After the first returns of 2016 NBA All-Star voting, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant is leading the pack by a wide margin.
Bryant has 719,235 votes -- well ahead of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry (510,202), the next-highest vote-getter, and more than twice as many as Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James (357,937).
After the Lakers' 94-84, Christmas night lossto the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant said he was more than a little surprised he had such a wide lead.
"Listen, I was making a little coffee run this morning, got some gas and decided to just go on Instagram and peruse," he said, "and [I] saw the damn votes, and I was like, 'What the hell?' Shocked doesn't do it justice."
He added, "It's exciting. What can I say? Just thankful."
The 2016 NBA All-Star Game, to be held in Toronto, would be Bryant's last, as he has announced his plans to retire after this season, his 20th in the NBA. His 17 All-Star selections are second all-time behind former Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had 19. Bryant, 37, is the leading scorer in NBA All-Star history (280 points).
This year marks the first time that the 6-foot-6 Bryant is being listed as a member of the frontcourt in All-Star voting. In previous years, he has been listed as a guard. The second-highest vote-getter among Western Conference frontcourt players is Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant (349,473).
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Friday's game that Bryant deserves a spot on the All-Star team.
"A lot of people disagree with me on that. That's fine. I have my opinion. I think Kobe should be on the All-Star team," Rivers said. "I don't care if he's a starter of if they figure out a 13th spot for him. [With] what he's done in his career, he should be on the All-Star team, and I don't see any debate in that. You can have one, but I'm not hearing it."
But what if someone else were left off, such as one of Rivers' players?
"It would be awful, but Kobe should be on the All-Star team," Rivers said. "I think they should have a special exception and put 13 guys on if that's the case if he wasn't in one of the top 12 as far as voting or whatever. But I just believe he should be on it. Magic [Johnson] was on, Michael [Jordan] was on with the Wizards. I think certain guys earn that right, and unfortunately for other guys who can't make it, they have to earn that right too."
Clippers forward Blake Griffin, who had 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in Friday's game, said a player of Bryant's stature should be met with deference and understanding from other deserving players, even if Griffin himself were to be left off the All-Star roster.
"Kobe's a guy that's done so much for this league and has such a big imprint on the game of basketball for the past 20 years," Griffin said. "It's just a legacy thing. Every year, guys don't get to play in the All-Star Game that probably deserve it because of the 12-man roster. If it was me, you kind of understand, you just tip the cap to a guy who has gone before you, who has paved the road for a lot of guys."
Rivers' comments were relayed to Bryant after the game.
"The All-Star Games are always tough because there's always players that deserve to make it that don't," Bryant said. "[It happens] every year with the amount of talent that we have. That part of it. It's tough, but getting the respect from the peers and other coaches around the league is awesome."
Some players look forward to having the All-Star break to recharge, but not Bryant, who said he is interested in playing.
"I'll have plenty of time off coming up," he said with a laugh. "I enjoy trying to play as much as I can. If physically I can't play, if I'm not able to play, [then] I physically just can't. But if I'm able, I'm all for it. It would be fun to go out there and play with the guys and kind of hang around with them one more time."
Bryant is averaging 17.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 30.5 minutes per game this season. He scored 12 points on 4-for-10 shooting in 26 minutes as the Lakers fell to a Western Conference-worst 5-25.