Kobe Bryant ripped through the top 10 of the NBA's all-time scoring list this season, leaping from 12th at the start of the season to his current position at No. 6 after passing Moses Malone on Tuesday night. Kobe has 27,243 career points, and won't catch anyone else this season after passing (in order) John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes and Moses.
But Kobe will likely catch someone next season, and that someone is Shaquille O'Neal.
Shaq is No. 5 on the all-time scoring list at 28,590 points. He and Kobe are the only active players in the top 20. O'Neal hasn't exactly been racking up many points of late. He's scored just 335 points this season and totaled 636 in 2009-10 with Cleveland. For comparison's sake, Kobe is at 1,633 this season, and hit 1,970 a year ago. Bryant is gaining fast.
If Shaq were to stop scoring points altogether, Kobe would reach him in about 44 games, or (barring a lockout) in December 2011. O'Neal figures to play again next season, even in a limited role, but unless he starts playing more frequently and longer minutes, it's unlikely he'll push Kobe's date with destiny beyond the 2011-12 All-Star break. There's almost no scenario in which Kobe won't reach Shaq next season, if there is a next season.
Moving beyond Shaq will be tougher, though. Wilt Chamberlain is No. 4 on the list, and Shaq won't be catching him. Wilt's at 31,419 points, which puts Kobe about 167 games away, assuming a 25 points per game average that might be too steep as Bryant moves through his 30s. Bryant could challenge Wilt two years from now if he keeps up his pace, though the very end of the 2012-13 season or the beginning of the 2013-14 season seems more likely.
Michael Jordan (32,292) is only a half-season beyond Wilt, though, and that's about as far as Kobe can expect to get. Karl Malone is 9,500 points away from Kobe at the No. 2 spot; if Bryant averaged 25 points per game and missed no action, it'd take him another 380 games -- almost five seasons -- to catch Karl. Kobe would be 37 years old at that point, and would have to be playing better than any 37-year-old since, well, Karl Malone.
If Kobe does manage to catch Karl, chances are he'll play until he's 70 if he has to in order to catch No. 1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is another season or so beyond Malone.
Thanks, as always, to Basketball-Reference.com for the data.