Kobe Bryant isn’t always into mixing science and basketball

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  • Kobe Bryant
    Kobe Bryant

Among the players of his era, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant has always stood out for treating basketball like a problem to be solved rather than simply a game he plays. Kobe is obsessive in his attempts to get better, to the point where he'd presumably consider any bit of knowledge or practice any skill if he thought it'd make him a better player. Everything is in service of the continual improvement of his game.

So it's a bit surprising to hear that he thinks a new study on the best time to shoot in a possession is full of baloney. From Kyle Stack for Wired.com (via TBJ):

Brian Skinner, a physics research associate at the University of Minnesota, explored the nature of shot attempts in the NBA. In his paper, published in the online journal PLoS ONE, Skinner said he wanted to determine when a player should take the shot. "Within this model I derive an answer to the question 'how likely must the shot be to go in before the player should take it?,'" Skinner wrote.

He discovered through an analysis of scoring situations that NBA players often wait too long to shoot and it could cost teams an average of 4.5 points per game. Rather than take the sure thing early in a possession, players wait it out, taking time off the clock and hoping to make another, possibly tougher, shot pay off. Although that denies their opponent a chance to respond, it also deprives their own team of a chance at a basket before the shot clock expires. [...]

Yeah, whatever, Bryant responds. He told Wired.com after a recent matchup with the New York Knicks that there are countless variables, and his decision to shoot — or not shoot, as the case may be — depends upon who's on the floor, where they're standing and how much time is left on the clock.

"If I can kick it to somebody, a lot of times I wind up getting a hockey assist, so it just depends on how much time I have left," Bryant said. "If there's a chance to pass and swing [to another player] for another opportunity, that's fine. If there's not, then I have to create space and get a shot up, understanding that there are two [players] on me and it's going to be a great opportunity for us to get an offensive rebound."

Skinner's study isn't perfect, in large part because it discounts the psychological complications of deciding a good shot in the flow of a possession. When Kobe has the ball, it's difficult for him to settle for a decent shot early in the clock when he has such strong belief in his ability to find a better one over the next 10 or 15 seconds. His success as a player depends on having complete confidence in his abilities, and a situation in which he questions his chances to get a better shot on a large portion of possessions could have negative effects on his entire game.

That's not to say this study is useless, just that it works best as a suggestion rather than a piece of irrefutable logic built to overhaul the NBA game overnight. NBA conventional wisdom is constructed through repetition, in a way that turns the monotony of practicing one shot or thinking about a possession in one way over and over again into something that resembles instinct. As with anything else, this study could help Bryant and other players if they absorb its findings over time. That would involve a lot of work — studying tape, playing five-on-five ball in practice to understand the form of the possession, etc. — but that's the only way to make an abstract study like this one more concrete.

Science like this can't just be adopted — there needs to be a culture that accepts it. And while Bryant might be willing to do anything to make his game better, he can't be expected to change his ways overnight. Practice made him what he is today, and that's the only way he'll become something different, too.