This offseason didn’t exactly level the perceived disparity between the Eastern and the Western conferences. The depth in stardom in the East is lacking, which means putting together a slate of All-Stars from the conference is like getting asked to build a raft with enough wood for only half of it. Barring injury or a huge drop-off, these four players will be in the game: Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Victor Oladipo. And these five players should (emphasis on should) make it in, too: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Al Horford, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry. But, even then, there will be at least three more spots up for grabs (including reserves). Here’s who could end up nabbing one:
The New Guy
If Kawhi’s healthy, he’s a lock. Toronto won’t need him to be a one-man show, but its system should easily help him snag an All-Star spot, maybe even a serious MVP bid. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a whole bottom rung of Eastern Conference teams that Kawhi will feast on, two of them in the Raptors’ own Atlantic Division. You can see it now: Kawhi dropping 40 in MSG and then burying the Nets the following night in Brooklyn. It’s not a bad alternative to having to run through the West’s gantlet for most of the year.
The Ones Who Want to Get Back In
Blake Griffin and Gordon Hayward
Last year, Griffin switched conferences midseason and had his lowest-scoring season (19.8) since 2013. The five-time All-Star should, on paper, have no problems putting up bigger numbers during his second season in Detroit, where a new Dwane Casey–led system awaits. But his potential All-Star spot might go to his teammate, Andre Drummond, who is younger, poised to put up better numbers, and made the team last season.
The same fate may belie Gordon Hayward—who is looking for his second All-Star appearance and is coming back after missing all of last season with a broken left leg. Hayward should be an All-Star, but there will undoubtedly be a readjustment process following the injury. And with Jayson Tatum hungry for time and space to take another leap in his second season, Hayward will need to produce right away. Speaking of which …
The Second-Year Prodigies
Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum
Simmons was on the fringe of making the All-Star team last season as a rookie, while Tatum showed he was worthy by going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals. The two are primed for breakout seasons that could make them easy additions to the All-Star team. Sure, that’s a product of the weak East, but it’s also a testament to just how good and impactful the two have been during their short pro careers.
The Ones Who Could Get In
I am personally nominating Middleton to take on the mantle of Most Underrated Player. Last season, Middleton was the second-best player on the Bucks, and he averaged more than 20 points a game along with five rebounds and four assists. And most importantly, he played all 82 games.
Marcus Smart and/or Jaylen Brown
The Celtics might end up with five All-Stars this season. It’s not a far-fetched proposition. Irving, Horford, Hayward, Tatum, and one of Brown or Smart will likely be on the team. It might be tough to sell Smart’s all-world defense as the crux of his All-Star campaign, but his impact is undeniable, and it should continue to grow with time. Brown, meanwhile, is an all-around player who could take another leap in his third season. It’s almost like Boston has a really good team.
Somebody on the Heat
The Heat don’t have any stars on their roster, but they’ll still be good because, well, they’re the Heat. It’s not in Pat Riley’s blood to rebuild, so they will just recharge and get into the mix for the playoffs again. This means someone will have to be a standout. It may be Goran Dragic again, but it may also be a breakthrough year for Justise Winslow.
Walker made the team last year, and is a safe pick for the future because you know he’ll average more than 20 points a game and have more than a handful of loop-worthy highlights each season. The Hornets might fight for the 8-seed this season, so if he doesn’t get traded and they outperform projections, Walker could be an All-Star again.
If the Magic are going to get a representative, Aaron Gordon is your guy. Gordon’s already showing signs of evolution: Last season, he began to step out and hit 3s at a decent 33.6 percent rate. He got better in every statistical category, and if he does that again while shooting (and making) more 3s, the numbers might win some voters over.
If Gordon could make a case based on the numbers, then Saric could benefit from a bump in wins. The Sixers should be a top-2 team in the East, and given that they didn’t rope in a new star during free agency, Saric’s load will only increase. He’s one of the few guys on the team who can create his own shot and double as a good passer. His size allows him to be more than just a scorer, and if Markelle Fultz struggles again, that distribution void can be filled with more of the Homie.
Turner’s workout photos alone will convince you he’s on track for a breakout season. And why not? The Pacers should be even better this year and Turner has all the tools, plus a full season of playing in an offense that runs through Victor Oladipo. The continuity should help his stats, and his All-Star case.
Otto Porter Jr.
Porter is set to make more than $26 million next season. A salary like that raises eyebrows when it’s connected to a player who has yet to make an All-Star Game. Porter has been good, not great, averaging a career-high, but not game-changing 14.7 points last season. He traffics in flashes on both ends of the court, and he’s integral to the Wizards’ chances of winning a playoff series this season. Should he take a jump in contributions on either end of the court, an All-Star appearance could be next.
If the Raptors are truly in contention for the 1-seed in the East, there will be more players to reward than just Kawhi and Lowry. Anunoby is still only 21 and not as refined as either Simmons or Tatum. But he’s likely the only other player on the roster with some All-Star potential.
Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker
This may be a reach—it’s totally a reach—but can I interest you in two newly-minted score-first players who will put up a lot of good stats on a bad team? Those inflated numbers can do wonders for a player’s All-Star chances. And remember: the East is bad, and there will be injuries. Someone will have to take those spots.