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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Smooth All-Around Performance by Paul Lifts Hornets Over Heat

Chris Paul had 21 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds and four steals as the New Orleans Hornets beat the Miami Heat 100-89, ending a two game losing streak. David West added 21 points and nine rebounds and Tyson Chandler contributed 13 points and a game-high 10 rebounds as New Orleans outrebounded Miami 45-37. Dwyane Wade scored a game-high 30 points in addition to posting 10 assists and six rebounds.

Paul has opened the season with six straight games with at least 20 points and 10 assists, breaking the previous record of five set by Oscar Robertson in 1968. Frankly, I'm not sure what to make of this record. Robertson averaged an aggregate triple double for the first five years of his career, including 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg in 1961-62, the only time an NBA player has averaged a triple double for a whole season. So, Robertson did not just put up 20-10--he put up 30-10, plus 10-plus rpg, for five years. It is hard to believe that Robertson never started a season with more than five straight 20-10 games but if he had something like 35-9 plus 12 rebounds that means more than just having an arbitrarily defined 20-10 streak.

Also, there is no doubt that assists are awarded more liberally today than they previously were: in 1961-62, assists were awarded on 52.2% of made field goals, while last year assists were awarded on 58.4% of made field goals. Some people try to diminish the value of Robertson's triple doubles by saying that his numbers were inflated by the faster pace of his era but in 1962 he led the NBA with 11.4 apg while the next player (Guy Rodgers) only averaged 8.0 apg--and this was in a league in which the average team scored 118.8 ppg! If "pace" affects assist totals so much then how come only Robertson apparently benefited? Last season, the average NBA team scored 99.9 ppg but four players averaged more than 10 apg, topped by Paul's 11.6 apg. It is naive to think that assists are being scored the same way now that they were in Robertson's era and for that reason it is a bit hard to take seriously the ppg-apg "records" that Paul supposedly broke in last year's playoffs or at the start of this season. Don't get me wrong: Paul is a terrific passer and a marvelous point guard--definitely the top point guard in the NBA right now, in my opinion. His passing against the Heat was superb: Paul's third quarter alley-oop lob pass to Chandler from beyond the three point line was amazing and Paul's best feed of the game may have been a fourth quarter bounce pass that was not an assist but resulted in a free throw opportunity for Chandler.

You may recall that I tracked the scorekeeping of Paul's assists in two playoff games last season: in game one versus the Spurs, three of his seven official assists to West were clearly incorrect (Paul did not even pass to West at all on one of the plays!) and another assist was marginal at best, while in game seven Paul officially had 14 assists but he should have only been credited with nine. The Heat game was the first complete Hornets' contest that I watched this season, so I decided to once again chart Paul's assists. I used a slightly different method this time; in the playoffs I waited to see the official play by play sheet and then I went back to a tape of the game to review each officially credited assist but for the Heat game I scored Paul's assists live and then compared my results with the official play by play sheet afterwards. This way, I could evaluate not only the passes that were officially called assists but I could also see if Paul made some passes that should have been called assists but were not. By my reckoning, Paul should have been credited with 11 assists versus Miami, not 13.

I agreed completely with the official scorekeeper on Paul's first six assists but assist number seven--on a West shot at the 3:36 mark of the second quarter--strikes me as dubious at best. West and Paul tossed the ball back and forth as the Heat doubled West in the post and then West received the ball deep enough in the paint to make his move: he dribbled, spun, did an up and under, made the shot and was fouled. An assist is supposed to be awarded if the recipient makes an immediate move to score after catching the pass AND if the pass contributed significantly to scoring the goal. West did go straight into a scoring motion after the last pass from Paul but West executed several different moves before sinking the shot, so it is pretty generous to award an assist on such a play; if that is an assist, then why wouldn't an assist be awarded every time someone passes the ball to a player who eventually scores? More to the point, if that is an assist, then how valuable or meaningful of a statistic is this? It does not take much skill to stand still behind the three point line, pass to David West and watch him put on a Kevin McHale low post clinic, so in my opinion it cheapens the value of the assist statistic to equate such a pass with the high degree of difficulty passes that Paul threw that deservedly were recorded as assists.

Paul's eighth official assist is even more questionable: at the 1:42 mark of the second quarter, he passed to Morris Peterson, who then dribbled twice, possibly took an extra step and then scored a tough layup over Wade. It is technically true that an assist can be awarded on a play in which the recipient dribbles more than once but, again, an assist is supposed to indicate that a pass made a significant contribution to the score: simply being the last person to pass the ball before someone else took a shot is not sufficient. If Paul had gotten a defensive rebound and passed ahead to Peterson, who took three dribbles and scored an uncontested fast break layup that would absolutely be an assist--the number of dribbles taken is not as important as the amount of defensive resistance the shooter encounters; simply passing to a player in a half court set and watching that player create his own shot should not be awarded with an assist.

Let me reiterate that I am by no means picking on Paul; I consider him to be the best point guard in the NBA. My issue is with how assists are being recorded and my question is whether Paul is benefiting from home cooking in this regard (all three games that I have tracked were home games for Paul), whether top playmakers get the benefit of the doubt in general or if the standards for assists have simply been lowered across the board. Over the course of this season, I plan to do similar tracking of Paul's assists in a road game and I also plan to do some charting of the scorekeeping of the assists of other top playmakers.

As for Miami, the Heat are obviously immensely better than they were last year. Wade has regained his explosiveness and he once again drives relentlessly to the basket. Miami's primary offensive option is Wade dribbling around until he decides to either shoot or pass; in one late game sequence, Wade was the last Heat player to cross midcourt on offense and the other four Heat players simply stood around like little kids waiting for permission to cross the street: they did not even consider the possibility of trying to run an offensive set or create an open shot by dribble penetration. Rookie point guard Mario Chalmers has played actively on defense and he is averaging more than five apg but Wade is clearly running the show.

Rookie first round draft choice Michael Beasley is clearly the second scoring option, although he had an off game versus the Hornets (10 points on 4-13 shooting, four rebounds). Beasley is a versatile player who can shoot, rebound and pass but he needs a road map, a compass and GPS to figure out where to go and what to do defensively; at that end of the court he looks like he graduated from the Carmelo Anthony school of being out of position. Also, in a previous telecast, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy made the excellent observation that Beasley plays defense with his hands down instead of having his hands up in the passing lanes. Only time will tell if Beasley will develop greater interest and competence defensively; he clearly has the physical tools to at least be an adequate defender if he decides to do so.

Everyone else on the Heat roster is an afterthought on offense, picking up the scraps that are left over; that is certainly a strange role for four-time All-Star Shawn Marion and, considering that Marion felt unappreciated in Phoenix when he was scoring 17-20 ppg, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for him to express displeasure with how the Heat are using him, particularly since this is a contract year for him. For long stretches Marion (10 points, eight rebounds) was completely invisible and he is far too talented of a player to simply be floating around on the court without having a noticeable impact. Perhaps Marion is still adjusting to wearing the modified Phantom of the Opera mask to protect his recent facial injury but it just seems like he is a third wheel on this team: Wade monopolizes the ball and when Wade is not dribbling or shooting then either Beasley is going one on one or someone else is catching the ball and shooting from the perimeter.

Regardless of what Marion's role will turn out to be, the positives for Miami are that Wade looks like an elite player again, Beasley is a legit 18-20 ppg scorer, Chalmers is a tenacious defender and the Heat in general are playing with a lot of energy. They should certainly be able to contend for one of the last two playoff spots in the East.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 AM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Sunday, November 09, 2008 9:17:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

It is ironic to see that Marion is the 'third wheel' once again, considering the fact that he was so bothered by being a similar position in Phoenix. To make matters worse, he no longer plays in a high-octane offense alongside one of the games greatest playmakers. I'm not saying Marion can't score without Nash's passes or D'Antoni's '7 seconds or less' style, he's not going to thrive standing around on the weak side watching Wade (and to a lesser extent Beasley) massage the ball. Hardly an ideal situation for a 30-year-old playing for a contract, especially since the perception seems to be that he relied on his athleticism and/or Steve Nash to put up his big numbers over the last few years.

I'll be interested to learn what your findings are once you do more research on the assist issue. Personally I find individual assists to be an overrated stat in any case, but I never really considered how generously they might be awarded in the first place.

 
At Sunday, November 09, 2008 10:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

Marion can be effective without Nash but the question is will he ever be satisfied with his role and with the amount of public adulation he receives. He has complained of not getting enough credit in Phx but he was the highest paid player on the team.

Like most stats, assists have to be looked at carefully and not just taken at face value. However, it seems to me that assist totals are not something that can readily be compared across eras because of the obvious differences in scorekeeping methodologies. This is almost like the dead ball versus live ball situation with baseball stats.

 
At Monday, November 10, 2008 3:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymou reggie

they cant all assist the ame chriss paul is the truth i dont care about the big o.

 
At Monday, November 10, 2008 4:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

The Big O is one of the greatest players of all-time. How can you say that you don't care about him? If he had been awarded assists the same way that Paul is Robertson may have averaged 15 apg in his prime.

 
At Monday, November 10, 2008 2:08:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

reggie...

you shouldnt even be talking about basketball if you dont care about the big o.

 
At Tuesday, November 11, 2008 10:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

the big o was great but he is a whiner of young players today and is always mad and complaining like jim brown does. chris paul assists counts like every other player assists count today he is great player why are you singleing him out not jason kidd steve nash gary paton deron willams and other great points.

im not dissing big o im saying the game and rules were diffrent then and now that is just how it is. it's not chris paul fault he is a great player.

 
At Tuesday, November 11, 2008 11:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

The Big O is not a "whiner." He is an intelligent man who speaks the truth about a lot of things, including the state of the game today.

We don't know if Chris Paul's assists are counted the same as other players today or not. That is something that I will try to determine during the course of this season. However, based on the rise in the percentage of assisted field goals, we can say with confidence that Paul's assists are not counted the same way that Robertson's were.

The reason that I first charted Paul's assists actually had something to do with a comment that you made, though you were just repeating something that others had said as well: namely, that Chris Paul "made" David West into an All-Star. I know from watching West play that he has a well rounded skill set. It obviously is a good thing to play with a top point guard, but Paul did not "make" West. In the course of writing a game recap about a Hornets game I was stunned to see how many assists Paul was awarded on passes to West that simply are not rule book assists. So I went back to the tape and charted all of Paul's assists that game and in a later game in that series as well.

As I said, this season I plan to do similar charting of other top pgs and also to chart some of Paul's road games.

I am not singling out Paul and I have stated very clearly that I think he is the best pg in the game today; I am singling out how assists are tabulated and, by extension, the faultiness of stat systems that rely on "objective" numbers that are in fact quite subjective.

 
At Wednesday, November 12, 2008 11:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right. Also, compare his assists totals for hornets homegames againsts their road games and you can see the difference. It looks to me that at home his assists were padded than the road games (win or lose).

 
At Friday, November 14, 2008 11:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

big o a great man and good guy but he is whining about assists everything changes in era.

that intresting i dont think they would do that for paul he is one of the best point i ever seen personally i never said he made west west has clealry benefited from his presence rather.

he is best point in league and great player only 23 next all time great.

 
At Saturday, November 15, 2008 3:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Why do you call it "whining" when Robertson is simply stating the truth? As I documented, assists are awarded on a higher percentage of field goals now than they were during Robertson's era. Also, it's not like Robertson is talking about this all the time. When someone asks him a question, he gives an honest answer--and he is not the only person who has noted that the standard for assists has changed.

 

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