Sunday, May 06, 2007

Case Study: Can't Trust Assists

Traditional basketball stats are among the most misleading in all of sports. It is why we are seeing a big push for new efficiency type stats, such as the PER provided by ESPN's John Hollinger. However, because the new breed of stats are predicated on the old breed of stats, they still don't really tell the whole story. I wrote about this last year, when discussing the value of a missed shot by penatrating players like Allen Iverson and Leandro Barbosa - they got a miss in the stat column, but the ability to draw the defense creates easy rebound scores for teammates.

One of the most misleading stats in the NBA is the assist. Usually the best passers (Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, etc.) have the best assist totals, but not always. The reason is because there are so many other variables. A great pass can lead to a basket, yes, but it can also lead to a shanked layup (sometimes then leading to a putback basket which was pretty much created by the pass, but there is no assist), a foul (the free throws don't count toward an assist, which is lunacy), or another pass (the old pass-leading-to-the-pass hockey assist). These outcomes can all result from a sweet pass, yet they don't register in the stat column. In fact, during the game in which Steve Nash tallied 23 assists against the Lakers, he would have had 29 if passes leading to two made free throws counted. Why don't they? No one knows.

If you ever needed proof that assists can't be trusted, you only had to watch the first half of the Cleveland-New Jersey game today. At haltime, LeBron James had four assists and Larry Hughes had three. Based on stats, they were pretty much equally effective as passers, which would be such an absurd statement as to reach the level of hilarious.

LeBron is one of the best passers in the league and was particularly good in this area during the first half on Sunday. He made several great misdirection plays, a lot of quality reads, and a couple of those "feel" dishes that only the great passers can make. Unfortunately, a lot of those passes led to "other" results besides assists. One great pass went to Pavlovic who made an unselfish dish to Hughes (for a made jumper). Another great feed went to Big Z who was hacked and then made two free throws. A ridiculous no-look, behind the back bounce pass to Gooden led to a missed layup and immediate putback. Three great LeBron passes led pretty much directly to seven Cleveland points, yet he received no credit whatsoever on the stat sheet.

As for Hughes, he obviously made a few direct passes for baskets, but his first half actually made me wonder "is Larry Hughes the worst passer in the playoffs?" He is brutal. The best passers in the NBA have a combination of willingness and feel/talent. Hughes has neither. He often forgoes an open teammate to take a contested jumper. And when he does look to pass, he has no feel. Twice he led a 3-on-2 fast break for Cleveland and couldn't get the ball to an open, streaking James. How hard can it be? Even Eric Snow can throw an alleyoop.

So here we have one great passer with a fantastic first half of dishing and a bad passer with a first half so egregious that it made me wonder if he's in fact the worst at that skill in the entire playoffs. And they have basically the same number of assists. This is why you can't totally trust stats and have to actually, you know, watch the games. (MVP voters should try this next year.)

Now if you'll excuse me, the second half has started and LeBron just threw a no-look, length of the court dime to Pavlovic. Thank goodness there was no one there to foul him.

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