Kobe Bryant likely will end his career as the NBA's all-time playoff scoring leader
The numbers that mostly consume Kobe Bryant at this stage of his 15-year career are five and six, the former marking the number of NBA championships he currently has and the latter the number he wants after the 2011 playoffs. Bryant could acquire even more rings before his career ends, but for now the quest for another Larry O'Brien trophy involves reaching championship No. 6.
No. 6 would bring further comparisons with Michael Jordan, who also compiled six championships, and -- because Bryant's ring total would then surpass Magic Johnson's five -- undoubtedly stir further debate about who is the all-time greatest Laker. Even if Bryant wanted to finish his career as the best basketball player both in his own mind and in the court of public opinion, he'd likely never admit that; he's said before that he wants his accomplishments to be viewed without all the comparisons.
Still, as Bryant climbed the NBA's all-time-scoring list, I couldn't help but ask Lakers Coach Phil Jackson during a pregame interview if there were one particular player on that NBA list that Bryant would want to surpass. Jackson didn't hesitate: "Michael Jordan." Jackson wouldn't really say why, but the reasons are fairly obvious. Jordan is the only other guard on the league's top 5 scoring list, and the two players -- and how they performed under Jackson -- are continually the subject of comparison.
Whether Bryant can surpass Jordan remains unclear. Bryant, who's sixth on the all-time list, currently has 27,868 points; Jordan ranks third with 32,292 points. I've already looked at where Bryant can finish on that list. This post focuses on whether Bryant could match Jordan in playoff performances beyond getting a sixth ring. Bryant's 30 points on 10-for-20 shooting in the Lakers' 100-86 Game 3 victory Friday over the New Orleans Hornets marked the 80th time he'd scored at least 30 points in a playoff game, trailing only Jordan's 109. His double-digit effort also marked the 152st consecutive playoff game in which Bryant scored at least 10 points, a streak that dates to Game 3 of the 2004 NBA Finals against Detroit on June 10, 2004, and a mark that only falls short of Jordan's run of 179 consecutive games dating from April 19, 1985, to June 14, 1998.
And then there's the all-time playoff scoring list. Among Bryant's motivations: His 5,127 career playoff points mean he's only 121 points shy of surpassing Shaquille O'Neal's third-place mark (5,248), a record that surely be broken in the 2011 NBA playoffs. Bryant also trails Abdul-Jabbar (5,762) and Jordan (5,987). I find the following scenario highly unlikely, but should the Lakers sweep their way through the 2011 NBA Finals and were Bryant to maintain his current 25 points-a-game average, he will have finished with 425 playoff points this season, increasing his total to 5,477. Should the Lakers go through seven games in every playoff series this season while Bryant maintains his 25 points per game average average, he would finish with 700 points this season, increasing his total to 5,752.
Those satisfy the short and long scenarios but don't include the possibility that Bryant may have games where he facilitates and other games where he has 40-plus points -- or series that last five or six games. But the numbers make it clear that it's likely Bryant will surpass both Shaq and Abdul-Jabbar on the scoring list this postseason. It's unlikely he'll eclipse Jordan; I'm still uncertain they could beat Oklahoma City in a Western Conference Finals matchup, but Bryant will surely take the throne over Jordan in next year's playoffs. It's not the main motivation for Bryant right now, but it's a carrot he's certainly aware he could pursue.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant lets out a yell as he dunks against the Hornets during the second quarter of Game 3 on April 22, 2011, at New Orleans Arena. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times