Who’s got the “hot hand”?

Photo by Salvatore Vuono. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by Salvatore Vuono. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Basketball fans can be obsessive statisticians, keeping numbers on every imaginable aspect of the game. If you want to know the most points ever scored by a player in a single quarter of the seventh game of a second round playoff series after eating three slices of pepperoni pizza, somebody could probably tell you.

So now that the 2015 NBA Finals matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers is in the books (Warriors win, 4-2, and yes, I’m from Oakland), let me respond to a confident statistical pronouncement that I didn’t hear from anyone in the NBA.

Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman is famous for his work on cognitive biases, i.e., our unrecognized, automatic, and often erroneous habits of thought. Citing statistical analyses of thousands of shots, he concludes that “there is no such thing as a hot hand in professional basketball, either in shooting from the field or scoring from the foul line. …The hot hand is a massive and widespread cognitive illusion.”

That would be a tough sell to Warrior fans. Game after game during this year’s finals, the faithful kept waiting for “the Splash Brothers” — MVP and 3-point champion Steph Curry and his backcourt partner Klay Thompson (who holds the record for most points scored in a quarter at 37) — to “heat up.” They never did, at least not at the same time. But Kahneman views the whole idea as nothing more than an illusion anyway, a form of jumping to erroneous conclusions whenever we notice a pattern like a player hitting a succession of shots.

Here’s the basic logic. Toss a coin a hundred times; record each result in sequence as either heads (H) or tails (T). In all likelihood, the pattern of H’s and T’s will “look” random to you — because it is. But in that long and jumbled list of 100 letters, you may find a string, say, of five H’s in a row. Your brain will take notice; the pattern will jump out as unusual, as something in need of explanation.

But there’s nothing unusual happening. True, if you flip a coin only five times, it’s very unlikely that you’ll get all heads. But if you flip it a hundred times, chances are pretty good that you’ll get a string of five in there somewhere. We wouldn’t say that the coin “got hot”; things like this just happen at random.

Kahneman’s argument is that if you consider hundreds of shots taken by the same player, the so-called “hot hand” (or the “off night” for that matter) is nothing more than the occasional string of made shots we should see at random from any shooter, like strings of heads in a sequence of coin tosses.

Agree? Disagree?

I disagree. Sort of.

In general, I don’t fault the statistical / probability argument. The question is whether randomness is the only explanation for what we might call a hot hand on a given night. Kahneman’s explanation may be true sometimes, but I don’t think NBA players and fans are all subject to a mass delusion.

Let’s start with this: philosophically, I don’t think “random chance” causes anything. It’s not a thing or a causative force in itself. Whether a coin comes up heads or tails is the result of a whole host of factors (How hard did you flip it? When did you catch it?) that vary and combine unpredictably from flip to flip.

Thus, if a chart of a player’s long-term success at shooting the basketball resembles something like the pattern of H’s and T’s described earlier, that’s because there are numerous and unpredictable causes at work (e.g., skill, fatigue, confidence, defense). And here’s the point: some of those causes are at least partially subject to a player’s conscious control.

Let’s say Steph Curry gets fouled and is rewarded with two free throws. He clanks the first one off the front of the rim. The second one is more likely to go in — because Curry himself will make an adjustment to the shot. Is that the only factor in play? No. But all that matters is that it’s enough of a factor to make the difference.

So, Dr. Kahneman, I respectfully disagree. There can be such a thing as a hot hand, provided that we don’t mean something like magic, but a happy confluence of causal factors that include a player’s own adjustments. And under such conditions, why not pass that player the ball?

At least until the opposing coach changes the equation with a new defensive strategy, and then it’s time to move on.