How long can Kobe Bryant stay on top?
The time has come for people to think less about what Kobe Bryant has accomplished in the past and more about how those who come after him will measure up in the future. His challengers are scaling the wall of Kobe's castle. The question for these playoffs is how long until the perimeter is breached and his reign atop the NBA ends. Time is running out on his present.
We've become so used to viewing Bryant in comparison to what's come before. That's happened more than ever this season, as he's moved past the likes of Oscar Robertson, Dominique Wilkins and Moses Malone, all the way up to sixth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. The real target was established the moment Bryant stood on the scorer's table in Staples Center last June and thrust the five fingers of his right hand into the air, signifying his five championships: Michael Jordan's six.
Even if Kobe reaches that plateau I doubt he'll be granted equal footing with Jordan. We don't like to alter portraits once they're hanging on the wall. I inquired to a Hall of Fame player, "If Kobe gets to six ..." and he didn't even let me finish the question.
"Stop," he said. "Just stop."
If he can't do anything about what's already happened he can at least have a say in what happens next. With Kobe it's always been about the past, always the precedent set. We never pause to consider Bryant's place in the future, the standards he's setting that others will have to reach. We're almost to a generation of players who were raised on Kobe and not Michael. They won't have memories of watching Jordan. Their attempts to view him in the past will be obscured by Kobe. Kobe will be their reference point.
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He can still click and drag his ring total to a difficult-to-attain place. Someone's always going to come along and score more. Kevin Durant has already scored almost twice as many points as Bryant had after four seasons. Kobe's already one behind LeBron James in the most valuable player category and is about to be tied by Derrick Rose. Just recognize this when it comes to Kobe and the MVP: He didn't want to win it this season. As tough as he can be to read (not even coaches or teammates know for sure what mode he'll be in at the start of a game) once he steps on the court he makes his intentions clear. During the All-Star game it was obvious Bryant had his sights set on being the MVP that afternoon. And he was.
When Kobe came out taking fewer than 20 shots a game this season, his lowest since 2003-04, he signaled that his regular-season numbers would be secondary to his playoff goals. He can live without a bookend Podoloff trophy. He'll go nuts if he doesn't get more rings.
While Kobe is running out of time -- and it's imperative that he gets his winning in now before LeBron, Durant and/or Rose figure things out and grab control of the league for the next few years -- he can also put everyone else on the clock. LeBron's already 26 years old. If Kobe gets to six, then how many "prime" years would LeBron have left to match him? Eight? You can see the pressure Bryant could put on all the aspirants just from a logistical standpoint. And he never lets up, never stops trying to top himself, always seems capable of some new dramatic feat. Even in times when he is a topic of coast-to-coast discussion for something he says, as was the case with his use of a slur against referee Bennie Adams Tuesday, he has a way of driving the discussion back to his game, as was the case when he hit a last-second three-pointer to send the Lakers and Kings to overtime on Wednesday.
There's one more subplot in play for Bryant this postseason. Kobe has never lost to a team led by a star player who is younger than him. His playoff victors have been the likes of John Stockton and Karl Malone, David Robinson and Tim Duncan, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace, Steve Nash and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
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Duncan and Garnett are still around, but like Kobe their time is growing shorter. Durant has a shot this season. LeBron's out there. Rose might be ready. They'll get their turn at going at Kobe. The question is how high will he have climbed by the time they start their pursuit?
J.A. Adande is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to e-mail J.A.