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Go East, Young Stars

The power may be in the West, but a wellspring of under-25 talent has given new life to the NBA’s other conference

Go East, Young Stars Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was hard to blame Danny Ainge for having a laugh. At the time, the Celtics were still on an incredible win streak that started in the third game of the season and lasted until the night before Thanksgiving. The Celtics probably should have lost a game before the Heat beat them last week—Boston trailed in the fourth quarter in eight of its 16 consecutive victories—but Kyrie Irving wouldn’t allow it.

The young point guard, now finally and fully in command of his own team at 25 years old, has been exceptional this season. Especially late in games. According to ESPN, Irving’s PER in crunch time was an unreal 73.6 coming out of the league’s Thanksgiving break. (The best PER in crunch time was set by LeBron James at 59.3, back in 2009-10.) The Celtics needed every bit of late-game Kyrie to push past the Mavericks more than a week ago. Irving had a season-high 47 points, 10 of which came in overtime. The Celtics were down 13 points in that game. It was their 16th win in a row. Given the unlikely set of circumstances that led them to that point, you could imagine the Celtics general manager winking at his phone as he tweeted.

That certainly did not amuse round-earth traditionalists, Celtics haters, or my editor (who wanted to throttle me with a middle-school science book for being so amused by Ainge), but at the least it was an unexpected and interesting moment in a season that’s been both so far for Boston. After losing Gordon Hayward in the opening minutes of the opening game, the Celtics have been powered not only by Irving, but by sophomore Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum. If the Celtics’ young talent hasn’t made them the most interesting team in the league to date, they’re certainly among them—which is part of the reason their NBA TV tilt against the Sixers on Thursday night in Boston is so fascinating.

Like the Celtics, the Sixers’ youth movement has made them one of the most compelling teams in the NBA. Ben Simmons is the universal favorite for Rookie of the Year, and fourth-year redshirt sophomore Joel Embiid—who will sadly sit against the Celtics since it’s the second game of a back-to-back—is one of the most versatile players on the floor and one of the funniest off it. After Jalen Rose called Embiid “immature” for saying he was “69 percent healthy,” Embiid went on SportsCenter and said he was “81 percent healthy”—because Kobe once scored 81 points in a game against Rose. (That last part is probably why Sports Illustrated will honor Embiid as its “Rising Star” at next week’s Sportsperson of the Year Awards.)

Between their respective kid cores and the unending story lines, the Celtics and Sixers have become appointment League Pass viewing—which is remarkable considering it wasn’t that long ago when both franchises were so down that watching them felt like work. Even crazier: They aren’t alone. There’s a concentration of new talent that’s made the league intriguing and enjoyable, precisely because of where many of those young guys play. While we were distracted by the Warriors and the West the past few years, the other half of the NBA evolved. I can’t believe I’m writing this sentence, but, all of a sudden, the Eastern Conference is young and fun.

Six of the 10 youngest teams in the NBA play in the Eastern Conference (the Sixers, Bulls, Celtics, Raptors, Magic, and Hornets). If you expand that to the 15 youngest teams, you can add the Nets, Pistons, and Bucks to the mix. Stretch it to 20, and the Hawks, Pacers, Knicks, and Heat are included. Done in reverse, 10 of the 15 oldest teams in the league are in the Western Conference.

Considering all the high-quality veterans, it makes sense that the West has been the NBA’s better half over the past decade. But while one conference racked up wins, the other tanked its way into a steady stockpile of young talent. Among players who are 25 or younger and average 15 or more minutes per game, 14 of the top 20 in PER play in the Eastern Conference. Sorted by win shares, it’s 14 out of 20. By box plus-minus, it’s 13 out of 20. You get the idea. Change the metric to something different and you’re still likely to find a host of teens and 20-somethings from the East in the top tier.

It’s no surprise, then, that the most recent rookie rankings were dominated by kids from the Eastern Conference: Simmons, Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, and John Collins. Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma was the only Western Conference representative to crack the top five. (Sad trombone sound for Lonzo Ball.) As one Western Conference executive told me, while “the West has the Warriors,” the East has “a bunch of young kids who are going to be very good.”

Chief among them, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is already very good. While we wait for his contemporaries to become consistent, the soon-to-be 23-year-old has emerged as one of a handful of MVP favorites this season. That will likely be true next season and for lots of seasons thereafter. What Giannis lacks in the way of an outside shot he makes up for as an all-court terror.

It’s been fascinating to watch him—not simply because he’s a physical monster who fills out box scores, but also because of how he plays the game. He’s a massive man with point guard skills, and he’s not alone on that front. Giannis and Simmons are both young, and they have similar frames and approaches that are making us change the way we think about the game.

“They have a whole different vision line than most people,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said two weeks ago, while his team was on a West Coast road trip. “They’re 6-foot-10. When you’re seeing the world from that vision line, and you have the athleticism and the length to make plays, it’s not all contingent on knocking down 3s. Their breakaway speed, along with their physical gifts and their vision line, it lets them just see the world from a whole different perspective. And so they light up stat sheets. They really make statisticians work.”

Brown said there are times when he feel like Simmons has not “had that big of an impact” in a game—and then he’ll check the box score and find “triple-doubles that you weren’t even aware of.” Simmons isn’t the only Sixer putting up cartoonish numbers. Amid a recent two-game stay in Los Angeles, Embiid had 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and seven blocks in a win against the Lakers. It was the first time since the NBA started recording blocks that a player posted those lofty numbers. “We’re seeing their future in real time right now,” a longtime league exec told me about Philly.

Indeed. As Zach Lowe noted, the Sixers’ best lineup—Embiid, Simmons, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and J.J. Redick—has outscored its opponents by a wider margin than any five-man group in the league that’s played 50 or more minutes together. Simmons is only 21. Embiid and Saric are 23. Covington is 26. (Redick, at 33, is comparatively old, but he has a new podcast, which gets him at least a few points on the millennial scorecard.)

While the Sixers were the second-youngest team to start the season, with an average age of 24.2, the Celtics weren’t far behind (25.0, which made them sixth-youngest). Their biggest contributors this season are also some of their youngest. Tatum is 19. Brown is 21. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are 23. Irving won’t turn 26 until late March.

Maybe some of the other young teams in the East haven’t been as successful as the Celtics—Boston topped the latest ESPN and power rankings—but they sure have been entertaining to watch. Considering how awful the Eastern Conference has been over the past decade, that’s not nothing.

In Detroit, 24-year-old Andre Drummond leads the league in rebounds. He’s also finally making his free throws and is putting up some historic lines in the process. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Tobias Harris has become one of the most underappreciated players in the league. All of which has helped the Pistons to 14 wins. Only the Celtics have more in the East.

In Indiana, 25-year-old Victor Oladipo (who leads the Pacers in points per game and PER), looks like the player the Magic always hoped for and the Thunder never allowed him to be. He’s been a nice complement to 21-year-old Myles Turner, who’s shown flashes that make him one of the most promising young bigs in the NBA. Together, they’ve helped turn Indiana into an early-season surprise with unexpected playoff aspirations.

In Orlando … actually, things are pretty much the way they usually are in Orlando. The Magic just routed the Thunder, but are mostly bad again, having lost nine in a row heading into Wednesday’s matchup. Poor Kevin Clark. (At least Aaron Gordon is taking 3-pointers and leading the league in unrepentant young-guy-on-young-guy crime.)

In Brooklyn, 21-year-old D’Angelo Russell was finally finding his way and led the team in points per game before getting hurt. And in Manhattan, 22-year-old Kristaps Porzingis has been excellent as the main guy (he is second in the league in blocks per game, fifth in points per game, and 12th in PER). The Knicks have regressed a little lately as a team, but Porzingis alone is reason enough for New York to be excited.

It’s been awhile since the Eastern Conference has been this fun—and that’s without going into Embiid’s vaudevillian social media routine or Hassan Whiteside’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea Instagram. Between the overarching entertainment value and the potential to provide us with some really good basketball through the next decade, it feels like the Eastern Conference is becoming the new Western Conference. I don’t feel like I’m getting too carried away, either.

“You’re getting too carried away,” a longtime league executive told me.

Which … fine. Probably. But the Eastern Conference was buried for years, and now it’s at least up and breathing again. Just wait until the Warriors (average age of 28.3 on opening night; only the Spurs and Cavs are older) finally age themselves out. The 2024-25 season is gonna be fire.