters in the NBA and with a relatively injury-free season in the books. He's poised to keep the Wizards in the hunt for one of the top spots in the East. Wall’s emergence as an All-Star has been huge for Washington, but it is Beal playing like an All-Star – and likely being recognized as one this season – that gives the Wizards hope that their best days as a franchise are on the horizon.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto: A tough, gritty playmaker, he’s going to have to regain the form we saw prior to him missing 21 games due to a wrist injury after the All-Star break. Otherwise, look for Charlotte’s Kemba Walker (an All-Star last season), Boston’s Al Horford, Detroit’s Andre Drummond or Miami’s Hassan Whiteside to emerge as potential All-Stars chosen by the coaches.