Last night on Twitter, people had an epileptic seizure over Flip Pressey’s assist total. The Missouri point guard had 19 assists to go with 19 points in Missouri’s loss to UCLA. It was a remarkable performance. I watched it on the DVR after the fact, and Pressey was spectacular. He might be the best point guard in the country.
So what I’m about to say is not a reflection of my opinion of Flip Pressey, he just happens to have created the most newsworthy anecdote for this philosophical screed I am about to dump on your head.
All you have to do in order to get an assist is throw the ball to someone else. It is the most basic possible action in basketball. It is even more basic than dribbling, in fact, because dribbling was not even allowed when basketball was first invented. At the essence of the game, an offensive player has but two options:
Anything else done in basketball — dribbling, rebounding, etc. — is either done in service of (or reaction to) one of those two actions.
So if your combination circumstance and skill does not allow you to score yourself, you pass it to somebody else who can. That’s pretty much the game. And it’s why the basketball assist is the most overrated sports statistic this side of the RBI.
This is not to say it is easy to accumulate a great number of assists, necessarily. Anybody who gets more than about 10 assists in a basketball game is clearly adept at getting the ball to advantageous positions on the floor. But he also almost certainly spends the vast majority of the game with the ball in his hands, which may or may not be a good thing. I bet there is a player on every Top 25 team who could average eight assists per game if for some reason his coach told him “I want you to average eight assists per game.”
You have certainly heard the story about Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt, of course, was at the time the most unstoppable force in the history of sports. But because he scored so much and his teams could never win the championship, Wilt started hearing a lot about how he wasn’t a team player. So in 1967-68, Wilt decided to lead the NBA in assists, and that’s then he did. This would change everything, Wilt thought.
Now, this says a lot about Wilt Chamberlain, mainly that in addition to be utterly unguardable he was sadly unable to understand the way public perception works. But it also proves a couple things about the assist, which are that (1) it is not necessarily a selfless act, and (2) a player with the ball in his hands a lot can easily manipulate his assist total.
Any basketball fan can recall a player who seemed to pursue assists for impure reasons. Julian Wright comes to mind for me. I think Julian was probably a good teammate, but he was constantly trying to throw passes when shooting would have been the more efficient and more certain way of scoring the points. A fair number of those passes ended up stuck in a tuba.
Another reason the assist is a bad statistic is that it fails to account for approximately 90 percent of the reason a basket is scored. The quality of the screen set, the rotation of the defense, the effectiveness of the cut, the position of the other offensive players, and so on.
Basketball is not a good sport for statistical analysis, because most basketball events lose their meaning when isolated from their context. And no basketball statistic means less than the assist.