The first NBA All-Star Game held outside the continental U.S. may very well be all about Kobe Bryant chasing his fifth MVP in this event. Over 10 years after he torched the Raptors for 81 points back in January of ’06, he’ll take his final bow on this stage, having already announced his retirement come season’s end. Oddsmakers have protected themselves against a game dedicated to making sure he’s the MVP in his 18th appearance, installing Bryant as the heavy favorite (+160) over Stephen Curry (+450), LeBron James (+850) and Thunder teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (+900).
It’s a decent bet that a West roster featuring only two first-timers (Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green) will understand the historical significance here and make certain Bryant looks good.DeMarcus Cousins still says “it’s weird every time I get around Kobe,” due to the reverence he had for him as a kid coming up. Head coach Gregg Popovich will make sure Bryant gets his shine and fans will do their part in lauding him as if he was born in Ontario instead of Philadelphia.
He’ll definitely have a lot of support in his corner, but there is one major reason to fade the dream scenario that Bryant is going to walk away the way former Lakers great Magic Johnsonwas able to in the 1992 All-Star Game — the Eastern Conference could win.
The West won Orlando ’92 153-113, so the game wound down with Johnson memorably going one-on-one with Jordan and Isiah Thomas. It would be surprising to see that happen on Sunday against LeBron and Dwyane Wade, and if it does, you would have to go with the East’s beasts against a 37-year-old Bryant.
Remember, Johnson was still only 32 when he was forced to retire and trained for his return, carrying fresh legs into the exhibition game. Bryant, meanwhile, has let his guard down and vented openly about how much it hurts to play out his final season with so much mileage on his tires.
James, Wade, Paul George and local favorite DeMar DeRozan will likely see the most action against Bryant, and it’s in none of their personalities to hand out open looks like Halloween candy. DeRozan, who grew up in Compton and idolized Bryant growing up, has already made it known he plans to ask the Lakers great for his All-Star jersey as a souvenir keepsake, but you can expect him to go right at him. The crowd, his crowd, will eat it up.
Because of this, not to mention the fact that Wade will likely play limited minutes after his starting stint, DeRozan at +2000 is my recommendation if you want an MVP candidate to pull for. DeRozan is averaging 25.4 points this month and is certainly flammable. He’ll also have the luxury of playing next to point guard Kyle Lowry, so if he finds a groove early, he’s got an opportunity to put a nice bow on a weekend that’s been awfully kind to underdogs.
Speaking of which, the West has been installed as a 6-point favorite, fitting in with the narrative that this could be a Kobe coronation. The East lost last year’s game 163-158, but won in ’14 to snap a three-game losing streak. The final margin has been five points or less in five of the last six All-Star contests, with the last two editions setting records for the highest-scoring games ever. Oddsmakers have set Sunday’s total at 318, which is a figure that has only been reached in the last two seasons (318 in ’14, 321 in ’15).
Another reason to wager against the idea that Bryant will be handed the MVP trophy is the fact his West teammates are brilliant enough to inadvertently steal the spotlight. Bryant can’t take every shot, and there’s a reason Curry, Durant and Westbrook are among the top-five candidates to hoist a trophy at night’s end. Both OKC stars have already won once, while Curry is always a threat to go on a run, knock down five or six 3-pointers and foil the Kobe lovefest.