Kobe Bryant has talked openly, honestly and willingly about his impending retirement since the end of the 2011-12 NBA season. He turned 34 in August, with 16 years of professional basketball already under his belt and at least two more to go before his deal with the Los Angeles Lakers comes due.
Kobe's suggested that he'd hang 'em up once his contract expires, though he's left the door ajar for a career extension into his late 30s if he feels he can still compete at an elite level.
That should probably be a big IF, considering all the wear-and-tear he's logged onto his 6'7 frame over the years. Health has already cropped up as a concern this preseason, with the Black Mamba missing practice time on account of a strained and bruised right foot.
However many more years Bryant hangs around, he'll have at least one ghost to chase and no shortage of goals to shoot for. Here are five such milestones on the Mamba's radar.
Kobe Bryant is already one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history. His career average of 25.4 points per game places him ninth on the all-time list in that regard. The greater intrigue, though, comes with his scoring total.
That is, Kobe's accounted for 29,484 points in his 16 seasons of NBA duty, good enough for fifth-best all-time. Barring any truly debilitating injury, he's virtually guaranteed to eclipse the 30,000-point mark at some point in 2012-13. If Kobe's able to rack up 1,935 points (23.6 per game over an 82-game slate), he'll tie Wilt Chamberlain for fourth place on the scoring list.
Another 873 points after that, and Kobe will be neck-and-neck with Michael Jordan in third. Doing so in the span of one season would require Bryant to pile up approximately 34.3 points per game while seeing time in all 82—neither of which is likely, given Kobe's age and reduced burden on a star-studded Lakers squad.
However, if Kobe were to play 130 regular-season games over the final two years of his contract, he'd need only to score 21.6 points per game to equal His Airness. Considering that Kobe's season scoring average hasn't dipped under 20 points since 1998-99, that certainly seems like a reasonable target.
Catching Michael on the all-time scoring list is no guarantee for Kobe.
At least, not as surefire a bet as seeing eye-to-eye with MJ financially. Kobe is already the NBA's highest-paid player, and is set to extend his reign in that regard in 2012-13, when he rakes in $30,453,805 in the final year of his deal with the Lakers.
That massive sum will make Bryant only the second player in NBA history to call such an historic haul his own. Jordan was twice a $30-million man—in 1996-97, when he pulled in $30,140,000, and in 1997-98, when he tipped the scale at $33,140,000.
Coincidentally (or not), the league locked out its players the very next year and instituted the first salary cap in pro sports history with the subsequent collective bargaining agreement.
With the way the NBA's salary structure is currently set up, Kobe and Michael are virtually guaranteed to be the only players to ever top $30 million in salary during a single season.
That is, unless (or until) the dollar is rendered so worthless that $30 million becomes a realistic benchmark. But that's a ways off...
In the meantime, Kobe can look forward to chasing down his sixth ring to equal Michael's career total.
Doing so will be anything but a walk in the park. The Miami Heat are the champs until further notice, and figure to be better than ever this season. Even before a date with LeBron James and company in the NBA Finals can be arranged, Kobe and the Lakers will have to slog their way through a Western Conference stacked with contenders, from the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs to the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets.
Not that the new-look Lake Show won't be firmly in the mix—if not at the apex of it—come playoff time. There will be growing pains as Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash learn to play together, but the talent to succeed is clearly there in LA.
A level of elite talent of which Michael and Scottie Pippen could've only dreamed during their salad days together with the Chicago Bulls.
Still, as good as the Lakers may look on paper, parlaying that into actual wins won't be a simple or straightforward task. But if Kobe can bring this team together for a legitimate championship run—his sixth with a third different core in LA—his jewelry equality with Jordan will have been well-earned.
In winning a sixth title for himself, Kobe will also have the opportunity to put the Lakers in a position they haven't enjoyed since 1962.
That is, on par with the Boston Celtics in terms of NBA championships. The old Minneapolis Lakers won five titles with Hall-of-Famer George Mikan in the middle between 1949 and 1954 before Bill Russell entered the NBA and helped the C's dominate the league, to the tune of 11 championships in 13 seasons from 1956 to 1969.
That run left the Lakers in a deep hole in relation to the Celtics. It wasn't until the 1980's, when LA won five titles with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, that the Lakers began to make up come ground on the C's, who won three of their own with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
The 1990's were slow for both historic franchises, though they've since given way to five more 'ships for the Lakers and another for the C's. Kobe's been an (if not the) integral part of each of LA's last five, and with ring No. 6, he can finally help the Lakers hang their 17th banner to match Boston's total.
Unless, of course, the Celtics sneak away with another Larry O'Brien Trophy before then.
In adding his sixth ring and delivering the Lakers their 17th, Kobe will most likely have to do something with which he's been largely unfamiliar—play without the ball.
To be sure, Bryant has enjoyed plenty of success off the ball in the past. He's a superb spot-up shooter who understands how to run defenders ragged through all sorts of screens and cuts.
But in the past (particularly since Shaquille O'Neal was traded away), Kobe has spent most of his time as the team's primary ball-handler. This is partly out of necessity, since LA's recent crop of point guards (including Derek Fisher and Smush Parker) has been light on All-Stars, to say the least.
Kobe's role in this regard also stems from his dominance on the wing. Simply put, if you have a perimeter player as gifted as Kobe is, it's probably in your team's best interest to give him the ball and let him either score for himself or create easy opportunities for others.
Or was, anyway. Now that Kobe has Steve Nash by his side, his role is likely to change. With a Hall-of-Fame point guard on his side, Kobe will likely be asked to divert more of his attention toward working for open shots away from the ball rather than having to fashion them for himself in one-on-everyone situations.
Bryant will still have his chances to take it himself and launch errant shots in crunch time, as Sunday's preseason loss to the Sacramento Kings made all too clear. But for the Lakers to meet (if not exceed) expectations going forward, Kobe must adjust to a more refined role, one that makes him more efficient and allows ample room for his All-Star teammates to play their respective games.