Shaquille O’Neal, The Big Aristotle, has a way of making bold, blanket statements about NBA ballers that capture the player’s essence without making any kind of superficial sense. When he famously dubbed Paul Pierce “the motherf—ing truth” about a decade ago, he didn’t need to explain himself or further elaborate — it just inherently made sense to all NBA fans, and the nickname (minus the expletive) sticks with Pierce to this day.
A few months ago, a leaked passage from his recent autobiography (co-written by Jackie McMullan) found The Diesel coming up with a similar descriptor for an old pal of his — and an unexpectedly dominant force in the ’11-’12 NBA season thus far — Kobe Bean Bryant. Quoth Shaq Fu:
Kobe is a scientific dawg. He works out every day, practices every day. Most of the other stars are just dawgs, not scientific dawgs. Me, I’m a freak-of-nature dawg because of my size. LeBron could be a scientific dawg like Kobe, but he’s got a lot going on like I did, so that’s preventing him from being one.
Now, unlike with The Truth, Shaq does offer a tiny bit of elaboration for his otherwise largely abstract “Scientific Dawg” designation. O’Neal appears to be using the term to describe Kobe’s absolute dedication to and complete understanding of the game, in NBA contrast to stars like LeBron James and himself, who just have too many other priorities in their lives to devote themselves completely. It’s a very interesting comment, one that shows a surprising amount of understanding and self-awareness from O’Neal (or perhaps from co-writer McMullan, though it’s hard to buy anyone besides Shaq Fu coming up with the phrase “scientific dawg”) regarding his one-time nemesis.
However, the explanation provided by O’Neal is woefully incomplete. Yes, Kobe Bryant is a Scientific Dawg — there’s no doubt about it. From the first time you hear it, it totally resonates, even before you can explain why. And this 2011-12 season for Kobe — which, 13 games in, has already provided about two seasons’ worth of drama, excitement and intrigue — has him looking like more of a Scientific Dawg than ever. But upon further contemplation, the limited elaboration about his work habits and dedication is just a small portion of Kobe’s Scientific Dawgness. Looking primarily at this season, let’s expound upon the many factors.
“Kobe works out every day, practices every day.”
First, let’s look at Shaq’s literal explanation of his Kobe’s “Scientific Dawg” nature. On the surface, this statement about Kobe doesn’t relate directly in any way to science — it would be better suited to describing his Fanatical Dawg or Obsessive-Compulsive Dawgness. Still, there is certainly something scientific about Kobe’s semi-maniacal devotion to preparedness, like Walter White (also going through a divorce at the time!) endlessly poring over his lab conditions and then nearly shutting down production entirely due to the presence of a fly as a possible contaminant. Like such a chemist, Kobe wants to remove all inessential variables from the NBA game — including unpredictable opponent maneuvers, potential failures of conditioning, and his own unforeseen player faults — in order to make his experiments as controlled (and hopefully, successful) as possible.
In this, Shaq’s explanation is a good jumping-off point. However, there is so much more here.
Kobe is calculating and artless in his scoring.
So often when NBA fans rave about why they love the league, it all comes back to the artistry of it all. Steve Nash improvising behind-the-back passes, Josh Smith freestyling a windmill dunk in the open court, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade jamming on a two-on-one fast break like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. It’s beautiful, it’s free-flowing, and it’s spontaneous. At his best, Kobe is none of these things — except maybe the first, and even that’s just because it’s him. Like no other notable player of the last 15 years except for another guy who Shaq nicknamed “The Big Fundamental,” Kobe’s on-court greatness is far less reminiscent of Jackson Pollack than it is of, uh, the first guy to solve the Rubik’s Cube.
Think about this — when was the last time Kobe Bryant did something on the court that was surprising? OK, I’ll answer that one for you — his dunk over Emeka Okafor in the playoffs last year, not just because we didn’t know the guy still had it in him to do it, but because the Posterization Dunk didn’t seem like it was in Kobe’s rarely-deviated from arsenal of Black Mamba-Approved Basketball Moves. Kobe rarely dazzles any more with his creativity. Far more often than not, it comes down to the same half-court sequence for No. 24: Post-up on the wing or elbow, turn, jab-step, contested fadeaway jumper or swoop to the hoop for a layup in traffic. We pretty much know the shots Kobe is going to take by now, the only suspense remaining is whether they go in or not.
For many players, this kind of learned predictability would represent something of a problem, the result of a kind of offensive stagnation. For Kobe, however, it’s just the end result of 15 years of data collection. In 2012, he knows beyond doubt what kind of moves and shots he can pull off with a roughly 45-50 percent success rate, and he sees no need to eschew them for less established and potentially riskier offensive experiments.
Kobe believes in repeating a successful formula until it is no longer successful.
I remember reading a study a few months back in Sports Illustrated or somewhere that claimed that, contrary to old-school wisdom, NFL teams should be throwing the ball even more than they already are. Passing plays gain more yards on average than run plays, the article argued, and mathematical logic dictated that as long as that was the case, teams should not prioritize making opponents “honor the run,” and instead continue to pass and pass and pass until the average pass play came down closer to what the average run play was worth in yardage gained. Only once that balance was truly achieved, the article claimed, should the teams then start running the ball more.
One person who would certainly agree with this line of reasoning — especially if he was playing quarterback — is Kobe Bryant. Since the calendar turned to 2012, Kobe is averaging an incredible 28 shots a game, four more a contest than he ever did with a full year of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown as his supporting cast. With a legitimate star second banana in Pau Gasol and a breakout big man in Andrew Bynum, to shoot this much would seem unconscionable, and indeed, many pundits have chastised Kobe for continuing to gun so thoughtlessly while his highly capable teammates fail to get a chance to properly contribute. (Gasol and Bynum are averaging just a combined 25.3 FGAs per game over the same span.)
However, undaunted by the criticism, Kobe has continued to let it fly with abandon, and the raw data seems to support his methodology — 35.6 points a game (including four straight 40-point-plussers), and a 6-3 record for the Lakers, over that 9-game span. “OK,” Kobe seems to be saying to the second-guessers, “as soon as I stop scoring, and as soon as we stop winning, then I’ll be sure to stop shooting.” But you better believe that he’ll need some motherfucking conclusive data about that first. Until then, it’s bombs away for the Black Mamba.
Kobe loves numbers.
It’s simple, but it’s true. Like no other professional athlete I have ever watched, Kobe is absolutely infatuated with statistics. I’m always surprised when I see a Kobe point total for a game that ends in a number like “4″ or “6,” since 90 percent of his games seem to end up with him chasing some round-numbered point total. 30, 40, 50, 60, whatever. Rather, it’s far more likely to see a score that ends in an “0″ (Kobe got to the point benchmark and let himself be taken out of the game immediately after), an “8″ (Kobe kept gunning for it but couldn’t quite get there before time ran out) or a “2″ (Kobe got there, but then remembered that his team still needed to win the game, and made another basket or hit some free throws to secure the W).
He’ll deny it to his dying day, but there’s no doubt that Kobe craves those round numbers, those numbers that make headlines, that get streaks started, that separate the sporadically lucky from the truly committed scorers. It’s what inspires him to continue hoisting jumpers and drawing fouls in the final minutes of an already-decided game against Phoenix, and why he pushes his shot tally into the 30s against Utah and Cleveland. The most fun Kobe games to watch are the ones where he gets to 37 with a few minutes to go, and all of a sudden, he loses patience, and everything becomes a three-pointer. He knows. You’d have to be delusional to deny it.
Many people would probably see this quality of Kobe Bryant’s to be a negative or at least a hinderance, and perhaps they’re right. But at the very least, I think his motivations are purer than people realize. I believe that Kobe guns for the round numbers not solely because they inflate his overall totals and give ESPN something flashy for SportsCenter, but because such round numbers are simply more satisfying in and of themselves. There’s a natural tension in 28 or 37 that there just isn’t in 30 or 40. And when you’ve lived statistics for as long as Kobe has, you know that as well as any Scientific Dawg out there.
(And yes, I’m aware that this description might really be more of a Mathematic Dawg than a Scientific one, but c’mon. In the eyes of decidedly and self-admittedly Unscientific Dawgs like Shaq, it’s all the same.)
Kobe believes that he can beat nature.
This is sort of on a different track than Kobe’s other Scientific Dawg qualities, but it’s perhaps the most definitive SD qualification of all. Like perhaps no other baller in the game right now (and certainly none other around his age) Kobe refuses to accept his own mortality. This is true in two senses.
For one, he refuses to acknowledge the possibility of a life beyond basketball. Discussions of his post-hoops career are met with quizzical glances and brush-offs, and even when he’s asked about perhaps transitioning to a Ray Allen-like supporting role in his waning basketball years, Kobe can’t even properly process the question, since doing so would be a tacit admission that he will indeed one day have waning basketball years. As much as any of the laundry list of things his scoring outburst could be perceived as being in response to, it’s likely in response to those who imply that Kobe’s best days as a scorer are already behind him, even though, by all rights, at age 34 his best days should be behind him.
But it’s also true in another, potentially much more disturbing sense: Kobe is taking proactive medical steps to put his body where his mouth is, so to awkwardly speak. Reading articles about Kobe’s trips to Germany (the phrase of which has already started to take on creepy euphemistic connotations) gives you one of those unsettling moments when you realize that you’re actually living in the future, and makes you wonder what lengths this guy will actually go to to keep himself in prime health for as long as humanly possible. Like never before, he’ll have to lean on science in these next few years to help him keep his naturally-deteriorating physical condition at a level that allows him to play on the court in the manner to which he has become accustomed.
In fact, don’t be surprised if the Scientific Dawg actually starts auditing some Biology classes at UCLA in the next few offseasons to learn up on how best to outsmart his own body. Really, it’s just like watching game tape. You study your opponent, you isolate their weaknesses, and you attack.
Kobe is a big fan of Thomas Dolby.
Really though, who isn’t?