Andrea Bargnani and the Cold Hand Theory

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Plus, Jacque Vaughn as the Gandhi of coaches.

Most NBA fans know all about the Hot Hand Theory and the debate it carries. Many observers (and players) think that shooters have hot and cold streaks, and even that some shooters are more likely to be "streakier" than others. Several studies suggest that this is not accurate, as far as we can tell. In fact, the data has shown that players who have made one or two field goals are more likely to miss their next one, possibly because the increased confidence caused by belief in the Hot Hand Theory leads them to take more difficult attempts.

The brother of the Hot Hand Theory is the Cold Hand Theory, and it's basically the same: players go cold and should stop shooting sometimes. One would expect the data to say the same thing it says about hot hands: nope, doesn't exist. Streaks are expected when you have players taking hundreds of shots over the course of a season, just as streaks would be expected when you flip a coin a thousand times. The coin flip is all chance, while shooting a basketball isn't -- this isn't meant to argue that point. But you can be a legit 40 percent shooter and miss six straight shots today and make six straight tomorrow and that's all normal.

This question comes up because Andrea Bargnani missed a lot of shots on Sunday as the Raptors fell to the Spurs in double overtime. Il Mago went 2-19 from the floor, yet played the final four minutes of regulation and all of both overtime periods. This despite Bargnani not exactly been renowned for defense, rebounding and pretty much anything other than scoring. He was, for Toronto, a scorer who couldn't score, taking up valuable playing time and offensive possessions.

That's the angle from which ace Raptors beat man Eric Koreen of the National Post attacked the game.

The reality was, though, that he could not make a shot to save his life. He finished 2 for 19 on the day, making just one of his final 13. Meanwhile, Ed Davis was having a career day, with 15 points and 14 rebounds in just 22 minutes of action. And yet, as Bargnani continued to ingest far more than his recommended daily dose of iron, he stayed on the floor.

"Andrea is not going to go 2 for 19 very many times this season," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the 111-106 loss. "The other night [in Detroit] he couldn't miss. I'm going to ride with him come hell or high water."

To which a wide swath of Raptors fans replied, "This isn't hell?"

There are two separate issues here we need to unwind. The first is whether you should yank Bargnani when he's shooting poorly. The second is whether Ed Davis would help Toronto more than Bargnani. The latter question is a wider value judgment than one can make based on a single game. I think the data would suggest that on the whole, Bargnani contributes more 14 minutes of play than would Davis, but I could be wrong on that. The more interesting question is whether Dwane Casey should have pulled Bargnani specifically because he was shooting poorly and because Davis was in the middle of a good game.

The research on the Hot Hand Theory suggests that Casey made the right call, if as we assume Bargnani is typically the better player in this context. (The context includes the opposing defense. Koreen noted that Bargnani was getting good shots, so I'm going to assume that the defense didn't pose additional restraints on Bargnani that wouldn't have applied to Davis.) Speaking of context, something that's always tickled my brain in discussions of the Hot Hand Theory is how large a role specific match-ups play. Say Shawn Marion is guarding LeBron James, and James misses four straight shots. Is LeBron just cold? Or is Marion playing strong defense? If you believe in the Hot Hand Theory and its brother the Cold Hand Theory, do you remove credit from Marion? Or is there room for both? In what share? If Marion goes down and Jae Crowder takes over, and LeBron hits three straight jumpers, do you go back and give more credit to Marion for slowing James, or is LeBron just now suddenly hot? These are the issues you face when you analyze via anecdote.

And let's be clear: a shooting performance in one game is, in the grand scheme of things, anecdote. To properly analyze data, you need big, wide volumes of data. There's a reason Small Sample Size Theater is so fun early in the NBA season: we know it's all a lie, or at best signals blanketed by noise.

But, in all honesty, it's nearly impossible to analyze a game -- which reporters must do at least 82 times a year, and which columnists rely on for hooks -- without dipping into the anecdote vs. data trap. I know I fall into that pit repeatedly. All we can do is approach the issue with open eyes and be willing to go against the conventional wisdom.

It is refreshing to see Casey, by most accounts a good coach, avoid the Hot Hand Theory in his tactics. One would assume he has a deeper look than we do at the Bargnani vs. Davis question, and that he appears to value Il Mago more seems to line up with publicly available data. (One point in this particular debate to note: Casey saw first-hand how damaging Bargnani's injuries were to the Raps last season.) It may have seemed completely insane to leave a bricked-out Bargnani on the floor for the final 14 minutes of a bodice-tight game on Sunday, but based on the strongest analytic theory we have, it was probably the right move.

Now, if there were any good theories on how to get the Raptors to win a close game ...


Glen Davis put the contrasting styles of head coaches Doc Rivers and Jacque Vaughn in interesting context over the weekend, speaking to the Boston Herald:

"Doc is more of a military-minded kind of guy, and Jacque is more of a Gandhi kind of guy. Soft but powerful. Doc's more get the job done, and Jacque Vaughn is more the kind of guy who will ask you, Would you feel comfortable getting the job done?"

That's just hilarious. But also, it might be telling of the coaches' situations. In Boston, Doc has a team of veterans that have little time to waste. I mean, you didn't even have to tell Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to get the job done. They know. Rajon Rondo is a little different, but since 2007 Doc has had a driven, veteran team that he's had to deal with a certain way: Frankly. Directly. Strongly. That's how you command respect with great players -- by elevating yourself to their level.

What's interesting is that Vaughn is (apparently) taking a different path with a much younger, more impressionable club. It's also worth noting that Vaughn came up under Gregg Popovich, who is decidedly not a Gandhi. If Vaughn is the kind of coach who will ask you, "Would you feel comfortable getting the job done?" Pop would ask, "Would you feel comfortable with my boot high-fiving your spleen? If not, get the job done."

Glen Davis strikes me as the type of player that needs "the right way" pounded into his face -- his natural tendencies to do things the wrong way are too powerful. (Witness Big Baby's 41.8 percent shooting percentage and 25 percent usage rate this season.) But the rest of the Magic roster would seem compatible with Vaughn's dove approach, and it's so hard, I imagine, to coach different players in very different ways. We'll see how it works out in Orlando. Honestly, I'm not sure any coaching style could make Big Baby an efficient, smart player.


The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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