The summer of 2017 forever changed the competitive balance on the NBA with an athletic brain drain occurring in the already weaker Eastern conference. In the post-Jordan era, the tips scaled towards the West as we have seen dynasties in the form of the Lakers, Spurs, and the Warriors. The East brought the competitive balance back with the revival of the Celtics in the late 2000’s and with LeBron James making it too eight straight finals. Last year, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were traded to the Thunder and Coach Thibs reunited with Jimmy Butler in Minnesota. LeBron signed with the Lakers and was the marquee free agent signing of the offseason after a second spell with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, there are only a handful of players in the East who are guaranteed locks to make it back to the All-Star team: Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Victor Oladipo. John Wall, Beal, Kevin Love, and Al Horford are all likely to represent the conference in Charlotte (the operative word being “likely”). That leaves four spots of the twelve that are ripe for the taking with many suitors eying the remaining slots.
The last time we saw him play a full season, Leonard was an MVP candidate and had established himself as one of the best two-way players in the league. Once expected to be a Spur for life, he will now don the Black and Red of the Raptors for at least the coming season. He would be a lock if he were healthy. To this day, nobody really knows the severity of his injury though we are certain as to what the ailment was – tendinopathy in his right quadriceps. Should he be healthy, he will almost definitely make an appearance at the Spectrum Center. It certainly helps that he is going to face plenty to terrible Eastern Conference teams in his quest to get back to being amongst the best. The Nets and the Knicks are both in the Atlantic division and Leonard will feast on them in the eight times they play. Making his third All-Star appearance will sure as hell be a lot easier when playing in the weaker of the two conferences. With the West being an absolute dogfight on a night-to-night basis, maybe Toronto is not such a bad landing spot for the Los Angeles native.
During the first round of the 2015 playoffs, Blake Griffin bolstered himself as a top three player in the NBA. The Clippers beat the defending champions San Antonio Spurs in a fantastic seven-game series and Blake was unstoppable. In their Game 7 home victory, the Oklahoma native had a triple-double – his second ever in the postseason – with 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. The other L.A team faced the Rockets next and while the Clipper lost in seven games (completely crumbling after racing to a 3-1 series lead) Blake had finally established himself the best player the team. In his 14 games during their 2015 playoff run, he averaged 25.5 PPG, 12.7 RPG, and 6.1 APG on over 51% shooting from the field. The Clippers have since regressed with all three members of Lob City leaving Tinsel Town in a manner of twelve months. Blake was sent to Pistons days before the Trade Deadline and six months after he signed a massive contract extension worth $173 million. After missing the playoffs for the first time in his rookie season, Griffin has finally had to chance to have a full offseason (starting from April) to rehabilitate and rejuvenate his body. After a couple of seasons where he has struggled to stay healthy, this could finally be the year where he makes a comeback to being the talent he was touted to be. The five-time All-Star had his worst statistical season since 2013 though he should have no trouble getting back to his best after a full training camp pre-season with the Pistons. Dwane Casey may be coaching the most talented player of his head coaching career though Griffin clearly no longer the athletic freak he once was. Making the All-Star team in the East should be a piece of cake for a healthy Blake Griffin. Nonetheless, his hypothetical spot could end up going to Andre Drummond. His younger and injury-free teammate is still projected to post better numbers than him and made the team as a reserve last season. The only way the two make it is if the Pistons are somehow a top 4 seed when voting ends.
Hayward might be in the same boat as Blake Griffin though their circumstances are slightly different. He would have been an extremely likely candidate to be one of the East’s twelve representatives to the All-Star game had his season not ended less than six minutes into his Celtics’ tenure. Two years ago, he was a reserve in a loaded Western Conference. The idea that he would be able to make more All-Star appearances on a team that was gearing up to be a dynasty (which they have not started yet) seemed logical at the time and it still does. After recovering from a horrific broken leg, Hayward is virtually a new signing for Boston as they look to integrate him back into the fold. He was their second best player a year ago. Now, the pecking order has changed. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have blossomed into two of the best young players in the league. In fact, Tatum may be the best rookie to don the colors of the Irish since Larry Bird. Brown, on the other hand, has shown himself to a versatile two-way player. Hayward adjusting to both the way Brad Stevens executes the game and to the new power structure within the locker-room will take time. He was probably a starter when the Celtics tip off their season against the 76ers though his minutes will be limited. Hayward will have to start producing right away is his pursuit to fight for a seat at the inner circle. An easy comparison will be to look to Paul George who also had a horrific leg injury and missed a whole year. He was able to bounce back and had his best season (at that time) to make it back to the All-Star team in the 2015-16 season. The only two differences are the George was 25 at the time and was the face of the Pacers. Hayward is 28-years-old and Kyrie Irving is the current alpha dog in the TD Garden with Tatum and Brown being their building blocks for the future.
He was a fringe All-Star last season in his first season of play (the Australia native sat for the first year on his rookie deal after breaking his right foot). This resulted in an interesting exchange in the Australian Parliament when an Australian MP ranted for the inclusion of Simmons’ over Goran Dragic. Ordinarily, rookies are not given an All-Star nod as to not let them become complacent by achieving such a high status at this early of a stage. There are exceptions to this unwritten rule; Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Grant Hill started as rookies during the All-Star game. They, however, had established themselves as one of the bests in the league right from the get-go while Simmons – who is a freak of nature – is not even the best player on his team. He is primed for a breakout season after a summer where he did not have to recover from an injury. Instead, the 6’10’’ point guard spent the summer improving his game with his highlight of the offseason being able to work out with The King. While this can be seen as a product of being in a weaker conference, it is a testament to how dominant of a presence Ben Simmons has on both ends of the floor after only a single season as a professional.
Verdict: Very Likely
Tatum was the best player on a playoff team that was the fourth quarter away from knocking off LeBron James from making his 8th straight NBA Finals. Yeah, the 20-year-old Missouri native went toe-to-toe with one of the greatest ever and held his own. While the Celtics did lose a Game 7 at home, Tatum was able to dunk in LeBron’s face. For the briefest of moments, he was able to feel what is like to the best player in a game. Had somebody whispered into this years that he was the Celtics best player (somehow he was the only person who had a remote connection to the Eastern Conference Finals to now know this) things might be different. Now, in a post-LeBron era in the East, the Celtics are primed to be the team to beat. They are second on BetOnline’s and Westgate’s win total over/under list at 58.5 wins and 59.5 wins respectively. This is criminally underrated given that they have one of, if not, the deepest rosters’ in the league. With the uncertainty surrounding Irving’s future with the Celtics, Tatum will be aspiring to become the best player of his illustrious franchise. He understood what this was like during last season’s playoff run. That fact that he’s had this much of an impact on a team and on the storyline of the league is extraordinary given the length of this pro-career. Next season is set to be the first appearance for a rising perennial All-Star.
Verdict: Very Likely
Middleton fits the mold of the modern-day wing. A 6’8’’ forward with a near 7’ wingspan, he can ball on both ends of the floor. A once second-round pick who was on the fringes of being out of the league, Middleton had his best season ever last year. Averaging 20 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.5 steals on 47% from the field and 36% from deep; he has proven to be the perfect fit next to an otherworldly Giannis. After ending missing six months of action with a hamstring injury, Middleton was able to play and start in all 82 games for the first time in his career. He and Giannis are both entering the primes of their career and will be playing under their most experienced coach every in Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud will finally implement a modern scheme on both ends of the floor that the Bucks have sorely lacked that will allow both forwards to take their games to new heights. Boston, Toronto, and Philly are the top three teams in the East. The fourth seed is up for grabs and the Bucks will have to fend off the likes of the Pacers and Heat to secure home-court advantage. If Milwaukee and trending towards this direction with Middleton matching his numbers from last season, there is no reason to believe that he will not find a place for himself in Charlotte.
Insert Heat Player:
You just cannot rule out Miami. The nearly made the playoffs two years ago without an All-Star after they started the season on a 10-31 record. Eric Spoelstra can will this team to the postseason. While they are still in the hunt for a star, this roster is full of relentless guys who are willing to scrap and claw their way to victory. Last season, it was Goran Dragic who was chosen to represent Miami in Los Angeles. While it was not his best statistical season, the Slovenian was able to separate himself from the pack and could still do that again. That being said, he is 32 with his game time and production starting to trend towards a decline. When Hassan Whiteside made his comeback to the NBA, he was a revelation that the Heat sorely needed at the time. A 7’1’’ center who could dictate play on both ends of the floor, he looked to be the face of the resurgence of the old school big man. Whiteside tailed off last season with injuries and a sheer inability to find a place in Spoelstra’s system. The North Carolina native was straight garbage during the playoffs. Could he make a comeback, sure. It is within the realm of possibility. Will he, is the question that remains. A healthy Dion Waiters is one of the streakiest players in the league and changed his image within the league after joining Miami. Finally in shape, Waiters looked like the player he was projected to be back when he was drafted. Should he play enough games during the first half of the season and is on the hottest run of his life, Waiters is a fringe option. There are other players on his roster who can have a breakout years. Justice Winslow and Bam Adebayo could suddenly blossom while Dwyane Wade could channel the inner Flash within him for his last run.
Verdict: A Heat player who will make it barring a horrendous first half of the season. Who that player will be is just a mystery.
Walker has made the twice made the All-Star and is a pretty safe pick to make it three on the trot. He has scored over 20 points per game in each of the last three seasons and will make it four in a row as the number one option for the Hornet. He is known for getting hot in late game situations. Kemba will have plenty of highlight moments with the combination of his clutch shooting and killer step-back jumpers. That being said, Charlotte last made the playoffs in 2016 and the likelihood that they will make the offseason is very slim. He is also their most valuable trade asset and while he has committed himself to the Hornets franchise, he is on the final year of his deal. Charlotte could trade him if the franchise starts terribly or if they do not seek to lose Walker for nothing. If he remains a Hornet and if the team outperforms expectations, Walker could become the first player since Glen Rice to make three straight All-Star appearances for the Teal and Purple.
The Magic really need some love. Orlando has been abysmal since the departure of Dwight Howard. Aaron Gordon was the only bright spot on a Magic team that reveled in marinating within their own mediocrity. He did sign an extension with the team and hopefully had a clause in his contract that explicitly stated that he would never feature as a 3. He showed a diversification of his game and showed the NBA that he could be more than just an energetic dunker. He spent more time on the perimeter and showed that he could knock down the three-point shot on a consistent basis (by shooting 34% from deep). He got better in each major statistical category and will trend towards this again as the number one option on offense. If he can shoot and make more 3’s, the Magic will become an enjoyable team to watch on League Pass. And who knows, this may sway the voters into sending him to this seasons’ All-Star Weekend.
Verdict: It’s not happening but the fact that the Magic finally have a pretty good player is a win in itself.