Blog Entry

Mythbusters: Lawson puts the hot hand to the test

Posted on: April 10, 2011 9:58 am
Posted by Royce Young

Ty Lawson went 10-11 from 3 Saturday night against Minnesota. He started the game 10-10, with the lone miss coming on a wild 30-foot runner to end the third quarter.

Think about that one for a second. Ten straight... from 3-point range. Incredible.

The 10 straight makes is an NBA record. Had Lawson not missed his final heave, he would've set the NBA record held by Latrell Sprewell who went 9-9 from deep in 2003. Lawson sat the entire fourth despite being just two makes away from the all-time NBA record of 12.

Anyway, any time a guy makes 10 consecutive shots from anywhere much less downtown, there's always a seemingly logical, simple basketball explanation. He was hot.

That's what backcourt buddy Raymond Felton said. "A guy's hot like that, you've got to feed him the ball," he said after the game. When somebody is cooking -- and hitting 10 straight from 3 is pretty much surface of the sun hot -- there's no way to explain the outbreak of sharpshooting other than just saying he was "hot."

But there's actually been extensive studies done on this exact topic. The great Henry Abbott of TrueHoop has sort of championed this topic, contending -- behind actual scientific evidence -- that the hot hand does not, in fact, exist. When someone heats up in a game and drops a number of jumpers it's more about the simple laws of percentages sorting themselves out rather than the old basketball explanation of being hot.

There has been a ton of research on this. And most every researcher/scientist comes to the same conclusion: The hot hand doesn't exist.

A recent book "Scorecasting" by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim tackled exactly this in a chapter entitled "The Myth of the Hot Hand." A review by the New York Times summed it up well:
For example, in a chapter titled “The Myth of the Hot Hand,” the authors declare that in sports, momentum, a k a “Old Mo,” doesn’t really exist, that no matter how many home runs a slugger belts in a week, no matter how many games in a row a team wins, the likelihood of success in the next at-bat or the next game is no different than it is when no hot streak exists. Statistics prove this is so; the numbers say that a streak of any sort is simply an expected variation in an extended, observable pattern of events, the way a coin is likely to come up heads 10 times in a row at some point if you toss it 10,000 times.

For this reason and a few others, the authors say, the basketball strategy of passing to a shooter on a hot streak is more often than not a loser. They argue interestingly (and sensibly) that one thing that happens to shooters on a streak is that they succumb to hubris and begin taking more difficult shots.

It's hard to argue with things like, you know, facts. The logic behind busting the myth of the hot hand is almost rock solid. Even explaining away Ray Allen's epic shooting gallery from Game 2 of the NBA Finals last season wasn't all that challenging. Allen wasn't hot -- he's just a great shooter.

But bring it back to Lawson's incredible 10-10 start Saturday night. Lawson is far from a great shooter, especially in terms of the great Ray Allen. Lawson is a career 38.5 percent shooter from 3 and that comes on just 239 career attempts to date. He's never hit more than three in a game before Saturday. He's much more of a slasher with an incredible ability to finish in traffic around the rim despite his small stature. He's not known as a marksman.

So for him to hit 10 consecutive 3s, something no one else in NBA history has done, that defies the law of percentages theory, right? Or at the very least, makes us at least rethink declaring the hot hand a myth.

I never really bought into the claims that there was no such thing as a hot hand but couldn't find a way to argue against it that was worthwhile. I played basketball. I've been in shooting grooves before. Not to brag -- well to kind of brag, but I'm trying to make a point -- I once hit seven 3-pointers in the first half of a high school game. Was I a good shooter? Sort of, but I'm definitely no Ray Allen. But I can tell you, I felt good that night. I felt the hot hand.

I still play a decent amount of pick-up and there are times guys hit two, three or four straight from deep. Inevitably, everyone nods in agreement and says, "He's hot." If you've shot a basketball and watched it go through the hoop a couple straight times, you know the feeling. Stats may say it doesn't exist, but I can you one thing that absolutely does: confidence.

Watch highlights from the game. Notice Lawson's shot selection. Not a single forced 3 or bad look in the bunch. Well, you could call the 10th one a bit of a Heat check, but still, no hand in his face. Point is, it's not like he was just chucking them up after he hit a few. But also notice Lawson's release. It gets quicker and quicker with each attempt and he even starts kicking his legs out a bit as he shoots. An obvious sign of confidence in his jumper.

Confidence is an amazing thing. And that's really what the hot hand is. It's a sincere belief that every time you raise that ball and fire it up at the basket that it's going through the bottom of the net. You increase your chances of it happening by repetition of course, by practice. It's like a golfer that perfects his swing so that he can repeat it every time on command. It's impossible to actually do, but explain how a guy on the golf course out of nowhere fires up a 61 with seven birdies on the back nine. It's because he was confident in his game. It's because he got hot.

But that's why the hot hand is fun to talk about. Players will tell you it absolutely exists, that it's a real thing. The numbers and data however, tell you differently. What do you trust?


Since: Apr 11, 2011
Posted on: April 11, 2011 2:57 pm

Mythbusters: Lawson puts the hot hand to the test

I've always wondered about the "hot hand" theory myself. I've read the sabermetric arguments, etc. and I for the most part agree with the data that clutch performance is largely a stastistical artifact--one shot does not affect the next shot. However, it seems easy to me to point that the OPPOSITE of a "hot hand" (anything that hinders performance, e.g. injury, personal issues, etc) is very real and easy to prove statistically. For example, if a player constantly hears rumors that he will be traded anyday to a crappy team, sometimes his performance will suffer. If Abbott seems to think that the hot hand doesn't exist, does he also think that slumps also don't exist? This argument cannot be sustained, as we all know that even great players can sometimes go into a funk (think LBJ last postseason against the Celtics). So, if the "opposite" of a "hot hand" CAN be shown to exist statistically for stretches, for individual players (as well as for teams), then wouldn't a "hot hand" by this argument also be a real statistical artifact, based on the notion that a "hot hand" is just the "absence" of factors that would create what we call a "slump".

Can someone kind of clarify this for me? I mean, we all can identify when a certain player does not play up to his capabilities. When a player is on a prolonged slump (I say prolonged so as to give an adequate sample size) we don't scream at the coach to keep running plays through the slumping player and say that the slump is just a "statistical abberation"; we usually agree that a certain amount of practice or rehab (or sometimes a change of scenery) may be necessary for that player to return to his statistically expected output. Sometimes a new coach comes in and tweaks some bad shooting habits and the player "gets hot" for a game or five.
If it is not so hard to fathom that certain, sometimes hard-to-quantify factors may negatively influence a player's output to decline (beyond that of statistical variation), then why is it such a stretch to assume that there may be other factors that may that may work in a positive direction? Though it may be easier to prove the negative (an injury is a clear example, but psychological issues also come into play) then the fact that the positive influences (such as "confidence" or "solid practice") may be a little more difficult to prove doesn't mean that those factors don't exist.

I'll still hold out my final judgment that perhaps some players (J.R.) may just be more prone to "purely random statistical swings" that eventually even out, but then why are some players more prone to these swings than others? Is that simply more random statistical noise at work, clouding our judgments? If that's the case, then I'll never untangle the argument. Perhaps Abbott himself will never get out of that one.

To me, the Ty Lawson phenomenon (that a good-to-mediocre 3 pt shooter who has never made more than three in a previous NBA game) can break the NBA record for most consecutive 3 pt makes seems too statistically impossible unless the idea of the "hot hand" can be factored in.

Let's hope GK can continue to ride the hot hands, because I'm pretty sure he buys into this  hot hand idea.

Since: Jun 6, 2008
Posted on: April 10, 2011 7:29 pm

Mythbusters: Lawson puts the hot hand to the test

Of course if you are figuring in probability for each shot you could argue against the hot hand theory, and in a large enough sample the percent of shots one individual will hit will eventually return closer to there actual shooting percentage based on their skill and ability.  The central limit theorem states the larger the sample the closer it reflects the distribution of the population.

But one thing statistics always accounts for is error, and although improbable, once in a while a sample will surface that has a distribution far from actual population distribution.   Here we see the case.

On the season Ty's numbers a close to his career shooting percentage.  But on this night of a sample of 11 shots Ty shot far beyond his normal distribution of shots.  Will he ever have night like this again.  Probability says it is unlikely.  If Ty had taken another 11 3s he would unlikely made 10 more.

I say "Hot Hand" is just a court name for error.

We have all had days when we felt like everything we could put up would go in.

April 9, 2011 was Ty's. 

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