The hot hand punches back

Players like Kobe Bryant don't need stats to convince them that the hot hand exists. Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- For more than 40 years, the hot-hand debate hasn’t been much of a debate to those who have seriously studied the phenomenon. Researchers have repeatedly proven it just doesn’t exist despite the full-throated protests from anyone (including yours truly) who have felt fire in their fingertips after drilling a couple of jumpers.

But new research conducted by a trio of Harvard graduates -- Andrew Bocskocsky, John Ezekowitz and Carolyn Stein -- and presented here at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference gives hot-hand believers new, statistically supported ammo. The researchers found that the hot hand does indeed exist. That is if you strip away most of the variables that differentiate a live game from free throw practice.

Using optical tracking data from the NBA’s SportVu camera system, the researchers were able to control for factors such as defense and shot location in a way that previous studies couldn’t. Their work indicates that -- all things being equal when it comes to the difficulty of the shot -- having just hit a few shots does in fact make NBA players more likely to make their next shot.

The observed improvement is modest. If you've made more shots than you'd be expected to make given the difficulty of your past four, the new research shows that your field goal percent actually goes up by 1.2 percent, a small but significant effect.

It’s statistically significant, but does it matter?

There is evidence of short-term super-shooting powers, but from a strategic standpoint, it’s hard to tell exactly how much stock teams and players should put in this new data.

If you want to make your next shot, the quality of that next shot (Is it an open shot? Is it in the your range?) is still far more important than your recent accuracy.

The most compelling takeaway from the original Sloan hot-hand research paper from Sandy Weil and John Huizinga was in the application: Teams could take this information and know how to play more intelligently during an actual game.

Even a player like me, for whom playing at MSG means men’s league at a Middle School Gym, could benefit. I knew in my bones the hot hand had to exist. But once I became aware of the detrimental shooting behavior that comes from feeling hot, I also became more attuned to my own decision-making. If I felt the desire to take a heat check, I now consciously avoided it. And you know what? I started shooting better over longer stretches. I stayed hot by acting like I wasn’t.

Unless a team, like the researchers, can control for all those pesky factors, you’re still better off trying to burn the defense by seeking out the open man.