Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
As you may have noticed, the Eastern Conference is actually trending upwards this year. Every year since the 2009-10 season — excluding the lockout-shortened 2011-12 — at least one (and as many as three) team has made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with a .500 or worse record. If the season were to end today, every team in the East currently in the playoffs has a winning record.
In case you were wondering, for the sake of comparison, the Western Conference hasn’t admitted one team with a .500 or worse record into the playoffs once this millennium. And the NBA title count since the 1999-2000 season reads: Western Conference, 11 – Eastern Conference, 5.
But I digress, we’re not here to sing the praises of the Western Conference, we’re here to talk about the rise of the East.
A big reason for the East’s resurgence is the group of players you’ll see on display during the NBA’s All-Star weekend, taking place in Toronto Friday through Sunday.
Here’s a look at the Eastern Conference squad, the best that the resurgent conference has to offer.
LeBron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James is, obviously, the centerpiece of this team, as he has been for the last 12 years. This season is shaping up to be another typical LeBron year, with him averaging his usual 25-plus points per game along with 6.0 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game.
But one of the biggest storylines surrounding James at this year’s All-Star game involves Kobe Bryant. The two legends had a few memorable mid-season showdowns but never got the chance to square off in the playoffs. The Lakers and the Cavs will face each other in Los Angeles on March 10, but other than this All-Star weekend, that will be the last time the two ever square off in the NBA. Well, unless the Lakers mount a miraculous playoff charge, but that seems about as likely as LeBron leaving Cleveland, again. And that is totally not going to happen either. Right?
Paul George, F, Indiana Pacers – Paul George’s comeback has been nothing short of incredible. When George snapped his leg crashing into the stanchion under the basket during a team USA scrimmage in August of 2014, many doubted whether George would ever regain his All-Star form. Being named an All-Star is mostly superfluous praise for stars who already know they’re stars. But for George, this is more of a symbol of hard work and dedication to his craft paying off. He’s returned to the top tier of the sport.
Carmelo Anthony, F, New York Knicks – This will be Carmelo’s ninth All-Star appearance and his seventh straight start in the game. That’s right Knicks fans, your favorite orange and blue punching bag has been a first-team All-Star every year since he joined your team back in 2011. Even though Anthony is averaging only 21.4 points per game — the second lowest in his NBA career — he’s making up for it with 7.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. The latter is a career high for Anthony.
Dwyane Wade, G, Miami Heat – We should have realized when LeBron left Miami that he’d still be teaming up with Dwayne Wade every year at All-Star weekend. Wade is back in the game after missing last year due to injury, and he’s back in the starting lineup as well. Wade joins only 14 other NBA players to ever make it into 10 or more All-Star games. He’s not having his best season statistically (18.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.4 apg), but at 34, he’s still a long way from done. Wade is also clearly still a fan favorite.
Kyle Lowry, G, Toronto Raptors – It took a late surge in the voting for Lowry to beat out Kyrie Irving, but Raptors fans came through. And they’ll get to watch one of their own among the starting five of the Eastern Conference All-Stars on Sunday night. Lowry is making the leap rapidly from more-than-solid NBA player to a bona fide superstar. He’s averaging a career-high 21.0 points per game to go with 6.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds per contest as well. While this won’t be Lowry’s first All-Star game, the spotlight will shine brightest on him, as he’ll be starting in front of his home crowd. Look for him to put on a show for them and those who don’t know what he’s about.
Joining Lowry as the home representative for this year’s All-Star game is DeMar DeRozan, who completes arguably the best backcourt in the NBA. With Jimmy Butler sitting out this year’s game due to injury, DeRozan becomes the East’s only true shooting guard able to come off the bench.
The other guards, John Wall and Isaiah Thomas, can both shoot the lights out, but aren’t true No. 2’s like DeRozan, which makes him even more valuable for the Eastern Conference’s coach, Tyronn Lue.
Outside of the guard position, the East has Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap, Andre Drummond (making his first All-Star appearance) and Pau Gasol. Size off the bench won’t be an issue for this squad.
The issue will be proving that they can compete with the Western Conference, which will be no small task this year considering what teams like Golden State and San Antonio are doing to the rest of the league.
The Eastern Conference is 6-10 against the Western Conference since 2000 and has lost five of the last seven All-Star games. So no time better than the present to show the Western Conference that the East is a conference to be feared.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.