On Monday, August 23, Kobe Bryant turned 32 years old.
In the last 14 of those years, the Lakers’ 6-6 guard has shot, driven and dunked his way to 12th on the NBA's all-time leading scoring list. That’s certainly an impressive enough feat, but when Bryant turns 33 next year, he may very well have vaulted all the way up to sixth on the ledger simply by producing at or even below his usual - if remarkable - rate.
Let's take a look at how Bryant has put himself in a position to get there:
First, rewind the clock by two years, prior to the 2008-09 campaign, when Bryant was 26th on the scoring charts with 21,619 points behind a career average of around 25 points per game, plus an ability to avoid or play through injuries. Kobe was perched (or waiting to strike, rather) just behind Larry Bird (21,791), Gary Payton (21,813) and Clyde Drexler (22,195). During that season he jumped all three, and then splashed nets past Elgin Baylor (23,149), Adrian Dantley (23,177), Robert Parish (23,334) and Charles Barkley (23,757).
Bryant then won his first Finals MVP award when the Lakers beat Orlando 4-1, before making another assault on the all-time list in 2009-10. His list of victims: Allen Iverson (24,368), Patrick Ewing (24,815), Jerry West (25,192), Reggie Miller (25,279) and most recently, 13th-place Alex English (25,613), whom he surpassed with 24 points on March 24, 2010 at San Antonio. In passing the legendary West on a slam dunk at Memphis on Feb. 1, 2010, Bryant also became the all-time leading score in Lakers franchise history before going on to claim his second straight Finals MVP trophy.
Add it all up so far, and the Black Mamba has scored 25,790 points.
Now, over the last three seasons, Bryant has averaged 2,165 points. He played all 82 games in 2007-08 and 2008-09, averaging 28.3 and then 26.8 points per game in respective years. Though he averaged 27.0 points in 2009-10, he missed nine games, so his total output (1,970) was his lowest since 2004-05 (1,819), when he missed 16 games.
Here's the reason for the math: if Bryant hangs around his average of 27 points from the last three seasons and plays in all 82 games, he'll score 2,214 points, pushing his career total up to 28,004, nearly 600 more than current sixth-place holder Moses Malone (27,409). If we're being (much) more conservative, Bryant could miss 10 games and average only 25 points per game, and he'd still total 1,800 points for the season and 27,590 for his career, clearing Moses by 181 points. Before he gets to Mt. Moses, Bryant will have to climb past Hall of Famers* John Havliek (26,395), Dominique Wilkins (26,668), Oscar Robertson (26,710), Hakeem Olajuwon (26,946), Elvin Hayes (27,313) and Malone.
*In fact, every eligible player on the all-time scoring list all the way up to No. 34 (Mitch Richmond) is in the Hall of Fame. Active players like Bryant, Shaq and those recently retired (Reggie Miller, Gary Payton) are not yet eligible.
Despite Bryant's rise, the top five scorers in history are safe at least for another year or two: Shaquille O'Neal (28,255, still active); Wilt Chamberlain (31,419); Michael Jordan (32,292); Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387).
But Kobe's already in the Top 5 for the postseason.
BRYANT 4TH ON PLAYOFF POINTS LIST
Points, of course, are harder to come by yet more important in the postseason, and Bryant has shot his way up this list as well, currently ranking fourth with his 5,052 points.
He surpassed the Mailman (4,761) with a three-pointer in Game 4 of the 2010 Western Conference Finals at Phoenix (one of his six threes in the game and career high 49 in the playoffs http://my.lakers.com/blogs/2010/07/30/kobe-dialing-long-distance-in-playoffs/), and Jerry West (4,457) in Game 3 of Round 1 at Oklahoma City to become the Lakers all-time leading playoff scorer.
Only Shaq (5,248), Kareem (5,762) and Jordan (5,987)* rank above Bryant in playoff points.
Bryant has averaged right around 30 points per game in 23 games with L.A.'s three straight trips to the Finals, so even if he scores at that rate and the Lakers go back to the Finals, it'll be tough for Bryant to catch Abdul-Jabbar or Jordan. Shaq, on the other hand, is right there in his sights.
*Bryant is also second only to MJ in career playoff games with 30+ points, trailing 78 to 109. Kobe passed Jerry West (74) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (75) during the 2009-10 playoff run thanks to hitting the 30+ mark in 11-of-12 games.
The sum total of all these points? Greatness.