NBA Jam

I follow the NBA at arms length. One of the most exciting things to see is a player get a hot hand and make four or five shots in a row. This idea featured heavily in the game NBA Jam I used to play1 as a kid–make three shots in a row and your player catches on fire.

It turns out that the idea of a hot hand is a myth. According to a new paper in Nature Communications title Reinforcement learning in professional basketball players, two things happen when a player makes a three point shot:

  1. They player is likely to try and make another three-pointer the next time they get the ball.
  2. The player's chance of making the shot goes down.

I'll say that again. If you make a three-pointer your chances of making a second one go down2. Instead of heating up you are more likely to cool down. He's on ice isn't nearly as catchy though.

Humans have a hard time making sense of randomness. We often look for patterns when none are present or selectively filter out information that we do not agree with. In this case basketball players focus more on the shots they make not the ones they miss. This is why Kobe Bryant can throw up thirty shots a game, miss the majority of them, and still feel like he has a hot hand. The numbers say otherwise.

  1. And now, occasionally, on the iPad. 
  2. Unless you are Dirk Nowitzki in the clutch during the playoffs.