A few years ago a group of behavioral psychologists and economists published a paper, known as The Hot Hand Fallacy, which posited that there is no such thing as a hot hand in basketball. The study and similar ones that have followed have been extensive and undeniably thorough. If you ever played basketball, then like me, every fiber in your body will reject this notion. I am a data driven person who prefers statistics over anecdotal evidence, but above that, I am a basketball player first. However, I have to also accept that fact that my emotional attachment to basketball skews my ability to analyze these findings in an unbiased way. On the other hand, perhaps the studies’ authors’ detachment from basketball is causing them to miss variables that they have not accounted for.
Before you start saying “What about this?” and “What about that?”, read about the studies because they accounted for a wide range of variables.
The Hot Hand Fallacy blames humans’ need to create a narrative even when there is not one. We instinctively misinterpret random events as being more than the random events that they truly are. Essentially, the study found that the making of a previous shot or previous consecutive shots does not at all increase the likelihood that a next shot will go in. Moreover, the making of a shot actually decreases the likelihood of the next shot being a make.
In light of Lebron’s recent “hot” streak, I began to ask myself, “What significance does his streak have on the Hot Hand Fallacy theory?” At first glance, it would seem that he is disproving it. Before I go on, here are some of the numbers:
- He has made 49 of his last 65 shots. 75%.
- He is shooting 60% from three point range over his last 5 games.
- For the season he is shooting 56% from the field, ranking him #6 in the league; the only player in the top 10 to average more than 16 points a game. He averages 27.
- And he is averaging a career best 42.1% in three point percentage for the season. For perspective, Kevin Durant is shooting 42.7%.
If anyone has ever been hot, then clearly Lebron is hot right now, right? However, a close look at the Hot Hand studies’ findings applied to Lebron’s recent play, tell a seemingly different story.
The hot hand study looked at players who had taken at least 1,400 shots in the previous 4 seasons. At the time, that list consisted of Lebron, Kobe, Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, Iverson, Marbury, Arenas, Tracy McGrady, and DWade. What I’ve done is taken some of the more nuanced data supplied by ESPN TrueHoop blogger Henry Abbott and compared it to what I have seen from Lebron as of late. I don’t have the breakdown of every sequence that Lebron has scored during this season, or during the current streak, but I have watched – it would be safe to say – at least 90% of his televised games, ever. I’m confident that I know his game fairly well.
- If a player makes a shot, his chances of making his next shot decreases.
Star players are extremely prone to conduct “heat checks.” This is where a player purposely takes a bad shot just to see how “hot” he is. In the past, Lebron has been as guilty of this as anyone. He has cut this practice down drastically this season. The only obvious bad shots I have observed him taking are those at the end of the shot clock, and even those cannot be unequivocally labelled bad shots because the game situation calls for a shot or else the possession will have been completely wasted.
- The likelihood of a player making a shot following a make decreases even further if the previous made shot was a jump shot. In addition, a player is more likely to choose to shoot a jump shot and more likely to miss that jump shot if his last score was a made jump shot.
The heat check phenomenon is obviously once again a factor, and the fact that it was a jump shot increases the player’s confidence to shoot another jumper. From my observations, Lebron has disciplined himself from falling into this trap. He lets the opportunities the defense presents dictate his next shot, not the success of his last shot. Moreover, he is attacking the basket more consistently regardless if his last shot was a made jump shot, and he is a willing passer.
- The inverse of the previous bullet: a player is more likely to make a jump shot if his previous shot was a non-jumper.
Lebron is scoring the majority of his points in the paint, thereby increasing the likelihood of his following shot being a make, regardless if that shot is a jumper or not. This phenomenon of increased likelihood of making jumpers after lay-ins is possibly the reason that basketball players and coaches believe that shooting gets easier after getting an easy bucket. Statistically, in this study at least, it appears to be true.
- “Players shoot on average, 56 seconds later after a missed jump shot but shoots 47 seconds later after a made jump shot.”
This is another indication of the “heat check” factor. When a player thinks he is feeling it, he tends to force his game rather than let the game come to him. What has been most impressive about Lebron’s play this season and during the most recent streak is how unforced everything he does looks.
Henry Abbott suggests that the studies uses of high volume shooters was possibly not the best way to analyze the Hot Hand theory, and concludes that at the very least, the study seems to show that high volume shooters are perhaps hurting their teams with their over-aggressiveness. I find this conclusion highly plausible. It tends to point toward Lebron’s recent outburst being the result of greater decision making rather than a vibe of confidence. Opponents should pray for the latter because the former is more sustainable and easier to duplicate.
I am curious whether Lebron and the Heat are aware of these statistics and have taken steps to implement. I would not put it past them. Lebron has been known to receive and study advanced statistical scouting reports before and after games. His basketball IQ is unrivaled among his peers. DWade is quietly playing some of the most efficient basketball of his career, and last year the concerted effort both players took to drastically decrease their three point shooting volume was a move rarely seen by players of their caliber.
Maybe Lebron has reached some unworldly level of basketball nirvana akin to Bruce LeeRoy’s glow or the Last Airbenders Avatar state.
Need proof? Here are the highlights from game 6 of last years Eastern Conference Finals against the Shoguns of Boston.
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