The true and deserving 2024 Eastern Conference All-Stars
It’s time for one of my favorite exercises: selecting the true, most deserving All-Stars.
To be clear, this is not a predictions column. For the real game, a mixture of fans, media, and players select two guards and three frontcourt starters, and coaches pick the seven reserves — two more guards, three more frontcourt players, and two wild cards. But for the far more prestigious Basketball Poetry All-Star team, it’s just me choosing, and don’t worry — my picks are indisputably correct. (Let me know why I’m wrong in the comments.)
Programming note: I decided to split Eastern and Western All-Stars into different articles to break up what was turning into an endless wall of text, so you’ll get three articles from me this week! Lucky you!
Eastern Conference Starters
G: Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
G: Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
F: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
F: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
80% of the Eastern starters are no-brainers. Embiid and Giannis are two of the five likeliest players to win MVP, and they ain’t fifth (although Embiid is already pushing the NBA’s 65-games-played eligibility rule; one more serious injury, and he’ll be disqualified). They are obvious selections and need no more words.
Tatum has been the two-way force pushing the Boston Celtics to the league’s best record. In some small ways, he’s a victim of his team’s stacked roster and expected success. His numbers are down a tiny bit, and nobody talks about his season because it’s the season he’s supposed to be having. But he’s still one of the few ultra-stars in the league and an easy choice here.
Tyrese Haliburton leads the league in assists, almost never turns it over, and is scoring nearly 24 points per game on sparkling 50/40/86 shooting splits.1 His scintillating performance during the In-Season tournament opened the nation’s eyes to the magic happening in Indiana, and the Pacers’ recent trade for Pascal Siakam suggests they think their window of title contention is now. It’s indisputable that Tyrese has been the league’s best pure point guard in the classic sense.
The only difficult choice here was the second guard spot. I ended up selecting Jalen Brunson.
Brunson is a deserving starter. He’s averaging 26.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 3.9 rebounds while setting career-highs in three-point volume (6.5 attempts per game) and accuracy (an astonishing 43%!). While Brunson isn’t a lockdown defender, he’s no worse than his competition on that end, and he has found ways to contribute: he leads the league in charges drawn. For perspective, his .56 charges drawn per game are double sixth-place Kyle Lowry’s efforts.
Like James Brown or Stevie Wonder, Brunson makes his living off of funk. His basslines are his probing forays to the hoop (he ranks fifth in the league in drives per game). Once in the paint, he can unleash his uniquely staccato midrange moves filled with electric footwork and creative shots:
Brunson’s bag overfloweth with hesitations, half-spins, weirdly syncopated dribbles, and sudden stops and starts. In some ways, his game reminds me of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, although their methods are far different.
The Knicks’ offense dies without him, and he proved in last year’s playoffs that he can drive high-level winning despite his diminutive stature. I don’t think Brunson will get this starting spot in real life, but as of right now, he’d be my pick.
G: Damian Lillard, Milwaukee Bucks
G: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
F: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
F: Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
F: Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
WC: Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
WC: Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers
Let’s keep going with the reserve guards.
By his own absurd standards, Damian Lillard has had an uneven season for the Bucks. But he’s still scoring 25+ points every night, dropping dimes, and firing from wayyyy behind the arc. His eight free throw attempts per game on 92% shooting from the line are buoys the Bucks’ offense clings to when Antetokounmpo is out of the game. He’s also been a monster in crunch time, important for a team that’s been squeaking out victories. Milwaukee has had some very, very weird vibes this season, but they are still 29-10 when Lillard plays. Imagine what the Bucks will look like when they figure it out.
Trae Young is playing the best defense of his life (admittedly, that’s a bar an ant wouldn’t have to stretch to cross) while averaging 27 points and 11 assists. He’s either the second- or third-best passer in the league, behind only Jokic and possibly Haliburton. His efficiency numbers aren’t ideal, but he has far less supporting talent around him than his peers here, and like Mitchell, he’s the clear-cut alpha dog on his team. Some may quibble with this pick, but he should be a deadbolt lock.
For big men, it starts with Bam Adebayo. Adebayo is playing his usual brand of DPOY-caliber defense while anchoring the Heat on offense and setting a career-high in rebounds per game (10.5). Every year, he adds something new to his arsenal. This year, it’s free throws (another career-high with 7.2 per game, a hugely important source of offense for a Heat team that often feels stuck in the mud). Bam is Miami’s everything. His passing, screen-setting, and thankless hard rolls to the rim open up the floor for teammates like Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Jaime Jaquez, but he still finds time to drop in 22 points each night.
Tatum’s running mate, Jaylen Brown, snags the next spot. The Celtics are the best team in the league by record, and Brown has been their second-best player. Although his raw numbers are down, now that he’s surrounded by talent soaking up usage at every position, Brown seems calmer and more in control than ever before (he has a career-low turnover rate this season). 23 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists on a team this crowded are still nothing to sneeze at, and 36% from three is a welcome sight for a player whose shot was a bit wonky last season. He’s also still an above-average defender and shockingly mean in-game dunker:
Paolo Banchero snags my last frontcourt reserve spot. In just his second year, Banchero has averaged 23/7/5 while significantly improving his defense and three-point shot. Advanced numbers favor other players, but Banchero is thriving while playing in arguably the most claustrophobic offense in the league — the Magic shoot the fourth-lowest percentage of shots as threes, and they have the lowest team accuracy in the league. That should make for tough sledding for a 21-year-old like Banchero, yet he’s still bull-rushing his way to the rim and dropping slick dimes. He uses his shoulder as a battering ram, bludgeoning defenders into so much dust and gravel:
The Magic have surpassed expectations this season, and Banchero’s the reason why.
Meanwhile, the Cavs have probably matched preseason expectations, just not in the expected way. Without Darius Garland or Evan Mobley, Mitchell has been playing like the second-best guard in the East. He’s second in the NBA in steals per game (which overstates his defensive abilities, but still!), and he boasts one of the league's strongest on/off point differentials. His three-point shot is more prodigious in volume than accuracy, but defenses respect it, and he’s elevated his playmaking to career-best levels. When he’s on, Mitchell is one of the most aesthetically pleasing players to watch.
Maxey has been outrageous this season, picking up almost all of the departed James Harden’s slack. He’s leading the league in minutes per game while averaging career highs in every counting category (even blocks!). Nobody is as fast to the hoop from 35 feet out as Maxey; as I wrote earlier this season, Maxey is a one-cut running back. Most NBAers take an exaggerated step as they approach the hoop to slow down and gather control of the ball before laying it up; Maxey speeds up as he nears the rack. He uses human bodies as soft, fleshy brakes, slamming to a screeching halt upon contact with midair defenders and then adjusting with impossible hangtime for pretty finishes:
While Maxey’s scoring efficiency has dropped as his volume has increased, that’s made up for by his literally 100th-percentile turnover rate and increased passing acumen. Perhaps most importantly, the 76ers have destroyed opponents when Maxey is on the court and Joel Embiid is off; he’s not just riding the big man’s XXXL-sized coattails. His game is all straight lines and toothy grins. Maxey is a deserving and worthy All-Star, and he snags my last wild card spot.
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That said, it kills me to leave Raptors forward Scottie Barnes off this list; I flip-flopped like Rainbow Sandals between him and Maxey several times. His 2.9 stocks (steals+blocks) are among the most in the league, and his 37% three-point shooting on a shockingly high 5.5 attempts is a ceiling-changer. I have been overwhelmingly impressed with Barnes’ two-way improvement this season (although it would’ve been nice if the Raptors had won a few games. Now, I expect to see a serious tank this second half of the season to keep their top-six-protected pick).
He’s an offensive fulcrum with a burgeoning three-level scoring ability to pair with his inherent passing vision, and he’s increasingly a defensive monster. As his defense improves, Barnes’ only real holes are turnovers and free throw accumulation, and these are both things young players get better at with time. He’s already good enough to be an All-Star, and he might make the official roster. If you’d rather have Scottie Barnes, the best player on a bad Raptors team, than Maxey, the second-best player on a good 76ers squad, I won’t fault you. I preferred that, too, twenty minutes ago. Maybe it’s time to expand to 15 players per All-Star team.
Julius Randle’s counting stats are iris-popping despite his Arctic-cold start to the season. But if you watch enough Knicks games, the plays he doesn’t make stand out as much as the ones he does. I queasily picked Randle as an All-Star last season, but I can’t quite do it amidst steeper competition this year. Few players have as big a disconnect night-to-night between the eye test and the box score.
Jimmy Butler has missed too many games.
I tried desperately to find a way to put a third Celtic on here, as Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick White, and Jrue Holiday all have compelling cases; I failed. White’s candidacy, in particular, has gained narrative steam thanks to his ability to loudly do the quiet things that impact winning. However, given how many players are having excellent seasons in bigger roles, White misses the cut.
That’s 50% from the field, 40% from the three-point line, and 86% from the free throw line.