The Western Conference has dominated the NBA for the majority of the 21st century. 12 of the century’s 18 championships have gone out west, and the Western Conference has consistently had more talent.
The upcoming 2017-18 season projects to be worse than ever in this department. This summer saw four perennial Eastern Conference All-Stars go to the dark side, some by trade and some through free agency. The lesser conference will now need to fill the All-Star spots of Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Paul Millsap; not to mention the spot of point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is likely to miss too much of the season to end up an All-Star.
One Western Conference All-Star, small forward Gordon Hayward, made the decision to move to the East Coast, essentially guaranteeing him his second straight appearance in the All-Star game.
But after that, the squad will be staring down four open spots, and that’s assuming no more injuries or trades affect any of the remaining All-Stars. All of that is to say: things are going to get weird in the East.
Young studs like Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid or New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis could take an expected leap into All-Star-dom, or we could see veterans like Boston Celtics big Al Horford or new Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard return to the team, but a few unexpected players could get involved as well.
Here are a few potential first-time All-Stars to keep an eye on in the Eastern Conference.
Khris Middleton, SG, Milwaukee Bucks
Khris Middleton isn’t the type of player usually rewarded by the All-Star selection process. He isn’t a dominant scorer and he doesn’t have a penchant for flashy highlights. But he’s arguably the second best shooting guard in the conference, and is likely to be the second-best player on one of the league’s most interesting teams.
While most players can vault themselves into the All-Star conversation with their per-game stats or by dropping 50 points in a game, Middleton will understandably have to find a different way. His entrance into a league-wide narrative will, much like his game, have to start with a team-based concept.
If the Bucks can get off to a hot start and contend for the conference’s suddenly wide open one seed, Middleton could finally get the attention he has been deserving for a few years now.
Jeremy Lin, PG, Brooklyn Nets
Five years after the sensation known only as “Linsanity,” Jeremy Lin is the best player on an NBA team. Seriously. He really is.
If all goes perfectly for the new-look Brooklyn Nets, perhaps guard D’Angelo Russell will be universally recognized as their best player by the time February rolls around. But for now, there is no way to argue against Lin.
Obviously, in an ideal world Lin would be your sixth-man, or your starting point guard there only to complement a true superstar. But while giving Lin the keys to the bus and surrounding him with shooters and young athletes certainly won’t provide you with 40-plus wins — or even 25-plus for that matter — it is definitely going to be a ton of fun.
He would have to see a pretty significant jump from his 14.5 points and 5.1 assists per game he put up in his first season in Brooklyn to get into the conversation, but that is a reasonable expectation considering his season was stunted by poor health, and his need to fill the massive gap left by the departure of longtime Nets star Brook Lopez, who lead the team in scoring and had a usage rate of 29.2 percent last year.
If that isn’t convincing enough, consider this: Lin finished eighth among guards in fan voting last year…when he had barely played due to his leg injury. If the 29-year-old guard has a career season, anything is possible.
Myles Turner, C, Indiana Pacers
It can be a bit tough for a young big man to get attention in the NBA right now. After years of flatlining, the center position is thriving in the modern landscape of the league.
Embiid, Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, and Anthony Davis dominate headlines all-year-long. It was especially hard for Myles Turner to grab attention, since he has been sharing the spotlight in Indiana with superstar small forward Paul George for his first two seasons. But now those days are over, and Turner is ready to prove he belongs in the conversation with the rest of an up-and-coming generation of star bigs.
While Turner is arguably a notch below his contemporaries in talent, he has a few advantages. He isn’t saddled with the playoff expectations that Jokic and Davis have. He doesn’t have to share the ball with two ball-dominant wings like Towns will in Minnesota. And he doesn’t have the numerous health concerns Embiid has.
Turner had an impressive year in 2016-17, scoring efficiently and even showing flashes of three-point range. He put up almost 15 points per game and grabbed seven rebounds per game as well.
Perhaps most importantly, he did so with a usage rate of only 19.5 percent, considerably lower than that of his contemporaries. Considering Turner is far and away the best player on a Pacers team that seems to, for some reason, want to make the playoffs — you can expect that to skyrocket this year. If Turner puts up 20 and 10 on a surprising young Pacers team, it will be hard to keep him out of the All-Star conversation.