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With Kobe Bryant resting his various injuries, the Lakers have gone 3-0 to enter the All-Star break.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Bryant's time on bench is Durant's gain in rankings

By Steve Aschburner,
Posted Feb 12 2010 11:55AM

What's good for Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers might not be, in this case, good for Bryant's Most Valuable Player ambitions.

Of course, neither is Kevin Durant's rising star.

The decision by all parties in Lakers-land for Bryant to withdraw from the activities of NBA All-Star Weekend is a smart one. As much as the league, the fans in the stands in Dallas and the viewers watching from home might want to see Bryant in all his 12th All-Star appearance, 2009-10 splendor, the fact is, he's hurting and hobbled, and slogging through a weekend of events and appearances on-court and off wouldn't be the routine prescribed by his doctor, trainer or physical therapist. The Race watched New Orleans guard Chris Paul, aided by a pair of brushed-steel crutches, slowly navigate his way from hotel ballroom to hotel ballroom Thursday afternoon. In fact, The Race very nearly got tangled up in Paul's crutches while walking and talking immediately to the Hornets point guard's left.


That's all the NBA needs: The Race or some other august body inadvertently stepping on Bryant's sprained left ankle. So let's etch a cautionary rule right here and now: When The Race's first step is as quick as the player's, said player shall not participate in any pastime more grueling than napping.

By staying away, Bryant gets to rest, recuperate and avoid clumsy reporters, photographers and MVP-monitoring committees. [The Race does not believe for a minute that the Lakers star woke up Thursday morning, clicked to The Weather Channel, saw the popcorn-sized snowflakes descending on Dallas and realized in that instant how much, gee, his ankle hurts after all.]

By missing the Lakers' last three games before the break, meanwhile, Bryant provided that team with an opportunity to demonstrate serious resiliency on three successive superstar-less nights. Los Angeles won at Portland, vs. San Antonio and at Utah by an average of 14.7 points. They beat top-notch, or at least Tier 2, competition handily and both looked good and had fun doing it.

So where's the downside in all that? After all, Bryant gets to heal and gets a breather at a point in the season when players really need it, across a long, demanding weekend when most of the NBA's other top dogs are at their busiest. Consider Durant: Oklahoma City's phenom will serve as the assistant coach Friday for the newbies in the Rookie Challenge game, defend his H.O.R.S.E. title on Saturday and then, as the league's breakout star this season, make his All-Star Game debut on Sunday. Along with all the media obligations, ticket procurements, PSA tapings and photo sessions.

The rest of the Lakers will return from the break for home games against Golden State and Boston feeling better about themselves -- their supporting cast-ness for Bryant -- than at any point this season. Some longtime L.A. observers even see a dark lining to that silver cloud, since Bryant doesn't so much blend himself into any edition of the Lakers as squat on it. One blogger in the Los Angeles Times wrote: "The Lakers superstar discovered that his guys are a whole lot better, and more cohesive and together and on the same page, than they are when he, Kobe, is dribbling out the clock, holding the ball and trying to beat three guys off the dribble while hoisting up 20 to 35 shots a game.''

The Race is not interested in sporting soap operas or schisms. It does, however, perk up when a player as valuable as Bryant can call in hurt and the assembly line hiccups not. One of the great unwritten standards with almost all MVP voters is how a team fares when that trophy candidate isn't around. As the saying goes, sometimes your absence is your presence. [Or vice versa, The Race never remembers.]

Does the team sink like a stone without its best player? Or does it plug along, resourceful and even renewed? The Lakers' recent success without Bryant suggests that the crew around him is more capable than many assumed. Which suggests that lifting them up isn't as weighty a task as what LeBron James does in Cleveland or what Durant does with the Thunder.

And that explains the little leap-frog near the top of this week's ranking:

1. LeBron James, Cavs (43-11)
Last Week's Rank - 1
No Cavaliers team ever has been better (43-11) through 54 games, and they'll come out of the break eager to extend their 13-game winning streak to the longest in franchise history. James headed into ASW with consecutive 32-point performances and double-doubles against the Nets and Orlando.

2. Kevin Durant, Thunder (30-21)
Last Week's Rank - 3
Did you know that Durant ranks near the tippy-top of the league's three-point shooters in 2010? That is, since Jan. 1, he has drained 52.5 percent of his shots from the arc (32 of 61). One question: If Durant wins another H.O.R.S.E. title, might he request that The Race insert similar punctuation marks into this MVP -- or rather, M.V.P. -- watch?

3. Kobe Bryant, Lakers (41-13)
Last Week's Rank - 2
The ankle did to Bryant what a fractured right index finger, back spasms and an overall sense of one's breakability rarely managed to do previously in this season: Sit him down for a semi-extended stretch of games. Let's all remember, though, that the pipsqueak on the playground doesn't just talk tough when he actually has his big brother standing behind him; just knowing that Bro' is home, only a few moments away, can boost the littler guy's bravado. Wonder how these Lakers would do if they knew Bryant was out for months? Or until the fall?

4. Chris Bosh, Raptors (29-23)
Last Week's Rank - 8
Bosh finished strong for the Raptors before the break, totaling 59 points on 22-of-33 shooting with 23 rebounds and eight assists in their two most recent victories. Maybe Bosh and Durant can put a little friendly wager in play, with their rankings in The Race, when they butt heads twice this weekend (Bosh will serve as assistant coach of the second-year players in the Rookie Challenge and then, of course, will clash with Durant in the big game on Sunday.)

5. Dwight Howard, Magic (36-18)
Last Week's Rank - 5
Howard headed to Dallas toting a streak of 15 consecutive double-doubles. The one he got in the loss at Cleveland Thursday was on the low end for him -- 19 points, 11 boards -- since he averaged 20.7 and 14.0 in his previous 14. The Magic slipped to just 16-13 on the road.

6. Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets (35-18)
Last Week's Rank - 4
Anthony came back with a little rust (14-of-33 shooting, only eight free-throw attempts) in his first two games back from a left ankle sprain. But he scored 19 points both nights, including the Nuggets' 36-point spanking of the Mavericks. Which, come to think of it, might earn him a few extra boos from the massive crowd at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday.

7. Tim Duncan, Spurs (30-21)
Last Week's Rank - 6
The Spurs' quiet leader has his customary numbers, though he could exit with 16 points and seven rebounds after 27 minutes in San Antonio's rout of the Nuggets in Denver Thursday. He still is the only player in the league's Top 20 in points, rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage. But the Spurs are 5-6 in their last 11.

8. Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks (32-20)
Last Week's Rank - 7
A sprained thumb and games of 15 and 17 points are not the stuff of which MVP seasons are made. Nowitzki might get a boost this weekend, in confidence if not in The Race's rankings, if George Karl opts to slip him into the starting lineup as a Dallas favorite and injury replacement.

9. Deron Williams, Jazz (32-19)
Last Week's Rank - NR
Williams had the Jazz crusing in a nine-game winning streak, 13-1 over their previous 14, until the loss Wednesday to the Kobe-less Lakers. The Utah point guard has a 22.37 efficiency rating and helps the Jazz to a 17-5 mark when he scores at least 20.

10. Steve Nash, Suns (31-22)
Last Week's Rank - 9
Six straight double-doubles, with 33 assists and 8-of-17 shooting from three-point range in his past three games.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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