You know, I'd never even considered the possibility that Kobe Bryant could end his career as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, but after he went for 48 points last night (something I didn't really think he could do anymore), I started to think that it might conceivably happen and started some crunching some numbers.
Here's Kobe's career points per game by year and here's Kareem's career points per game by year. As you can see, Kareem has been pretty steadily declining since his third year in the league, when he reached a peak of 34.8 PPG. Kobe, on the other hand, had a pretty steady rise until his 10th season, where he peaked at 35.4 PPG, but has been declining ever since. (The 29.5 PPG so far this year is through only 11 games, so that could fluctuate pretty wildly by end of the year.)
Kareem sits atop the all-time scoring list with 38,387 points. As of today, January 11, 2012, Kobe Bryant has 28,192 points. That leaves him 10,195 points shy of the record. It seems like a fairly insurmountable number for him - unless he's determined to beat it, which I think he is. So can he do it?
Well, I expect his PPG for this season to drop a little bit from 29.5, but not too much. Let's say it stays fairly consistent with the last three years and levels out at 26.0. If he manages that and plays every game this season, that'll put him at 29,584 points for his career. 8,803 points shy of Kareem having played 16 seasons, 1,169 games, and somewhere around 42,500 minutes (not counting the playoffs) and he'll be 33 years old.
(For comparison, Kareem played a total of 20 seasons, 1,560 games, and 57,446 minutes, retiring at age 41. He's second all time in games played, behind Robert Parish, and first all-time in minutes.)
Now, Kobe's contract runs for another two years after this one. I'm going to guess his PPG will decline somewhat, but not considerably, so I'll figure 24.0 PPG over the next two seasons. If he plays in every game, that would give him 33,520 points total (4,867 shy) after 18 seasons, 1,333 games, and something like 48,000 minutes at the age of 35.
This is also where I think age (well, not necessarily age, but all those games and minutes for sure) start to catch up with him, and we start to see a pretty steady drop in his PPG output. But, from this point, if he plays every game for three more seasons while averaging 20 PPG, he'd have a total of 38,440 points (53 ahead of Kareem) after 21 seasons, 1,579 games, and somewhere around 56,000 minutes. And he'd be 38 years old. (This would be the year 2017, by the way, so we'll have to wait quite a while to see how this plays out.)
For most players, I'd say there's not a chance of this happening. But for Bryant? I think it's going to be a singular driving force behind him continuing to play (if it's not already). He's got his rings and his awards - pretty much all he has left to accomplish is polishing up his legacy and cementing his place in NBA history. Do I think most players care about that? Probably not. Do I think Bryant does? Absolutely.
Of course, that above timeline doesn't leave much room for error. If he gets injured or has to miss games for any extended amount of time, he's looking at another year or two to top Kareem. But even if this happens (and maybe even if it doesn't), I can easily see Kobe signing with a terrible team if he's not getting enough shots or minutes with the Lakers. Does anyone really think if he's 2,000 points away from the record, and the Lakers don't have enough minutes and shots to satisfy an aging Bryant, that he'd gracefully step aside just so he can end his career having only played for them? No. Not a chance. He'd sign with the Raptors. Or the Nets. Or the Timberwolves. Or whatever team sucks at the time, in order to start and shoot as much as he wants and as much as it takes. (It'd be extremely ironic if he pulled a Reverse Kareem and signed with the Bucks, and then broke Kareem's record with them. I actually kind of hope this happens now.) Now, if the Lakers suck by 2017-2019, and don't have anyone to replace him, they'll obviously keep him for the buzz and everything that breaking the record brings. But if he becomes detrimental to them winning, it'll be an ugly split.
Anyway, after looking going through all these numbers, going through that potential timeline, and knowing Kobe Bryant's personality, I'd say I'm 95% sure that after the man plays his final NBA game, he'll be the league's all time leading scorer.
(And that 5% remaining is mostly just in case something happens to him and he physically can't run or walk or jump anymore. That's really the only way I can see him not chasing that record to the finish line.)
Also, just for kicks, I wanted to figure out what Michael Jordan would've ended up with had he not retired twice, and missed basically five seasons - two of which were in his prime. Here's his career points per game by year. Using that to extrapolate his points per game for his missing seasons, I've got him at 31.5 PPG in 1994, 30.5 in 1995, 27.0 in 1999, 25.5 in 2000, and 24.0 in 2001. (I'm essentially giving him a do over on the 1995 season, just because I have to imagine if he hadn't spent the last year and a half trying to play baseball, and had been playing basketball straight through, his points per game would've been higher.)
Since Jordan played 78 or more games in 12 of his 15 seasons, I'm going to assume he's going to be relatively injury free for these missing seasons, and calculate them at 80 games a year (and 50 for 1999). That gives us 10,270 points that he left on the table. Adding that to his career total of 32,292 points, and subtracting the 417 points he scored in 1995, I've got him scoring a career total of 42,105 points. I really can't imagine Bryant passing that mark. Of course, luckily for him, he doesn't have to.
And here's all three graphs together for comparison's sake. Kareem in red, Jordan in blue, Bryant in green.