The Hot Hand: A New Approach to an Old “Fallacy”

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In basketball, the player with the “Hot Hand” is supposedly more likely to make his next shot if he has made several of his previous shots.Among academics, this notion of streak shooting has been disproven enough times that it is referred to not as the “Hot Hand,” but rather as the “Hot Hand Fallacy.”

However, prior research hinges on the assumption that player shot selection is random, independent of player-perceived hot or coldness. Said differently, it assumes that players will take the same types of shots, with the same level of defensive coverage, regardless of whether they have just made or missed three shots in a row. We find this assumption difficult to believe – if players have been shooting well, it seems logical that they would begin to attempt more difficult shots and opposing defenses would begin to cover them more tightly. This would potentially counteract the Hot Hand effect.

We challenge the belief that the Hot Hand is a fallacy using a dataset of over 83,000 shots from the 2012-2013 NBA season, combined with optical tracking data of both the players and the ball. We show that players who have outperformed over recent shots shoot from significantly further away, face tighter defense, and are more likely to take their team’s next shot. We then turn to the Hot Hand itself and show that players who are outperforming will continue to do so by a small but significant amount, once we control for the difficulty of the present shot.