Kemba Walker’s spot in this year’s All-Star game never seemed in doubt, but after he was formally named a starting guard out of the Eastern Conference on Thursday night, the lingering question becomes will Walker have any Celtics company in Chicago?
Walker is the biggest reason for Boston’s 29-14 record midway through the 2019-20 season but he’s routinely praised young teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for their role in the Celtics’ success. Asked if he desired a sidekick in Chicago, Walker made the case that both of Boston’s young players should be with him.
"They’ve been playing super well. They’ve improved so much over the course of their young careers,” said Walker. "They both definitely deserve the opportunity to take part in that game.”
The 15 Eastern Conference coaches will vote this weekend for seven reserves to join Walker, Trae Young, Pascal Siakam, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid as the East player pool in this year’s event. Coaches cannot vote for their own players in reserve balloting, which might open a window for both Tatum and Brown to earn higher totals.
Still, the talent pool is pretty deep, especially given the logjam of teams atop the conference. Boston’s young wing tandem will be trying to muscle spots away fro the likes of Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Miami’s Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, and Washington’s Bradley Beal.
That’s at least 11 players in consideration for seven spots. Even if, say, Indiana coach Nate McMillan can’t vote for either of his two in-house candidates, he’s still got no shortage of options. The fear for Boston is that their wing duo ends up splitting votes, opening the door for a team with only one surefire candidate.
Reserves will be announced next Thursday night. Celtics coach Brad Stevens recently offered a glimpse into how he tackles the reserve voting process.
"I start with a couple things from a statistical standpoint, obviously, but then look at how their teams are playing, if they’ve won or not,” said Stevens. "And then the tiebreaker for me is often my fear factor when we’re getting ready to play against them.
"But most of the time it’s like 10 or 12 people for those seven spots. That doesn’t even include me getting to vote for [his own players] — I don’t get to vote for ours. So good players don’t make it every year. And that’s just part of it.”
It’s hard to make a case for Boston to have three representatives, regardless of how good that trio has been this season. Walker, Tatum, and Brown are all still averaging 20+ points per game this season and each has had prolonged stretches of All-Star-caliber play.
The debate about whether Tatum or Brown should ultimately get the nod if Boston only gets two stars has been spirited. Tatum hasn’t shot the ball as efficiently as he has earlier in his career but he still has the best on/off splits on the team and has turned into a real two-way force.
Brown has been much better than most anticipated and has made such obvious strides in his game, especially with his ball-handling and playmaking.
This reporter has maintained that there isn’t a wrong choice between the two wings and strong cases can be made for both sides. And if Boston had the best record in the East, lobbying for three players might be easier.
Ultimately, we’d vote Tatum if forced to choose, in part because of the so-called “fear factor” that Stevens noted. Teams have put more attention on stopping Tatum, while Brown has been the beneficiary of quality looks when opponents key on Tatum and Walker.
All that said, Brown also deserves to be rewarded for the leaps in his game. Many dismissed Brown’s potential after a frustration-filled 2018-19 season but he’s proved this year that, whatever ceiling most perceived for him, it was simply too low.
After Wednesday’s win over the Grizzlies, Walker gushed again about what the young wing duo has done this season.
"It's so fun to watch [Tatum] and Jaylen, man. It’s so fun to be a part of their growth,” said Walker. Later he added, “[They’re] my brothers. I want to see them succeed. I want them to be at their best.
"I've had a pretty good career so far but I'm also here to help and just really get guys to another level. That's what I want to do. I want to be a part of things like that. Those two dudes, to be specific, are really special.”
There’s one other way for Walker to have some additional Celtics company with him in Chicago. Boston’s coaching staff could make the trip if Boston is in second place in the East after the games on February 2.
The Bucks have already ensured themselves the best record in the East at the All-Star break but coach Mike Budenholzer cannot coach after serving in that role last year.
The Celtics currently sit fourth in the East but only 1.5 games back of second-place Miami, a team that Boston plays next week to close out a three-game road trip. What’s more, five teams are separated by only 3 games behind the Bucks, so it’s a wide-open race.
Three All-Stars seems like a longshot for the Celtics — outside of injury replacements opening more opportunities. Boston has three deserving candidates, though, and it’s a reminder of just how good they can be when everyone is playing to their potential.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Magic, which begins Friday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.