The debate over basketball's "hot hand" phenomenon rages on

Illustration for article titled The debate over basketballs hot hand phenomenon rages on

Back in October we told you about an in-depth study of a phenomenon known as "hot hands" — the term sometimes used to describe basketball players who appear to have transcended the limits of their normal hoop-shooting abilities. And after examining free-throw statistics from 6,150 games, the researchers concluded that there is strong evidence for the effect's existence.

But those researchers were only examining free throw data — so does the "hot hand" effect carry over to field goals? A study published in last week's issue of Nature Communications concludes that it doesn't. In fact, a statistical analysis of 332 NBA and WNBA players found that — at least from three-point land — players are actually more likely to drain a shot after missing a basket from long range than they are after making one.

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What's more, players don't seem to be conscious of this reversed hot hand effect. Ars Technica's John Timmer writes:

If players learned by experience, they should be able to pick up on [the negative trend] and adjust their behavior accordingly. In fact, they did the exact opposite. Forty-one percent of the time after a player made a three-point shot, they'd attempt another one. If they missed, that rate dropped to 30 percent. The implication here is that the players aren't able to recognize the pattern of misses after successful long-distance shots.

Of course, a player developing cold hands from beyond the arc could stem from any number of things — a defense tightening up its coverage, for example; or a player, having just missed a three-pointer, making a conscious effort to be more careful about lining up the next shot.

[Nature Communications via ars technica]
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DISCUSSION

djublonskopf

A pro basketball game is not exactly free of extra variables. I suspect the "reverse hot-hands" effect exists BECAUSE players attempt fewer 3-pointers after a miss, and thus is BECAUSE they're learning from experience rather than the contrary:

If I miss a 3-point attempt, my team is no further ahead (and if the opposing team took possession and scored, we're further behind) and I'm smarting from my miss. The stakes are now higher, for both my ego and for the team's chances of victory. So I'm going to be more choosy about my next 3-point attempt. I'm only going to take a second attempt (and risk 2 misses in a row and putting my team even further back) if it looks like I've got a better shot than I did last time.

Since I'm being more choosy about my shots the second time, I *have* to take fewer of them. But since I'm being more choosy about my shots, I have a better chance of making any given one. Hence, I create the illusion of a "reverse hot-hands" situation.

But this "reverse hot-hands" situation only exists because I'm attempting fewer, more opportune shots. If I "learned from it" in the way the researchers expect me to, and make MORE frequent attempts after missing, the "reverse hot-hands" effect would immediately vanish.

EDIT: And as to the difference between 3-pointers and free-throws . . . 3-pointers have more variables present than free-throws. Free throws are always made while standing in place, with nobody blocking, from the same spot, and with (effectively) all the time in the world to line it up just right. With three-pointers, all of those constants become variables.