By Ben Golliver
Kobe Bryant on Wednesday became the youngest player to surpass 30,000 points, a milestone achievable only through a combination of elite scoring ability, longevity and good health. The 34-year-old guard joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain in the 30,000-point club, hitting the mark in his 17th season and 1,180th game of a career in which he has averaged 25.4 points and played 92 percent of the Lakers' regular-season games since entering the NBA in 1996.
Bryant reached the 30,000-point plateau at 34 years and 104 days. ESPN Stats and Information notes that Bryant topped Chamberlain (35 years and 179 days), Malone (36 years and 189 days), Abdul-Jabbar (36 years and 217 days) and Jordan (38 years and 321 days). Bryant ranks fifth all time in scoring and should move past Chamberlain and Jordan into third place before the end of the 2013-14 season, assuming he maintains good health and a scoring average comparable to his league-leading 28 points per game this season.
"As a talent, as a competitor, I think he is up there on the pedestal with Michael Jordan," NBA commissioner David Stern said Wednesday, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Hitting this checkpoint is a great time to reflect on Bryant's remarkable career. It's also a good time to look ahead at two players who are threatening to take his "youngest to reach" titles from him: Heat forward LeBron James and Thunder forward Kevin Durant. Let's dig in.
A visual look at the scoring progression of the 30,000-point club members is pretty interesting. Take a look at the chart below and be sure to check out the full-size version here.
Four elements stand out from this chart, even if the five scoring tracks are similar enough that it gets a bit crowded.
1. The stop/start nature of Jordan's scoring progression. An early foot injury, a season-plus away from basketball in his prime and a retirement from the Bulls all stunted his scoring accumulation. Whereas the other four players in the group all enjoyed mostly steady accumulation, Jordan has horizontal stalls or valleys at the beginning, middle and near the end of his career. Given how steep the slope of his early scoring was, it's thrilling to imagine the heights he would have reached had he not "retired" twice before he was truly finished.
2. Chamberlain's unmatched scoring ability -- he averaged 50.4 points in 1961-62 -- can't be missed. His run from ages 24-27 stands out, even when compared to the greatest scorers the game has ever known.
3. The longevity of Abdul-Jabbar and Malone. Scoring in volume for nearly two decades carried them to staggering heights. They are a full cut above everyone, including Jordan, which says a lot.
4. Most pertinent to this discussion is Bryant's head start. Entering the NBA from high school gave Bryant a clear leg up on the rest of the group in the "youngest to reach" designation. Chamberlain spent three years at Kansas before playing a year with the Harlem Globetrotters; Jordan stayed three seasons at North Carolina; Malone was at Louisiana Tech for three seasons; and Abdul-Jabbar had four years at UCLA. Even though Bryant didn't start or hit his stride as a scorer until his third year, a lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season, the fact that he was able to start compiling points as an 18-year-old rookie helped him become the youngest to reach 5,000 points, 10,000 points, 20,000 points and, now, 30,000 points. However, the other 30,000-point scorers all got to the mark in fewer games than Bryant.
James and Durant, two players who entered the league as teenagers like Bryant did, are already wiping out and/or threatening Kobe's marks. James, who went preps-to-pros in 2003, has supplanted Bryant as the youngest to reach 5,000 points and 10,000 points and he should, before this season is over, take over Kobe's title as the youngest to 20,000 points. From there, he will fight injury, age, labor stoppages and Durant, who went one-and-done at Texas before joining the NBA in 2007, on a quest to become the youngest to 30,000 points.
Let's take a look at how this race is shaping up. Check out the chart below and be sure to click here for the full-size version.
The first thing that jumps out: how quickly James and Durant were able to hit the ground running as scorers. Both players, unlike Bryant, started and collected points in volume from Day One. As such, both hit the 10,000-point mark faster than Bryant. James (23 years and 59 days) remains the youngest, followed by Durant (24 years and 34 days) and then Bryant (24 years and 193 days).
All three players share a remarkable durability. As mentioned above, Bryant has appeared in 92 percent of his team's regular-season games in his career. James has appeared in 95.6 percent with the Cavaliers and Heat, while Durant has appeared in 96.6 percent with the SuperSonics and Thunder.
James, who will turn 28 on Dec. 30, has scored 19,442 points. If we extrapolate his current pace based on his 24.8-point scoring average this season and his career 95.6 percent appearance rate, James should pass the 20,000-point mark in late January. For comparison's sake, that projection would have him cracking 20,000 points on Jan. 25 against the Pistons at an age of 28 years and 26 days. That would top Bryant by more than a year, as he hit 20,000 points in December 2007 at 29 years and 122 days.
Extrapolating James' production to 30,000 points is much trickier and way less precise. Assuming he maintains his career scoring average of 27.6 points and continues to play in 95.6 percent of available regular-season games, James should crack 30,000 points early in the 2017-18 season. Of course, this assumes that no games are lost that year, when either side can opt out of the current labor deal. A work stoppage of 15-35 games would still give James room to cross 30,000 points that season but could push the achievement past his 33rd birthday in December 2017. In other words, as long as he keeps scoring at his career rate, he should have more than a year's worth of breathing room to overtake Bryant to become the youngest to 30,000 points. The biggest X factor here: James, a more natural distributor than Bryant, could easily transform from a score-first player to a pass-first player as he enters his 30s. A significant dip in his scoring average caused by a role shift could affect whether he beats Bryant to 30,000 points.
Durant, meanwhile, turned 24 on Sept. 29, and he has 10,481 career points. He should get to 20,000 points late in the 2016-17 season, assuming he continues to score at his career average of 26.3 points and play in 96.6 percent of possible regular-season games. That basic extrapolation puts him somewhere between James and Bryant in reaching 20,000 points, as he's on track to hit the mark a little before the midpoint between his 28th and 29th birthdays. Similarly, if Durant sustains his current performance levels, he would crack 30,000 points early during the 2021-2022 season, after he turns 33 but before he turns 34. If things continue exactly as they have gone to date, that would put him behind James but ahead of Bryant again.
Projecting this far into the future is an inexact science; such elite scoring and incredible luck with health simply can't be taken for granted. One season-compromising injury, a la Jordan or Bulls guard Derrick Rose, can meaningfully influence the trajectory. A significant drop in scoring, caused by a mid-career shift in responsibilities, also could throw a wrench into the equation. Early aging, the introduction of new teammates who usurp the scoring responsibilities, rule changes that decrease scoring or a drop in effectiveness could all affect the race to the "youngest to 30,000 points" in one way or another.
Will James kick his scoring back into gear this season and keep it up through his early 30s? It's certainly possible. If so, the title will almost surely be his. Will Durant, one of the purest scorers in history, stay healthy, keep his average around 30 points and wind up outpacing both James and Bryant? That's also a possibility. Bryant has set a high bar and could very well wind up holding off both of them, although that's not the safest bet in the world. James and Durant have been too prolific, too consistent and too healthy to raise any real red flags in their scoring trajectories. They, like Bryant, have all the necessary characteristics to join the NBA's small group of elite-level accumulators.
Until one or both players eclipse him, Bryant gets to enjoy the "youngest to 30,000 points" title. Knowing Bryant, he's probably looking forward and not backward. After all, Jordan's No. 3 spot on the scoring list -- and all the historical implications that go with it -- is almost within reach.
Video via @CJZero and YouTube user firstandskol