#SLAMTop50: Kobe Bryant, no. 19

Time is nearly up. No sense in mincing words here, people. The proverbial clock is counting down. L.A. Lakers fans know it. The NBA knows it. Everybody with halfway decent eyesight sees it. The inevitable is fast approaching and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

That’s right. When Kobe Bean Bryant’s 19th NBA season tips off on October 28, he’ll have 31,700 career points, leaving him a mere 593 points shy of passing Michael Jordan’s 32,292. Everyone knew the time would come. We just didn’t know we had to prepare for it quite this soon into the new year.

Should Bryant average 22.5 points a game to begin the season, he’ll pass MJ somewhere around the December 19 contest versus OKC or the December 21 match-up in Sacramento. (For those wondering, that 22.5 ppg didn’t just miraculously pop up in a weird dream I had the other night about Chick Hearn; that’s actually the lowest average Bryant’s had in a season where he started at least 75 percent of the Lakers’ games. Figured a healthy Kobe could at least manage that, right?)

Whenever Point No. 593 comes, it’ll mark a literal—if not an altogether symbolic—benchmark in NBA lore. It’ll be the moment the man most commonly associated with His Airness actually leapt over him in the game’s most important individual statistic. No matter what side of the Jordan vs Bryant fence you stand on, you can’t deny that 32,293 points is a pretty damn impressive number to have on your resume.

But we don’t have to worry about TNT vignettes and ESPN discussions dissecting the stat for a few months now. At this moment, Kobe’s much more concerned about October than December anyway. The homie hasn’t played a meaningful game of basketball since injuring himself in Memphis last December. He’s gotta get his legs back under him before anything else. Hell, in his pre-season debut on October 6, Bryant nearly airballed his first jumper. Having only played six games since April 12, 2013, it doesn’t matter how much mental resolve you supposedly have; you still gotta get your body in top shape.

And that’s exactly what No. 24 has been doing almost fanatically the past year. With all the clanking of the weights in the gym and all the shoe squeaking from running suicides in the practice facility, Kobe completely missed your pleas for him to hang it up. You’re 36. Your body’s broken down. Your team sucks. Chill. Go to St. Barths. Tour Shanghai. Do whatever you wanna do—just don’t suit up again.

Sorry, folks, he heard none of that.

That’s why Bryant was on the court on October 6 against the Denver Nuggets, looking as spry and as youthful as a guy with over 54,000 combined regular season and playoff minutes possibly could look. Yeah, he may have had an ugly miss his first shot attempt, but Kobe finished with 13 points and 5 assists in just 21 minutes of work. Thirteen points won’t set the Twitterverse on fire, but how he looked getting them should at least open a few doubters’ eyes. He was smooth. He had some lift on his J. He easily created space between himself and the defender.

But one preseason game in San Diego won’t constitute a comeback in many eyes. No matter how he looks the next few weeks, some folks feel that the days of Kobe Bryant being a dominant force in the League are simply over. The mere fact that the 16-time All-Star is only No. 19 on this list proves that some of the finest basketball minds in the world have doubt, too. (For the record, I had Bryant in my top 10.) Questionable knees. An identity-seeking team. A brutal conference. It’s a lot to overcome.

When you hear the man himself speak with hesitation in his voice about the upcoming season, you wonder even more. “I think it’s exciting,” Kobe told ESPN’s Sage Steele after the opening practice at training camp this season. “But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous, maybe, but also extremely excited about the challenge it presents.”

Beyond the challenge of Bryant’s own well being, of course, the biggest obstacle lies with the Lakers’ current roster. No one has a clue how much is left in Steve Nash’s tank. The man is 40 but his back is going on 62. The rest of the squad is a mesh of unproven youngsters (Julius Randle, Keith Appling), untapped potential (Jordan Hill), unsteady vets (Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer) and unbendable thumbs (Nick Young). Needless to say, Kobe doesn’t have a lot of help right now.

Until Swaggy P returns, Bryant will shoulder the brunt of the offensive burden. As he’s done a thousand times before now, Kobe will be up to the task. He’ll have the occasional 30-point showings, but we’ll mostly see nightly 22-5-6 stat lines. Mamba will continue his trend of taking more threes—in his last healthy campaign of 2012-13, he put up 407 long-range attempts, the most he’s shot since 2007-08—and doing less tangling in the paint with the trees. In new head coach Byron Scott’s Princeton-meets-Triangle offense, he’ll also facilitate some, a move that will do nothing but help his legs and boost an assist average that has steadily increased since ‘10.

The Lakers aren’t NBA Finals contenders; they’re barely 8-seed contenders. But rest assured that Kobe is going to leave it all out there for 30-35 minutes every night and he’s going to demand the same from anyone stepping on to the court with him. By the Christmas Day tilt against the Chicago Bulls—how’s that for irony that Kobe could score his 593rd point in the house that MJ built?—I wouldn’t be shocked if Bryant had the Lakers playing .500 ball. Keeping L.A. in contention is just the kind of challenge that will fuel Kobe Bryant in his twilight.

Seasons change. Teammates change. Rules change. The great ones adapt with the changes. Tom Brady, 37, has a receiving corp that alters by the week, yet his New England Patriots are still sitting atop their division. Denzel Washington will be 60 years old in December, but he’s kickin’ more ass on the big screen now than he ever did in the ’90s. Adjust or perish. It’s that simple.

Since the clock won’t allow Kobe’s game to endure the kind of physical stress it once withstood, Bryant’s molding it into something smarter and nearly as lethal, and it’s going to be beautiful to witness this year.

So, haters, look at your watch. It’s just early October, right? Still plenty of time for you to wake the hell up and realize Kobe’s career is far from over.



#SLAMTop50 Players 2014
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Chandler Parsons Mavs SF 6
49 Deron Williams Nets PG 15
48 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 9
47 Eric Bledsoe Suns PG 14
46 Rudy Gay Kings SF 5
45 Joe Johnson Nets SG 8
44 Kenneth Faried Nuggets PF 11
43 DeAndre Jordan Clippers C 9
42 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 13
41 Pau Gasol Bulls PF 10
40 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 12
39 Paul Millsap Hawks PF 9
38 Lance Stephenson Hornets SG 7
37 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 8
36 Al Horford Hawks C 8
35 Bradley Beal Wizards SG 6
34 Kyle Lowry Raptors PG 11
33 Andre Drummond Pistons C 7
32 Dwyane Wade Heat SG 5
31 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 7
30 DeMar DeRozan Raptors SG 4
29 Klay Thompson Warriors SG 3
28 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 6
27 Goran Dragic Suns PG 10
26 Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 9
25 Al Jefferson Hornets C 6
24 Chris Bosh Heat C 5
23 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 4
22 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 4
21 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 5
20 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 3
19 Kobe Bryant Lakers SG 2

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’14-15—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.