Thoughts on Assists

Being a point guard who literally makes his living off of assists, I was irritated at the end of one of my midseason games. We had won, which I was thrilled about, but the official score sheet had me down for 3 assists. I could count 5 off the top of my head. I might have had 7 if the stat people were feeling generous. I know that people make mistakes, but this kind of thing happened enough in Israel that it really started to get on my nerves. I talked to my coaches about it and they said there was nothing they could do.

Thankfully, there was something that I could do. I took to getting chummy with the people at the scorers table during home games. I figured even a little something, like a smile, couldn’t hurt. I even went so far as to point over to them after a pass to make certain that they credited me. I would laugh as I did this in order to keep it lighthearted, but it’s one of those “haha this is funny right? But also you better give me that g#*@%& assist.”

I have always bristled when people throw their hand in the air after they tip in a missed shot. They do this to notify the scorers table that they were deserving of the points. The worst is when someone sticks their hand up after a no brainer type of sequence, like when they were clearly the only ones in the vicinity of the basket. Everyone saw you buddy, waving your hand and getting all excited makes you look like the fat kid from soccer who is allowed to score a pity goal at the end of the year.

So I know that pleading with the stat guys makes me a hypocrite, but sometimes there are necessary evils. It’s like when the US entered WWII and curb stomped the Axis of Evil. Yeah, it’s awful that over 400,000 brave Americans lost their lives, but letting that little fascist, art school reject get any more powerful would have been really bad. Equally bad (debatable) would be to average 3 assists per game when you should be averaging 5 just because you weren’t trying to stay on top of the people at the scorers table. Stats matter, whether we like it or not.

And as far as stats go, the assist has to be the most inscrutable. What really constitutes an assist? I always thought that it was when you set someone up with a pass that clearly led to them scoring. I figured a dribble or two was fine as long as he wasn’t breaking down the defense with the dribbles. What I am learning is that it is much more complicated than this.

There is clearly some disconnect among scorekeepers with regards to what an assist actually is, because the numbers can vary widely among different leagues and countries. I know there is bound to be some variance between Europe and the NBA because of the the game length and the different styles of play, but I am not sure if that can be the reason why the NBA assist numbers dwarf those seen overseas.

The assist leader last year in the Euroleague was Omar Cook, who handed out 5.4 per game. The top passer in the NBA was Rajon Rondo, who served up 11.7 assists per game, more than double Cook. The top 15 NBA players in assists per game all averaged at least as many as Cook. 15! It seems to me that the NBA scorekeepers are simply more willing to give a player an assist.

I could not find anything official from the NBA, but according to the NCAA statisticians handbook “a player is credited with an assist when the player makes, in the judgment of the statistician, the principal pass contributing directly to a field goal.” That seems reasonable, but I still don’t like that something so vital to the essence of a player can be determined by the whimseys of a statistician.

What if the scorekeeper is having a terrible day? What if he holds grudges, or plays favorites? If it’s the latter than we can end up with a situation like the infamous Nick Van Exel game. One regular season night in 1997, a rogue Lakers scorekeeper credited Van Exel finished with 23 assists, which tied Magic Johnson’s Lakers record. The media jumped on the story, and Van Exel was praised for his savvy and court vision. Thankfully there were a few people who were skeptical that Van Exel had morphed into John Stockton for one game. The tape got reviewed and the truth was revealed.

As I am sure Magic was pleased to hear, it came out that Van Exel was credited with so many helpers essentially because this one statistician was bored. The guy behind it all basically admitted as much. He said that if Van Exel was even near a player when shooting, he “found a way to give him an assist.” Say what you will about this mans morals, but I think he needs to find his way to Israel. I will give up my bed and sleep on the floor to get a month’s worth of dimes in one game.

I am convinced that ‘Van Exel Game’ level shenanigans go on today. I was watching a Spurs playoff game this year when something happened that incensed everyone who cares about the purity of the assist. (And there are dozens of us!) Tony Parker drove and kicked the ball to Kawhi Leonard, who was in the corner. Leonard pump faked, took one dribble middle, and hit a pull up jumper. Parker’s stats appeared on the bottom of the screen a minute or so later and I noticed that his assists had gone from 6 to 7. No play occurred that could have possibly been construed as assist worthy. I was flummoxed for a second until it dawned on me that some hometown, river walking, cowboy hat wearing stat man really had the audacity to give Parker an assist on that Leonard shot. He thought no one would notice! (Note: Might not have even been a Spurs home game. But it PROBABLY was. Don’t let the fact that I can’t find a clip and I can’t even remember who the Spurs were playing dissuade you from sharing my indignation.)

I can’t think of another stat where that amount of subjectivity can come into play. Rebounds can get tricky if there are tips involved, but for the most part one player tracks down a miss. I can see how it can be difficult to asses who was at fault for certain turnovers. Still, nothing is as mercurial as the assist. They are a whole different beast.

I have been told by multiple players overseas that if a player dribbles after catching the pass and before scoring, that is not an assist. I have generally found this to be true. You can break down a whole press on your own and then hand it off to the big guy near the basket, but it is not your assist if he takes a quick gather dribble before going up. The rules are vague, to say the least.

Another troublesome part of this whole assists ordeal is that the same 5-6 point guards have led the Israeli league in assists for the last half decade. This is also generally true for the NBA. I am not saying Chris Paul, Jason Kidd and the rest aren’t amazing passers. It just seems that once you break through to a certain level you get a lot more benefit of the doubt. I liken it to how elite colleges are often accused of grade inflation. Once a school is full of students who are perceived to be at a certain level, you don’t want to call that into question by giving out a bunch of C’s. If you are a team that paid good money for a top-notch point guard, you want to do everything in your power to see him succeed. If that means crediting him with an assist when he inbounds the ball to a player who proceeds to dribble, spin, dribble, spin and hit a fall away banked hook shot, then so be it.

The general feeling in Israel among the rank and file players is that it is tough going trying to get your assist numbers up. For this reason people sometimes get a little too hung up on looking for ways to boost their stats. Quite often their will be a point guard who plays for the assist. He knows that he has to set someone up for a clean look without the other player having to dribble. This can cause a lot of problems, and they manifest most often when there is an Israeli guard who seems to be holding up the offense looking for that one great pass.

The Americans don’t like this so-called “assist hunting,” and they view it as an almost distinctly European way of playing. I personally have prided myself on never playing that way, and yet I still run into problems. I had a teammate who was furious with me for taking what he thought was too many dribbles on a fast break. I tried to explain to him that I was just going with what I saw. I let him know I would not intentionally look him off. In the end the best argument to pacify him was to simply exclaim “I’m American, man!” Kind of ironic coming from someone who is almost entirely dependent on his Israeli citizenship to get jobs, but that’s beside the point. The teammate eventually backed off and accepted that I had the teams best interests in mind.

I can identify with that guys frustration, as I have been known to secretly despise someone who routinely takes dribbles that mess up my assist opportunities. It is incredibly frustrating watching someone dribble after I hit them in stride for what should be a simple catch and finish. It must be akin to the feeling you get after preparing a nice steak only to watch the person eating slather ketchup all over it. I guess it’s nice that your team scored two points, and I suppose it’s great that people want to eat your steak at all, but it could be so much better.

Assists are ingrained in the stat sheet, yet they are subjective. Someone with inflated assist numbers can sign a nice contract while a player with a similar skill set but lesser stats languishes in obscurity. The same pass can cause joy for one player and bitter disappointment for another. It might be better to have one universal ruling on what is and is not an assist. For now, all we can do is take note that those innocuous looking statisticians sitting court side wield a lot more power than people give them credit for.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Assists

  1. While making highlight videos of some of my favorite players, I’ve tracked assists using the play-by-play sheet, and I see a lot of what you’re saying. I’ve even seen players get credited for assists when they had nothing at all to do with the play lol.

    I’m off to try to track down that Van Exel game…

    1. Glad you have noticed this as well! I don’t think people realize how bad some of the stat keeping can be. I can’t find any footage on youtube from that Van Exel game that shows the mis-accredited assists, but I feel like it must exist.

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