When Kobe Bryant drilled a foul-line jumper in the second quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers' 103-98 win over the Sacramento Kings on March 30, he snatched sole possession of the No. 4 spot on the NBA's all-time scoring list from legendary center Wilt Chamberlain.
Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers
Kobe pulls up from the top of the key to become the 4th leading scorer in NBA history, passing Wilt Chamberlain. http://t.co/HsEb3I5ROH3/31/2013, 2:46:41 AM
The question is: How much higher can No. 24 realistically climb before he hangs up his Nikes?
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
Mamba is as Mamba does. Thank you for all your luv and support over the years #vino #gameshoes #gameball http://t.co/onP0XZNXJT3/31/2013, 5:28:45 AM
Well, a review shows that Bryant—who finished the Kings game with a career total of 31,434 points—now trails only Michael Jordan (32,292), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387).
Some quick math reveals that catching Jordan will be a breeze.
Assuming Bryant maintains something in the area of his career scoring average of 25.5 points per game, he'll need about 33 more games to overtake Jordan. Bryant has been scoring at a slightly higher clip than his career mark over the past couple of seasons, but by this conservative forecast, he'll be in the No. 3 spot sometime in December of the 2013-14 season.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Kobe Bryant passes Wilt Chamberlain for 4th on the NBA All-Time scoring list! http://t.co/HMyVhPnukM3/31/2013, 2:47:14 AM
Of course, that's assuming he doesn't suddenly morph into John Stockton.
But how much longer will the Black Mamba be balling? As of this moment, he seems intent on walking away after his current contract runs out following the 2013-14 season. He told NBA.com (via ESPN Los Angeles) that was still his plan after passing Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list.
Bryant was more definitive in an interview with NBA.com after the game, saying he would "in all likelihood" make a decision this summer on when he would retire and that next season would probably be his last.
"As I sit here right now, yeah," Bryant said.
But even the Mamba seems uncertain about how much longer he'll be playing the game.
Dave McMenamin @mcten
Kobe said he could play longer that one or two more seasons, but it's up to if he wants to. He said he could become a PG and avg 12 ast3/31/2013, 4:53:20 AM
In order to catch Stockton's former running mate, Bryant is going to have to make up some serious ground. The Mailman's advantage on Bryant currently sits at a hefty 5,494 points.
Scoring 2,000 points in one season is no joke. It requires a scoring average of nearly 25 points per game over a full 82-game schedule. Bryant will need nearly three more of them to overtake Malone.
If he suffers a slowdown in his scoring as he enters his late 30s, it might take as many as four more seasons for Bryant to move into the No. 2 position on one of the NBA's most illustrious individual lists.
Abdul-Jabbar's 38,387 points aren't completely out of reach for Bryant, but they're darn close.
If we just assume Bryant somehow manages to maintain his current scoring pace, he'll catch up to Abdul-Jabbar sometime in the middle of the 2016-17 season. In other words, under the most optimistic forecast, Bryant will average about 25.5 points per game over the next three-and-a-half injury-free seasons, allowing him to ascend to the top spot on the all-time scoring list.
But if he suffers any kind of significant injury or declines at a rate that most guys his age probably should, Bryant might only manage something like 1,500 points per season. That may not sound like much, but it still comes out to about 18 points per game over a full 82-game schedule.
Taking that slightly more realistic approach, Bryant won't be within sniffing distance of the top spot for at least another five years, when he's 39 years old.
And if injuries crop up and Bryant is limited to something like 70 games a year, he'll be into his 40s before he overtakes Abdul-Jabbar.
Realistically, Bryant should be able to move as high as the No. 2 spot with a little good luck and sustained performance. But in order to make it all the way to the top, he'll have to put in another five-plus years of high-performance work.
That's a tall order, but then again, making history usually is.