Are assists indicative of passing propensity or shot making?

The other night on the ABC broadcast of Game 2, Jeff Van Gundy hit on a topic I’ve had in my head for about a month.  Do assist totals indicate a team’s willingness to “share the rock” or are they too dependent on shot making to draw any conclusions of that kind?

Van Gundy believes the latter.  I”m leaning toward the former. 

Van Gundy was asked which statistics he paid attention to as a coach and Mark Jackson chimed in after Van Gundy left out assist totals.

“No, no… that’s too dependent on shots to tell you anything useful.”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since the Bucks first two playoff games in Atlanta when their assist totals were edging toward absolute zero.  I wondered whether that was because the team was going solo or missing shots?

Based on a landmark study done by 82games, and I guess on my own logic, I think assist totals ARE a decent way to determine whether the ball is moving a lot on offense.  Therefore I concluded that the Bucks were  not passing the ball, and or they were nervous (when you’re nervous because of defensive harrassment or because of the moment or because there are no open passing alnes, you tend to hold onto the ball and revert to schoolyard days of one-on-one.)

The study, done on “assists” and “potential assists” — meaning assists plus the ones that were blown by the shooter, found that “potential assists” amounted to 56% of all field goal attempts.  If you’ve been following this blog for long, you will know that I am weirdly obsessed with the odd fact that every NBA season from this one on to time immemorial, assists have equaled exactly, or nearly exactly 56% of made field goals.

What that finding suggests to me is a simple rule of thumb.  Blown assists are roughly equal to assists, so if you double the assist total, you havwe an accurate guage of  ball movement.

Besides, most “potential assists” involve open or semi-open shots.  Presumably, the passer isn’t going to throw a setup pass to a guy who’s covered like a cheap suit.  He will throw the setup pass to someone who is relatively “open”.   Yeah, Baby Davis will blow his share of those wide open looks (he cost Rondo at least two assists after bricking wide open shots) but generally NBA players will make those kind of looks.

Of course, the NBA could take this all out of the theoretical if it simply kept a statistic for blown assists.  What’s the point?  The very thing I was suggesting above.  If assists have value independent of the points they lead to, and basketball researchers have clearly shown this, then blown assists must have value as well.  If assist value is independent of points, then its illogical to assume that the setup pass loses that value just because the shooter lays a brick.

Do you follow what I”m saying?  Hit me in the comments if you don’t.    

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One Response to “Are assists indicative of passing propensity or shot making?”

  1. Colin Says:

    Completely agree. In the more advanced stuff I’ve done with soccer stats, I pretty much ignore assists altogether. Instead, I just multiply potential assists by the team’s overall shooting percentage (though maybe I should use a league-wide shooting % instead?), and get “expected assists” as the result. Its not perfect, but I think it works better.

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