Kobe Bryant Moves Past Shaquille O'Neal on the All-Time Scoring ListKobe Bryant scored a game-high 28 points in a game-high 44 minutes on Monday night as his L.A. Lakers lost 95-90 to the Philadelphia 76ers. Along the way, Bryant moved past his former teammate Shaquille O'Neal into seventh place on the career ABA/NBA scoring list with 28,601 points, five more than O'Neal scored. Bryant has played 79 fewer games than O'Neal did and has averaged nearly two more ppg during his career (25.4 ppg to 23.7 ppg). Just like a year ago when Bryant joined the exclusive 25,000 point, 5000 rebound, 5000 assist club, most media accounts describing Bryant's accomplishment will disregard ABA statistics and simply state that Bryant moved into fifth place on the NBA's career scoring list; this kind of revisionist history ignores the ABA points scored by Julius Erving and Moses Malone. Erving was the first "midsize" player in pro basketball history to score more than 30,000 points, at the time of his retirement he ranked third on the all-time list behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain and he still ranks fifth on the all-time list behind Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Chamberlain. Malone narrowly missed joining the 30,000 point club and he currently ranks sixth on the all-time list. ABA Numbers Should Also Count and the achievements of active players like Bryant should be used to shine a much needed light on the achievements of retired players, much like Drew Brees' record-setting 2011 season reminded fans just how great Dan Marino was to set a single season passing yardage mark that stood for nearly 30 years--longer than Jim Brown's career rushing yardage record lasted.
Bryant moving past O'Neal on the all-time scoring list reemphasizes the important point that Shaq Achieved So Much--and Could Have Achieved So Much More; Bryant has always seem determined to achieve as much as possible before Father Time forcibly removes him from the court, as I noted while Placing Kobe Bryant's Career in Historical Context nearly two years ago. Even before Bryant added two more championships to his resume I explained why Choosing Kobe Over Shaq Looks Smarter Every Day; since the Lakers made that fateful decision they have captured three Western Conference titles and two NBA championships, while O'Neal--despite teaming up with, in succession, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, LeBron James and Boston's "Big Three"--managed to win just one NBA championship sans Bryant. The individual numbers are even more slanted in Bryant's favor: since Bryant and O'Neal last played together in 2004, Bryant has scored 16,386 points in 567 regular season games (28.9 ppg) while O'Neal scored just 6682 points in 398 games (16.8 ppg) before retiring prior to this season.
However, the way that Bryant surpassed O'Neal provides a telling glimpse into the current state of the Lakers: Bryant poured in 24 points on 8-14 field goal shooting in the first half against the 76ers but despite his sensational play the Lakers were only up 50-46. Bryant cooled off dramatically in the second half--shooting just 2-12 from the field--and, predictably, the Lakers fell apart. The relevant story here is not that Bryant should shoot less frequently--contrary to the bleatings of Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry--but rather that the sad reality is that the Lakers need for Bryant to score 30-40 points while shooting an excellent percentage just to have a chance to win any road game or to beat a good team even at home; the Lakers barely had a lead when Bryant was on pace to have an insanely productive and efficient game and they simply had no answers once Bryant proved incapable of sustaining that amazing pace.
Opposing defenses routinely throw multiple defenders at Bryant and dare anyone else to beat them; Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol have their moments but neither player has the mentality or skill set to consistently dominate a game: Gasol seems to be trying to reinvent himself as a jump shooter, while Bynum only gives effort in spurts and looks clueless when help defenders aggressively attack his dribble. At times, both Lakers big men complain that they don't get enough shot attempts but if you actually watch the Lakers play then you know that Bynum and Gasol do not work hard enough to establish post position early in the shot clock (on the occasions that they do so, Bryant willingly gives them the ball). The problem with establishing post position too late in the shot clock is that the opposing team can simply trap and force a kickout pass, leaving no time for Bynum or Gasol to repost and receive another pass; this often results in Bryant shooting long jumpers with the shot clock about to expire, which then sometimes leads to Bryant deciding he would be better off shooting earlier in the shot clock when he has more options as opposed to waiting and then having to bail out his passive big men.
The Lakers are horribly weak at point guard and small forward and their bench is completely ineffective. Bryant has averaged a least 40 ppg for a calendar month four different times, a number surpassed only by Wilt Chamberlain (11), but--even though Bryant's legs seem healthier and bouncier than they have in years and his injured wrist seems to be healing--it is not realistic to think that a 33 year old shooting guard who has played nearly 50,000 minutes (regular season and playoffs combined) can sustain that kind of work load for a prolonged period. When Michael Jordan came back to play for the Washington Wizards he had a lot of games in which he scored a ton of points in the first half before fading badly in the second half, much like Bryant did against the 76ers; Bryant is not on his last legs like "Ground Jordan" was but the Lakers are going to spoil whatever juice Bryant does have left if they don't figure out a way to acquire Dwight Howard to take some of the burden off of Bryant and try to win a championship using the 1995 Houston template: a star center paired with a star guard surrounded by scrappy role players and three point shooters (the Lakers don't have those three point shooters right now but if they can pull off the Howard deal they should be able to find one or two guys who can hit wide open jumpers to make teams pay for doubling Bryant or Howard).
Bryant understands that the end is near, both for his career and for the Lakers' hopes of winning a championship; Bryant has always made it clear that his prime motivation is winning championship rings but at this point it sounds like Bryant would be happy to win just one more ring to add to the five he has already won. After the loss to the 76ers, Bryant acknowledged the significance of moving up the career scoring list but explained what is really important to him: "I just want number six, man. I'm not asking too much. Just get me a sixth one."
posted by David Friedman @ 5:40 AM