Kobe Bryant’s Scoring Milestone Is a Punctuation of His Greatness

Passing Michael Jordan on the NBA's all-time scoring list may finalize his list of career achievements, allowing us to appreciate his legacy fully.

Sunday night was a special night in the long, decorated history of Kobe Bryant. As the aging superstar finally approaches the finish line of his remarkable NBA career, his most recent accomplishment takes on a unique meaning.

With a routine free thrown at the 5:24 mark of the second second quarter, Kobe Bryant reached his greatest, and maybe last, memorable milestone. With his 32,293rd point, Kobe supplanted Michael Jordan for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, passing the greatest player of all time.

Of course, with this particular achievement comes the recurring Kobe versus Jordan debate. While the numbers are compelling, comparing the two has begun to feel more forced as Kobe’s career has progressed. Despite the endless comparisons, his career has evolved much differently from Jordan’s after the 2010 Lakers’ Finals victory. Although a sixth championship and a second three-peat would have been an intriguing similarity, that’s simply not how Bryant’s story unfolded.

Statistically speaking, Jordan bests Bryant in most scoring categories. Jordan’s career, while also being four full seasons shorter than Bryant’s, was notably more efficient. Jordan’s 30.1 points per game average on 51% shooting is markedly higher than Kobe’s 25.5 average on 48% from the field. In the playoffs the distinction is even greater with Jordan averaging 33.4 points per game to Kobe’s 25.6.

Career TotalsSeasonsNBA TitlesTotal MinutesTotal PointsTotal AssistsCareer PPGHighest Season AvgHighest Scoring Game
Michael Jordan156 (6 MVPs)41,01132,2925,63330.137.1 (1986-87)69 (03/28/90)
Kobe Bryant195 (2 MVPs)46,45232,3316,04625.535.5 (2005-06)81 (01/22/06)

Still, it’s important to note the difference in eras and league dynamics. In Jordan’s highest scoring season, 1986-87, the best defensive team was surrendering 103 points per game, and the league scoring average for teams was 110 per game. Compare that with 2005-06, Kobe’s highest scoring season, when the top-ranked defensive team was holding opponents to 82.5 points per game, and the league scoring average was only 97.

That year, Kobe led the league at 35.4 points per game, and the Lakers were eighth in scoring, averaging 99 points per game. Jordan’s 37.1 points-per-game season, in contrast, was complemented by a Chicago Bulls team that put up 105 points per contest, and that mark was only good enough for 20th in the league, as the Portland Trail Blazers led all teams at 118 points per game.

Teams were scoring at ridiculous rates in the late 80s, and a lot of that had to do with the pace at which they were playing. In 1986, the Chicago Bulls were averaging 95.8 possessions per game, the exact same figure that the “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns posted in 2005-06. The difference, however, is that the Bulls 95.8 mark was only good enough for 23rd in the league that year while the 05-06 Suns ran the fastest offense in the NBA.

And although the entire league seemed to be scoring more, Jordan had little competition from atop the scoring ladder. The next closest challenger was Dominique Wilkins, who was a solid 8 points behind with an average of 29 points per game. That 29 points per game average would had him barely cracking the top five during Kobe’s 05-06 season. (The fourth spot that year was occupied by Gilbert Arenas at 29.3.)

This is not to say that number don’t make a difference. I’m not even trying to argue that Kobe is better than Jordan. All I’m saying is that certain numbers standing side-by-side don’t tell the entire story. There is context.

There is always context.

Yes, Kobe has played over 100 more games and 5,000 more minutes, taken over 400 more shots and missed 1000 more of them.

Sure, he got four extra seasons of NBA experience in his youth by not playing college ball.

But that’s exactly the point. The Kobe versus Jordan argument misses the greater importance of each of their individual careers: they’re both incredible. They’re just not the same.

What Kobe lacks in efficiency and he makes up for in longevity. Those 5,000 more minutes and 1,000 more games could be viewed as an remarkable feat of consistency just as easily as it could be construed as evidence of ineffectiveness. His career has seen coming and going of Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson, two generations of Tim Hardaways, and seven head coaches for the New York Knicks.

Bryant is one of the few familiar faces left after a two decade span that has witnessed the rapid evolution of the league. He has remained a constant during a transformative two decades (from 1996 when players walked off the team buses with Sony Walkmen to now, where any athlete can share his pregame mix with millions of fans worldwide). Kobe’s 280 career points and four career MVPs in All-Star play, alongside his 16 consecutive All-Star selections, are all NBA records. And although the games are exhibition, the accomplishments represent a consistent level of greatness that is uniquely Kobe.

Surpassing Jordan in scoring is impressive in its own right but reaching that plateau in full swing, while averaging 25 points at age 36, warrants a special kind of appreciation. It also reminds us that Kobe’s most recent milestone might be his last. With this scoring record reached, a collective question is forming in our minds: “What’s left?”

And the more we think about that question, the more we realize their might only be one answer remaining: nothing. Barring a miraculous series of events, there will be no sixth ring and unless Kobe decides to play past 2016, there will be no more scoring milestones either.

And none of this is bad. In fact, its almost liberating. If we can accept that his NBA legacy is essentially complete, we no longer have to expect greatness daily and cringe at miscues and losses. Yet, Kobe himself has acknowledged that he would want no part in a “farewell” tour as he rides out his final seasons.

“If you booed me for 18, 19 years, boo me for the 20th. That’s the game, man,” said Bryant in a Sports Illustrated interview this summer.

Regardless, with nothing conceivable left to play for outside maybe another scoring title, Kobe’s finale should be viewed as a unique opportunity to appreciate what we have before it is gone.

There’s no comparisons left to make. He is not Michael Jordan. He’s only himself: the greatest Kobe Bryant in NBA history.