Kobe Bryant Passing Michael Jordan's NBA Scoring Mark a Bittersweet Affair

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 15, 2014

Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today

For all of the unbelievable entries on Kobe Bryant's legendary NBA resume, his latest might be the most difficult to process.

Passing Hall of Famer Michael Jordan to reach third on the league's all-time scoring list, as he did with a pair of foul shots at the 5:24 mark of the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 14, shows both how far Bryant has traveled—and how little is left of his basketball journey.

It's a bittersweet moment for the offensive assassin known as the Black Mamba.

On one hand, the basketball world is ready to celebrate a feat of historic proportions, a generational accomplishment no one can ever take from him. But a brutally honest assessment of his situation and that of the Los Angeles Lakers shows this could be the last major triumph of his storied career.

The Achievement

Bleacher Report

Of all the players to have ever graced the NBA hardwood, only two have more career points than Kobe Bryant. No matter which angle is used to view that fact, it's mind-numbingly impressive.

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Unless, apparently, if you're Bryant himself.

"I only think about it when I am asked about it," Bryant said earlier this month, per Sporting News' Sean Deveney. "I just go out there and play."

Publicly, Bryant kept it cool while approaching the mark. But those close to him know there is a far greater appreciation for this moment than he has let on.

"I know it's big for him" Lakers guard Nick Young said, per Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles. "He can say what he wants but I know he looks at it and to beat someone you look up to is a great feeling."

Bryant is a student of the game. While he lists Jordan as a basketball influence, Bryant also points to players like Oscar Robertson, Bob Pettit, Walt Frazier and George Mikan, per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes.

Bryant cannot have that level of respect for basketball history and not be overwhelmed by what this means. One glance at the scoring leaderboard stresses the significance of what he has pulled off.

The Five Greatest Scorers in NBA History
PlayerSeasonsPoints
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar2038,387
Karl Malone1936,928
Kobe Bryant19*32,310
Michael Jordan1532,292
Wilt Chamberlain1431,419
Basketball-Reference.com

And, yes, the fact that he surpassed Jordan specifically has to make this climb even more special.

When Bryant entered the league in 1996, Jordan was still at his peak. During Bryant's first two seasons, Jordan picked up the last two of his six titles.

Once Jordan walked away from the NBA for the second (but not final) time in 1998, the league was in desperate need of a new superstar leader. Someone had to carry the torch.

More than that, someone needed to be the "next Michael Jordan."

In so many ways, that was an impossible task. Forget Jordan's near-mythical gift for the game, His Airness transcended the world of sports. He was a cultural icon, which only added to the level of scrutiny the stars who followed him would face.

Not to mention, Jordan was a ruthless competitor of the highest order. That combination packed the pressure onto anyone who tried retracing his footsteps.

Most didn't even bother attempting it. Bryant, somehow, nearly pulled it off with flawless execution. While Jordan has the a narrow edge in championships (six to five), Bryant now has the advantage in scoring.

"I congratulate Kobe on reaching this milestone," Jordan, the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, said in a statement released to The Associated Press, via Jon Krawczynski. "He's obviously a great player, with a strong work ethic and has an equally strong passion for the game of basketball. I've enjoyed watching his game evolve over the years, and I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next."

Even if Jordan wasn't the target, he was certainly the model. Bryant patterned his game after Jordan's, flashing many of the same moves and even going straight to the source for the secrets behind them.

So take Bryant's words with a grain of salt when he feigns nonchalance.

"It's really not a big deal to say I passed him for something like that," Bryant said, per Holmes. "It's a great accomplishment, but the true beauty is in the journey."

Maybe Bryant hasn't been chasing Jordan. Or numbers. Or any number other than Ringsssss," at least.

Still, the fact that he climbed this high is nothing short of remarkable. As CBS Sports' Zach Harper noted, there is substance behind Bryant's statistical assault:

Kobe's longevity of both physical and mental prominence in the game of basketball does matter. He outlasted Jordan, and while Jordan did more in fewer games, Kobe was able to endure the game longer, something Jordan either couldn't do or chose not to do. It's a win for Kobe, even if that win wasn't the ultimate goal.

There is, however, an unsettling subplot about how this win came about and just how many, if any at all, will follow.

The Reality

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Bryant might be wiser and craftier at age 36, but he still resembles the younger Mamba in a lot of ways.

He's still sitting among the scoring leaders, still getting up shots at a blistering rate, still unleashing copious amounts of trash talk at anyone in his vicinity.

This is largely the same Bryant the basketball world has always known, only the circumstances around the five-time champion have changed.

Dramatically.

Last season, the Lakers set a franchise-record with 55 losses. This year, they are winning games at an even lower rate. Lakers legend Magic Johnson has already abandoned hope and has been publicly pleading for the organization to tank this season in hopes of saving a 2015 first-rounder that is owed to the Phoenix Suns and under top-five protection.

Cut from the same competitive cloth as Jordan, Bryant won't allow this team to tank. But the Lakers could pile up the losses even if it's not their intent.

As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale explained, L.A. simply doesn't have the bodies to compete for anything of significance:

Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and a sporadically healthy Steve Nash aren't in the rotation to complement Bryant. He instead has Wesley Johnson and Nick Young, Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis, Jordan Hill and [Jeremy] Lin. This roster is far inferior to those of years past.

These Lakers are, unequivocally, the worst team Bryant has ever been on.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 03: Jeremy Lin #17 and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers walk off the floor during a timeout in the second half of their 111-95 loss to the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on December 3, 2014 in Washington, DC. NOTE
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Bryant, like Jordan, left his greatest mark as a winner. Think of one, and the image of the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy follows shortly thereafter.

Unfortunately, it's starting to look like the 51-year-old Jordan has as good of a chance to play in another NBA Finals as Bryant.

This season has already become an exercise in futility. It's going to take almost 50 wins to secure a playoff spot in the Western Conference. At the Lakers' current rate, they'll be lucky to reach half of that.

And there are no guarantees that next yearthe last on Bryant's contractwill be any better.

The Future

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 5: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the game against the Boston Celtics on December 5, 2014 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or u
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Only Bryant knows how much mileage is left on his wheels, but those in the know think next season will be his last.

"All indications are, to me, from him, that this (two-year contract) is going to be it," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told NBA.com's David Aldridge recently. "If somebody's thinking of buying a ticket three years from now to see Kobe play, I would not do that. Don't wait. Do it this year."

In other words, if the Lakers hope to give Bryant another taste of playoff basketball, they have the next 10 months to figure things outwith no obvious solutions in front of them.

They could look to make a splash in free agency, but they already have more than $30 million tied up between Bryant and Nick Young alone. And Deveney recently reported the Lakers "are considered likely" to pick up Jordan Hill's $9 million team option.

That still leaves some money to spend, but it's hard to say how many top-shelf targets will even be available. There is a chance LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland Trail Blazers), Kevin Love (Cleveland Cavaliers), Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies), Jimmy Butler (Chicago Bulls), Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs) and Rajon Rondo (Boston Celtics) could all decide to stay with their current clubs.

Even if the Lakers pry one loose, who would transform this team from a cellar-dweller to a contender? L.A. could keep its draft pick, get a healthy Julius Randle back in the mix, grab an upper-tier free agent and still find itself outgunned in the Wild West.

Then, what happens to Bryant? What goals would he even have left to chase?

Without another contract—plus a clean bill of health—he isn't climbing any higher on the scoring list. He's a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame anyway, so it's not as if his resume needs more quantity. And his sub-40 shooting percentage this season suggests that whatever he adds would come at the expense of quality.

He has scaled all of the individual mountains he can. His competitiveness may fuel his burning desire to add to his jewelry collection, but he has never looked further away from championship contention. Outside of mentoring his young teammates and helping the franchise transition to a new era, there isn't much left for him to do.

So this is a moment that he and the basketball world should savor like it's his last. Because it very well may be exactly that.

Salary information obtained via HoopsHype.com.