Running back to the other side of the court, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant wore a determined glare. It was fitting that Bryant displayed his trademark expression while accomplishing another milestone.
He had just become the youngest player in NBA history to surpass 26,000 career points, and that look on his face epitomized the hungry, relentless attitude that had defined his 14-year career.
The play with which he set that record also was representative of Bryant's career, with longtime teammate Derek Fisher setting him up on a turnaround jumper that came off one dribble, one spin move and one pullup in the third quarter over Denver guard Aaron Afflalo in the Lakers' 118-112 loss Thursday to the Nuggets.
Bryant's team-leading 34 points on 11-of-32 shooting keep alive the debate on when it's appropriate for Bryant to go on a scoring spree and when he should delegate, an argument that's become less of an issue with the Lakers' three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. Kobe's new milestone also leads to the question: How many career points Bryant will end up with once he retires?
He currently ranks 12th on the NBA's all-time scoring list with 25,790 points in 1,021 games and still has a ways to go to catch up with league-leading Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who finished with 38,387 points in 1,560 games. It's possible for Bryant to surpass four players this season on the league-scoring list, including John Havlicek (26,395), Dominique Wilkins (26,668), Oscar Robertson (26,710) and Hakeem Olajuwon (26,946)
The question arose last season when Bryant surpassed Jerry West as the Lakers' all-time leading scorer, and "Mr. Clutch" himself predicted the Black Mamba would finish with at least 30,000 points. That means West believes Bryant would at least finish fifth on the NBA's all-time scoring list, ahead of Shaquille O'Neal's current mark of 28,255 points. Something tells me Bryant's well aware of that ranking.
But would Bryant be able to eclipse any of the 30,000-point scorers? That includes Wilt Chamberlain (31,419), Michael Jordan (32,292), Karl Malone (36,928) and Abdul-Jabbar (38,387). With Bryant's contract with the Lakers good through the 2013-14 season, it's far from definitive but wouldn't be a huge surprise if Bryant decided to hang up his laces then. But a lot could happen before then to affect Bryant's place in scoring history, starting with this season. Through nine games this season, Bryant's has averaged 25.3 points with a so-so 42.2% shooting percentage, and it shouldn't be surprising that this follows a four-season pattern in which his scoring rate has dropped. It went from 2,832 points in the 2005-06 season to 2,430 in 2006-07, 2,323 in 2007-08, 2,201 in 2008-09 and 1,970 in 2009-10.
HoopData shows that, with his fractured right index finger, sprained right knee and sprained left ankle last season, a greater percentage of Bryant's shots were blocked, he finished with fewer and-ones and made fewer shots at the rim, dropping from 66% in the 2008-09 season to 58.6% during the 2009-10 season. But the four-season decline in scoring also speaks to Bryant's improved supporting cast, including Fisher and Pau Gasol, with greater reliability from Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Plus, Bryant missed nine games last season after playing all 82 games from 2007 to 2009.
Assuming Bynum returns soon after Thanksgiving, as expected, and the team continues to pace Bryant so he feels 100% with his surgically repaired right knee, it's not a stretch to predict Bryant will hover around 25 to 27 points per game. If he manages to play 82 games through the 2013-14 season, that means Bryant would score from 2,050 to 2,214 points each year, bringing his career total to 34,010 to 34,666 career points, putting him in third place, one spot ahead of Jordan and one spot behind Malone.
Should the NBA fail to reach a new collective-bargaining agreement, resulting in a lost or delayed 2011-12 season, that would throw all type of wrenches into Bryant's scoring quest. Both good and bad. Bryant would lose those games and his chance to increase that scoring clip, but it would give him more time to rest his assorted injuries and possibly even enable him to have surgery on his right index finger. It's not a stretch to predict Bryant's scoring rate would jump after that, although it's hard to say whether that would be enough to offset points lost due to a lockout.
So with all those variables in mind, how many points do you think Bryant will end up with? I'll feature the varied responses in a Monday post.
-- Mark Medina
E-mail the Lakers blog at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, is fouled by Denver guard Chauncy Billups during the first quarter of the Lakers' 118-112 road loss on Nov. 11, 2010. Credit: Rick Giase / EPA
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, right, goes up for a layup over Denver guard Chauncey Billups during the first quarter of the Lakers' 118-112 loss on Nov. 11, 2010. Credit: Chris Schneider/Associated Press.