Kobe Bryant says goodbye to the NBA All-Star Game Sunday when the league's top players take to the hardwood at the Air Canada Centre for the 65th iteration of the historic event.
Though this seemed like a year in which the Eastern Conference might have finally swung the balance of power back in its favor, a key injury and Bryant's farewell tour seem to have the focus squarely on the shoulders of Stephen Curry and the Western Conference.
Both rosters, as usual, feature the best talent the globe has to offer, from former top selections to late bloomers, to wily veterans and everything in between, making for yet another can't-miss affair.
Here's a look at who made the cut, injury news and predictions ahead of the showdown.
|BC||Kyle Lowry||Toronto Raptors|
|BC||Dwyane Wade||Miami Heat|
|FC||LeBron James||Cleveland Cavaliers|
|FC||Paul George||Indiana Pacers|
|FC||Carmelo Anthony||New York Knicks|
|BC||Jimmy Butler*||Chicago Bulls|
|BC||DeMar DeRozan||Toronto Raptors|
|BC||John Wall||Washington Wizards|
|BC||Isaiah Thomas||Boston Celtics|
|FC||Chris Bosh||Miami Heat|
|FC||Paul Millsap||Atlanta Hawks|
|FC||Andre Drummond||Detroit Pistons|
|FC||Pau Gasol (replacing Butler)||Chicago Bulls|
|BC||Stephen Curry||Golden State Warriors|
|BC||Russell Westbrook||Oklahoma City Thunder|
|FC||Kobe Bryant||Los Angeles Lakers|
|FC||Kevin Durant||Oklahoma City Thunder|
|FC||Kawhi Leonard||San Antonio Spurs|
|BC||Chris Paul||Los Angeles Clippers|
|BC||James Harden||Houston Rockets|
|BC||Klay Thompson||Golden State Warriors|
|FC||LaMarcus Aldridge||San Antonio Spurs|
|FC||DeMarcus Cousins||Sacramento Kings|
|FC||Anthony Davis||New Orleans Pelicans|
|FC||Draymond Green||Golden State Warriors|
The aforementioned key injury centers on Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler.
Butler suffered a knee injury earlier in the month, and the team announced he would miss three to four weeks while recovering.
The league leader in minutes per game at 37.9, some might suggest the injury wasn't hard to see coming given the usage rate. Regardless, it's disappointing for the 26-year-old guard, who posted a 22.4/4.3/5.2 slash line before the issue.
While fans of the league get robbed of seeing Butler put on a show and potentially make things smoother for the Eastern Conference, it does pave the way for Gasol to be a part of Bryant's final appearance at the event.
Stephen Curry Cruises to MVP
Normally it is rather hard to predict who will take home the MVP Award at this event given the impeccable rosters and unpredictable nature of how the game might unfold.
Not this year—this is Curry's world, and everyone else seems to simply exist within it.
Folks surely wouldn't mind a fairy-tale ending in which Bryant puts on a show and hoists the individual hardware as the ultimate way of saying goodbye to the event. But folks might not have minded Bryant carrying the young Los Angeles Lakers to the postseason, either—instead, they have to settle for the team sitting on just 11 wins in 55 games.
Plenty of great candidates exist. LeBron James is always susceptible to taking a game over at any point. Paul George exploding and showing the globe what it had missed while he sat out with an injury would almost demand a Hollywood script. The 25-year-old Pacers forward is averaging a gigantic 23.3 points and 7.1 boards this year.
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Out West, Kevin Durant seizing the day once again or DeMarcus Cousins bullying everyone or even Kawhi Leonard continuing his ascension would make for a great story. Some tend to focus on off-court drama when it comes to his team, but Cousins averages a double-double at 26.8 points and 11.1 boards. Leonard ranks behind just Curry, Russell Westbrook, Durant and James in player efficiency rating (PER) at ESPN.com.
But in the end, the award will go to Curry. He's tops in the league in PER at 32.16 with an average of 29.8 points, 6.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game.
He's a guy who just dropped 51 points while nailing 11 shots from deep, as NBA.com/Stats illustrated:
Curry might have to share the backcourt with Bryant, but he's the field general who hardly misses and continues to innovate the game into its more interesting form.
Bringing home an MVP on Sunday would be akin to another day at the office for Curry.
The West Rolls
Curry taking home MVP implies the Western Conference takes home the win, which was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
It doesn't help that the East lost Butler. James, George, Carmelo Anthony and even John Wall and Andre Drummond can fill up the stat sheet, but in a game where both teams like to get out and run and freestyle offense, swapping Butler for the plodding Gasol hurts.
When it comes down to it, the winner of the All-Star Game usually has a pretty good motivation.
For the Western Conference, it's all about sending Bryant off with a bang.
Bryant joins Michael Jordan, John Havlicek and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the fourth player to start the game at the age of 37 or older. He just wound up as the top vote-getter. He's been to every game since 1998 except for the 1999 iteration, which didn't even happen.
So while he might not win the individual hardware, one of the game's greats saying farewell means Curry and Co. won't let up in pursuit of making sure the team gets a win.
All stats and info via ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.