Assists, point guards, and ball movement

Earlier this season, I posed a question about Sacramento’s Rajon Rondo to several basketball coaches. I asked if Rondo’s gaudy assist totals were a positive for the Kings. The coaches answered unanimously that a point guard racking up a lot of assists could not be a negative, and several even questioned why I would ask such a question. 

Yesterday, I saw an article titled, “Is Rajon Rondo really helping the Kings?”, which included an interesting look at the Kings with and without Rondo on the floor:

The Kings have been pretty bad with Rondo on the court. The team has been outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the floor, and surprisingly (for some) the Kings have actually outscored teams by 1.5 points without Rondo – equivalent to the difference in net rating between the Chicago Bulls and the New Orleans Pelicans.

Originally, when I posed the question, I contrasted the Kings’ offense with a ball dominant point guard with the ball movement-oriented offenses such as the Spurs or the Warriors. According to the NBA stats tool, only John Wall has more touches per game than Rondo; this suggests that (1) he is ball dominant and (2) that he has the most opportunities for assists, especially since he tends not to shoot much.

Steve Nash was lauded as the prototypical point guard when he led the Phoenix Suns’ offense and accumulated a lot of assists. Meanwhile, Tony Parker has never generated similar accolades or plaudits. Parker averages 5.9 assists per game for his career, with a high of 7.7 during the 2011-12 season. Nash, meanwhile, averaged 8.5 assists per game for his career, but had 7 seasons with double-digit assists per game with a high of 11.6 in 2006-07. Nash led the most efficient offense in the NBA during his MVP seasons in 04-05 and 05-06, but the 05-06 Suns would be the 29th most efficient offense this season. Since the 2009-10 season, the Spurs have ranked between #1 (2011-12) and #7 in offensive efficiency (2012-13), but Parker never received the same praise as Nash. Is it because of Nash’s assist numbers?

As offenses have grown more efficient over the last decade, there has been a greater emphasis on three-point shooting and ball movement. Teams that run isolation-heavy sets are referred to as dinosaurs that ignore the lessons of analytics. The Spurs popularized the idea of turning down a good shot to get a great shot, and this philosophy permeates the NBA today, especially among the most efficient offenses, as coaches influenced by Popovich spread through the league (In SABA, I refer to the same idea as turning a small advantage into a big advantage).

One popular analytic stat is the hockey assist; the pass that leads to the pass that earns the assist. NBA stats calls this the secondary assist, and it is no surprise that Stephen Curry currently leads the NBA, whereas Draymond Green leads the Golden State Warriors in assists. When teams trap Curry, he finds Green; after beating the trap, the Warriors have a 4v3 advantage. Green finds the open player who makes the shot. Green is credited with the assist, but Curry started the play by absorbing the pressure and finding his most dangerous teammate, who typically is Green. In fact, the secondary assist category is populated by point guards from efficient offenses: Curry (1st in offensive efficiency), Teague (7th), Paul (4th), Parker (2nd), Igoudala (1st), Walker (8th), Delladova (5th). In fact, the most surprising names in the top 10 are Wall (24th) and Rondo (13th), two ball-dominant point guards, but they are #1 and #2 in touches per game, which gives them the most opportunities for assists and secondary assists. In fact, the leaders for secondary assists appear to be more predictive of an efficient offense than the leaders for assists, which has Rondo, Wall, and Rubio (24th), along with Westbrook (2nd) and Paul in its top 5.

When I play pickup games, I tend to dominate the ball. I try to create an opening for a teammate, and I expect the teammate to shoot when I pass to him. This is, to an extent, how Nash functioned with the Suns. This worked well for the Suns, but it also made the Suns too reliant on Nash, which made it harder for the Suns in the playoffs. Whereas today’s efficient offenses have superstars upon whom teams rely heavily (Curry, Paul, Durant/Westbrook, James), because of their style of play – more ball movement, passing up good shots for great shots – these teams can sustain temporary losses to their best and most important players. The Warriors are not as good without Curry, but they remain competitive. They have players who step in, and they play with the same basic philosophy. They are more robust and resilient than an offense that relies too heavily on one player to create shots for teammates, such as Nash’s Suns.

Of course, this circles back to Rondo. The Kings actually perform better when Rondo is off the court although he leads the league in assists by more than 2.5 assists per game and is 6th in secondary assists. When he is on the court, it appears, by statistics, that he creates almost all of the shots, either directly or secondarily. It is possible when he is off the court that the ball moves quicker. It is also possible that his lack of shooting means that he is unable to disrupt a defense in the same way that Curry or Paul disorganize defenses, so teams do not rotate or leave players open to help on Rondo, whereas Darren Collison may force more rotations and disorganization because of his outside shooting.

This is not something new for Rondo, as the article illustrated:

When Rondo has had a major role in the offense, his teams have not been good at that end. Even during the golden years with what is considered to be pretty high-end talent – Paul Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett – Rondo has never actually been the head of a good offense. During Rondo’s four All-Star seasons, the Celtics ranked just 15th, 18th, 27th and 24th in offensive efficiency, and only their historic defense made the Celtics a contender.

It is possible in the new NBA that ball-dominant point guards are not the answer, or maybe it is just that ball-dominant non-shooting point guards are ill-equipped for the modern game, regardless of their assist tallies. It is likely that ball movement and the threat of outside shooting are more important to efficient offenses. Rather than judge point guards by their assist totals, including secondary assists may be a more vital tool in evaluating a player’s influence on the team’s offense. If we looked at a point guard through the prism of secondary assists and team offensive efficiency, a player such as Tony Parker may have received more accolades during his career, whereas a player such as Rondo may not have been rated quite so highly during his peak years.

For developing players, rather than tally assists, and judge a point guard by his or her assists, it may be more prudent to evaluate the team’s ball movement, secondary assists, and offensive efficiency, and to emphasize these statistics and concepts with young players.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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One Response to “Assists, point guards, and ball movement”

  1. Mike says:

    I would also characterize PG dominant offenses as fragile and offenses that depend more on ball and player movement as anti-fragile. That may be too simplified as there are many other factors that go into an offense but PG dominant offenses tend to be more play-driven and ball movement offenses tend to be more set-driven as a play will start in a set and the players will read each other and the defense for the best option. If a play breaks down and the team can’t get the shot they were looking for, it is often later in the shot clock and the person with the ball often has to put up an inefficient shot whereas in a offense driven by ball movement the players aren’t looking for a particular shot but are looking for the best shot.

    As a Celtic fan who watched Rondo come into the league and eventually help the Celtics win a title I can say that I would change my mind on him often, sometimes on a nightly basis. He could be brilliant in some phases such as breaking down the defense and finding teammates and frustratingly stubborn in others like chasing long shot steals or offensive rebounds. He also used to be the king of dribbling the ball for :20 seconds and then shoveling it off to a teammate with 3 or 4 seconds on the shot clock. This either led to an assist for him or a missed shot or turnover for a teammate. He became better at this but used to drive Paul Pierce and Ray Allen (in particular) crazy. He could also take over a game and win it almost by himself, especially in the play-offs.

    Point guard driven offenses are often but not exclusively coached by former players who were guards, Doc Rivers, Mike D’Antonio, Mark Jackson, Scott Brooks, etc and the ball movement style often comes from non-NBA players or role players. Popovich, Van Gundy, Budholzer, Phil Jackson.

    It can be difficult to find a balance between the two. If your PG is your best player (Paul, Nash, etc.) you want him to have the most touches and have the ball. However does this: 1.) limit the growth of other players? Blake Griffin was incredible in the last year when the offense was run through him when Paul was hurt during the play-offs 2.) Create an offense that is too dependent on one player (Nash’s Suns)

    Obviously there is no right answer but it is an interesting question.

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