With a drive to the bucket and a teardrop floater in the lane, Kobe Bryant scored his 30,000th point on Wednesday night, becoming just the fifth player in NBA history to reach that illustrious scoring milestone.
At 34 years old, Bryant is the youngest player in NBA history to reach the 30,000-point plateau and while he may not be the same player he was five years ago, there is no denying the fact that Bryant is still one of the best players on the planet.
Bryant is either really great for an old guy or really old for a great guy—or both. Yes, it's definitely both.
Bryant joined an elite class of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only NBA players to score more than 30,000 points in NBA his career—Julius Erving scored over 30,000 between the NBA and ABA—but unlike some on that list, Bryant looks like he still has some tread left on his wheels. What's ironic about Bryant being the youngest player to reach the milestone is that of the five legends to reach that number in the NBA era, it actually took the youngest player the longest to get there.
Bryant scored his first NBA point on Nov. 5, 1996, his second game in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, playing three minutes and shooting 1-for-2 from the free-throw line against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Seventeen Hall of Fame seasons later, Bryant scored his 30,000th point in New Orleans against the franchise that originally drafted him—back when they were still in Charlotte—before he forced a draft-day trade to the Lakers that changed the course of NBA history forever.
It's hard to believe Bryant has been in the league for 17 years, so long a baby born the night Bryant scored his first NBA point could be picking out a new car today. One has to wonder how much longer Bryant will be able to keep up this ridiculous level of productivity.
He leads the NBA in scoring this season and has been in the top 10 in the league every season since 2000-01, but for the 2003-04 season when he missed games and was otherwise distracted dealing with his much-ballyhooed legal issues at the time. Since 2005-06, Bryant has been in the top five in the NBA in scoring every season, including three scoring titles.
While Bryant is the youngest of the greats to hit 30,000 points, the other four did it in fewer basketball years. Kareem finished his career with 38,387 points, scoring his 30,000th in his 15th season in the NBA at the age of 36. He went on to play another five seasons after that year, and his numbers didn't really begin to decline for three more seasons.
Malone also scored his 30,000th point at age 36—also in his 15th season. Like Kareem, the Mailman also played at a high level after reaching the milestone, continuing his career for four seasons, three of which saw very little drop in production.
The same can't be said for Wilt and Jordan. Wilt scored his 30,000th point in the 1971-72 season, his 13th in the NBA (note: he played just 12 games in 1969-70) at the age of 35. Wilt played just one more season in the NBA, retiring after the 1972-73 Lakers lost in the NBA Finals.
Jordan was actually the oldest player to score 30,000 points, reaching the milestone at 38 years old in his 14th season but just his first with the Washington Wizards after coming back from his second retirement. Clearly having lost a step or three, Jordan retired for good after the next season.
Following the game on Wednesday night, NBA TV caught up with Bryant and just so happened to have Abdul-Jabbar in studio, asking Bryant if he has any chance to catch Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record. He joked, "that's a lot more basketball for me, I don't know if I've got that much left," before offering a window into his approach toward the game:
"I really just love what I do. I just have a passion for it, I thoroughly enjoy it and this is my 17th year but for some reason that passion hasn't gone down. It's been quite the opposite and I really have no explanation for it: it's actually increased.
I have so much love for the game and I just enjoy working hard and doing what I do best."
His longevity and ability to stay at the top of the game are a testament to his work ethic. Not only is Bryant one of the most prolific scorers in league history, he—like each of the Hall of Famers in the 30,000-point club—is still an excellent all-around player. Bryant has been named to the NBA All-Defensive Team 12 times in his career, making the first team nine times, including every season from 2005-2011.
Kobe may joke that he doesn't have enough basketball left to pass Abdul-Jabbar, but he does, if he wants to stick around long enough.
Bryant has averaged 25.4 points per game in his career, a number that accounts for his first few seasons where he averaged less than 20. Since 2004-05, Bryant has averaged 28.8 points per game, and since he turned 30 years old, he has averaged 26.7 points per game, more points per game than all but five players in NBA history over their entire careers.
Bryant is currently 8,371 points behind Abdul-Jabbar's record—a career's worth of scoring for many NBA players, by the way—so it would take Kobe 335 games to pass him, even if he loses a step and regresses from the last eight seasons back to his career average of 25 points per game.
Bryant could pass him in just over four seasons. If you take into account the rest of this year, Bryant is on pace to pass the legend sometime in early 2016-17.
Bryant has been on record stating he probably won't make it past his current contract, a deal he signed in 2010 that runs through the 2013-14 season. The last few years have been hard physically on Bryant for sure, but if he is still at the top of his game—more importantly at the top of the game—when his current contract expires, is it that far out of the realm of possibility that Bryant continues to play for 20 (or more) years in the league? If he doesn't win another championship before this contract runs out, do you really think Kobe will just call it quits?
It seems unfathomable now, and I admit it's rather ridiculous to speculate what could happen in the future, but there isn't much I would rule out when it comes to Kobe. Frankly, it's hard to imagine an NBA without Bryant. For so many of us who grew up watching greats come and go throughout the last two decades, Bryant has been the one constant at the top of the sport for as long as anyone can remember. Seventeen years later, he can still hang with the young guys.
Hang with the young guys? In the elite class he just joined, he is the young guy and while he's certainly not the young guy in the NBA like when his career began, he's still finding a way to play like them.