Kobe Bryant has been refreshingly candid recently while talking about his retirement. Although the Los Angeles Lakers superstar may opt to retire sooner rather than later, it’s truly remarkable to gauge what Bryant could accomplish if he decided to play until his 40th birthday.
In an interview last summer with Graham Bensinger of The Huffington Post, Bryant discussed the possibility of retiring when his contract expires in 2014:
I’ve been playing for 17 years now, so next year (this season) will be my 17th and then, when I’m 35, it will be my 18th year in the league. I mean that’s a long time to be playing. It will be the last year in my contract, so I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll play any longer than that.
Considering that Bryant is having one of the best seasons of his entire career at 34 years old, it’s surreal to imagine him retiring at age 35. Bryant certainly has a ton of miles on the odometer, though, as he approaches 54,000 career minutes (regular season plus playoffs). However, he conditions himself as well as any other player in the league.
So what kinds of records and accomplishments could the Black Mamba achieve if he keeps playing for another half-decade? Well, as with any scorer, points scored are a good starting point.
Bryant is currently fourth on the list of all-time-leading scorers, trailing just Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
He only needs 787 more points to pass MJ for third on the all-time list. Factoring in that there are still five games remaining on the Lakers' 2012-13 schedule, Bryant can cut into that deficit even further before next season.
As an NBA starter, the lowest point total that Bryant has recorded in a single season was 996 in 50 games during the 1998-99 campaign. He’s only scored fewer than 1,485 points three times in his career, which happened in each of his first three seasons. So even if Bryant decides to call it quits after next season, he will pass Jordan barring an injury.
But what kind of territory are we talking about if Bryant were to play until he’s 40?
Bryant needs 6,882 points to pass Abdul-Jabbar for first on the all-time scoring list. In order to make that a reality, Bryant would have to average 1,147 points per season until he turns 40 (six more seasons).
Given Bryant’s pedigree as one of the best scorers ever, that number is not insurmountable. However, Bryant has hinted at retiring after next season. Would he ever change his mind to the tune of playing five additional seasons? Even for a guy with the conditioning level of Bryant, that would start to take a massive toll on his body.
Hypothetically speaking, if No. 24 can reach the 2,000-point plateau in one or two more seasons, eclipsing Kareem’s record may not be too far-fetched. That said, I don’t believe that Bryant wants to continue toiling in the NBA with diminishing skills just to etch his name at the top of the all-time scoring list. Doing so as a mediocre role player simply wouldn’t suit him.
It’s interesting to speculate if and when Bryant will reach higher rungs on the scoring ladder. However, NBA players are defined not only by the points that they score, but also by the championship rings that they own. For instance, nobody believes that Karl Malone is a better player than Michael Jordan simply because he scored more points, right?
At 34 years old, Bryant has acquired five championship rings. He was part of the Lakers' "three-peat" from 2000 to 2002, then won back-to-back championships with Pau Gasol in 2009 and 2010.
Although it’s not the best way to simplify it, Bryant has won five championships in 17 seasons, which is one Larry O’Brien Trophy every 3.4 years. It 100 percent depends on his supporting cast, but the aptly nicknamed "Vino" would have a better chance of adding a sixth championship to his resume if he played well past next season.
Winning a sixth championship ring would tie Bryant with Jordan’s impressive total. Although the probability of Bryant winning four more MVP awards to tie himself with Jordan’s five is virtually zero, winning as many rings would further fuel the silly “Jordan vs. Bryant” argument.
Again, it’s hard to imagine Bryant retiring in 2014. He’s proved that he still has plenty left in the tank to compete at an extremely high level, but seeing Bryant play until he’s 40 may be even less likely.
Even if Bryant were to retire today, his numbers put him in elite company. But if he chooses to keep playing, he could make a run at some truly hallowed ground.