Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Do You Believe In Heat Checks? (Yes.)

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article today about the hot hand.  The article comes from my favorite current sportswriter, Ben Cohen, who is known best in some circles of the Internet as the Duke homer who claimed that Duke homer Dick Vitale is not a Duke homer.  The piece is light on the game of basketball and heavy on statistics (normally a huge no-no for the inhabitants of #BucksForest), but I found it interesting none the less.

The whole concept of the hot hand is fascinating and, for what it's worth, I am a believer in it.

The WSJ article had a counter-example, as Duke basketball legend/funder of mixed-race baby abortions JJ Redick (or, at least, his own mixed-race baby abortion - I should keep it legal here) is quoted in Cohen's article saying that he did a test where he recorded 100 shots per day along with his pre-shot emotions ("I feel hot", "I feel cold", etc.) and tabulated the results.  JJ said that he found no such thing as a "hot hand".  His shooting percentage during his test more or less stayed the same no matter his feeling of hotness.

Like much sports research (and, now that I think about it, research in general), I found JJ's methodology to be intrinsically flawed.  When you record your pre-shot emotions, it messes up any "hotness" you might have felt.  I may date myself a bit by saying this, but you know what basketball announcers used to say when a guy was hot?  He's "unconscious".  "Unconscious" is the perfect way to describe a hot hand.  The guy is so in-rhythm that he stops thinking and just keeps getting buckets. Recording one's pre-shot emotion naturally removes any "unconscious" state a person could be in because the person is required to think about his emotional state.  So, much like JJ's tenure with the Bucks and his efforts at avoiding impregnating women who he didn't want mixed-race babies with, JJ's research at Duke was a failure.

An interesting corralary to the "hot hand" is the "heat check".  A hot hand is a requirement for a heat check, but not vice-versa.  A heat check is when a hot-handed person (and, obviously, different people have different feelings on how many shots it takes for them to become "hot-handed") starts taking reckless shots, in part as a check on just how hot they are.  Klay Thompson's 37-point quarter against the Kings last season (which I happened to be watching live because I watch way too much Boogie Cousins on NBA League Pass) is the best example I've ever seen of a heat check.  The highlights didn't even include the best part of this one.  The Kings got so frustrated at one point that they fouled Klay thirty-five feet from the hoop to prevent him from hitting another three.  As Klay was being fouled he tossed the ball at the basket and it went in!  Incredible.

Anywho, when a heat check would happen in the olden days, TV announcers had a term similar to "he's unconscious" that they would say: "he has no conscience".  "He has no conscience" carries an important distinction from "he's unconscious."  The former implies consciousness, while the latter explicitly denies it.  What "he has no conscience" means is, in some cases after a shooter gets so hot that he loses consciousness, the shooter becomes a basketball sociopath who begins committing heinous crimes against the laws of good shot-selection.  It's a great way of describing the actions of Vernon Maxwell (or, to use a less dated example, JR Smith) when he gets a hot hand.

And this brings me to my point: all good basketball shots are relative.  Every time a player attempts a shot, a dynamic equation governs whether it is a good shot.  The equation considers the number of points that could be scored (two or three), potential negative outcomes (are there rebounders to clean up a miss?; are there men back to defend against a potential fast break?), the shooter's proficiency at that shot, his teammates feelings about him taking that shot (nobody likes to play with a Hondo), the potential ability of his team to create a better shot before the shot clock expires, probably another unknown factor or two and, yes, hotness.  And this is why I always defended Monta Ellis's tenure with the Bucks.  Considering all of these things, he took mostly good shots.  It's just that they only went in about 42% of the time.  

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