Saturday, May 11, 2013

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: Putting an End to the Nonsense About Hot Hands

From the first time I read this claim and every time since, I said to myself, "Bull shit!"

"Nerdy number-crunchers who wouldn't know the feel of the hardwoods if it bit 'em in the ass",  I mutter, even if one of them was the late Amos Tversky, research partner of Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman and with whom Kahneman surely would have shared his Nobel had Tversky lived long enough. Credentials be damned.

Anyone who's played or watched basketball knows that hot-hands exist. Oh, they are mysterious and elusive; they can appear and disappear in a whim, but they are real. Ask Michael Jordan, who, for instance, rained threes on the hapless Trailblazers one finals game. Or ask me, when I shot 7/8 from the field one night in a varsity game. (Yes, it's good enough to remember for over four decades.) A rare event? Yes, but real.

What is perhaps most annoying is that the stat guys ignore all of the subjective reality based on their naive supposition that the numbers don't lie. Maybe the numbers don't lie, but those who read these electronic tea-leaves delude themselves. Read the biography of a sports figure, or just ask an experienced player: on some nights the basket has a lid on it and on other nights it's 10-foot across. Of course, this doesn't predict the outcome of any one shot, but at the end of the night, it's real. And you'll remember the feeling, if you've done or it even if you've only seen it. It's a "wow!" experience.

Another of the annoying aspects of the stat boys is their failure to consider that games are strategic. (They must have skipped the game theory classes to do additional regressions.) Our ability to develop a hot hand varies according to our biology and psychology in the moment, as well as that of our team mates and opponents. Some nights we have our legs; others not. Against some opponents we have immense confidence; against others we quake. (Seeing a 5'10" opposing player dunk off of two feet during warm-up was very intimidating. I think that it hurt our team confidence. We lost.) Make a shot or two, and the next time out, the other coach is going to say something like Bobby Knight's "Who the hell has Hansen?" and then be told in no uncertain terms to shut him down. Or perhaps it's time to move from a zone to a man defense. One way or another, a successful shooting streak will elicit counter-measures. On the shooter's side, she'll be willing to take greater risks because of improved confidence. Alas, making a couple of lay-ups doesn't mean that you'll now be hitting your previously non-existent three-pointer.

Consider also baselines of indvidual players. If Shaquille O'Neill (or Wilt Chamberlain for you mature fans) goes to the free throw line, how likely is it that he will show a hot hand? Now take Larry Bird: think he'll have a hot hand at the free throw line? He shot over 90% for his career I believe, and he may hold or comes close the NBA record for consecutive made free-throws. If Shaq or Wilt makes a free throw you can tell me that he was "lucky"; tell me that about Bird and I'll laugh in your face.

Here's the article that says that stat guys are starting to rethink themselves and that has goaded me to set the record straight. It strikes me that they're wasting their time. Really, such nonsense from adults.

Man, I was hot.

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