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Assists: The Passed Present

Steve Nash assisted his way to 2 MVPs.
Steve Nash assisted his way to 2 MVPs.

When is an assist not an assist?

Apparently never. And you can invent a few along the way it seems, if you are an NBA stat keeper.

I have always wondered about assists (among other stats). I’ve wondered what qualifies as one, and how accurately they are recorded. Apparently I’m not alone.

One Mr. David Biderman of the Wall Street Journal call assists “The NBA’s Most Misleading Statistic”, and hit a number of touch points for debate regarding the vagueness of the NBA’s definition of what is an assisted basket.

Marty Burns of said this…

 ‘According to the NBA’s statisticians' manual, an assist is credited to the player tossing "the last pass leading directly to a field goal if, and only if, the player scoring the goal responds by demonstrating immediate reaction toward the basket." An assist can be credited if a receiving player takes a dribble, so long as he makes an immediate reaction toward the basket.’

Biderman, in his article, rightly brings up questions like pump fakes, head fakes and pivot moves…all of which are not mentioned in the NBA statisticians’ manual and are assumed to all be part of an assisted basket on most passes. If you had to use multiple fakes to free yourself to shoot, should that be considered part of your immediate reaction toward the basket? Were those fakes necessary? It can get a bit sticky and highly subjective in  making those determinations for a stat keeper.



The controversy is not new. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard in 2005 wrote how basketball is trying to catch up to baseball statistical analysis as described in that perennial seller Moneyball (Michael Lewis) while offering this example of potential statistical injustice….

“If Steve Nash passes the ball to a wide-open wing player, who hits a 15-foot jump shot, Nash gets an assist. But if he beats his man, draws a defender and drops it off to Shawn Marion, who is fouled before he can finish the layup, no assist.”

Fouled shot attempts opens another can of worms. They are not recorded as shot attempts. Nor are passers awarded any credit for any free throw points scored. But I digress.

The Passed and the ‘Present’

Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo Sports recently lamented an (alleged) confession of unbearable light by a Laker loving, Vancouver Grizzlies official stat keeper. The stat keeper wholly contrived 23 assist night for Nick Van Exel in Vancouver once upon a time.

Said the stat keeper in an APBRmetrics forum, (you know…. where those guys meet who are ever searching for the Holy Grails of basketball statistical formulae) in July of this year….

“If he (Van Exel) was vaguely close to a guy making a shot, I found a way to give him an assist.”

He went on to say that he expected at least a hand slap after the game. Instead…

‘A senior management guy (said) - "great job Alex, that'll get this game on Sportscenter tomorrow morning!" We (VAN) lost badly, of course.’

That comment also highlights the insatiable quest for TV exposure. Interesting and eye opening for sure. While the story is anecdotal, I should mention that it could be wrong or made up. I have no reason to question its authenticity. It is plausible. I suppose that if someone wanted to find a video of that game they could prove or disprove the story. For discussion’s sake, we will assume its veracity.

That brings up three separate themes:

a) ethics  - which was questioned above
While the above Nick Van Exel anecdote involves the single instance of padding the stats of a player from a favorite visiting team, the ethics issue encompasses home team slanting as well. For a long while, the home team provided the stat keepers, thus opening the door to hometown favoritism. I think I read somewhere that this has stopped and the NBA provides the stat keepers now.

b) accuracy – the vague definition of an assist leaves the door open to wide interpretation by honest stat keepers. My guess is that most made baskets off of a pass that didn’t require multiple dribbles, or a change of direction, is recorded as an assist.

Human errors can happen

Even the self confessed one time stat padder said he winnowed his own accidental statistical errors down to 3-4 per game and fixed those before submitting them to the NBA. It sounds like he cared about his job generally. One would hope that things have generally improved over the years.

Biderman’s article mentions that 3-5 people (beyond the official scorer, game clock-operator and 24-second clock-operator) keep the stats for every NBA game.

First of all…3 to 5? Three is 60% of five. That is a huge difference. I’m surprised that there isn’t an exact number of people at each game, each recording a specific set of stats.  

Saying that. I wonder how many actual errors make it through to any boxscore and secondary stat sheets in the current NBA.

Is there any way to more accurately record assists?

Are all assists equal?

Statistically speaking they are. By the boxscore, there is no way to tell the difference between a highly difficult or skillful assist and an ordinary one. Obviously, that can be deceptive.

Are three point guards who all average 6 assists in about the same amount of minutes per game all about the same level of passing ability?  

In truth, they can all be vastly different distributors. One guard might come down court looking to run the offensive schemes to the team's best effect. Another might usually be looking for his shot first, and passing is considered a secondary option. 

Team shooting percentages can be impacted by the decision making of the point guard. The following play a large role, as well:

a) shooting skill of the players
b) playing style
c) game strategy of the coaching staff  
d) effectiveness of the opposing defense.
e) how loudly you yell at the screen

Total assists are also affected somewhat by team pace. Obviously, less total shot attempts results in fewer assist opportunities.

(An aside - The Boston Celtics assisted on 29% of all attempts, and 60% of all made baskets, second in the NBA only to Utah on both counts.)

On any given trip down court, there are usually two or more passing options. A team’s top offensive player is the first offensive option for obvious reasons. But there are times when another player may be the first option during the course of a game instead.

Coaching staffs will ‘grade’ or review passing decisions. At film sessions, they will talk about when and where passes were made versus when or where they should have been made.

Reading the assist numbers won’t tell you any of that.

c) Improvement?

Is there a way to improve the meaning of the assist statistic? How about a weighted system? Can one assist be counted more heavily than another?

Conversely, a point guard (or any player) can actually get an assist on the worse pass of a multiple passing option scenario.

Example – one player breaks free and gets open underneath, but the pass goes out to the player at the three point line where he makes the shot. The point guard gets the assist, but really didn’t make the right play (the sure play).

How about a player (point guard or otherwise) who unwisely drives the middle, gets trapped by the defense and barely manages a blind pass out, where another player moves to the ball, catches it and makes a shot? Assist. (Okay, so it doesn’t happen much. But still.)

The funny thing is that NBA point guards will probably think just the opposite of some of the intent of this article- that assists might be awarded a bit too liberally. They will generally feel they are losing assists on missed open shots. The shot should have been made. They are not wrong, either.  

Admittedly it is an imperfect system. Can it be improved? Are assists given too easily? Should players get credit for great passes that aren’t converted? How about when the shooter gets fouled?

Should an assisted basket be more clearly defined? Or should we leave well enough alone.