When the NBA announced the first round of ballot returns for the 2014 All-Star Game back on Dec. 12, Kobe Bryant ranked as the top vote-getter among Western Conference guards despite having played just two games after returning from a ruptured left Achilles tendon. The Los Angeles Lakers superstar held his position atop the balloting when the second round of returns were released on Dec. 26, despite the 18th-year pro having suffered a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee against the Memphis Grizzlies nine nights earlier.
To date, Bryant has played six games this season, shooting less than 43 percent from the floor and 19 percent from 3-point range, with nearly as many turnovers (34) as assists (38). While early struggles were to be expected after being sidelined for nearly 7 1/2 months, the five-time NBA champion and 2007-08 league MVP looked not only like a subpar version of himself, but even a subpar version of an NBA player in his half-dozen appearances. Quite a number of Western guards have outperformed him over the course of the first half of the season, a fact of which the 35-year-old Bryant is very keenly aware ... and as he said before the Lakers' Sunday night loss to the visiting Denver Nuggets at Staples Center, he'd like to see the hundreds of thousands of fans who've thrown their support his way act accordingly.
"Even though there's so much respect that comes from me to be able to play for the fans, I'd much rather see the young guys go out there and play in the game," Bryant said before the Lakers faced Denver on Sunday night. "They've obviously put the work in to be there that weekend, so I'd much rather see them go in there and participate." [...]
"That's obviously a sensitive topic for me personally, because you want to feel like you deserve to be in the game and play," Bryant said. "But then there's the other side of the argument where you've put in a lot of work over the years, and [if] fans vote you in, you want to go out there and show your appreciation and respect to them. I think it's always a delicate balance, but from where I come from, I really enjoy watching what the young guys are doing and how they're performing."
In a practical sense, Bryant's vote tally might not matter, since he might not actually be physically able to participate in the mid-February festivities in New Orleans anyway. He's still a ways away from the finish line in his recovery, limited to riding a stationary bicycle to stay in shape and restricted from rejoining Lakers practices until an MRI exam confirms that his fractured left knee has satisfactorily healed.
Tuesday will mark three weeks since Bryant suffered the injury, putting him halfway through the six-week recovery timetable the Lakers laid out on Dec. 19, which pegs his potential return at Jan. 28, when L.A. will welcome the Eastern Conference-leading Indiana Pacers to Staples Center. If he hits a speed bump in his recovery and return to fitness, though, Bryant and the Lakers might elect to pump the brakes a bit, keep Kobe on ice and inactive, and use the All-Star break as an opportunity to continue working him back into form in the hope of staving off another too-quick return to the injured list. That would also help avoid what ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin notes could become a showdown with the NBA if Bryant continued to ride atop the West's guard ballot, made a pre-All-Star comeback but preferred to use the downtime to rest and continue to heal rather than take part in the league-promoting exhibition contest.
Even if he is healthy and available, though, it's unlikely he'll be the kind of Kobe to which fans have become accustomed over the years. As Bryant told reporters, including Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times, on Sunday, he "probably won't be able to come back soon enough to be able to make my stamp or make my mark on the game [...] so my advice would be to vote for some of the younger players, the Damian Lillards of the world, because they're more than deserving to be out there and playing that weekend."
It's good advice, and an exceedingly reasonable take. While All-Star voting is a popularity contest and the All-Star Game is a spectacle much more about allowing fans to determine what sort of exhibition they'd like to watch than it is about rewarding players who have performed at an exceptional level through the first several months of the season, an All-Star berth tends to vault players to a different level of recognition and evaluation, not only among fans, but among players as well. Bowing out, stepping aside and suggesting fans cast their votes for the likes of Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry (third in voting among West guards as of the last round of results) or Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers (eighth at last count) not only encourages voters to reward elite early-season performance, but it could also help provide a sort of unofficial "reached the next level" stamp for young players on the rise. It would also introduce some fresh new playmaking and shotmaking blood into the All-Star proceedings, which feels like a win-win to me.
With Bryant campaigning for fresh faces to replace him, fellow backcourt vote-leader Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers now sidelined for up to six weeks with a separated right shoulder (a timeline that could keep him out until just before the All-Star break) and fellow former All-Star Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder (possibly) out until after the All-Star break following another knee surgery, the path could be cleared for Curry (who was just under 52,000 votes behind CP3 as of the last vote), Lillard or perhaps another deserving-but-out-of-the-top-two-vote-getters guard (James Harden of the Houston Rockets? Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs?) to slide into a starting spot. That could open the door to the Western coaching staff being able to reward another worthy player — like, say, Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans or DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings, who seem unlikely to garner first-choice consideration in a crowded Western frontcourt — with a reserve slot, which would be an awesome bit of reward for some rising stars that have earned recognition that goes beyond the Friday and Saturday night events of All-Star Weekend.
We can all agree that injuries stink, especially when they rob us of the chance to watch the greatest players in the world ply their trades. One of the few silver linings, though, comes in the opportunity such injuries provide for others to rise up and prove themselves worthy of a greater share of the spotlight. Whether his fans will listen or not remains to be seen, but credit to Kobe for having the sense of perspective to realize that helping another player earn his first or second All-Star berth might be a better thing than scratching and clawing for an ill-gotten 16th for himself.
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