NBA Assists Are Everything and Almost Nothing

Assists are simultaneously one of the most important aspects of basketball, one of the most overrated stats and one of the most underrated.

That’s right. They can mean virtually everything or almost nothing.

I’ve been percolating on the idea of assists for years now, and how we could come up with a better version of them. But they are much like defense: Stats can tell you something, but really, you can’t define them by stats alone.

Assessed Differently

For starters, not everyone counts them the same.

If someone scores a bucket, it’s pretty static. The scorekeeper doesn’t have an opinion on whether the ball went through the net. Assists are unique in that they’re the only box score stat in which there is some level of “opinion” involved. Officially, “An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket,” but that can mean different things to different scorekeepers.

If the scorer puts the ball on the floor, a scorekeeper may or may not determine that the pass led to the bucket. A passer can hit a cutter two dribbles away from the basket with a straight line and no defender. He can pass it to a man in the post who the scorer must ascertain whether he makes an “immediate” move to the basket.

What constitutes “led to?” What constitutes “immediately?” There is a disparity between scorekeepers on this, and there are some teams that offer more “home cooking” than others.

The Golden State Warriors scorekeepers seem to be the most generous to giving (at least their players) an assist while Orlando Magic’s are the most reluctant.

Note, I used assist percentage here because the overall number of field goals goes down as a rule. But the offense doesn’t change so there shouldn’t be a dramatic difference between the two. League-wide, though, the home team has about 1.1 percentage points more of its field goals credited assists than the road team.

Impact Differently

As we know, not all shots are equally as effective.

Neither are all assists.

If you break down the court into different areas: around the rim, beyond the arc and between the semicircles, a shot has a particular value. Shots at the rim are worth about 1.3 points, those between the semi-circles about 0.8 points and those beyond arc about 1.1 points.

Here’s a look at how assists are distributed league-wide:

Info obtained from PBPStats.com

We assess with things like effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage to evaluate the efficiency of a scorer, but we don’t consider the efficiency of a passer, in part because 100 percent of times an assist is credited, the player scores. Go tautology!

More than anything, the passers who feed the player at the rim the most see the highest effective field-goal percentage off their passes. In fact, of the top-10 in assists at the rim per game, all 10 are seeing an effective field-goal percentage of at least 60 on their feeds. For the table below, the rim assists came from PBPStats.com and the other passing stats came from NBA.com.

Name Team Rim Assists/Game Potential Assists/Game Points per Potential Assist Effective Field Goal Percentage per Potential Assist
Russell Westbrook OKC 5.47 19.4 1.2 61.09%
James Harden HOU 4.97 15.6 1.3 65.80%
Jrue Holiday NOP 4.44 14.6 1.3 66.33%
Kyle Lowry TOR 4.19 14.4 1.5 75.65%
Trae Young ATL 3.93 13.6 1.3 63.51%
Chris Paul HOU 3.88 15.8 1.2 61.44%
John Wall WAS 3.81 15.5 1.3 66.30%
Nikola Jokic DEN 3.72 11.6 1.5 73.18%
LeBron James LAL 3.68 13.9 1.2 60.15%
Jeff Teague MIN 3.42 13.8 1.4 70.14%

Shots Created Differently

There is also a big difference in terms of how the shot is created. Sometimes, the system sets up a shot through a screen, a cut or a curl. Other times, the ball-handler sets up a teammate by breaking down a defense and taking away his man.

Nor do the players passing the ball all have to do the same degree of work. For instance, look at this assist:

Houston Rockets wunder-guard James Harden breaks down the defense, but center Clint Capela sets the screen and roll. Both parties did work to create the shot, though.

Now look at this one:

Harden backs down his defender, and pulls away then-Cavaliers wing Kyle Korver in the help, but spots teammate Ian Clark for the wide-open 3. Clark literally did nothing but stand there. Sure, that’s what he’s supposed to do, but Harden created the shot.

Now look at this one:

Harden is meandering up the court, biding his own sweet time, when guard Eric Gordon flashes past him and sets up for a 3. Harden’s all like, “Hey there, I see you,” and tosses him the ball. And then boom, three points.

Same passer. Same team. Three different teammates. Three different balances of responsibility in creating the shot. Two different point values. But all called the same thing.

You can see why just tallying assist totals can be confusing, especially when you start factoring in the rest of the complications.

Does that mean that assists aren’t some sort of benchmark? No. But it does suggest that using it as an absolute measure of team or individual passing ability is shortsighted.

To appreciate passing, you have to look past whether or not an assist was actually credited or not and look to the bigger things. Is the passer setting up the offense or just operating within it? Is he feeding teammates in high-efficiency zones, or is he setting them up for low-efficiency shots?

Watching for the why, where and how of the assist can tell you more than just the number of dimes the passer drops.

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