Clock ticking even faster for Kobe

I believe Kobe's goal was to be the best of all time, and he sees besting Kareem's record as an asset in that argument, but not a singular pursuit on its own. He has to be aware that getting the record wouldn't settle the "who's the greatest" debate. Kareem has the record and six championship rings and somehow gets excluded from the conversation far too often. Karl Malone is ahead of Michael Jordan on the scoring list, but that's one of the very few times you'll see those names listed in that order. Kobe thinks a sixth ring would bolster his case more than another 6,688 points -- even though another championship is starting to feel as improbable as the scoring crown.

For Kobe, the clock is counting down while his odometer is racking up miles. He's 35, with birthday No. 36 looming next August. Seven times have players averaged at least 20 points per game in a season between the ages of 36 and 38 -- all by the only three players ahead of Bryant on the all-time scoring list: Abdul-Jabbar (21.5 points at age 36, 22.0 points at age 37 and 23.4 points at age 38), Malone (25.5 points at age 36, 23.2 points at age 37 and 22.4 points at age 38) and Jordan (22.9 points at age 38).

Since Bryant came into the NBA straight from high school, unlike the other players on that list, the most relevant number might be seasons played. Bryant is already in his 18th year. If you're asking how many players have averaged 20 points between their 18th and 20th seasons, the answer is one guy, one time: Karl Malone, at 20.6 points in Year 18, 2002-03.

Again, the record-breaking calculations are based on Bryant playing every possible game. And how likely is that? For Bryant, the Achilles is probably the least of his concerns at the moment. Other parts of the body got weaker and weren't the primary focus of his rehab. Other parts can get hurt while trying to compensate for other parts that are hurt.

Chauncey Billups returned from a torn Achilles tendon with the Clippers last season only to encounter problems with his foot, back and groin. He played in only 22 games last season and has appeared in 11 games so far this season with the Detroit Pistons.

Any time there's a discussion about a Bryant injury, you always hear the same caveat from players, coaches and doctors: "It's Kobe."

Kobe's determination brought him back to the court this month and even brought back flashes of his old self. But it wasn't enough to keep him from getting injured again, and provides no guarantee that it won't happen another time.

His absence already reminded us to pay close attention to the time he has left, because it might not even be as much as we thought. In a weird way, more injuries would make that $48.5 million extension he signed worth more on a per-game basis, because they could make each outing more exceptional, more required viewing on the Lakers' new television network whose rights fees dwarf Kobe's contract.

Each game he's out makes each game he's back seem a little more valuable, even if we're watching for what he was, more than what he is.

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