On the face of it, Kobe Bryant's two-year, $48.5 million extension signed last month makes no sense. The Lakers aren't even close to a championship team, and they're not likely to be able to add any pieces to Kobe and the gang that will make the team much better. (Lakers fans' dreams of signing LeBron James actually seem more desperate than the Knicks' a couple of years ago. ) Everybody loves Kobe -- well, almost everybody -- but the contract appeared to strangle any possible hope of the Lakers winning a title in the last next half-decade.
But then again, that might not have been the point. Last week, Bill Reiter at Fox Sports pointed out that Kobe contract extension may have been designed by both team and player not to win a championship... but to make Kobe the all-time NBA scoring leader. "Kobe has also ensured that it will be very difficult for the Lakers to bring in another great player," Reiter wrote. "Let alone two. Which means he has gone a long way toward keeping the ball in his hands." Kobe is at 31,700 points, 6,687 behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 38,387. At the time of the extension, Reiter estimated that Kobe would "need to score between 24 and 28 points per game" throughout the rest of his contract. There have been many times this would have seemed reasonable; Kobe hasn't averaged less than 24 points this century. But it's funny how, when you get old, it gets real late real early.
Kobe broke a bone in his knee earlier this week, and he's going be out four-to-six weeks, though realistically, this is going to be a wasted season for him. (He's averaged 13.8 points in his six games this year, for a total of 83 points, just two more than he scored against Toronto on January 22, 2006.) If Kobe returns in six weeks, the Lakers' season will be over -- they're at 8.9 percent playoff odds right now, and that's going to get worse in the next month-plus -- and there will be no need to push Kobe. He'll score some points before 2013-14 is over, but this is a lost season.
He's not gonna catch Kareem. Let's do the math here. Let's say he returns around Valentine's Day. That gives him 28 games left in the season, and we'll be kind and say he averages, oh, 18. (Higher than where he's at now, but far below his lifetime average.) That's 504 points, putting him 6,183 behind Kareem. He has two more years on his Lakers contract. If he averages 20 points a game and plays in every single game those two seasons -- two highly dubious propositions, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt -- that'll be 3,280 points, putting him 2,903 away. If the Lakers (or whomever) give him an extra two years after that, he'll need to average 17.7 points per game in 2016-17 and 2017-18, while once again not missing a single game, to tie Kareem. He'll turn 40 in January 2018, and unless he's gonna bulk up Magic-like, he'll be playing shooting guard against people literally half his age. It's not happening. Kareem's record is safe.
It didn't seem that way not long ago; he was given a legitimate shot just last March. And it has obviously been in Kobe's mind. He's no dummy, he knows this isn't a championship team he's signing up for. (If he wanted another title more than he wanted the scoring title, he'd go all Clyde Drexler/Charles Barkley and follow LeBron around at the veteran minimum.) He probably thought he had a chance too. But this is normal: We often think we're watching history in the making. And we're often not.
The best example of this is probably Alex Rodriguez. After the 2008 season, which A-Rod hit 35 home runs, he was only 203 behind passing Barry Bonds as baseball's all-time home run leader. That seemed like a foregone conclusion: Since joining the Yankees six years earlier, he had averaged 42 a season. As Nate Silver, who broke down A-Rod's chances in February 2009, wrote: "If he maintains that pace, he'll overtake Bonds' mark on the last day of the 2013 season." You might not remember, but A-Rod did not, in fact, overtake Bonds' mark on the last day of the 2013 season.
Silver, in a piece that was widely derided at the time, wrote that, "Rodriguez's breaking the career home run record is nowhere near the foregone conclusion it appears to be." He, as Yankees fans mocked, predicted the following home run totals for A-Rod:
2009: 33 (586)
2010: 30 (616)
2011: 27 (643)
2012: 25 (668)
2013: 18 (686)
2014: 16 (702)
Those yelling at Silver were totally right: He was completely wrong on A-Rod. Here's how many homers A-Rod actually hit over those next five years:
2009: 30 (583)
2010: 30 (613)
2011: 16 (629)
2012: 18 (647)
2013: 7 (654)
It's easy to look at A-Rod now and say "why did people doubt Nate Silver?" but that's what we did, because it is human nature to see what's happening right now and just assume it will happen forever. (It's charmingly optimistic, all told.) Everyone thought A-Rod was breaking that record. Obviously.
We assume history. At one point, someone must have assumed that Dominique Wilkins would have the all-time scoring record, or Albert Pujols would be the all-time home run champ, or Tom Brady was going to be the all-time passing yards leader. When we are young, we believe we, and everyone around us, will be young forever. But it all ends. And it usually ends sooner than we think. It could all end today.