Ben Gordon And An Alternate Conception Of The Hot Hand

Photo by wnd.andreas on Flickr

Over at the mothership, Henry Abbott has done as much work as anybody at debunking the hot hand as a statisical phenomenon. Here he looks a study that finds that players who make a 3-pointer are more likely to take another one and more likely to miss it. He says that the study “noted that after hitting a 3, in his MVP 2007-2008 season, Kobe Bryant’s next shot would be another 3 53 percent of the time. After a miss, his next shot would be a 3 a mere 14 percent of the time.” And here he delves into research that looks at why “[w]e often see patterns where, in fact, there is randomness.” Given the reams of research that have gone into the broader phenomenon that the hot hand is a part of, I would consider the matter of whether or not it exists as a statistical phenomenon to be settled and the answer is that it does not.

But then a thing happens like Ben Gordon in Denver last night happens and it makes me wonder if there’s not another way, a non-statisical way, of looking at the hot hand that will help us understand it–or, perhaps, conceptualize of it–in a different way. Gordon did, after all, score 45 points, more than half of them from 3-point territory, where he shot an NBA record-tying 9 for 9. For the game overall he shot 59%. Detroit, by the way, lost the game on a Javale McGee dunk on a missed free throw. Statistically speaking, this is an aberration, and simply the kind of performance that offsets those inexplicable games where a shooter can’t hit a shot to save his life. It’s happened even to Ray Allen, and in the playoffs, no less.

But what if we think about the idea of the hot hand from the perspective of basketball as an expressive or creative endeavor? (This is kind of my thing.) If we consider writing, particularly the writing of fiction, there are many stages to the work that goes into creating a short story or novel, but the first is almost always generation. At this stage, the most important thing for the writer is turn off his or her inner critic and let whatever comes out onto the page with little regard for how useful the material will be in the end. Charles Limb’s TED talk addresses this method of creating with regard to music and improvisation, backing up the idea that feedback loops in the brain shut down when a musician is improvising. And both musicians and writers will be familiar with the feeling that comes along with genuinely fertile moments of generation: it feels like you can do no wrong, feels like you’re hearing your authentic voice, like you’re almost just a conduit for something greater than yourself.

Is that so different from what a shooter seems to be feeling when the shots are falling? If we take a look at the beginning of Ben Gordon’s ridiculous evening, we can see how his confidence, his sense that he’s tapped into something, grows.

His first shot comes off a curl and misses. His next opportunity comes off another curl, but this time Jason Maxiell sets another screen off the catch and Gordon moves into open space and drains it. He scores his next two off the exact same play.

This is where you get the sense he’s feeling it, because his next shot is a little less open but he takes it anyways and misses. But the next time he gets the ball is another curl and here he refuses the pick, spins into open space and drains another 2:

Then, three things happen: he makes a wide-open 3 in transition, pump fakes his way into a layup that misses, and then makes another wide-open 3 in transition. It’s clear at this point to Gordon that his jumper feels right and that the attempt to drive the lane was ill-advised, so he starts firing, and everything is going in:

Off the curl, in transition, covered, uncovered, drawing the foul–any shot he was taking was going in. That second-to-last shot, the pull-up jumper in transition, is a particularly egregious example of an essentially stupid basketball shot that Gordon took because he was “feeling” it. And last night, it worked for him as a player.

But it’s not at all clear that it worked for the Pistons as a team, and this is where it comes back to writing. When you’re in that generative state, where everything is flowing easily, you write some of the best lines, the best chunks, the best bits and pieces you ever write. But you’re not necessarily writing the best story. Most any veteran writer or writing instructor will quote Quiller-Couch to you and tell you to, “Murder your darlings,” but it’s only through the hard work of revision that you learn to feel this in your bones, that you feel it the same way you feel the true things you’re writing that you must sacrifice.

Ben Gordon on the court last night in Denver was generating like a motherfucker. A volume shooter on a bender like that brings to mind the legend of Jack Kerouac writing On The Road in one monster, three-week jag on a continuous scroll of paper. But what you don’t hear as much about is how Kerouac worked for three years on the idea of the novel before that compressed effort and then worked for six more on revising it. In writing, the heat and fire of generating new work can only carry you so far before you have to go back and begin to carefully revise what you’ve done. Unfortunately, this isn’t precisely possible within basketball, although players can certainly study tape to try and learn from past efforts.

But wouldn’t the Pistons maybe have been better off if Gordon had revised some of those jumpers–even the successful ones–into assists? This is where he would really be murdering his darlings because it might be the case that sometimes he shouldn’t have even been taking the good shots in favor of promulgating a more balanced offense. Not that the Pistons are overflowing with offensive options, but maybe if the love is spread around a bit more, Gordon doesn’t force up that final jumper and miss the game-winning shot.

And thus does the notion of the hot hand as a psychological construct and not a statistical phenomenon place approaching it in a game in a precarious position. Looking back at a performance like Gordon’s, we might wish he considered his shooting a little more carefully. But even asking him to consider it risks removing him from that free-flowing, generative mindstate that’s making him so successful. Nothing stops up your process quicker than thinking about your process. Writers have the luxury of creating reams of paper that never see the light of day, picking and choosing not only the best parts, but the parts that work best together to make something that works as a whole. It’s best for them to separate the generating mind from the revising mind as strictly as possible.

But basketball players have to do it all right there in front of us, writing their rough and final drafts simultaneously and hoping they’re not sacrificing the great of the win for the good of the hot hand.

Seth Carstens