How the NBA is getting Assists wrong

An assist is the only subjective statistic on a basketball box score and it seems scorers all over the NBA are quite generous with what gets called an assist. To be clear this is something that has been happening for years and all over the NBA, it is not isolated to a few arenas. It is time the NBA re-examines what they consider an assist.

Most assist heavy guards have benefited from generous assists, it has been well chronicled that the Los Angeles Lakers have been very generous with assists for Lonzo Ball this season. There is no doubt Russell Westbrook has been and still is on the receiving end of this assist generosity in Oklahoma City. The generous assist giving has been going on for years, look back at Magic Johnson’s assist to break the all-time assist record; it can be debated if it was an assist. Look back at some of John Stockton’s high assist games and surely there will be a few that can at best be called questionable assists.

The NBA’s definition of an assist makes it clear it is a subjective stat. “An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket. This can be a pass to the low post that leads to a direct score, a long pass for a layup, a fast break pass to a teammate for a layup, and/or a pass that results in an open perimeter shot for a teammate. In basketball, an assist is awarded only if, in the judgment of the statistician, the last player’s pass contributed directly to a made basket. An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player’s pass led to the field goal being made.”

It seems the consensus for what is an assist is a pass that leads to a score of two dribbles or less. The problem is, that this criterion goes against the very first part of the NBA’s definition that states a pass that leads directly to a basket is an assist. It is understandable that the two-dribble concept is an assist because it provides some uniformity for statisticians around the league but it is flawed concept.

Here Rajon Rondo entered the ball into the post to Anthony Davis, who caught the ball with 14 seconds on the shot clock, faced up, jab stepped his defender and hit a jumper with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Rondo was credit for an assist since Davis did not dribble the ball and he held the ball for four seconds before shooting but the pass did not lead to a direct score.

In these two plays, Rondo is created for assists for these passes to DeMarcus Cousins who actually did the heavy lifting to score. Both times, Rondo’s passes gave Cousins an option to shoot a jumper but instead of shooting those shots he chose to drive to the hole. Since he only took two dribbles it was considered an assist but these scores were not a result of Rondo’s passes but Cousins ability to put the ball on the floor.

This last clip, Rondo’s pass to Jrue Holiday created the lane for him to drive down but he stopped once the defender caught up and stepped through for a layup. The opportunity for an assist was there until Holiday stopped and had to make another move to get to the rim.

There is another hole in how the NBA records assist. If a player creates a scoring opportunity for one of their teammates but they are fouled on their shot they do not get credit for an assist. Like when Dante Cunningham threw a bounce pass to Davis as he cuts down the lane and is fouled by Markieff Morris. If Davis had finished the layup through the contact Cunningham would get credit for an assist. The same thing happened when Cousins threw a lob to Davis who got fouled before he could score. The NBA should give Cunningham and Cousins an assist if Davis made both free throws.

Rondo was credited with assists for the above plays but in all of those plays, the receiver had to make an extra move to get the basket. Statisticians around the league consistently give these types of plays assists when the pass should not be credited for it. However, the players are not given any credit should they create a foul and get a teammate to the free throw line. Assists are hard to get, it takes a special skill, vision, and an unselfish trait to create for others instead of for themselves. Of course, the receiver has to be able to finish the play and sometimes a player’s assist number will go down because of the lack of talent that surrounds them.

Points, rebounds, steal, and blocks are all definitive stats but assists will always be a subjective stat in the NBA but they must change the criteria for how teams’ statistician’s credit assists if we are going to place such a high importance on the stat.

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