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Thursday, March 18, 2010
The players who get the good assists

By Henry Abbott

I wasn't really a soccer player in high school, but I played one in a rec league.

The coach was a family friend who also happened to be a cranky, bossy English guy with a ton of soccer knowledge. The team was excellent -- I was by far the worst player.

Coach told me, at one point, not to worry about whether or not my teammates could trap the ball. Instead of passing it, just fire it at them. They're good players, he said, they'll deal with it. I was playing at the front, too, so a turnover wasn't a crisis -- on the contrary, any loose balls or chaos my overzealous passing created would be in front of the other team's goal, which could be good for us. And if I fired away, it was almost certain the defense wouldn't pick off lazy passes.

So, shortly after the talk, I found myself with the ball in the middle, with a talented striker streaking down the left wing, with plenty of room to operate. There was a defender threatening the passing lane, but I didn't give a crap. I shot that thing as if from a cannon, right at my teammate's feet. The defender watched it sail by. My teammate was in full stride. And despite being one of the best high school players in the state, he bobbled the ball a little trying to control it, and the keeper scooped it up.

As he jogged back the other way, my teammate leaned over and offered me some advice. "Hey," he said, "don't pass the ball so damned hard."

Which brings me to Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Tom Haberstroh.

Writing on Hardwood Paroxysm, Haberstroh points to this play. As soon as the video starts, Gasol makes a super pass -- but Bryant blows the layup and Gasol gets no credit. Later in the video, Gasol makes another great pass, and this time Bryant converts the dunk, so Gasol is credited with an assist.

Haberstroh makes a few different points in his post, but one of them is that something about that is not right. Assists are supposed to mark great passes that created scoring opportunities. Gasol clearly had two of those. How can we consider this a good measure of passing if he's only credited with one?

And I get that. There certainly is something lacking. But remember my soccer moment above? Do I deserve credit for a good pass or not? If you ask my coach, presumably yes. If you ask my teammate, no way. They're both possibly right. That's a problem.

Basketball has that kind of stuff too. Sometimes passes don't become assists because the recipient misses the shot. But sometimes the guy misses the shot because of something about the pass. Maybe the recipient has a bad left thumb, and it would have been smarter to send the pass to the right hand. Maybe the play was supposed to go to another player. Maybe the pass was too hard. All of that would be tough to decipher as you chart a game on video.

The old assist measure surely misses a number of good passes, which is bothersome when you look at a play here or there, or a game. It's also bothersome for good point guards with teammates who can't shoot. But over a season, I like the idea that assist statistics rewards passers who get teammates buckets, instead of just opportunities. Buckets are the name of the game. That's what the team wants, and that's what playmakers should be focused on. I like that the dominant passing metric rewards that.

If, as a point guard, you pass it to the same guy wide-open five times, and he misses all five, maybe it's your job to talk to him on the team plane, and figure out where he'd like that ball instead. If you work that kind of thing out, you help your team immensely, and the assist measure will reward the point guard for that.

If you don't have that conversation, well then, you get to blame your teammates for messing up your good assist numbers, but what's so great about that?

So, while it'd be nice to measure nice passes that don't turn into buckets, and I'm sure that day is coming, I hope any such measure would not make the assist obsolete.

Haberstroh, wisely, moves quickly through that whole debate and gets to the meat of his post: Noting that assists are more valuable the closer they are to the rim. Then he provides a list of players -- topped by Baron Davis -- who get those kinds of assists. That's not going to solve the problem of trying to credit Pau Gasol with that first pass, but it's extremely useful in helping to pick out the teammates who help their teams most with the pass.