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Proof that the "Hot Hand" exists… on the free throw line

May 17, 2010, 6:33 PM EDT

One thing that stat heads have been saying for the last year or so is that the “hot hand” does not exist. A study at the Sloan Analytics conference a few years ago crunched the numbers on how well players shot after making one or several shots against how they shot after missing one or several shots, and found absolutely no evidence that would suggest the “hot hand” exists. 

On one hand, that finding doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Everyone who’s ever played basketball or just shot baskets knows the feeling one gets when he hits a couple in a row, feels like he’s finally figured it all out, and feels like he simply cannot miss. Everyone who’s ever watched basketball has likely watched one of their favorite players absolutely bury a team in a matter of minutes when he got hot from the outside. 
So how can a comprehensive study show that the hot hand doesn’t exist? Well, think about what a player has to do to keep a “hot streak” going. If a player believes himself to be hot, what he’ll often do is try and make sure he gets a shot on the next possession. That strategy often results in a shot significantly more difficult than the one before it, and one the defense knows is coming. If the player chooses to wait for a high-percentage look, he runs the risk of not getting one until he’s not “feeling it” anymore. Given all that, it’s not surprising that no study can find evidence of a “hot hand,” even though it may still exist. 
So the lurking variable of shot selection makes it almost impossible to find any true evidence for a “hot hand” effect on field goals. In fact, the only way to get any real data on whether the “hot hand” exists or not would be to find a shot that every player took from the exact same spot on the floor while being defended in the exact same way. Fortunately for the NBA statistical community, somebody figured out that free throws do exist, and did a “hot hand” study that focuses on the free throws. 
Economist Jeremy Arkes recently did a study that focused on the effect of making the first free throw of a pair on the second free throw, and found evidence that players are more likely to make the second free throw after make the first one. Arkes’ study shows that the “hot hand” phenomena that almost everybody has felt at one time or another does exist in one aspect of the NBA game. This could easily be taken to mean that players can get hot on jump shots from the field — whether those “hot streaks” will ever be able to be quantified remains to be seen. 

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