Fourteen games into the 2011-12 NBA season, Kobe Bryant is playing like a Kobe fan would play him in a basketball video game. This shouldn’t be surprising, because who could be a bigger Kobe fan than Kobe Bryant? To answer my own question, I’m pretty sure there are thousands of people who are bigger Kobe fans than Kobe Bryant, but let’s assume that Kobe is a pretty big fan of himself.
Kobe is leading the league with 351 field goal attempts, at the moment. There isn’t anything particularly remarkable about that fact — he’s finished with the most FGAs four other seasons in his career. What’s freaky about this season is that Kevin Durant is in second place with 233 FGAs — meaning that Kobe has taken over 50 percent more shots than any other player.
There’s been one other season in which he averaged more shot attempts per game. That was the 2005-06 season when he took 27.2 attempts per game, compared to his average of 25.1 attempts per game this season. Of course, he played more minutes that season, and his per-36-minute average of 23.9 attempts was the exact same as this season. I should also note that he was 27 years old that season and the third-best player on that Lakers team was arguably Smush Parker. I think we can agree his supporting cast is a little better this season.
Perhaps the most amazing stat to show Kobe’s ball dominance this season is Usage Rate. which is an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he is on the floor. Kobe’s Usage Rate this season is an even 40 percent, while Carmelo Anthony is a distant second at 34.3 percent. Basketball-Reference.com tracks Usage Rate from the 1979-80 season onward, and since Kobe has played 528 minutes so far this season, I looked up the rankings for players who played at least 400 minutes and had Usage Rates of at least 35 percent. It turns out that Kobe has the highest Usage Rate recorded over the past 33 seasons.
When people discuss Kobe’s ball dominance, they typically claim that he’s selfish or that he doesn’t trust his teammates. There’s undoubtedly something to those accusations, but I think there might be something bigger at play here. If Kobe continues his 32.0 points per game average over the rest of the season and plays in every regular season game (unlikely, but not impossible), he’ll finish the season 2,312 points behind Michael Jordan in all-time scoring. He hasn’t scored that many points in a season since the 2007-08 season when he was 29 years old and played all 82 games, so he’s unlikely to pass Jordan in scoring next season. That leaves the 2013-14 season for Kobe to become the highest-scoring guard of all-time — perhaps not coincidentally, that’s the final season of his current contract.
Everybody talks about Jordan’s six championship rings and how Kobe would undoubtedly love to match or even pass that total before he retires. Whether or not he admits it, I don’t know any NBA fan who doesn’t believe that to be the case. But Kobe only has so much control over that — no one player has ever been able to win a championship by himself. The Lakers don’t have a very good supporting cast this season, and that might not improve significantly while Kobe is taking up $27.8 million in cap space next season and $30.4 million the season after that. In all likelihood, two more championships are not in Kobe’s future.
Then again, that’s the post-season we’re talking about. It’s not like the Lakers aren’t going to make the playoffs in each of those seasons — for all the talk about how Kobe’s remorseless shot-jacking is supposedly bad for his team, the Lakers are fifth in the Western Conference with a 9-5 record and they’ve won five of their last six games while Kobe has averaged 28.5 shots. It helps that he’s on a run of four straight 40-point games.
It’s not a matter of if Kobe will pass Jordan in career scoring, it’s really a matter of when. He probably doesn’t need to continue to dominate the ball like no other player over the past three decades in order to reach that mark, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Besides, you think Mike Brown is going to tell Kobe Bryant not to shoot so often? LeBron James laughs heartily at that suggestion.
Hate him or love him, Kobe Bryant will end his career with the most points of any guard in NBA history. As for whether he’s going to try to play well into his late-30s to try to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — who scored 6,095 points more than Jordan — for the ultimate scoring title, that depends on modern medicine. Nobody with an ounce of sense doubts Kobe Bryant’s force of will.