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Essay: The Value Of An Assist


The assist. A stat that people usually correlate with good passing and playmaking, its true value seems to have blurred over the years. Due to the nature of scorekeeping and the simplicity of the stat itself, assists are one of the most subjective basic metrics we have. Is a high-assist player a good offensive option? Are all assists worth the same?

Rajon Rondo, the current NBA leader in assists per game (13.3), seems to be a perfect example of how the value of assists seems to have changed.

The NBA statistician’s manual says an assist should be “credited to a player tossing the last pass leading directly to a field goal, only if the player scoring the goal responds by demonstrating immediate reaction to the basket.” Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong.

The line blurs when it states, “demonstrating immediate reaction to the basket.” Is there a standard criteria for that? It is impossible for all scorekeepers to give the same kinds of assists out, due to how broad the description for an assist is. We can already see that the basic definition of an assist makes it difficult for the stat to be precise.

Humans, no matter when or where, are prone to acts of doing whatever they please. Scorekeeping, in every sport, is affected by this. What is going to stop a scorekeeper from withholding a stat from a disliked player, or giving one of his favorites a little extra in a category? Stats are not watched with a careful eye, and there really is no incentive for reform in that area. Do fans really care, or even know, if the stats they see are entirely deserved?

It seems that people care more about the stat itself rather than how it was achieved. The NBA claims that “league officials review every game to make sure statistics are credited properly,” but is that really true?

Rajon Rondo recently broke the NBA record for consecutive games of 11 or more assists with 28, passing John Stockton. However, he was rewarded an extra assist after a game against the Milwaukee Bucks because they apparently “missed” an assist. This seems to be a pretty rare instance, and it begs the question: Would the NBA have done this if it had not been for someone who cared a lot about the streak going back and nudging the league to change its books?

If a player gets an assist, just what does it mean about him? It seems obvious at first glance, “he got the assist because his teammate scored right after, clearly it must mean that he set his teammates up well.” This kind of thinking is too simplistic.

Hoopdata keeps track of where on the floor players are getting assists, and it is impossible not to see the difference. Is an assist at the rim the same as an assist from 16-23 feet? Of course not. Obviously giving your teammate the close shot is more valuable than giving them a mid-range one. Of course like any stat, it is hard to establish exact context.

Rajon Rondo racks up a lot of assists from 16-23 feet, and one might cry that his assists are worth “less,” but you also have to remember that the offense of the Boston Celtics is built to utilize that shot. With a lack of players who can create, the Celtics rely on ball movement to create open mid-range shots, and they have several elite shooters from that area (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass).

Should Rondo be penalized for getting assists from teammates who want to shoot those shots? No. But that exception does not exist for everyone. Instead of just looking at the number of assists a player gets, it is important to establish how he is getting them.

Playmaking and assists seem to go hand in hand in the minds of some fans, but it is hard to make that argument when the nature of assists are really looked that. Assists do not tell you anything except who was the person to make the last pass to a player before they scored. What if a player gets assists not through his own offensive creativity, but through the intelligence of his coach and the skill of his teammates?

Rajon Rondo also fits into this category. This is not to say he isn’t a brilliant, historically great playmaker. His court vision and passing ability make him one of the best in history, but using assists to make that argument is weak. Many of Rondo’s assists come from him standing around, dribbling the ball, while his teammates work to get each other open. Those assists do not indicate any sort of playmaking. A lot of point guards get “system assists”, by making simple passes any competent player could do.

Before we kill off assists as being “worthless,” do not forget that it does hold some value in evaluating the offensive capability of a player. The main point is that the subjective nature and lack of context behind the stat lessens the credibility one can extend towards it.

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  1. November 26, 2012 at 5:46 am | #1

    Interesting article. I just wonder why folks are questioning the value of assists now and not two years ago when Steve Nash was the league leader. Was he gaming the system or stat-padding any more/less than Rondo supposedly is?

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