The True All-Stars, 2022-2023 NBA Eastern Conference
Not who will be, but who should be
The All-Star starters will be released on Thursday, and the coaches will select the reserves shortly after that.
Picking All-Star teams every year is a blast; it’s a great way to take stock of who’s been balling out through the first half of the season. Parsing through the last two wildcard spots is always exhausting but exciting.
We’ll stick to the rules: two starting guards, three starting frontcourt players, the same number of backups, and two positionless wildcards for a 12-man roster. I’ll add in a few honorable mentions, the guys who should be next in line if there is an injury.
G: Donovan Mitchell, Cavaliers
G: Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers
FC: Joel Embiid, 76ers
FC: Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Udonis Haslem, Heat Kevin Durant, Nets
The starting guards are easy.
Mitchell has been an unstoppable force on offense and a vastly improved player on defense for a Cleveland team that looks like a contender in the East. No other guard has scored at his combination of volume and efficiency: 28 points per game on 48/40/87 percent shooting splits is outrageous — he’s setting a career-high in every one of those numbers.
Indiana was expected to go 23-59 this season. Thanks almost entirely to Haliburton’s idiosyncratic effectiveness, the Pacers already have 23 wins and sit in a play-in seed in the East. He’s averaging 20 points and 10 assists per game with the same shooting percentages as Mitchell. For further evidence of Haliburton’s value: the Pacers have lost seven straight since his injury. Hali also just seems like a happy guy, and I hope his joy spreads to a sometimes lackluster All-Star game.
Nobody else in the East comes close to their level of production except Kyrie Irving, who hasn’t had to carry as much of a burden and hasn’t shot as well from deep.
Frontcourt starters were significantly tougher. Four of the top eight or nine players in the NBA are Eastern frontcourt players — Embiid, Tatum, Durant, and Giannis.
Durant is a lock — he’s been the best of the four and was at the top of the leaderboard for minutes played until his recent injury. No joke, Durant’s shooting numbers from midrange this season (60% between 10-16 feet, every one of which is heavily guarded!) have been better than many players hit on layups. His always-underrated defense has been a critical part of Brooklyn’s revival on that end. It’s unclear what fountain Durant stole his youth from, but it feels like he’ll be doing this same stuff for another decade.
Tatum will receive a smattering of MVP votes this season up and down the ballot. After leading the Celtics to two wins from the Finals, he’s leveled up again. Tatum’s bagging 31 points per game and rebounding at elite levels (it’s become the most underrated aspect of his game). He’s getting to the rim better than ever, and drawing more fouls, too. His defense remains stout.
It came down to Embiid or Giannis for the final frontcourt spot. Water pistol to my head, I’d still say I trust Giannis more in a playoff setting, but I think Embiid has had a slightly better season.
Embiid deserves the starting nod. He led the league in scoring last season, yet somehow has increased his scoring by three more points (33.6/game), an astonishing amount of growth. Playing with Harden has supercharged Embiid’s efficiency, and for the first time in his career, he’s become a legitimately efficient offensive engine (although his turnovers and fouls have become problematic). Joel remains a singularly terrifying defensive force, destroying offenses with a mix of intelligence, length, and anticipation. He’s been working hard on that end for most of the season.
Giannis is a turnover machine and has run into foul trouble on both ends. His defense, while still excellent overall, has slipped a bit. Although he’s shooting 52% from the field, that number is the lowest he’s posted since his first All-Star season in 2016-2017. His three-point shot has utterly abandoned him. Missing Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday for large stretches has strained even Giannis’ capacity for self-creation.
To be clear: Giannis is still doing incredible, mind-blowing things on a nightly basis. He’s averaging 13 FTs per game, and he’s shifted a little more of his shot selection to the rim to compensate for the decline in his jumper. So if you want Giannis instead of Tatum or Embiid, I won’t put up more than a token argument. All four players are locks.
G: Kyrie Irving, Nets
G: Jaylen Brown, Celtics
FC: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
FC: Pascal Siakam, Raptors
FC: Bam Adebayo, Heat
WC: DeMar DeRozan, Bulls
WC: Julius Randle, Knicks
Injury Replacement/Honorable Mentions: James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Kristaps Porzingis, Jalen Brunson, Trae Young, Jrue Holiday
Kyrie brings an awful lot of baggage, and I don’t trust him further than I can throw him, but averaging 27/5/5 on 47/37/90 for a team slated for home-court advantage will get you an All-Star nod almost every time. He’s been better on defense this year, too.
Jaylen Brown has had an unusual, albeit excellent, year, and he’s a no-brainer inclusion. Brown is simultaneously averaging the lowest three-point percentage (34%) and the highest two-point percentage (58%) of his career, but a career-high in rebounding and free throws makes this clearly the best season he’s ever had.
The Toronto Raptors have been a disappointment this year, but Pascal (25/8/7 on 48/32/76 splits) remains one of the most well-rounded Swiss Knives in the game. He’s often been the sole source of Toronto’s half-court offense, for better or worse (at least until Scottie Barnes’ recent uptick), and his hounding defense harasses a wide variety of opponents. He’ll have another interesting All-NBA case at the end of the year if he can improve just a tiny bit.
Bam Adebayo has quietly taken a mini-leap this year, maintaining solid shooting percentages while aggressively hunting his own shot. He’s comfortable now with a short floater and a 10-foot, high-release jumper, giving him several options to attack the East’s leviathans, like Brook Lopez. Bam remains one of the league’s best and most versatile defenders, and his two-way steadiness has kept the Heat afloat as they round into form.
DeRozan slides in as a wild card. The Bulls have had a star-crossed season, but they’ve been weirdly good against the league’s top teams, none of whom have found an answer for the 33-year-old midrange assassin. His clutch numbers are good yet again, he’s scoring at will, and he never turns the ball over.
Randle was an All-NBA and Most Improved winner two years ago before returning to Earth last year. His stats now are similar to what they were two seasons ago, but the hype has yet to catch up. Randle’s mistakes are loud; when he takes a terrible shot or misses another defensive assignment, the NBA world hears about it. But his effort level has been high, and his raw numbers are unimpeachable: 24/11/4 while turning it over far less than he has since he came to New York. I asked my buddy Kirk, a diehard Knicks fan, whether he would pick Randle or Jalen Brunson as the Knicks’ All-Star. He wryly responded, “Randle, because he plays better with external validation.” That quote nicely sums up Randle's unique relationship with New York fans.
For our honorable mentions, Harden has completed his metamorphosis into a pass-first butterfly. He’s putting on a masterclass in pick-and-roll management and shooting the ball from deep well, to boot. But he’s lost a stop, can’t get to the rim or finish, and, most damningly, has only played 30 games compared to 48(!) for Randle and 42 for DeRozan.
We know what Jimmy Butler can do when the chips are down. Advanced stats still paint him as a top-10 player in the league. But he’s only played 34 games himself, and he hasn’t had to carry the offensive load of Randle and DeRozan, even if he’s a far better defender than either. All things being equal, the three are roughly tied in my eyes, so games played became the deciding factor. I am hopeful Butler will be called up as a replacement because I think he’s absolutely been deserving. (Sidenote: Jimmy Butler’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy would go from “reasonably good” to “near-lock” with one more All-Star game on his resume).
I tried hard to justify Kristaps Porzingis’ presence on the team, but I couldn’t get there in the end. He’s been a beast on both ends (particularly on defense) and deserves a long look. Brunson has more than lived up to the contract New York gave him, carrying the Knicks in crunch time. Trae Young has impressive counting numbers but misplaced his shot and is the worst defender in the NBA. Jrue Holiday has been good on both ends when he’s played but has struggled a bit under an increased offensive burden.
Paying subscribers: stay tuned for the Western Conference All-Stars, coming soon!