The 2021 NBA All-Star Game is less than a month away, and the starters for the two conferences are soon to be selected.
A number of players, young and old, have played some of their best basketball throughout this season. Disregarding fan voting, popularity and narratives, I’m breaking down who I believe should be the East and West starters, based solely on performance.
Eastern Conference Starters
There’s no question that the reigning back-to-back MVP is going to make his fifth-straight start in this season’s All-Star Game. The Greek Freak is averaging a little more than a point less of his average last season, and he’s had a better field goal percentage than last season, shooting 56% from the field. The only real significant difference between now and his past two MVP seasons is his rebounding, and even then, he’s still averaging over 10 rebounds per game with 11.1. It’s safe to say Antetokounmpo has a good chance to be deemed a captain for the third time in a row.
While Antetokounmpo is the East’s likeliest lock-in for a starting position, the only other player more deserving of a spot in the starting lineup is the league’s leader in points per game, Bradley Beal. The Washington Wizards guard was second in points per game last season with 30.5, yet he didn’t even make the All-Star Game. Though Washington is second-to-last in the conference standings, Beal has been carrying a heck of a load on his back, and it’s time he is rewarded for it.
With the Philadelphia 76ers sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, Joel Embiid is currently fourth in the league in points per game with 29.1. He is the only big man in the top five. Many are predicting that this could be an MVP season for Embiid, in which case he would be the first center to win the award since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. This would be Embiid’s fourth All-Star Game.
In his first active season with the Brooklyn Nets, Durant is averaging very similar numbers to his 2014 MVP season stats. The 10-time All-Star is putting up 29.5 points per game, his most since his career-high 32 points per game in his MVP season. When you consider the fact that the four-time scoring champ is coming off a gruesome ruptured Achilles injury that kept him from playing for a whole season, it’s remarkable to see how Durant has bounced back and been able to do so at one of the highest points we’ve seen him perform at.
LaVine’s performance this season may be considered under the radar, as his Chicago Bulls currently have the 10th spot in the East, but the young guard is averaging a career-high in points, rebounds and assists. Not only that, but he is right behind Embiid in points per game with 28.2. If for whatever reason LaVine is not voted in as a starter, there is absolutely no doubt he should be making his first All-Star Game appearance.
Sixth man: Jayson Tatum
This spot is solely for the player I think has made the best case to be up for debate for the fifth spot. I’m sure most would agree that this honorable mention spot really comes down to Tatum and Trae Young. If I had to choose based on which player I would rather see get the start, it would probably be Tatum, only because Young was a starter in last season’s game. Even when I consider who has had the better season, I still think Tatum should appear in his second All-Star game as a potential starter. He has led his Boston Celtics to fourth place in the Eastern Conference, and he’s averaging a career-high in both assists (4.1) and points per game (26.8). Tatum has been on the rise since his rookie season, and he is now fully in the spotlight as one of the league’s biggest offensive threats.
Western Conference Starters
Coming off an MVP-caliber season at age 35, James is making yet another case for his name to be in the MVP conversation this season. Aside from his league-leading assists per game average from last season, which served as the pinnacle of the playmaking aspect of his career, King James’ numbers are nearly identical to those of last season’s. His play has helped lead the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to within half a game of first place in the West.
The naysayers can’t be too pleased with Curry’s electrifying performance this season, as he has come back with a vengeance to put the league on notice. With a Golden State Warriors team that missed the playoffs last season and is likely going to be battling for a postseason spot again this season, some have wondered if we’ll ever see Curry return to the MVP level he was once at during the Golden State dynasty. Those doubts can be put to rest, as arguably the greatest shooter of all time is second in points per game with 29.6 and is leading the league by a mile in total 3-pointers made. This would be All-Star Game number seven for the three-time champ.
Next to Beal, Lillard is probably the league’s most snubbed player in terms of All-Star voting. This shouldn’t be a problem for him this season. Dame is following up his career-high in points per game with another dominating scoring season with 29.4 points per game, the third most in the league. His elite play has led the Portland Trail Blazers to fifth place in the West. Lillard needs to be a starter in this year’s game. To say I would be displeased if it doesn’t happen would be an understatement.
I think all that needs to be said for Dončić is that he’s leading the league in triple-doubles this season with seven. When you’re averaging over 27 points per game while being a passing and rebounding threat, you deserve to be considered a top-five performing player in the conference. This would be the 21-year-old’s second-straight All-Star Game start.
Jokić is playing the best basketball of his career. The Denver Nuggets big man is putting up nearly 27 points per game. Last season, he didn’t even average 20. While his team has not performed at the level it did just months ago in “the bubble,” the Joker has joined Embiid as a contender for an All-Star starter-caliber center. This would be Jokić’s third All-Star honor.
Sixth man: Kawhi Leonard
It seems only right that the reigning All-Star Game MVP be considered as a starter in this year’s game, but just like his reserved personality, Leonard has flown under the radar so far this season, despite putting up 26.5 points per game for the contending Los Angeles Clippers. The Klaw is also averaging a career-high 5.1 assists per game. And of all the starters on both teams, he is the biggest threat on defense behind Antetokounmpo. Again, this pick is the player who poses the biggest threat for the fifth spot in the lineup. This would be Leonard’s fifth All-Star Game.
So there you have it. These will not likely be the exact starting lineups we see on March 7, but I certainly believe these names are the most deserving based on how they’ve played up until this point in the season. Nevertheless, it should be a fun game for fans, as they can anticipate players returning from previous years and some possibly appearing as first-time starters in the game.
Disclaimer: Current league leader standings do not include Kevin Durant. Otherwise, certain placements would be altered.
Follow Aidan Champion on Twitter at @champion_aidan.