Kobe in NBA stratosphere, but how high?

On Wednesday night, with Kobe Bryant well on his way to scoring 29 points during the Los Angeles Lakers’ 103-87 win against the New Orleans Hornets, it was the bucket he sank with 1:16 left in the second quarter that crystallized, for just a moment in time, the rarefied greatness he has brought to bear on this league since he arrived 16 years ago.

With that shot, Bryant became just the fifth player in NBA history to score 30,000 points over the course of a career. He has lifted himself to scoring heights occupied only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.

More than his five championship rings, it is his scoring prowess – and the cold-blooded need for domination that has fueled it – that defines the brilliance of Bryant’s career. It is also the more important argument in pushing Kobe’s name higher atop the list of the all-time greats.

Borne out of a single-minded pursuit of Jordan, Bryant has willed his way from high school kid taken with the 13th overall pick to a man who now can be discussed as an equal of names like Bird, Chamberlain, West and Robertson.

In many ways, Kobe’s career may end up being defined by the players it has been sandwiched between. On one side is his idol, Michael Jordan; on the other, coming up strong behind him, is LeBron James, the only player truly capable of rivaling Jordan’s greatness.

We don’t know how things will end for LeBron. But we do know now that there’s nothing Kobe can do to catch Michael.

There has never been, and probably never will be, a closer approximation to Michael Jordan than Kobe Bryant. Both funneled a burning need to not just win but also humiliate that was the catalyst for championship legacies and, to say the least, hurt feelings. Jordan went to his Hall of Fame acceptance speech and used it to hurl accusations at nearly everyone he’d ever met. Kobe, just this week, called out supposed good friend Pau Gasol and told him to “put your big-boy pants on.”

Both were scoring machines, both played for and blossomed under Phil Jackson, both were shooting guards unafraid to take the last shot.

Kobe Bryant is the greatest Michael Jordan imitator of all time, and that’s something special. That’s something historical, a fact made more significant now that he has crossed the 30,000-point threshold and is bearing down on Jordan’s 32,292 points.

But Kobe is not Jordan, and nothing he does will change that. Nothing he accomplishes going forward will allow him to surpass his idol. Jordan was the MVP for each of the six Finals he played in and always the undisputed force behind those teams’ successes. Kobe was a secondary star to Shaquille O’Neal his first three championships, and he’ll need to be that to Dwight Howard if he wants more rings than Jordan.

For Lakers fans doggedly determined to place Kobe’s name ahead of Jordan’s, there’s no getting around the fact he will also finish his career with the most missed shots in NBA history and a career field-goal percentage of 45.4, well below Jordan’s 49.7 and the rest of the league’s top 10 all-time scorers.

But what Kobe has done – and with his entry into this exclusive club of scorers it seems like a good time to examine this – is made it hard to say just where he will rank among the all-time greats once he retires.

For my money, I’d place Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell and Kareem on the list of players Kobe can’t catch. That is the past he has been unable to chase down. There is also the future to look to and the very real fact LeBron could end up surpassing Kobe and make a run at passing all names, Jordan’s included.

But for now, at least, Kobe becoming the fifth guy to score 30,000 points has put him in the conversation for the fifth-best player of all time.

This is subjective stuff, to say the least. Names like Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Tim Duncan are out there, and many might have them higher than five. But Wilt did not win enough championships, Shaq’s star burns a little dimmer than Kobe’s and Duncan remains one of the most underrated players of all time.

It’s Bird, for me, who is the strongest argument to keep Kobe out of the top five. But in the end Kobe has two more rings than Bird, two fewer MVP awards (though it should only be one more) and the same number of Finals MVP awards.

Still …

For all of Kobe’s issues, his too-many missed shots, his bad publicity and the sense he’s just not as well-liked as he could be, it’s hard not to make a list of the greatest of all time without thinking that maybe Kobe has placed his name above all but a select few.

He’s just no Jordan. And, if history wins out against him, maybe no LeBron as well.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.