When a basketball graces the bottom of a net, it gives a shooter a jolt of energy. When the same thing happens on the next try, confidence starts to build.
It’s happening. He’s getting hot.
But can we quantify exactly how hot a player can get? And can we measure the effects of that heat?
The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an annual, MIT-organized gathering of more than 2,000 journalists, team and league representatives, students and more, has made a habit of producing an endless stream of intellect. Each year, we see research papers flow in and out of Boston, sometimes carrying a shelf life far longer than just the long weekend at the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay.
Friday, John Ezekowitz and Carolyn Stein (a third contributor, Andrew Bocskocsky, was not present) spoke about their Sloan research paper, The Hot Hand: A New Approach to an Old “Fallacy”, a look into the trends of basketball’s individual hot streaks and how they affect ensuing shots.
How much more likely is a player to shoot if he’s made a few of his previous shots? Do the results of those shots affect the outcomes of later ones? Is getting “the hot hand” a reality or just something we believe to be true because of convenience or happenstance?
Early in the presentation, Ezekowitz and Stein mentioned that a group of researchers from 1985 compared the concept of consecutive basketball shots to back-to-back coin flips. Of course, they pointed out the difference between the two actions. Not all shots are created equally. Layups are easier than threes. Mid-range shots are harder than dunks. But what they did decide is that, like with coin flips, previous shots have little bearing on the results of the following ones. Still though, making jumpers or layups or dunks seems to convince players to shoot even more than they usually do.
Just look at someone like J.R. Smith, because when you’re writing a paper about chucking up shot after shot, leaving out J.R. is like forgetting to solve for X on your algebra homework. At this point, it’s a given that Smith’s eventual autobiography is going to be called “I Thought That Was Going In.” And as Ezekowitz and Stein said, when Smith has makes four of his previous five shots, he takes the Knicks’ next shot more than 50 percent of the time (even though it seems more like it’s 100 percent). If the average player makes four of his previous five shots, meanwhile, he’s 7.6 percent more likely to shoot on his team’s following possession.
Statistically, the logic and numbers held up, but unfortunately, we didn’t hear much about the fundamentals behind getting hot.
We’ve all had it happen in pickup – more with some than with others – but when a few shots slide off our fingers and glide into the hoop, we feel something click. It’s there. It may be us finding a consistency in our release points that we don’t always have. It may be that our legs feel particularly strong that day. It may be that we’re running on 11 hours of sleep, got a nice run in before the game, and are feeling the perfect combination of rested and warm. But sometimes, we’re just feeling it.
The same goes for NBA players. Find your release point, and discover a newly polished aspect of your game. Lose it, and all of a sudden, you’re cold. But really, only the individual can realize that. And that’s why some of these statistics may be too broad to apply to any singular player.
The paper says that guys who get similarly hot also tend to follow up with shots farther from the basket. The numbers also say defenders guard those players closer. But those numbers are all intuitive. We just don’t usually refer to those sorts of shots in a statistical or intellectual manner. Instead, we call them “heat checks”, and leave it at that as we marvel over how the heck we just saw Jamal Crawford drain a 29-foot, fadeaway, four-point play with 17 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The attempt makes no sense, but he’s hot. He’s Jamal freakin’ Crawford. If anyone is allowed to do that, it’s him.
As statistically inclined as the research was, some of the basketball aspects weren’t actually accounted for in the piece. But that’s fine. The paper didn’t claim to be an all-encompassing statistical delve into everything that was, is or will be a hot streak. It met its goal. But as Crawford might think: The hot hand is a real thing!
A Crawford-type almost seems like the perfect example of a hot-hand player, a streak shooter who either gets white hot or ice cold. And Stein and Ezekowitz did touch on the inverse effect of getting hot: what happens when a player starts missing a load of shots?
There is the opposite effect of the hot hand, the aptly named cold streak. And often, when a player isn’t making his shots, he stops shooting altogether. At the end of their presentation, Stein and Ezekowitz questioned if it was a good attribute for “cold” players to stop shooting as much. They asked if it was a smart for hotter players to continue to shoot more. After all, out-of-context statistics do say that the result of any previous shot has no bearing on the outcome of any future ones. Remember those coin flips. But there’s always that aforementioned human aspect of the game.
There’s some sort of confidence that sneaks its way into your brain as the ball slides through the net. And poise starts to build. Just because it’s not tangible doesn’t mean confidence has no effect on a basketball game. Gerald Wallace would probably agree with that statement.
Last season, Wallace, a member of the Brooklyn Nets at the time, had just come off a game in which he played 31 minutes and shot the ball exactly zero times. This is right around when he really started to fall from the player he once was back in his Charlotte days. He lost his jumper, his ability to score and apparently any belief he ever may have had in himself. After the game, he spoke to the New York Post about his no-shot performance. You have to appreciate Wallace’s candor, but at the same time, his words lent themselves more to agony than anything else.
My confidence is totally gone. I’m just at the point now…I’m in a situation where I feel like if I miss, I’m going to get pulled out of the game, you know what I’m saying? So my whole concept is just that you can’t come out of the game if you’re not missing shots. I think I lost the confidence of the coaching staff and my teammates.
It’s sad to see a “cold streak” come to that point, especially with a player who is as likable as Wallace seems. But at the same time, isn’t that what’s at the core of a string of misses more than anything else?
To ask, “Is it a good idea for a player on a cold streak to pass up shots he may otherwise make?” implies some sort of sweeping statement about all basketball players. Statistics are wonderful. Advanced stats are beautifully helpful numbers that can help any sort of talent evaluator judge any given player. But at some point, when we sit at conferences like this one, these massive, sometimes self-serving echo chambers of mostly non-players talking about the way athletes are supposed to think, we have to remember that numbers – all numbers – need context.
Statistics aren’t always specific to the individual. Jamal Crawford would probably back up that statement. After all, we all know Jamal is going to keep shooting those 28-foot, contested fadeaways. Because that’s exactly how he gets the hot hand.