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Ranking Each of Kobe Bryant's NBA All-Star Starting 5s

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2016

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) runs off the court after in the first half of the NBA All-Star basketball game Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

When Kobe Bryant steps onto the Air Canada Centre floor for the opening tip of the 2016 All-Star Game, it will be the 15th time he's served as part of the Western Conference's starting unit.

Over the years, he's had a chance to line up next to plenty of great players during the midseason festivities. From Karl Malone and Gary Payton during his sophomore season to Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard this year, his 23 different teammates in the staring lineups have spanned generations and featured plenty of different styles. 

To provide differentiation between each year's starting five, we're turning to total points added (TPA, which is explained in full throughout this article). 

TPA accounts for efficiency and playing time, estimating how many more points the man in question contributed than a league-average player would for an average team. By summing the scores of each member of the starting lineup during the relevant year, we can provide an accurate picture of the unit's overall strength. 

We're only interested in the players who suited up for Bryant's half of the NBA. The results of the exhibitions are irrelevant for our purposes. Team chemistry doesn't matter here. 

With those rules in mind, how high can this year's Western starters—Bryant, Curry, Kevin Durant, Leonard and Russell Westbrook—rise when compared to the other five-man lineups this future Hall of Famer has graced?

15. 2011 Western Conference All-Stars

How do you negate the impact of Chris Paul's historic season (one of the best ever for a point guard), the work of an up-and-coming Durant and typically strong campaigns from established superstars—Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan?

Include Carmelo Anthony on the All-Star roster during a year in which he was little more than a volume shooter while splitting time between the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks. Anthony may have averaged 25.2 points in the Mile High City and 26.3 in Madison Square Garden, but he was a glaring liability on the defensive end, and that canceled out far too much of his value. 

In fact, Anthony finished the year with a TPA lower than plenty of teammates on each squad—Nene, Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson, J.R. Smith, Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin on the Nuggets, and Ronny Turiaf, Amar'e Stoudemire, Landry Fields and Toney Douglas on the Knicks.

That's not what you want from one of your five starters. 

14. 2008 Western Conference All-Stars

It's only fitting that Bryant was the clear-cut standout among Western Conference All-Star starters during his MVP campaign.

The shooting guard averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.5 blocks for the Los Angeles Lakers, and he also produced some strong shooting percentages. Though Bryant's 45.9 percent clip from the field might not stand out, it looks a lot better in conjunction with 36.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 84 percent at the line. 

Unfortunately for Bryant, the men who joined him in the 2008 starting five couldn't quite stack up, even if it might not have seemed like it at the time of the actual All-Star Game. Duncan held his own throughout the season, but Yao Ming's stellar year came to a close when a stress fracture in his left foot was revealed just nine days after the February festivities. 

Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson (R) of the Denver Nuggets joke around during a media session at the  East-West practice session at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center during the 2008 NBA All-Star Weekend February 16, 2008 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

However, the biggest culprits were a pair of Nuggets. Anthony and Allen Iverson scored bunches of points, but that output masked the flaws in their games that kept Denver from earning anything more than the West's No. 8 seed. 

13. 2006 Western Conference All-Stars

Can you make an argument that Bryant also deserved to win MVP for his work in 2005-06? Absolutely. 

Steve Nash ultimately ended up taking home the award for the second consecutive season, but it's reasonable to claim Shawn Marion was more valuable to the Phoenix Suns, setting the tone for a defense that wasn't the glaring liability it was often portrayed to be.

Meanwhile, Bryant averaged 35.4 points and carried a threadbare Los Angeles roster into the first round of the playoffs. 

The Lakers' most commonly used starting lineup in 2005-06 was composed of Bryant, Brian Cook, Chris Mihm, Lamar Odom and Smush Parker. Other players who moved into the starting five throughout the season included Kwame Brown, Devean George, Sasha Vujacic, Laron Profit and Ronny Turiaf. 

Leading that team into the postseason was nothing short of a miracle, and Bryant's value is also shown by his No. 1 finish in TPA among 2006 Western All-Star starters. But without another MVP-caliber season next to him, it's tough to move further up these rankings. 

12. 2012 Western Conference All-Stars

If you remembered Andrew Bynum once started an All-Star Game for the Western Conference, pat yourself on the back. You deserve some serious credit for that recollection, since the big man followed up his lone appearance with a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers that led to his quick downward spiral out of the Association. 

But Bynum starting isn't a good thing here.

Though he was a monster scorer and thrived on the glass, his trips to the foul line didn't always pan out, and he emerged as one of the league's most futile distributors. Those flaws severely curtailed his value, to the point that he became one of the worst All-Star starters since Bryant entered the league. 

Additionally, Bryant's poor shooting and massive decline on the defensive end drags down the value of the 2012 starting five. He may have put up solid per-game stats before enjoying a resurgent campaign in 2013, but this was the first emergence of cracks in the facade of basketball immortality.

11. 1998 Western Conference All-Stars

First, an interesting anecdote. 

Though Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were the only Lakers to start the All-Star Game in 1998, four members of the opening lineup eventually wore purple and gold. Both Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined the Lake Show after finishing up with the Seattle SuperSonics and Utah Jazz respectively. Plus, Kevin Garnett nearly became a Laker before a handshake deal fell through and he was traded to the Boston Celtics in 2007.

Second, an interesting lack of value. 

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14:  Grant Hill #33 of the Eastern Conference All-Stars digs in on defense against Kobe Bryant #8 of the Western Conference All-Stars during the 1998 NBA All-Star game played February 14, 1998 at Madison Square Garden in New York, New
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Bryant had already become a popular figure in Tinseltown after showing flashes of future stardom, and it was enough for him to earn 395,686 votes during his sophomore season. That allowed him to narrowly edge out John Stockton and Stephon Marbury for the final spot in the Western Conference's starting lineup. 

But even the most hardcore Bryant supporters would have trouble arguing he deserved such an early accolade. Though he had clearly improved since his rookie season, he still came off the bench for all but one appearance with the Lakers and logged just 26 minutes per game.  

10. 2013 Western Conference All-Stars

This was Bryant's last strong season before the injuries started accumulating. He averaged 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists, earned a player efficiency rating of 23.0 and looked better on the point-preventing end than he had in years. 

It was enough for him to emerge in the middle of the pack among Western Conference All-Star starters—an impressive feat in and of itself for a man who celebrated his 35th birthday just a few months after the midseason competition. 

But one of Bryant's teammates let him down.

Even though Dwight Howard clearly struggled to fit in during his lone season in Hollywood, he still earned enough support in the polls to hold down one of the starting spots in the All-Star frontcourt. Astoundingly, that left Durant surrounded by four players from Los Angeles. 

If 2013 taught us anything, it was that a little geographic diversity can be a good thing. 

9. 2004 Western Conference All-Stars

Ming was solid during his sophomore season, though his unwillingness to stray far from the paint and lack of passing chops depressed his offensive value. Steve Francis produced even more offense for the Houston Rockets, but it was clear his spot in the starting lineup was more a byproduct of his success during the previous two seasons (and being teammates with an icon in Ming).

Bryant and Duncan were both in the middle of their primes, so it's not even remotely surprising they were impressive contributors for their squads. 

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 15:  Yao Ming #11 and Kevin Garnett #21 of the Western Conference All-Stars pose for a portrait on February 15, 2004 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

But Garnett is the reason this 2004 bunch finds itself nearly halfway up the rankings. During his MVP season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was an immaculate contributor on both ends, averaging 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.2 blocks. 

Since the start of the 1973-74 campaign, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, O'Neal, Paul, David Robinson and Dwyane Wade have submitted higher TPA scores during a single season. 

8. 2009 Western Conference All-Stars

One of those seasons that was superior to Garnett's 2003-04? That would be Paul's 2008-09 showing for the New Orleans Hornets, where he averaged 22.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 11.0 assists and 2.8 steals while shooting 50.3 percent from the field, 36.4 percent from beyond the arc and 86.8 percent at the charity stripe. 

Paul's 614.99 TPA gives him the No. 14 score since 1973-74, and that's easily the top mark submitted by a point guard during the relevant time frame. Stephen Curry's magical 2014-15 campaign is the second best at the position, sitting all the way down at No. 41 overall. 

But Paul's historic excellence wasn't enough to carry this bunch into the top half, even if Bryant and Duncan both submitted vintage seasons. The other two men in the lineup simply didn't stand out nearly as much as they needed to. 

7. 2001 Western Conference All-Stars

There's no shame in finishing last among this group. 

The 2000-01 season produced one of the most well-balanced sets of All-Star starters we've seen in a long time. Garnett, Duncan, Jason Kidd, Chris Webber and Bryant all had impressive campaigns for their respective teams, even if none of them played at a truly historic level. 

You can also see this represented in the MVP voting, as each finished in the top 10 but ultimately trailed Allen Iverson in the final standings.

WASHINGTON, :  Phoenix Suns' gurard Jason Kidd (L), Los Angeles Lakers' guard Kobe Bryant (C) and Los Angeles Lakers' center Shaquille O'Neal (R) watch the second half action courtside during the 2001 NBA All-Star Game 11 February 2001 at the MCI Center i
HEATHER HALL/Getty Images

O'Neal was originally billed as a starter over Garnett, and that was totally justifiable. The Lakers center put together one of the finest seasons we've ever seen from a modern-day center, and his 407.78 TPA replacing Garnett's 349.07 would have made the five-man unit look even stronger—just not by enough to displace the next entry in this countdown.

Nevertheless, the big man was a late scratch, replaced by Vlade Divac as Garnett slid into the starting five. 

6. 2002 Western Conference All-Stars

A decade from now, we'll look back at the post-Jordan, pre-James generation of basketball players—guys who have recently retired or are playing out their final years—and point to Bryant, Duncan and Garnett as the three who stood out most. 

When I ranked the top 100 careers in NBA history, Garnett was the caboose among that trio, ranking No. 15 overall. Bryant was up next at No. 11, and Duncan checked in at No. 5. ESPN.com's NBA Rank project had Duncan at No. 8, Bryant at No. 12 and Garnett at No. 21.

It's easy to see why all three earn such lofty spots when we remember years like 2001-02, when each played vintage basketball for the teams they spent the most time with throughout their careers. No one in the Western Conference could match up, and only a few players in the other half of the NBA were on the same level. 

5. 2005 Western Conference All-Stars

We're at the point where one relatively lackluster season can hold back the entire starting lineup. Such was the case for Ming and the 2005 Western Conference All-Stars, as he just wasn't on the same level as prime versions of Garnett, Duncan, Bryant and Tracy McGrady. 

Ming was in his third NBA season, one in which he'd eventually average 18.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks for the Rockets. But those are hardly historic numbers, and he took away a spot from a handful of frontcourt players who had a greater claim to the starting nod. 

Dirk Nowitzki had an MVP-caliber year, and his 332.42 TPA would've pushed this group to the countdown's No. 3 spot. Marion, Elton Brand, Andrei Kirilenko and Stoudemire all had legitimate claims as well, even if Ming's international popularity ultimately won out. 

4. 2007 Western Conference All-Stars

If the 2001 crop of Western starters was noticeably well-balanced, then the 2007 group was so strong from top to bottom that it wouldn't have tipped a see-saw in either direction. Picking a clear-cut leader of this group was nearly impossible, even if Nowitzki eventually won MVP. So, too, was finding the weakest player. 

At least we know it couldn't have been Bryant. 

Las Vegas, UNITED STATES: The West's Kobe Bryant dribbles the ball as the East's Caron Butler (R) looks on during the NBA All Star Game, 18 February 2007, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Bryant scored 12 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter as the West came away
GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

During his age-28 season, the Lakers superstar paced the NBA in scoring (31.6 points per game) while also averaging 5.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists. That individual effort remains one of only 26 seasons in NBA history in which a player has topped 30 points, five assists and five rebounds during a typical outing.

Perhaps even more impressively, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Durant, James, Jordan, Pete Maravich, McGrady, Oscar Robertson, Wade and Jerry West are the only men in the club. 

3. 2000 Western Conference All-Stars

There's a massive gap between the top three and the All-Star starters who fell short. The 2003 bunch kicks off the segment of the rankings in which we often see one historic campaign joined by plenty of other excellent ones. 

In this case, the standout season quite clearly belongs to O'Neal, who averaged a mind-numbing 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.5 steals and 3.0 blocks for the Lakers while shooting 57.4 percent from the field. His PER in 2000-01 was a scorching 30.6, which leaves him at No. 14 on the all-time leaderboard

But we can't focus solely on the Big Diesel.

Garnett, Duncan, Bryant and Kidd all enjoyed excellent seasons for their squads, even if their efforts pale in comparison to those of the runaway MVP—remember, O'Neal was one Iverson vote short of unabashed unanimity. 

2. 2003 Western Conference All-Stars

We're looking at the highest TPA of Bryant's illustrious career—the product of him firmly taking control of the Lakers.

The shooting guard averaged 30 points while shooting 45.1 percent from the field, 38.3 percent from three-point territory and 84.3 percent from the stripe. Just as importantly, he played some of the best defense of his career, leading to the most defensible of his All-Defensive First Team nods. 

And Bryant was still just third among this group. The two marquee power forwards were at the top of their games, showcasing their two-way dominance as they helped lead their squads to home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. 

Ming was the only player whose work didn't resonate on a historic level. And considering he was a mere rookie logging under 30 minutes per game for the Rockets, that's rather understandable. 

If the 7'6" Ming had been replaced by Shawn Marion, who produced the highest TPA (353.65) of any Western frontcourt member who didn't start in the All-Star Game, we'd be looking at the top group of Bryant's legendary career. 

1. 2016 Western Conference All-Stars

What's happening this year is truly remarkable. 

The other four starters in the West have been so ridiculously good that they're managing to cancel out Bryant's negative numbers. And to be clear, the Los Angeles 2-guard has been atrocious on defense and merely passable on the scoring end, leading to the only sub-zero TPA a Western starter has produced during his career.

How is this happening?

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 10:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 10, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Warriors defeated the Suns 112-104. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Well, look at the historic TPA ranks of the other four starters, as compared to every individual season since 1973-74. Just remember all these numbers are prorated to account for the fact this campaign is still in progress, which means they admittedly have to maintain their current paces:

  • Stephen Curry, 698.29 TPA: No. 7 overall (99.96 percentile)
  • Russell Westbrook, 579.01 TPA: No. 21 overall (99.87 percentile)
  • Kawhi Leonard, 412.5 TPA: No. 99 overall (99.39 percentile)
  • Kevin Durant, 362.31 TPA: No. 135 overall (99.16 percentile)

This isn't fair. 

We're looking at four seasons that should end up ranking in the top 1 percent, including three in the top 100, two in the top 25 and the No. 7 overall score. In fact, Durant's mark, while only fourth this year, would register as the No. 1 output for five of the other 14 starting lineups featured throughout this countdown. 

That, in a nutshell, is how you hide the effect of a negative presence. 

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam Fromal's own databases and are current heading into games on Feb. 11.

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