Dishes and Dimes – A Close Look at Assists

by Aqeel Phillips

With the introduction of the new SportVu advanced statistics that the NBA has officially introduced at the beginning of November, I’ve been most intrigued by the new passing statistics now at the disposal of the fans. It’s been well known around stat-heads for a while that Assists are a flawed metric for measuring a player’s contribution to their team. They simply serve as a tally with no weight to them, a cross court pass to an open player in the corner yields the same number of Assists as a pass inside to a big man who does most of the heavy lifting by skillfully posting up. Though some public websites track the number of assists that lead to three-pointers as opposed to deuces, there is still no stat that accounts for passes that lead to free throws, and passers are robbed of rightful assists that they should receive when a play ends in a shooting foul. SportVu will be tracking these statistics, but I’m too impatient to wait for the season to progress and the sample size of SportVu to increase sufficiently, so I set out enumerate the contributions of passers from last year’s NBA season.

The Three-Pointers: Creating Valuable Shots

Let’s start by reminding ourselves of the Assist leaders from last year:

Assists

As stated previously, these assists merely serve as a tally of passes a player completed that led to field goals. We can gain a better picture of each passer’s contributions by taking a peek at a lesser-known statistic called Weighted Assists (shorthand AST+, courtesy of Hoop Data), which weights three-pointers as 1.5 as valuable as regular field goals. From AST+, we can easily calculate the amount of points from field goals that a player produced per game, by multiplying their AST+ value by two.

Table2

By itself, AST+ fails to paint a much better picture of the list of leaders from last season, and essentially inflates the numbers that we are already aware of (though LeBron James and Jeff Teague get bumped up into the top-10). Despite its shortcomings, I’ve decided to use the AST+ player rankings throughout the article rather than APG rankings, because we already know that their passes lead to the most points from field goals per game.

AST+ allow us to take an interesting look at a player’s production by seeing a player’s ratio of passes that led to three-pointers and two-pointers (min. 5 AST+ per game)

Table3

Open three pointers are one of the most valuable shots in the league, and coaches drill good play execution and smart passing to create these open shots. We can find many of the leagues best players on this list, displaying their ability to make the right play and find open shooters. I was slightly marveled to find Raymond Felton topping the list with an almost 1:1 ratio between passes that lead to triples, but he also only averaged 5.5 APG last season. His ranking seems to serve more as a testament to the construction of Knicks roster last year, featuring Novak, Copeland, Kidd on the outside and Chandler, Martin, Stoudemire on the inside, with Melo all over the place. However, it should be no surprise to find some of the league’s best driving players, such as James, Harden, Parker, Wade, on this list as well. I think that this chart also particularly highlights Kevin Durant’s underrated playmaking ability, and his ratio of 3PG:2PG is ranked slightly above his rival, LeBron James (though James racks up 7.2 APG to Durant’s 4.7). For both players, it’s easier to see their ability to consistently and intelligently kick out to open men for big points.

The Free Throws: Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

But what about Free Throws? Imagine being able to create beautiful passes like Chris Paul, only to be at the mercy of your awful free throw-shooting big men, like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Or worse – imagine setting up a player like Dwight Howard, only to have him hacked and leaving you with no credit. Passers are criminally robbed of credit when a play ends in a shooting foul, when they should receive recognition just like any other play that ends in points. Without SportVu available last year, we can never be sure of a player’s amount of passes that led to free throws, but we can estimate using the player’s Assist Rate and the team’s Free Throws attempted per game. The player’s Assist Rate is the amount of their team’s scoring plays that they assisted in (for reference, Hall of Famer John Stockton had an Assist Rate of over 50%). Using the team’s amount of Free Throws attempted per game and the team Free Throw percentage, we can use some simple math to find a team’s PPG from Free Throws alone. We then assume that a passing player was involved in the same number of plays that led to Free Throws as Field Goals (by applying their Assist Rate to the team’s points from Free Throws).

For example, the Boston Celtics attempted 21 Free Throws per game last season, and converted 77.6% of them, for a value of 16.3 points per game from Free Throws. Next, we apply Rajon Rondo’s Assist Rate to estimate the amount of those 16.3 points that he was involved in (around 39.05% in Rondo’s case).

Table4

This table is fairly unexciting, and highly mirrors our initial list ranking of APG with a bit of shuffling. In this chart, we can see that Russell Westbrook highly benefits from playing on a team that is elite at getting to the line and converting their Free Throws. The Thunder average over 20 points per game off of free throws alone, so his estimated amount points from passes leading to fouls ranks 5th, despite his Assist Rate being lower than his neighboring peers. On the flip side, Jrue Holiday falls to this bottom due to his teams inability to get to the line (with a FTR of just 20%).

Finally, we sum these values to find a player’s total team points produced from passes.

Table5

Rajon Rondo once again tops our list, followed closely by Chris Paul, both putting up absolutely ridiculous numbers. This list puts into perspective just how productive a great passer can be; without seeing the raw scoring numbers it can be hard to appreciate a passing player’s contributions. On passing alone, Rondo yielded enough points to lead the league in scoring last year, and Paul would certainly be in competition as well. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the largely-ignored Greivis Vasquez holding his own with a value closer to Paul than to the nearest player below him. But, let’s take a moment to note the order of Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. Westbrook has a reputation around the league as a selfish player, yet he is statistically producing more points from passes than James, a player hailed as today’s closest reincarnation to Magic Johnson.

The Full Picture: Ranking Contributions

The most respected and noticed stat in the NBA is – and probably will always be – the amount of points a player scores per game. If a point guard posts a statline of 10 points and 10 assists, it might be brushed off as unimpressive due to the low scoring number. However, if a player puts up 10 points and 10 assists in a game, we can extrapolate that they are responsible for at least 30 team points, simply because each assist led to at least a two-point field goal. So out of our Assist leaders, which player was responsible for producing the most points for their team? To find a player’s Total Points Per Game, we simply sum their PPG and their Points from Assists Per Game:

Table6

Is it even a surprise to see LeBron top another statistical list? He solidifies himself as the rightful MVP from last season by producing almost 50 team points per game. Notice the disparity between James and Teague – recall that both averaged the same amount of APG last year, but LeBron displays what it means to be a perennial MVP in the league. Chris Paul also makes a solid argument for his status as a top-3 player in the league by putting up 45 points on a nightly basis. On the other hand, take a look at Russell Westbrook’s position. While Russell Westbrook might not be the perfect All-Star to pair with Kevin Durant in OKC, he makes a statement against his under-appreciation by producing total numbers very comparable to Paul and Rondo, and produces almost as many points from passing as he does from scoring. John Wall and Deron Williams put up very respectable numbers as well, despite criticisms about their monetary worth the past season and summer. And though Vasquez may not be a household name, he is projected to be contributing just as much as a previous number-one overall pick, John Wall, and 2013 All-Star, Jrue Holiday.

The Value of Passing

I began this research expecting to find that Assists were a misleading metric for ranking a passing player’s contribution. After all, feeding the ball to a big doing the heavy lifting in the low post will yield assists to the passing player, despite their minimal contribution to the play. In our final chart of passing points per game, we see that it largely mirrors our initial list of the players ranked by assists per game. However, I came away with a much higher respect of the sheer gravity that these player’s passes help their team. It’s hard to imagine that on one of LeBron’s or Chris Paul’s “average” nights, that they can contribute almost half of their team’s points (and on one of their great nights, watch out). With 42 points and 15 assists against Golden State early this season, Chris Paul alone chipped in at least 72 points of his team’s 126. Passing is undoubtedly a criminally underrated facet of the game, and I hope that the introduction of powerful tools such as SportVu will help a respect for this integral piece of the game to become more respected.

Special thanks to Hoop Data and Team Rankings for all statistics cited.

2 thoughts on “Dishes and Dimes – A Close Look at Assists

  1. There is a possible error in yout FT calculation. For example you have Miami at 23 FTA per game. However LeBron accounted for 7 of those so there is no way he could have a “blown” assist on those FTA. Also, Wade had 6 attempts per game and I doubt many of those came from Lebron passes as opposed to Wade taking his defender off the dribble.

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