Community Shootaround

Community Shootaround: Eastern Playoff Race

We’re one month away from the end of the NBA’s 2020/21 regular season, which means we’re entering the home stretch of the postseason race. And the introduction of the play-in tournament adds an extra wrinkle to this year’s playoff push.

In the Eastern Conference, as has been the case for months, three teams have set themselves apart from the pack — three games separate the top-seeded Sixers (38-17), Nets (37-18), and Bucks (35-20), with Milwaukee holding the No. 3 spot by a comfortable 5.5-game margin.

The next tier of the East starts with the Hawks, who have played well since Nate McMillan replaced Lloyd Pierce on the sidelines and currently have a 30-26 record. They’re tied with the Celtics (30-26), and both teams are a game up on the Knicks (29-27).

If the season ended today, those would be the six teams assured of a playoff spot, since the play-in tournament involves the four teams between seventh and 10th. That’s bad news for the seventh-seeded Heat (28-27), who will need to move up at least one spot in the standings to avoid having to earn their postseason berth in a play-in game. The Hornets (27-27) and Pacers (26-28) also remain very much in the hunt for a top-six seed, but would be play-in teams if the standings don’t change.

Finally, the 10th spot in the East remains very much up for grabs, in what has been the least inspiring part of this year’s playoff race. The Bulls (22-32) are still the No. 10 seed for the time being, despite losing four in a row and and 10 of their last 13. That’s only because the Raptors (22-34) have been in an even worse slump, having lost 19 of their last 25 games. Both teams are currently missing key players, including Zach LaVine and Kyle Lowry.

Chicago’s and Toronto’s struggles have opened the door for seemingly lottery-bound teams like the Wizards (21-33) and Cavaliers (20-35) to remain in the mix for that No. 10 seed. Whichever club claims that spot would need to win two play-in games to make the postseason, but that’s not inconceivable, given the competition.

What do you think? How do you expect the top six (and top three) seeds to play out in the East? Which four teams will end up in the play-in tournament, and which two will survive?

Head to the comment section below to weigh in with your predictions!

Community Shootaround: Defensive Player Of The Year

A year ago, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, with Lakers big man Anthony Davis and Jazz center Rudy Gobert finishing as the second- and third-highest vote-getters, respectively.

Antetokounmpo is a perennial candidate for the award, but he has missed a little time with injuries this season and Milwaukee’s defense in 2020/21 (109.6 rating; sixth in the NBA) isn’t as dominant as it was last season, when the team ranked first with a 102.5 defensive rating. He’ll probably get some votes, but he’s unlikely to repeat as the DPOY.

The Lakers have the league’s best defensive rating so far this season (105.5), and Davis has played a major part in the unit’s success when he’s healthy. But he has only played in 23 of L.A.’s 55 games so far and remains sidelined for the time being, essentially removing him from the DPOY conversation.

Of last year’s top three finishers then, Gobert looks like the best bet to take home the award in 2021. He has won it twice already, and the Jazz have the NBA’s best record at 41-14. Gobert, as usual, has anchored their defense, which is the league’s fourth-best (107.6 rating), and he’s leading the league in DRPM (defensive real plus-minus) by a wide margin.

Still, Gobert isn’t a lock to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors. He has struggled to slow down many of the league’s top centers in their head-to-head matchups this season, allowing Nikola Jokic to average 41 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists in his two games against Utah, while Joel Embiid racked up 40 points and 19 boards in his lone matchup with Gobert.

Another Sixers All-Star, Ben Simmons, scored 42 points against Gobert and the Jazz in the game Embiid missed, something he recently pointed out on ESPN’s The Jump when making his own case for Defensive Player of the Year.

“I’m one of those guys who can guard one through five,” Simmons said, per Ky Carlin of SixersWire. “Obviously, there’s a lot of respect for Rudy. I know what he’s capable of. I know he’s great down there in the paint, but he’s not guarding everybody and that’s just what it is. He guarded me in Utah…I had 42, and apparently I’m not a scorer. It is what it is, but I have a lot of respect for him. At the same time, I think it’s mine this year.”

Simmons, who finished fourth in the 2020 vote, has been a key part of the NBA’s second-best defense this season (106.6 rating), and his versatility makes him an intriguing candidate to win the award. However, as Rich Hofmann and Andrew Patton note in a piece for The Athletic, Simmons doesn’t necessarily stack up well to other top candidates based on publicly available advanced stats, even if those stats perhaps underrate his contributions.

Pacers center Myles Turner has a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year honors this season, posting an eye-popping 3.5 blocks per game to lead the league. He ranked second in Steve Aschburner’s recent breakdown of DPOY contenders at Still, Indiana is a sub-.500 team (26-28) with a middle-of-the-pack defense (111.5 rating; 13th in NBA), which will work against Turner’s case.

Hawks center Clint Capela has been making a strong push for DPOY consideration as well, as Chris Kirschner of The Athletic details, ranking in the top two or three in a handful of advanced stats, as well as third in the NBA in blocked shots (2.2 per game). Although the Hawks’ defensive rating (112.1) is just 19th in the league, that’s a significant improvement on last season’s showing (28th), as Capela has been discouraging shots around the rim, and has been better at preventing the attempts that are made.

What do you think? Who would be on your three-man Defensive Player of the Year ballot, and who do you view as the frontrunner? Which players not mentioned above would you consider?

Head to the comment section below to share your thoughts!

Community Shootaround: Celtics’ Trade Deadline Approach

The Celtics find themselves in a tough spot with the trade deadline approaching.

They entered their game in Memphis on Monday with a .500 record. They haven’t played anything like a team that was supposed to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference, if not the NBA championship.

Part of the reason has been injuries and COVID-19 related issues. They don’t have any players who have appeared in every game. Among those absences, Marcus Smart has missed 19 games and Kemba Walker has sat out 17 contests.

However, Boston probably isn’t good enough to win the East with its current roster unless one or two of the Nets’ stars is injured during the postseason. The Celtics could use another difference-maker, another big and some depth. Brad Stevens admitted on Monday, “I think it’s very obvious that none of those young guys have really separated themselves from the others off our bench.”

In recent days, the Celtics have been linked to Norman Powell, Harrison Barnes, Evan Fournier, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Aaron Gordon and John Collins.

Boston has a huge $28.5MM traded player exception to utilize. It also has some additional second-round picks but it would probably have to move one or more first-round picks to get one of the above-mentioned players. Smart, whose contract expires after next season, appears to be the Celtics’ best trade chip if they move any of their regulars, since it’s hard to see them dealing either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown.

That leads us to our topic of the day: Should the Celtics look to make a major move before Thursday’s trade deadline? If so, which player that they’ve reportedly pursued would be the best fit?

Please take to the comments section to weigh in. We look forward to your input.

Community Shootaround: Midseason NBA Awards

On Thursday, we checked in on the state of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player race. Today, with the second half now in full swing, we’re taking a look at where things stand with the rest of the league’s awards for 2020/21, starting with one that looks like a runaway…

Rookie of the Year

Since LaMelo Ball entered the Hornets‘ starting lineup at the start of February, he has averaged 19.8 PPG, 6.8 APG, and 6.1 RPG on .456/.437/.846 shooting in 16 games (33.7 MPG).

Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton has had a good year, and No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards (Timberwolves) is among the dark-horse candidates to make a second-half push for this award, but as long as Ball stays healthy and doesn’t experience a major slump, it’s hard to see how he’ll lose this race.

Defensive Player of the Year

The Jazz have the NBA’s best record and have a two-time Defensive Player of the Year anchoring their defense, which makes Rudy Gobert the leading candidate for this award for the time being. If Utah holds onto the Western Conference’s top seed, voters may be inclined to give Gobert the nod at DPOY to make up for the fact that he and Donovan Mitchell are unlikely to get many top-three votes for the MVP award.

Still, there are plenty of other viable candidates here. Sixers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will be in the running. Last year’s winner, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, could receive consideration again. And it’s a safe bet that Myles Turner‘s eye-popping block numbers (3.4 BPG so far) will help earn the Pacers center some votes.

Sixth Man of the Year

Like Gobert, Jordan Clarkson has the Jazz‘s league-best record working in his favor. He has also been the NBA’s top bench scorer so far this season, with 17.9 points per game on .447/.370/.967 shooting, making him the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year honors.

Rockets guard Eric Gordon is right behind Clarkson in scoring (17.8 PPG), but has missed some time with injuries this season and has started nearly half his games. Raptors big man Chris Boucher, Bulls forward Thaddeus Young, and Heat guard Goran Dragic could gain traction, but right now it looks like Clarkson’s award to lose.

Most Improved Player

Rockets center Christian Wood looked like the frontrunner for this award until he was sidelined by the ankle injury that has cost him the last 14 games. Now, Jerami Grant, the player the Pistons essentially signed in place of Wood, may be the favorite — he has nearly doubled his scoring average this season, from 12.0 PPG to 23.7 PPG.

A few Eastern All-Stars – Knicks forward Julius Randle, Bulls guard Zach LaVine, and Celtics wing Jaylen Brown – could make strong cases for this award, as could Boucher, Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and multiple Spurs youngsters. If Randle or LaVine helps his team lock up a playoff spot, it’d make a compelling case, but Grant’s ability to rack up big numbers on a rebuilding Detroit squad may give him the leg up.

Coach of the Year

The Coach of the Year award often comes down to which team overcame the most obstacles and/or most significantly outperformed their preseason expectations. Based on those criteria, Doc Rivers (Sixers), Tom Thibodeau (Knicks), and James Borrego (Hornets) may be the best candidates in the East so far, while Quin Snyder (Jazz), Monty Williams (Suns), and Terry Stotts (Trail Blazers) deserve consideration in the West.

I don’t get a sense that there’s an overwhelming favorite for this award yet, so the second-half results will be crucial. If a team like the Spurs, Bulls, or Grizzlies has a strong second half, candidates like Gregg Popovich, Billy Donovan, and Taylor Jenkins could make plenty of voters’ ballots.

What do you think? Who would be your award-winners for 2020/21 so far, and who do you expect will ultimately take home the hardware? Which awards are the easiest and most difficult to pick a winner for at this point?

Head to the comment section below to share your thoughts!

Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Community Shootaround: Midseason NBA MVP Check-In

Halfway through the NBA season, the 2020/21 Most Valuable Player race is shaping up to be a competitive one.

As David Purdum of ESPN details, Lakers forward LeBron James had been the betting favorite to win his fifth MVP award, but he was surpassed over the All-Star break by Sixers center Joel Embiid, who is the new frontrunner at Caesars Sportsbook. Embiid is followed closely by LeBron and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.

All three All-Stars have compelling MVP cases. Embiid hasn’t played enough games in past seasons to warrant serious consideration, but he has missed just six of Philadelphia’s first 36 games this season and is posting the best numbers of his career — 30.2 PPG, 11.6 RPG, and 3.3 APG, with an outstanding .521/.416/.856 shooting line.

Embiid is getting to the free throw line more than any other NBA player (11.6 times per game), has anchored a top-five defense, and is the best player on the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. His on/off-court numbers offer a clear-cut picture of his value, as the 76ers have a +11.1 net rating when he plays, compared to -6.3 when he doesn’t.

Of course, Embiid isn’t the only player whose team crates when he’s off the court. The Lakers are a +9.1 when James plays and a -4.4 when he doesn’t. And LeBron, at age 36, is still improbably putting up his usual monster numbers, including 25.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, and 7.8 APG on 50.9% shooting. He has helped keep the Lakers (and their top-ranked defense) afloat despite Anthony Davis‘ recent absence, and L.A.’s 24-13 record puts the club just a half-game back of Philadelphia.

The Nuggets’ net rating is about 10 points higher when Jokic is on the court, and the big man is showing off the kind of offensive game rarely seen from a center — in addition to his impressive scoring (27.1 PPG) and rebounding (11.0 RPG) numbers, Jokic is averaging an eye-popping 8.6 assists per contest and is knocking down 41.8% of his three-point attempts.

The Nuggets are currently sixth in the West, and if that doesn’t improve, it’ll hurt Jokic’s case, but Denver was rolling before the All-Star break and is only 2.5 games back of the third-seeded Lakers.

Embiid, James, and Jokic look like the MVP frontrunners for now, but none of them are running away with the award and there’s plenty of time for others to enter the mix. According to Purdum, Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, Warriors guard Stephen Curry, and Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo make up the next tier of betting favorites.

It’s hard to imagine Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert receiving serious consideration, even if the Jazz hold the No. 1 spot. Meanwhile, the Nets are knocking on the door of the East’s No. 1 seed, but Kevin Durant will probably miss too much time to get a ton of MVP votes, and James Harden‘s case will be hurt by his start to the season in Houston. But Harden deserves a look, as do Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard and Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard.

In a shortened season, things could change quickly. Injuries, hot streaks, and slumps could shake up the race in the coming weeks. The power of narrative shouldn’t be understated either, as some voters may like the idea of LeBron getting a fifth MVP award, while others may gravitate toward a first-time winner like Embiid or Jokic.

What do you think? Who has been the NBA’s Most Valuable Player so far? And do you think that same player will win the award at season’s end?

Head to the comment section below to weigh in with your thoughts!

Community Shootaround: Utah Jazz

The team with the best record in the NBA gets precious little respect.

The Jazz reached the All-Star break ahead of the pack in the rugged Western Conference but no one seems to take them seriously. Back in January, TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal refused to give Donovan Mitchell the superstar label, claiming that Mitchell doesn’t impact the game beyond scoring.

When it came time to choose sides in the NBA All-Star draft last week, Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were the last two picks by Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

“There’s no slander to the Utah Jazz,” James claimed. “You guys got to understand, just like in video games growing up, we never played with Utah. Even as great as Karl Malone and John Stockton was, we would never pick those guys in video games. Never.”

Mitchell was not pleased by the perceived insult.

The best way for the Jazz to respond is to finish what they started. The Jazz have been a playoff team the last four seasons. They got knocked out in the first round the last two years after getting eliminated in the conference semifinals in back-to-back seasons.

Last season, Mitchell tried to will his team past Denver, averaging 36.3 PPG in an epic seven-game series, but the Jazz came up just short in Game 7.

Utah didn’t have Bojan Bogdanovic in that series due to a wrist injury. Otherwise, the Jazz have virtually the same rotation as they did at the end of last year. Their chemistry makes them tough to beat in the regular season but the postseason is a different animal, when the biggest stars shine.

That brings us to our topic of the day: Can the Jazz finally overcome their recent history and make a deep playoff run? Or is the team with the best record in the NBA destined for another early-round flameout?

Please take to the comments section to weigh in on this topic. We look forward to your input.

Community Shootaround: Checking In On Eastern Playoff Race

When we checked in on the Western playoff race on Wednesday, we suggested that there were a few clear-cut tiers within the conference, including 10 teams that look like the top contenders to make the postseason or the play-in tournament.

The Eastern Conference playoff race is far more muddled, but there are at least three playoff locks and legit contenders at the top of the conference, where the Sixers (24-12) are hanging onto a half-game lead over the Nets (24-13) and a two-game lead over the Bucks (22-14).

Philadelphia is positioned to further upgrade its roster at the trade deadline, while Brooklyn and Milwaukee have played well despite lengthy absences for Kevin Durant and Jrue Holiday, respectively. As long as all three teams stay relatively healthy in the second half, it seems pretty safe to assume they’ll secure home court advantage in round one.

After that top group, things get messy. The Celtics (19-17) currently hold the fourth seed, but they’re only separated from the 11th-seeded Hawks (16-20) by four games. In between those two teams, the Knicks (19-18), Heat (18-18), Hornets (17-18), Raptors (17-19), Bulls (16-18), and Pacers (16-19) are all jockeying for position — it wasn’t uncommon in recent days for a team to jump or fall four or five spots in the standings based on the outcome of a single night’s games.

Entering the season, the Celtics, Heat, Raptors, and Pacers were viewed as solid playoff contenders, with Atlanta expected to be in the mix as well. The Knicks, Hornets, and Bulls are the upstarts here, but career years from Julius Randle and Zach LaVine and a breakthrough performance from LaMelo Ball have helped make the case we should be taking them seriously.

With only five teams in the East above .500, most of the current lottery clubs realistically remain in the hunt for a play-in spot as well. The Wizards (14-20), Cavaliers (14-22), and Magic (13-23) don’t have good records, but Washington is within 1.5 games of the No. 10 seed, and even Orlando is only 3.5 games back.

With the All-Star break underway, we want to get your thoughts on the Eastern Conference playoff picture heading into the second half.

  • Which team will grab the top seed?
  • Which three teams will join the Sixers, Nets, and Bucks in the top six, assuring themselves of a guaranteed postseason spot?
  • Which four teams will finish in the 7-10 range and participate in the play-in tournament?
  • Will unexpected playoff contenders like the Knicks, Hornets, and Bulls wind up in the postseason?

Head to the comment section below to weigh in with your opinions on where things are headed in the East!

Community Shootaround: Checking In On Western Playoff Race

Given the truncated nature of the NBA’s 72-game 2020/21 season, the standings in each conference figure to significantly fluctuate all year long, with any multi-game winning streak or losing streak more likely than ever to shake up the playoff picture.

Still, as we near the halfway point of the regular season, the Western Conference standings are – at least for the time being – easy enough to split into tiers.

The 27-8 Jazz are in a tier of their own at the top. Their 3.5-game lead over their next-closest competitor is the biggest margin between any two teams in the conference besides the gap between the 14th and 15th seeds. That cushion should allow Utah to have a bad week or two without necessarily falling out of the top spot in the West.

The next tier is currently made up of three Pacific teams, the Suns (23-11), Lakers (24-12), and Clippers (24-13). They’re all separated by a half-game and are at least three games ahead of any other team in the conference.

The two Los Angeles teams were expected to be here, and they comfortably hold top-four seeds despite having star players (Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George) miss some time due to injuries. Phoenix, on the other hand, is something of an upstart — expectations had increased for the Suns following their 8-0 run at last summer’s bubble and the offseason acquisition of Chris Paul, but few expected them to hold the No. 2 seed in the West with the All-Star break around the corner.

The Western Conference’s third tier consists of six teams bunched together within two games of each other, from the No. 5 Spurs (18-13) to the No. 10 Mavericks (17-16). Others in this group include the Trail Blazers (19-14), Nuggets (20-15), Warriors (19-16), and Grizzlies (16-15).

It remains to be seen whether the NBA’s new play-in format for the final two postseason spots in each conference will make this race more or less interesting. Having six clubs vie for four playoff berths would’ve been entertaining in its own right, but the play-in tournament adds a new wrinkle.

Assuming the Jazz, Suns, Lakers, and Clippers hang onto playoff spots, that will only leave two guaranteed postseason berths for the six “third-tier” clubs. The teams that finish in the 7-10 range would enter the play-in tournament, where the Nos. 7 and 8 teams would need to win one game to advance, while the Nos. 9 and 10 teams would have to win two.

Entering the season, the Mavs, Blazers, and Nuggets were viewed as the likeliest playoff teams from this group, but San Antonio and Memphis have substantially exceeded expectations, and Golden State has admirably overcome the loss of Klay Thompson. If pressed, I’d probably consider Denver and Portland the favorites to claim the fifth and sixth seeds, but this should be a fascinating race.

A few clubs further down in the standings have the potential to shake up the postseason picture too, but it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about the 7-28 Timberwolves or the 11-22 Rockets, both of whom are mired in horrible slumps, or the 14-20 Thunder, who are ostensibly rebuilding. The 13-21 Kings have also been hit hard by a recent cold streak and have a lot of ground to make up.

That leaves the Pelicans (15-19), who are the most intriguing wild card outside the Western Conference’s current top 10. All-Star forward Zion Williamson and 2020 All-Star Brandon Ingram give New Orleans a dangerous one-two punch on offense, but the club will need to tighten up its defense to make a run — the Pelicans’ 116.1 defensive rating ranks 29th in the NBA.

With the first half of the NBA season about to come to an end, we want to get your thoughts on where things stand in the Western Conference playoff race.

  • Will the Jazz finish the season as the No. 1 seed?
  • Will the Jazz, Suns, Lakers, or Clippers fall out of the top four?
  • Which teams do you view as the best bets to claim the top six seeds in the conference?
  • Which four clubs do you expect to take part in the play-in tournament?
  • Will the Pelicans or another team currently in the bottom five force their way into the top 10? If so, which team are they knocking out?

Head to the comment section below to share your two cents!

Community Shootaround: Top Draft Pick

There’s help on the way for teams such as the Pistons and Timberwolves, who have the worst record in their respective conferences.

The 2021 NBA draft class is projected to be stronger than usual, particularly at the top where five players have emerged as potential All-Stars.

Most of the draft buzz has centered on Oklahoma State freshman guard Cade Cunningham. His college coach calls him a cross between Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway. He has also drawn comparisons to Luka Doncic.

Cunningham’s 40-point explosion against Oklahoma on Saturday further solidified his reputation as the draft’s top prospect (he only took eight shots and scored 15 points in a rematch on Monday). The 6’8’’ Cunningham is averaging 19.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 3.5 APG and could turn into a triple-double machine in the pros.

There are several other prospects who could legitimately argue they deserve to top the list. USC seven-footer Evan Mobley is averaging 16.4 PPG, 8.5 RPG and 2.9 BPG in his freshman season. Mobley is the prototype of a modern big man with elite rim protecting skills. Though the NBA has become an increasingly small-ball league, there’s always room for an athletic big man (Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis).

Gonzaga freshman guard Jalen Suggs hasn’t piled up the stats like Cunningham and Mobley but he’s got a good excuse – he’s surrounded by better players. The top prospect on the nation’s top-ranked team is averaging 13.9, PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, and 2.0 SPG. He could excel at either guard spot at the next level.

Then there’s the G League Ignite duo of Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga. Green is averaging 17.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, and 2.7 APG and shooting 37.9% beyond the arc while facing experienced professionals. Green has the ability to be an explosive scorer in the Zach LaVine mold and can terrorize defenders in the open court.

Kuminga, a 6’8’’ forward, has been better than advertised while averaging 16.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, and 2.8 APG. He has the physical tools to step right into a starting lineup and create mismatches at either forward spot. He has shown superior shot-creating ability in the Orlando bubble.

That leads us to our topic of the day: Should Cade Cunningham be the No. 1 pick of the draft or do you feel Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green or Jonathan Kuminga will be an even better pro?

Please take to the comments section to weigh in on this topic. We look forward to your input.

Community Shootaround: Eastern All-Stars

Before the NBA announces its 2021 All-Star starters on Thursday night on TNT, we want to get your thoughts on which players deserve to make the All-Star teams this season. After focusing on the Western Conference on Wednesday, we’re turning our attention to the Eastern Conference today.

There likely won’t be much debate over the Eastern frontcourt starters, as Sixers center Joel Embiid, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nets forward Kevin Durant are all playing like legitimate MVP candidates. Durant has been limited to just 19 games due to various health issues and COVID-19 protocols, but I think that’s enough — he has played big minutes (35.7 MPG) in those contests.

The Eastern backcourt starters are harder to nail down. You could make a legitimate argument for Nets guards James Harden and Kyrie Irving, Wizards guard Bradley Beal, and Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown. Beal is the NBA’s leading scorer and Irving isn’t far behind, but I actually favor Brown and Harden for the starting spots here.

Brown is the best defender of the group, and his scoring numbers (25.9 PPG on .506/.409/.768 shooting and a 31.4% usage rate) have been terrific. Harden, meanwhile, has been arguably the league’s best play-maker so far this season, averaging an eye-popping 11.8 assists per game to go along with his 24.3 PPG since arriving in Brooklyn.

All four guards belong in the game, so that leaves three frontcourt spots and two wild card slots to fill out the bench. I’d start with Tatum, a two-way star who is averaging career highs in PPG (25.8), RPG (7.0), and APG (4.7) to go along with his stout defense for the Celtics.

From here though, thinks get awfully tricky. Hawks guard Trae Young and Bulls guard Zach LaVine aren’t good defenders, but they’re enjoying elite offensive seasons. Young (26.5 PPG, 9.3 APG) has been the better play-maker, while LaVine has scored a little more, and has done so far more efficiently (28.5 PPG on .520/.437/.847 shooting). Both are strong candidates.

The fourth-seeded Pacers probably deserve to have a player in the game, and you could make a legitimate case for either Domantas Sabonis (21.5 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 5.7 APG) or Malcolm Brogdon (21.6 PPG and 6.6 APG).

Big men Bam Adebayo, Nikola Vucevic, and Julius Randle have been the most valuable players so far this season for the Heat, Magic, and Knicks, respectively. Adebayo anchors his team’s defense in a way the other two don’t, though his offensive numbers (19.9 PPG, 5.3 APG) don’t quite match Vucevic’s (23.4 PPG on .476/.414/.816 shooting) or Randle’s (23.2 PPG and 5.5 APG with a .407 3PT%).

Bucks forward Khris Middleton, Hornets forward Gordon Hayward, Pistons forward Jerami Grant, and Sixers guard Ben Simmons also deserve serious consideration as two-way impact players.

And while they probably won’t make the 12-man squad, Raptors guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, Sixers forward Tobias Harris, Hawks big man Clint Capela, Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, Heat forward Jimmy Butler, and Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton each at least warrant a look and an honorable mention.

For now, my choices to fill out the Eastern squad would be LaVine, Young, Adebayo, and Middleton. LaVine is the East’s second-leading scorer; Young isn’t far behind him and his on/off-court numbers make a compelling case; Adebayo is one of the conference’s best interior defenders; and Middleton has been one of the NBA’s best shooters (.510/.442/.902).

Still, there are at least four or five other players whom I could comfortably sub into one of those spots and feel good about it. Leaving out guys like Randle, Grant, Simmons, and especially Sabonis (my last man out) is tough.

What do you think? Which 12 players would you pick for your Eastern Conference All-Star team? Which players would be the most difficult to omit?

Head to the comment section below to share your choices and your reasoning!