Kobe Bryant has now been named a Western Conference All Star starter more times (14) than Phil Jackson has accepted championship rings as a player and a coach (13), and far more times than the rest of his fellow Western All Stars combined (8).
Bryant led all Western players in fan votes, which is nothing new, as he’s been elected a starter in the game every year except for his rookie season (1996-97), and in 1999 when the lockout prevented the game. But for the first time, one of Bryant’s fellow starters will be teammate Andrew Bynum, who led all Western centers in votes.
“I can’t wait to go, it’s going to be exciting, and I’m looking forward to it,” said Bynum. “The fans are pushing you, and it’s not left up to someone else. That’s great.”
In 18 starts after missing the first four games due to a suspension, Bynum has averaged 16.5 points on team-best 54.8 percent shooting, while leading the Lakers with 12.1 rebounds and 1.89 blocks per game in 34.3 minutes a night. He ranks third in the NBA in rebounding, sixth in field goal percentage and 10th in blocks.
“I’m in a good system, I’m getting the ball a lot more, and without (Lamar) Odom here, I’m getting more minutes,” he explained. Yes, Bynum’s minutes are way up. Last season, he played only 27.8 per game, a difference of 6.8 an evening, improving the average for his career to 24.8.
Speaking of minutes played … despite being in his 16th NBA season, and having already played more playoff minutes than any basketball player ever, Bryant ranked second in minutes per game until Tuesday’s blowout win over Charlotte allowed him to sit for the fourth quarter. He now ranks fourth at 38.0 per night behind relative youngsters Kevin Love, Marc Gasol and Monta Ellis.
And he’s making the most of the increased court time. In those 38 minutes, Bryant is leading the NBA in scoring 30.0 points per game, the most he’s posted since 2006-07, along with 6.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists (both his most since 2007-08).
“It’s ridiculous, but obviously, he’s the best player in the game, so he’s going to make it every year,” said Bynum, reflecting on how well Bryant’s playing this season and all of his All Star trips. Indeed, while Bryant expects to be there, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the record with 18 appearances), the first one is always the most special.
“It feels great,” Bynum continued. “I want to continue to progress, and let my game expand. It makes me a lot more confident – definitely feel a lot more confident.”
This will be the first time that Bynum has ever even attended All-Star weekend since entering the league in 2005. In the past, he’s done things as random as gone to an Air Force base, where he looked into the cockpit but decided not to get in since “the eject thing was live.” Fair enough. While we’re not so sure his 7-foot, 285-pound frame would fit in the plane, Bynum said he wouldn’t be too worried about potential danger.
“If you can’t trust the Navy, who can you trust?”
The only remaining question in Los Angeles about the All Star game is whether or not Pau Gasol will make his fourth consecutive trip, and fifth of his career. Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin have claimed the starting forward slots, leaving Gasol — an All-NBA second teamer last season — looking for a vote from the coaches, just like Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki or Tim Duncan, and guys having excellent years LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love and Paul Millsap.
Bynum said that there’s absolutely no question that Gasol (16.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.23 blocks) deserves to go, but that L.A.’s win total might make it tough to have three Lakers in the mix.
Either way, there will be two Lakers in the starting line up for the first time since Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal in 2004.