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The Basketball Hot Hand Debate Shows We Should Be Skeptical of Trends

David Street
2 min read
Jun 1, 2020

Trends are trending. Business conversations all over the world stop when someone throws up a line graph and proclaims, “This is the 10-year trend. It even appears to be accelerating.” The boss nods with a sly smile, “Good work, Johnson. We can’t argue with the hard data.” Many of these analyses may be solid. The trend will continue. 

But a new study of basketball shooting streaks suggests that trends aren’t as predictable as we often assume. In other words, we instinctually want to believe in trends, but the data often doesn’t support that belief.

Researchers took data from 12 recent NBA seasons to see if they could find proof that making a shot improves the chances of making more shots after that. They only found a positive correlation for free throws. They saw a negative correlation for other kinds of shots.

This means that making one free throw seems to increase the probability that the same player will make the next one. On the other hand, making any other kind of shot seems to decrease the probability of the same player making their next shot.

It’s also important to note that the researchers don’t know why these effects exist. They suggest that it could be linked to muscle memory for free throws and changes in team behavior for other kinds of shots. But they don’t know for sure.

The context of the study may say more than the results themselves. This question has bounced around for years. A study in 1985 concluded that the idea of a hot hand was an illusion. Decades later, we’re still discussing it. The idea of trends in basketball, like in business, has a mystical influence on us.

Basketball commentators and fans will continue to talk about streaky shooters and what player has the hottest hand. It’s part of the show. In this context, the debate is purely academic. But for businesses looking to jump on or off a trend, skepticism of trends pays off. Every business would dig into reasons behind declining sales numbers. Any trends that figure into your business’s strategy deserve the same attention.