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Stats Notebook: Journeying to find the NBA's best passers

Stats Notebook: Journeying to find the NBA's best passers

Passing, as with most basketball attributes, is woefully oversimplified by the box score. 

A simple assist count doesn't do justice to the array of dishes and swishes that make up NBA scoring. Assists in themselves are a two-way street, requiring both the passer and scorer to connect on a given play.

How many quality dimes go unrequited because of a missed shot? How many low-quality passes become assists due to a fortunate make? While assists are a great starting point — they are the most directly valuable pass in the game — an average does not tell the whole story. No stat can perfectly pinpoint the best passer in the NBA, but I'm going to use a few to try and highlight some of the elite and underrated.

The NBA's official stats database has some nifty tracking numbers for passing. It, of course logs assists, but also total passes, secondary assists (or passes leading to an assist), adjusted assists (assists + secondary assists + passes leading to free throws) and more. 

Potential assists are passes that lead to a shot attempt, regardless of a make or miss. Chris Paul, who leads the NBA with 10.4 assists per game, also leads the league with 18.5 potential assists per game. However, this category can highlight some players that might be getting the short end of the stick from their teammates. 

My ballpark estimate is that assists make up about 50-60% of potential assists for most NBA players. But let's look at Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He averages only 4.4 assists per game (tied for 48th in the NBA) but is 19th in potential assists with 11.8! Only 37.2% of his potential assists are actually converted by the shooter. SGA has dished out the same total number of assists this year as Domantas Sabonis and Alex Caruso, but it's taken 67 more potential assists to get him there.

Anthony Edwards is in a similar boat. Just 37.4% of his 9.1 potential assists per game actually turn into assists. He may only be averaging 3.4 assists per game, but that does not accurately reflect his passing involvement. The top five in potential assists are:

  1. Chris Paul — 18.5 per game 
  2. James Harden — 18.0 per game
  3. Luka Doncic — 16.9 per game
  4. Russell Westbrook — 16.0 per game
  5. Trae Young — 15.9 per game

Assists can also inflate those who take on a larger offensive burden. Players who have the ball in their hands more are bound to make more passes, and likely, rack up more assists. There's a neat stat called "adjusted assists to pass percentage." That's a mouthful, but it's basically asking: What percent of a player's total passes lead to an assist, a secondary assist or free throws?

Paul once again leads in this category; 21.6% of his 56.9 total passes per game become an adjusted assist. Interestingly, right behind him is a Phoenix Suns teammate. Devin Booker may pass the ball less than half as much as CP3, but 20.7% of his passes become an adjusted assist. That's an extremely fun backcourt duo. Your top five in adjusted assists to pass percentage:

  1. Chris Paul — 21.6%
  2. Devin Booker — 20.7%
  3. Trae Young — 20.5%
  4. Damian Lillard — 19.3%
  5. Stephen Curry — 18.1%

There's another variable to consider. Is the passer hitting the shooter in the optimal spot? For an extreme example, Trae Young hitting Kevin Huerter for a three-point attempt is much more valuable than him dishing it to Clint Capela for a three.

To break this down, we're going to check out Shot Quality, which was created recently by Colgate (shout out Patriot League!) student Simon Gerszberg. Shot Quality basically measures the "quality" of a shot attempt based on a player's prior percentage, the shot value, and tons of other variables. I want to focus on a passing metric.

"Shot Quality Assists per Game" is what it sounds like: how many theoretical assists should a player get per game based on the shot quality of the shooters? Here's the top-five, with standard assists per game in parentheses:

  1. Chris Paul — 11.2 (10.4)
  2. James Harden — 10.7 (9.2)
  3. Luka Doncic — 10.1 (8.0)
  4. Trae Young — 9.8 (9.1)
  5. Dejounte Murray, Russell Westbrook — 8.4 (Murray has 8.1 assists per game, Westbrook has 8.6)

Once again, Paul is at the top. Notice Luka's SQ assists per game — the figure hints that he's getting seriously robbed of some higher-quality setups; the same goes for Harden. It's rare for the difference between the two metrics to be wider than a whole assist. Gilgeous-Alexander is again in the same boat, with his 4.4 APG lagging behind his 5.4 SQ APG. 

These three stats reach a pretty convincing conclusion: the Point God is most definitely the best passer in the NBA. But don't sleep on a few other names with low assist numbers, particularly SGA and Devin Booker. 

I did not include any turnover-based statistics like assist-to-turnover ratio. That's a helpful stat when thinking about general on-ball results. However, it's not good for purely assessing passing; turnovers account for all turnovers (like travels, fouls, etc.) and not just passing turnovers. It includes irrelevant data.

And still, even all the stats in the world don't account for the degrees of difficulty and highlight-reel aspects of some passes. Nikola Jokic may be a tier below some of the stat leaders mentioned, but watch his film and then try to tell someone he's not an absolutely elite passer. 

The moral of the story? Don't let assists dictate your discourse. There's a lot more that goes into assessing NBA passing  both in the numbers and on tape.

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