When it comes to scoring buckets, there are only three players ahead of Kobe Bryant: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, and Michael Jordan.
On Saturday night, against the Sacramento Kings, Bryant slipped past Wilt Chamberlain’s 31,419-point mark, and currently sits fourth on that illustrious list of all-time dominant scorers.
The big question is, have we seen a better scorer than Kobe?
While all three above him proved to be more efficient scorers, it’s difficult to claim that those three legends could score as many ways as Bryant. Jordan eventually added three-point range to his jumper, but over a course of a single season, MJ was reluctant to take defended threes, and no backcourt player in NBA history has been defended as heavily as Bryant has (and before you give me the “hand-checking” excuse, please understand that zone defenses are designed to stop the superstar, and any scorer with no bias will tell you they are far tougher to play against). Malone had range for a power forward, and played pick and roll basketball with a top three point guard of all time (John Stockton) for the beef of his career. Kareem fed off of Showtime the last decade of his career, and he was a giant among smaller, less athletic players back in the 70s. You don’t believe that statement? When was the last time you saw a big man average 20 rebounds per game? How often did it occur before the 1980s?
The best part about a debate is speculation. How would a prime Kareem fare against a 350-pound Shaquille O’Neal during the 2000-02 dynasty? If Jordan had so much trouble against Gary Payton in the 1996 NBA Finals, despite being the MVP of the league and still putting up 30 points a night, what would his performances look like against a 2008 Boston Celtics team that featured Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, James Posey, and Kendrick Perkins as defensive players?
Analysts love raw numbers. Six is greater than five, 50% from the floor is greater than 45%, and…well, you get the picture. How about defensive numbers? Among the ten greatest defensive teams in the history of the game, according to opponent FG% (basically, how poorly opponents shoot the ball against a particular team), the top 12 are ALL post-Jordan, and that’s removing the teams from the 50-game 1998-99 season, because offensive numbers were reckless across the board that year. The Spurs squads, the 2004 Rockets, 2004 Wolves, 2008 Celtics, and the 2004 Pistons were among those 12 teams, all seeing Kobe in the playoffs, all geared to stop him from scoring the ball with what you could consider the Jordan Rules (using multiple types of defenders throughout the game, different defensive strategies to throw him off). Of course, you have to consider the zone defense.
Why not argue against Kobe as the greatest scorer of all time? He’s still less efficient than Jordan, Wilt, and Kareem (the other three that should be included in the “Mount Rushmore” of scorers). He is currently in his 17th NBA season (and is this actually a bad thing?), possibly reaching Kareem’s longevity before it’s all said and done.
What we do know, for certain, is that Bryant is clawing his way up the list, and he’s doing it at a rate unexpected by most, at an average of 27.2 PPG this season. It doesn’t help him, at all, that he was apparently held back by Del Harris his first two seasons in the NBA, and suffered through two lockout seasons (his third season being just 50 games). Championships matter most, but Bryant had to share the ball with another major ball hog in Shaquille O’Neal for the first eight seasons of his career (yes, Shaq was a ball hog, just like Kobe, Jordan, and Wilt).
Ultimately, a player’s career will be defined by how many championships he has on his fingers. Bryant will always dig for another to add to his collection, but in the meantime, surpassing legends in major statistical categories will have to do, and next on the radar is none other than the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan.