BOSTON — It doesn’t take an MIT graduate student to tell you that J.R. Smith is among the many players in the league who believe in the “Hot Hand” theory, which is essentially the notion that if you’ve made a few shots in a row, you’re shooting the next one — regardless of the quality of that shot — because of a belief that you’re now in some kind of zone.
Historical research has shown that this type of streak shooting simply doesn’t exist — think of it like a coin flip or a roulette wheel, where what happened on the previous toss or spin has no bearing on the outcome of the very next turn.
But new research presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference shows that the Hot Hand does indeed exist, and that there is a statistical likelihood of a player hitting his next shot after making a few in a row — once you adjust for things like difficulty, range, and the proximity of the nearest defender that hasn’t been possible to quantify until now.
The SportVU tracking cameras that have been installed in all 29 NBA arenas log all of this data, so when you put this information into a complex mathematical equation, what you get is a small statistical bump (a little more than one percent) in the likelihood of a player making his next shot after he’s hit three or four straight.
The most important factor here seems to be the “heat check,” where a player will launch increasingly difficult shots that have a very small percentage of going in once one of these shooting streaks has started. It could be a pull-up three in transition, or a wild turn-around jumper over a long defender, but these types of shots not only end a player’s current run of hot shooting, they’re also detrimental to his team’s overall success on a given possession.
The conclusion of the study found that players believe in the Hot Hand and act accordingly: When they believe they’re hot, they take shots from further away, defenders cover them more closely, they are more likely to take their team’s next shot, and they take shots that are more difficult than normal. The aforementioned J.R. Smith, for example, was found to take his team’s next shot more than 50 percent of the time when he’s made four of his last five.
Statistically, it was shown that players make a higher percentage of shots after hitting a few consecutively when adjusting for these factors. Teams could theoretically use this data to educate players by informing them that yes, when you feel like you’re hot, there’s something real associated with that — just don’t go forcing a horrendous shot the very next time you touch the ball because of it.