When basketball is boiled down to its elemental statistics, there are three that most people watch (and most fantasy leagues are based on). Points and rebounds are fairly easy to count, but an assist requires a bit of judgment. Ever since watching Mo Williams try to be a “point guard” for nearly 200 games, the seed of a question was placed in my mind of the true value of an assist. Williams would dribble out half of the 24 second clock, run around for a few seconds, then toss the ball to Michael Redd who would make a tough 3-pointer. That’s an assist. Maybe all assists were not created equally.
There is little question that it is good for a team to pass the ball. If having one set point guard makes a team predictable (as I wrote about last week), then having one guy dribble the ball incessantly is even more telltale. By the way, this is one of the things that made Allen Iverson unique. Somehow Larry Brown was able to fashion a winning team around a ball hog like Iverson. However, as my friend Kyle Soppe showed earlier this week in a small sample size, a better assist:field goal ratio does not necessarily mean a better chance at winning.
Yet, there is little question that an alley-oop is a better assist than a desperation pass to a covered teammate who makes a tough shot. It is probably a good time to mention that passes that lead to fouls are not counted as assists. Why not? My guess is that NBA teams have their own advanced statistical methods of tracking assists, but I think we need to revamp the assist statistic.
In preparation for this article, Jeff Fox sent me this excellent article, which took a look at assists from around the nation. One of the many interesting notes from Jeff Fahey was that nearly 85% of 3-pointers in college basketball are the result of assists. This speaks to players not just running up the floor and jacking up long range shots, Grinnell-style. My first step in redefining assists would be to reduce assists to half an assist when the teammate being assisted has to take a 3-pointer. While there is some value to finding the open man on the perimeter, hitting a 3-pointer is hardly a sure thing and the shooter is doing most of the work even if he is open.
I don’t necessarily think that assists have to lead to dunks, but a better assist statistic would be how many of the passes lead to points in the paint (including free throws on fouls). Maybe assists leading to points in the paint could be worth 1.5. This would improve Phil Pressey’s assist rate since he is excellent at hitting cutting Tigers heading to the basket.
As noted above, team assists are a good thing, but just as I am not sure that having a true point guard is an asset toward winning a championship (it is an asset toward entertaining basketball), I am not sure that players that provide double-digit assists are always helping their team as much as it would seem. High assist rates often go with ball hogging (see Iverson) and that would be the opposite of a good thing. On the ultimate team, everyone would share the ball (and be tall).