Total numbers don’t matter much in basketball.
Want proof? You don’t know any.
You probably don’t even know who leads all-time for totals in any category. Maybe you know about career averages. But that’s cheating.
And yet still, you probably got excited when, last night, Kobe Bryant passed Moses Malone, making him #6 on the all-time scoring list. Up next: Shaquille O’Neal. So yeah, this is a career total you might care about.
As Tom Ziller points out, after passing John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes and Moses this season, only Shaq is in reach. There always will be some intrigue there. Same with Michael Jordan, who might be too far ahead—about two and a half seasons away at Kobe’s current clip. Wilt Chamberlain is two seasons away, and should be within reach before Kobe hangs it up or tails it off too badly.
It’s worth noting, though, that Jordan lost time to retirements (see Kevin Pelton’s archived Basketball Prospectus essay on MJ’s projected totals); Kobe and threat down-the-road LeBron James got to start straight out of high school, even if Bryant’s first year was less than impressive. And Kobe will play until he’s worn out, while MJ and Wilt could both, in theory, have kept going a bit longer.
Is Bryant dogged, or would his final tally be, in some way, illegitimate? Maybe a new asterisk is in order. Then again, do we need to consider what Shaq might have done if he hadn’t been, well, Shaq?
Fun fact: When Jordan retired the third time, there was concern that he might no longer hold the all-time career average mark. Thankfully, he kept it.
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