In his first season of a forgettable comeback with the Washington Wizards, Michael Jordan became the fourth player – and first guard – to join the exclusive 30,000-point club when he made a free throw against his former team, the Chicago Bulls, at MCI Center on Jan. 4, 2002.
It took more than 10 years for Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Wilt Chamberlain to welcome a fifth member last Wednesday when Kobe Bryant made a running floater over New Orleans Hornets center Robin Lopez in a Los Angeles Lakers victory. The milestone is a testament to Bryant’s incredible scoring prowess, durability and longevity. One of the pioneers of the preps-to-pros revolution, Bryant managed to become the youngest at just 34 years, 104 days old but also the slowest, needing 1,179 games – or 27 more than Malone.
The NBA probably won’t need to wait another 10 years to have another member of the 30,000-point club. Three players – Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James and District native Kevin Durant – could join that exclusive company in less than nine years.
More on them later. But the list of candidates to join two other exclusive clubs that haven’t had many new members over the past 10 years – 15,000 rebounds and 10,000 assists – isn’t very long.
Two-time most valuable player Steve Nash has 9,984 assists and will join John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson soon after he returns to the Lakers lineup from a fractured left leg. Kidd handed out his 10,000th assist three seasons ago.
With scoring point guards becoming the rage in the latest basketball evolution, the potential for players capable of reaching five digits in career assists becomes more stunted – at least until the game takes another shift toward faster pace offenses and more prototypical playmakers pulling all of the strings like a puppeteer.
Chris Paul fits the mold of his predecessors and likely will record his 5,000th assist before the end of the month. Paul would become the sixth player with 10,000 assists by 2019-20, when he’ll be 34, if he continues to average at least nine assists per game and his knees manage to hold up until then.
Rajon Rondo, the reigning assist champion, faces a more daunting task but is on pace to average at least 11 assists for the third consecutive season. Rondo averages eight assists over his career and would top 10,000 assists around 2021-22 at that pace.
Just five men have grabbed at least 15,000 rebounds in their careers: Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, former Bullet Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone, who became the last member in 1991. Karl Malone retired 32 rebounds short of forming a sextet.
Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are the active leaders in rebounds, but they are half of the four players that have entered the NBA since 1991 rank among the top 20 in career rebounds. Garnett needs about 1,500 rebounds to reach 15,000 and Duncan is roughly 2,300 short, but both face a difficult challenge as they receive reduced minutes at their advanced age.
You also have to wonder if either player is motivated by statistical chases, especially with championships already won and Hall of Fame careers already established. Garnett and Duncan are great competitors but have shown a willingness to sacrifice numbers for wins in recent years.
In his ninth season, Dwight Howard already has more than 8,000 rebounds and could average 8.5 rebounds between now and 2022-23 to reach the club.
As for the 30,000-point club, Nowitzki is 5,866 points shy but would need to maintain his career average of about 23 points for the next 3½ seasons to become the sixth member – at age 38. Given the current health concerns of the former MVP, that proposition seems like a stretch.
Barring any major injuries, James and Durant are the more realistic pursuers of the 30,000 club, with both players already displaying the desire and work ethic required to be great and well ahead of Bryant’s scoring pace.
James, who came directly out of high school in 2003, has already surpassed Bryant as the youngest to score 10,000 points and is on track to become the youngest to reach 20,000 points before the all-star break – when he’ll just be 28. If he can maintain relative health and durability and maintain a 25-point average, James would reach 30,000 points in 2017-18, at age 33.
The wait for the 24-year-old Durant will be much longer. Had Durant been allowed to enter the NBA directly out of high school, he likely would’ve been the youngest to reach 10,000 points but the youngest ever three-time scoring champion stands to join the 30,000 point-club in 2021-22 – at a younger age than James or Bryant – if he maintains his current career scoring average of roughly 26 points per game.
James and Durant have been two of the more consistent, durable and prolific scorers since entering the league, but projecting so many years in advance is difficult, because so many factors have to fall into place; Shaquille O’Neal was on the path toward 30,000 points before injuries and those tricky free throws forced him to retire with 28,596.
Before he has to worry about James or Durant, Bryant can focus on climbing up the career scoring list. He currently leads the league in scoring and should pass Chamberlain (31,419) for fourth before the end of this season. If he can simply maintain his career scoring average of 25.4 points, Bryant would surpass Jordan’s 32,292 early next season, when he’ll be in the final year of a contract that he has intimated could be his last.
Going down as the highest-scoring shooting guard of all-time – and possibly grabbing two more rings to top Jordan – are more important milestones for Bryant than simply scoring 30,000 points.
Bryant made it to this point by playing with a psychopathic purpose, looking beyond any potential rivals in his generation and hunting down legends. When it comes to the exclusive milestone chase, that’s what it takes.