How Kobe Bryant can be the top NBA scorer of all-time

Kobe Bryant has surpassed basketball great Michael Jordan on the NBA's all-time scoring list, but that has not stopped the debate on whether Bryant or Jordan is the better player. -- PHOTO: AFP
Kobe Bryant has surpassed basketball great Michael Jordan on the NBA's all-time scoring list, but that has not stopped the debate on whether Bryant or Jordan is the better player. -- PHOTO: AFP

Now that Kobe Bryant has surpassed Michael Jordan on the National Basketball Association's (NBA) all-time scoring list, basketball fans can have a good debate on who's the better player - Jordan with his six NBA titles over a 15-season career, or Bryant with his 19 seasons of scoring brilliance (he also has five titles).

But Jordan is already well past his retirement, the 51-year-old now trying his best to build up the young Charlotte Hornets team as the team owner. Bryant, on the other hand, is still pouring in the points - night in, night out - at age 36.

He now has 32,331 points, which puts him third in the NBA all-time scoring list, behind Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone (36,928 points) and Los Angeles Lakers centre Kareem Abdul Jabbar (38,387).

What better to secure his legacy by becoming the league's all-time leading scorer, eclipsing nearly 70 years of elite NBA basketballers, and putting a firmer argument for the eternal Jordan vs Bryant debate?

By no means is this a sure thing. Let's look at the factors that may affect Bryant's desire to overtake Abdul Jabbar.

1. Health

For most his 19-year NBA career, Bryant has been the epitome of an athletic player - nimble with a powerful leap, and durable to play without getting seriously injured. He has also adjusted his game style as he aged, from a high-flying dunker to an adroit shooter of mid-range jumpers -- pretty much like what Jordan did along his career too.

But last season, he finally succumbed to the first major injury absence of his career, a combination of a torn Achilles tendon and a fractured knee kept him out for all but six games. Those injuries are known to affect a basketball player severely, limiting his leaping ability and agility. Astonishingly he came back this season looking as good as ever, averaging about 25 points.

Another long-term injury, however, and he could seriously consider retirement. After all, what accolades he has amassed is already pretty spectacular and he can happily call it a day without much regrets. The all-time scoring record, however, will be tantalisingly out of reach.

2. Age

Both Malone and Abdul Jabbar played until their early 40s. Bryant has an advantage on both of them in that he skipped college and entered the NBA at age 18 instead of about 21 or 22, giving him a career head-start in scoring.

Still, he is already 36, and while many believe he will keep playing to surpass Malone, who is 4,597 points ahead. If he keeps up his 25 points per game average, he should pass Malone in about two seasons, in the 2016/17 season.

By then he will be 38, in his 21st season, and still 1,459 points behind Abdul Jabbar. According to NBA statisticians, that would mean another season of 25 points scoring average. No players has ever averaged that many points past his 20th season.

Could we see a 40-year-old Bryant still hoisting difficult shots and guarding speedy guards half his age? It is hard to see him wanting to play way past his athletic prime.

3. Motivation

Which brings the discussion to his motivation. What will spur him to more punishing NBA seasons in order to break the all-time scoring record?

There are two schools of thought for this. The first one believes that Bryant's LA Lakers have to be as bad as possible for the next few seasons, as they try and rebuild after a successful decade in which they won five NBA titles.

With Bryant surrounded by young and inexperienced players, he might be inclined to shoot more to try and win games for the club all by himself. That could force him to keep scoring at a high volume.

The other school of thought believes that Bryant should have a Lakers side capable of making the playoffs, maybe even challenge for the title, should they make a few successful trades in the offseason.

This way, he will be motivated to spend a few more years looking for the sixth NBA title to tie Jordan's haul, and he would gladly give part of the scoring load to younger stars who might help him win the sixth ring. In this way, he might take a little longer to reach the all-time scoring mark, but he would be motivated to keep playing at a high level.

Whatever it is, the Lakers have better make big improvements to this current squad, which is not going to make the playoffs. If they make the right roster upgrades, it will affect how motivated Bryant is to keep playing.

So the next few NBA seasons will be a fascinating final chapter for Bryant, one of the finest players to have ever graced the basketball courts. He can very well hang up his boots and end an already-brilliant career (and give the Lakers plenty of salary cap space to sign top players and rebuild). Or he can stay on and chase the all-time scoring record.

Either way, fans will not forget this superstar for a long while.

hankeong@sph.com.sg

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