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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Paul and West Lead Hornets to 116-105 Win Over Lakers

David West scored a career-high tying 40 points--including 15 in the fourth quarter--and grabbed 11 rebounds as the New Orleans Hornets defeated the L.A. Lakers in L.A., 116-105. West shot 14-23 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line. This victory snapped the Lakers' 15 game home winning streak and is the Hornets' first win this season versus the Lakers after suffering two home losses to the defending Western Conference champions. Chris Paul scored 32 points and was credited with 15 assists; he also had three steals, three rebounds and no turnovers while playing a game-high 44 minutes. Paul shot 11-24 from the field and 9-9 from the free throw line. Kobe Bryant almost singlehandedly willed the Lakers to victory, scoring 39 points--including 20 in the third quarter as the Lakers came from behind to take the lead--on 14-22 field goal shooting. Bryant shot 6-7 from three point range and 5-6 from the free throw line. He also had a team-high seven assists. However, the Lakers were outrebounded 44-39 and outshot from the field .506 to .419; the Lakers other than Bryant combined to shoot just 22-64 (.344). Derek Fisher scored 19 points but shot just 6-18 from the field, while big men Pau Gasol (10 points on 3-8 shooting) and Andrew Bynum (seven points on 2-7 shooting) were invisible for most of the game. The Lakers entered the game without the services of injured reserves Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton and their depth was further eroded when Lamar Odom hyperextended his knee after scoring 12 points in just 12:39 of action. He is scheduled to receive an MRI on the knee and will miss the Lakers' game tonight versus Golden State.

This game really highlighted the skill sets of West, Paul and Bryant. One of the reasons that West is still underrated is that many people incorrectly believe that he is very dependent on Paul's passing. Obviously, every Hornet benefits from playing alongside the best point guard in the NBA but West would be a 20 ppg scorer for any team in the NBA and could in fact post an even higher scoring average if he played for a team that provided him more field goal attempts (he averages just 15.6 FGA/game). He can score with his back to the basket, he is a good driver and his jump shot is deadly. He is also an .831 free throw shooter for his career, including .891 this season.

Paul is a wondrous ballhandler and passer. It is very difficult to keep him out of the lane and almost impossible to contain him once he gets there; when Paul gets into the paint, he usually scores, draws a foul or feeds a teammate for a wide open shot. He has improved his field goal percentage each season of his career, has become a reliable three point shooter and is an outstanding free throw shooter. His passes are creative, accurate and easy to handle. Unlike Steve Nash, he is not a defensive liability. In fact, Paul is very disruptive defensively because of his quick hands and toughness. Early in his career, some of the more muscular point guards could overpower him but that is not really the case anymore. He plays with an edge, often looks like he is ticked off about something and is absolutely fearless. Detroit Coach Chuck Daly once said of his Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas that if Thomas were 6-6 he'd be the best player in the NBA. Of course, Thomas was listed at 6-1 and may barely have been 6-0, much like Paul is listed at 6-0 but may be shorter than that. Paul is the best point guard in the game today and one of the top players in the league but, just like Thomas was never quite as dominant as Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, Paul's size prevents him from being quite as dominant as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.

Bryant was the best player in the NBA in 2006 and 2007 but the media members who vote for MVP were reluctant to acknowledge this fact. Last year, Bryant led the Lakers to the best record in the toughest Western Conference regular season race ever and the media finally awarded him his first MVP. This season, LeBron James has certainly been an MVP caliber player (as he was last season, even though he was not quite as good as Bryant) but it just seems like a lot of people are looking for excuses to not vote for Bryant. The reality is that in many ways Bryant is actually performing even better this season than he did last season and his Lakers are currently tied with James' Cavs for the best record in the NBA (27-6). Bryant is shooting a career-high .484 from the field, is shooting just .002 below his career-high free throw percentage and, after a slow start behind the arc, his three point shooting percentage (.366) is his best since 2002-03 (.383). James' field goal percentage will likely always be a bit higher than Bryant's because James is an inside player but James still cannot match Bryant's midrange, free throw or long range accuracy; James' career-high .779 free throw percentage this season would be a career low for Bryant and James' three point shooting percentage has declined for the fourth straight year. James' midrange jumper is still erratic, deadly on occasion but frequently off the mark. Bryant's scoring average is down slightly from last season but he is actually scoring more points per minute. Early in the season, Bryant gave his teammates plenty of opportunities to shoulder more of the scoring load but it has become increasingly clear that the Lakers still need a lot of scoring punch from Bryant to close out games; he leads the league with 30 games of at least 20 points and he has scored at least 25 points in 12 straight games.

Recently, it has become an annual tradition to suggest that Bryant's athleticism is beginning to decline; considering his age and the number of games that he has played that is probably true but this has yet to affect his productivity, nor has it prevented him from still making spectacular plays at both ends of the court. Near the end of this game, Rasual Butler seemed to have an uncontested fast break layup but Bryant ran him down, cleanly pinned his shot to the backboard with two hands, swept down the rebound and then dribbled down court before feeding Fisher for a three pointer. Bryant's block looked just like Michael Jordan's two handed rejection of Ron Mercer in the waning days of Jordan's career; a glimpse of that play can be seen near the end of what I have called the greatest NBA commercial of all-time.

Is Bryant as freakishly athletic, explosive and strong as James? No, but Bryant is still very, very athletic and the combination of that kind of athleticism with a basketball skill set devoid of weaknesses still makes him the game's best player.

While this game showcased the skill sets of three outstanding players, it also provided an opportunity for me to continue my research into how assists are counted by NBA scorekeepers. Last season, I noticed that Chris Paul often receives credit for assists on plays that according to the rule book should not be scored as assists (see the postscript to this post if you are not sure how assists are formally defined). I had charted Paul's assists in four games prior to this game. Charting Assists for Chris Paul and Tony Parker in New Orleans' 90-83 Victory Over San Antonio is my most recent post on this subject and it contains links to each of my previous efforts to monitor Paul's actual assists compared to the number listed in the official box scores. In those four games, there were a total of 46 plays that I charted in which Paul was credited with assists but by the correct interpretation of scorekeeping guidelines he should only have been credited with 34 assists. That is obviously a very small sample size but it is disconcerting that the league leader in this category may be getting credit for 25% more assists than he actually delivered. All four of those games were played in New Orleans, so it is reasonable to wonder if Paul benefits from a generous home town scorekeeper. To be honest, though, I don't really think that this will prove to be the case; my theory is that the general application of the correct standard for assists has been loosened and that this particularly favors players who do virtually all of the ballhandling for their teams, guys like Paul, Steve Nash and Deron Williams.

There is some statistical evidence to support the assertion that assists are awarded more generously now: as I noted in one of my earlier posts, assists were awarded on 52.2% of made field goals in the 1961-62 season but in the 2007-08 season assists were awarded on 58.4% of field goals. Why does this matter? One, it distorts the record book and results in faulty comparisons between today's playmakers and the playmakers of yesteryear. Two, these errors--combined with the subjectivity and/or inaccuracies involved in tracking other statistical categories such as rebounds, steals, blocked shots and turnovers--skew the basic data used by basketball statistical analysts and thus introduces an even higher margin of error into their player and team rankings than would otherwise exist.

I charted assists for both Paul and Bryant in this game; Paul leads the NBA in assists with an 11.6 apg average, while Bryant tops the Lakers with a 4.2 apg average. My methodology was simple and straightforward; every time Paul or Bryant made a pass that should be credited as an assist, I noted the time/situation. After the game was over, I compared my notes to the official play by play sheet. Here are the results:

Chris Paul's 15 Assists

1: Peja Stojakovic three pointer, 9:11 1st q: Correct; this was a straightforward catch and shoot play.
2: Tyson Chandler dunk, 6:20 1st q: Correct; alley-oop play.
3: David West jumper, 5:38 1st q: Incorrect; West caught the ball, dribbled twice and then made a contested jumper. He did the bulk of the work in creating the shot and thus no assist should have been awarded. It is important to remember that the last pass prior to a shot being made is not automatically worthy of being classified as an assist. Essentially, Paul gave the ball to West and West used his one on one skills to create his own shot.
4: David West turnaround fadeaway jumper, 5:12 1st q: Incorrect; just the play by play description of the shot is a good indicator that an assist should not have been awarded. West caught the ball, dribbled twice and then made a tough turnaround, fadeaway jumper. If an assist is going to be awarded on this kind of play then the statistic loses any meaning or relevance because that would mean that an assist could be awarded on virtually every made field goal.
5: Rasual Butler three pointer, 6:15 2nd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
6: David West jump shot, 5:42 2nd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
7: Devin Brown layup, :58.8 2nd q: Incorrect; Chris Paul threw a full court inbounds pass to Devin Brown, who caught the ball, took two dribbles and then scored a layup while being contested by Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. Paul's pass was so gorgeous that I can understand the temptation to want to reward him in some way but the fact that Brown had to defeat two defenders with his individual skill set makes this assist dubious at best. There would be no question that Paul deserved an assist--regardless of the number of dribbles Brown took--if no defenders had obstructed Brown's path but once a scorer has to evade obstacles on his own then an assist really should not be awarded.
8: David West jump shot; 9:29 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot (oddly, the play by play sheet records this shot as a layup but it actually was an elbow jumper; in any case, Paul did deserve an assist in this case).
9: Tyson Chandler layup, 9:08 3rd q: Correct; Paul's pass created the shot so well that there was minimal defensive resistance.
10: Rasual Butler fast break dunk, 8:18 3rd q: Correct; Paul's slick feed created the scoring opportunity.
11: David West jump shot, 7:45 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
12: Peja Stojakovic three pointer, 4:42 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
13: David West dunk, :48 3rd q: Correct; Paul's feed created the shot opportunity.
14: Rasual Butler three pointer, 7:41 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
15: James Posey three pointer, 5:34 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.

Kobe Bryant's Seven Assists

1: Trevor Ariza three pointer, :23 2nd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
2: Derek Fisher three pointer, 10:16 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
3: Derek Fisher three pointer, 3:18 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot. Bryant made his first seven field goal attempts of the third quarter, so the Hornets began running a second defender at him no matter where he was on the court. In this case, Bryant was behind the three point line, but Paul just left Fisher wide open in order to trap Bryant and try to prevent him from shooting.
4: Pau Gasol slam dunk, 1:33 3rd q: Correct; Bryant elevated as if he was going to shoot a three pointer and then fired a pass to Gasol for an easy, uncontested dunk.
5: Trevor Ariza three pointer, 8:31 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
6: Derek Fisher three pointer, 4:36 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
7: Derek Fisher three pointer, :36 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.

Paul was credited with 15 assists but he really had 12, while Bryant earned each of the seven assists for which he received credit. That means that I have now charted 61 official Paul assists, only 46 of which (75.4%) fit the rulebook definition. What difference does this make? Paul has averaged 18.5 ppg and 9.7 apg in 253 career games, so he is one of just four players (Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas are the others) to average at least 18 ppg and 9 apg in their careers--but if Paul's assist totals have really been inflated by 25% then he has actually produced 7.3 apg, not 9.7 apg. In all of the games for which I have tracked assists, I have yet to find a single instance in which Paul should have received credit for an assist but did not; the errors always fall on the side of giving too much credit.

One thing that I have found very interesting while charting Paul's assists is that Paul gets credit for assists on certain kinds of plays for which other players who make similar passes do not get credit for assists. For example, at the 11:30 mark of the third quarter, Rasual Butler passed to David West, who took three dribbles before making a jumper; when Paul has made the pass on that kind of play in the games that I have charted he almost always gets an assist but in this instance Butler did not. During the telecast, a graphic showed that Paul gets more assists on passes to West than any other playmaker in the league gets passing to any one player; second on the list is the Rajon Rondo to Kevin Garnett combination and I'm pretty sure that most of those connections are alley-oop dunks that are correctly scored as assists. I think that it would be very interesting to do a video review of each of the Paul-West plays on which assists were tallied to see how many of those assists fit the rulebook definition.

After Bryant's third assist, Lakers color commentator Stu Lantz said, "Kobe is really making it easy for other players now because they (the Hornets) are sending everybody at him." Bryant is regularly double-teamed anyway but after his 20 point third quarter explosion the Hornets changed their defensive strategy and went with a plan that was very reminiscent of what the Celtics did in last year's Finals: send waves of players at Bryant from all angles and dare any other Laker to make an open shot. The fact that this strategy can work against the Lakers even on a night when Bryant had 39 points and seven assists while shooting .636 from the field belies the description of how talented this team is supposed to be; at times--particularly in the fourth quarter--the Lakers looked like a primary school team that has one really, really good player and four other guys who are unwilling or unable to make a play. There were at least a half dozen times that Bryant drew two defenders and kicked the ball to a wide open shooter who missed; no one makes every shot that he takes but an NBA player should make a very high percentage on wide open, uncontested shots. Lantz said point blank that other than Bryant the Lakers do not have anyone who can create a shot for himself or his teammates. Granted, the injured Odom may have been able to help somewhat in that regard but, frankly, I don't trust him in clutch situations and you only have to look at last year's Finals to understand why.

Bryant usually rests at the end of the third quarter and/or the early portion of the fourth quarter but after Bryant's third quarter effort rallied the Lakers from a 77-69 deficit to a 92-85 lead Coach Phil Jackson was not about to take Bryant out of the game. The Hornets closed the margin to 92-89 by the end of the third quarter. Bryant played the first 3:29 of the fourth quarter before heading to the bench with the Lakers leading 99-94; he was only out of the game for 1:21 before Jackson had to put him back in after the Hornets went on a 7-0 run. This is where plus/minus numbers can be deceptive. Bryant had a -8 plus/minus number for the game, which is less than the margin of defeat but still obviously a negative number; what that number does not convey is the nature of momentum in an NBA game. Bryant is not a robot, nor are the other nine players on the court; once momentum shifts, it is not so easy to regain it. In his great book "Those Who Love the Game," Doc Rivers wrote about how frustrated he would get as a player when he played good defense and shut an opponent down only to see that player get hot when someone subbed in for Rivers; Rivers lamented about how difficult it was to cool that player down again. What happened to the Lakers in the fourth quarter versus the Hornets is analogous to the situation that Rivers described; the Hornets got rolling as soon as Bryant left the game and then once Bryant returned he was unable to stem the tide. One other consideration that must be mentioned--and that surely factored into Coach Jackson's thinking--is that if he played Bryant straight through with no rest at all then Bryant may have become fatigued and lost some effectiveness. Still, after the game, NBA TV commentator Gary Payton immediately singled out the brief time that Bryant sat out as the turning point in the contest.

Postscript:

I have quoted this material before, but in case you do not know how the NBA officially defines an assist, this paragraph was posted at NBA.com in 2002:

An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket. This can be a pass to the low post that leads to a direct score, a long pass for a layup, a fast break pass to a teammate for a layup, and/or a pass that results in an open perimeter shot for a teammate. In basketball, an assist is awarded only if, in the judgement of the statistician, the last player's pass contributed directly to a made basket. An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player's pass led to the field goal being made.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:46 AM

25 comments

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25 Comments:

At Wednesday, January 07, 2009 1:03:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

I don't even look at the actual assist number anymore when judging from the box score; 7 or more is adequate to tell me that a point guard was distributing well.

I'm more impressed by the ZERO turnovers that Chris Paul had in the game. Now that is striking and significant, especially for someone who handles the ball so much.

Kobe was magnificent, and after the third I believe that his expending so much energy would have an effect on the rest of the game. I also wondered where Phil Jackson would find some rest for him. New Orleans really took the ball out of his hands in the fourth, but no one else on the Lakers stepped up to make the Hornets pay for allocating so much of their resources in making Kobe give up the ball. Fisher and Ariza had good looks at the three point line, but nothing was going down. Should they have taken those shots? I'm not sure, because I lean toward the school of "if it's open, take it", although I'm sure a lot of Lakers fans were upset with all the missed threes.

 
At Wednesday, January 07, 2009 2:30:00 PM, Anonymous warsaw said...

"Lakers do not have anyone who can create a shot for himself or his teammates"

Gasol was a 20 ppp game in Memphis, where nobody created a shot for him and was doubled constantly.
Now he gets easier shots because of Bryant, and that improves his fg %, but that doesn't change the fact that he has always been capable of creating his own shot.

 
At Wednesday, January 07, 2009 2:41:00 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Great article! The impact of stat-keepers on the game is rarely acknowledged and can make a significant impact on a player's overall rating when using stats and metrics.

Agreed that Kobe's playing as well or better this year than last year - his shooting percentages are out of sight! And he absolutely belongs neck and neck with LeBron in MVP considerations.

I do think that to compare skillsets is not necessarily going to give a fair estimate of LeBron in that case. Certainly Kobe is a much better shooter from deep and the midrange, but as you mention, LeBron has the higher shooting percentage because he is able to get inside so often. It is a measure of his athletic ability that he does not need to have as refined a skill set. Much like Shaquille O'Neal was able to translate a very limited range of moves into an enormously impactful career simply because his physical abilities were so extreme.

I also think that some of the negative commentary on Kobe's athleticism should not be totally scoffed away. Against Boston last year there were many plays where we saw Kobe dribble into defenders like Posey or Pierce and wind up shooting very difficult off-balance fadeaways. Now hitting ridiculously difficult shots is Bryant's particular genius, but I couldn't help watching that and thinking, "Boy, at 29 MJ easily elevates above those outstretched hands."

Not to use Jordan as the measuring stick again, but he comes to mind because Kobe's moves resemble his. Take LeBron, who had a less versatile scoring arsenal and less potent teammates last year, yet proved to be a harder cover for Boston because forcing him to pick up his dribble didn't grind his options to a halt. He could always just jump over the guy and get a shot off (though if you stop him above the elbow it might not be a very good shot). Kobe's game is just based so much more on using fakes and counter moves, sometimes it's tough to tell if it's that he can't create space with his legs or if he simply prefers to create space with his mind.

 
At Wednesday, January 07, 2009 2:55:00 PM, Blogger Browny said...

Primary School? This is not England my friend :-).

 
At Wednesday, January 07, 2009 3:24:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Wow great commentary. I am really interested to discover about this "assist" inflation going on. If that is truly the case, then Paul's "historic" year last season was not really historic and Nash's back-to-back MVPs look even more silly than ever. Although, with Nash, just having watched so many Suns games during their SSOL era, I believe the majority of his assists were true assists based on the style of play. He was either lobbing to Marion or Amare or kicking out to Barbosa, Richardson, Johnson, Bell, etc. for 3s.

 
At Wednesday, January 07, 2009 3:30:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

Excellent post. I am very interested now to found out more about his assist inflation going on in the NBA. If it's true, than Chris Paul's "historic" 2008 season was nowhere near historic. 25% inflation is absurd in any arena. And though I am dubious and will forever remain so concerning Steve Nash's back-to-back MVPs, due to the nature of the SSOL offense, I believe inflation (other than "tempo" inflation) was not a factor in the number of assists Nash accumulated. He would either oop it to Marion or Amare, or kick out to Barbosa, Johnson, Bell, Richardson, Jones, etc. Anyway, I will be checking this site out everyday. Thanks for the insightful commentary. GREAT post.

 
At Wednesday, January 07, 2009 4:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since this game was played in L.A., it can't be a case of home-court friendliness.

Your point, though, about lax standards is, I think, part of a greater social malaise. Obviously, though, that's not a topic for this blog.

 
At Wednesday, January 07, 2009 8:20:00 PM, Anonymous Aaron said...

let me tell you why this is overthinking it.

i was watching an old oscar robertson game. He drove the ball to the free throw line and made a pass to a wing player on his left. the player got the ball, waited, OScar set a pick for him and he drove around the pick four or five dribbles and hit a layup on the other side of the basket. The announcer remarked that it was an assist for Oscar.

Now that example was as bad as any you mention in your article. Maybe in the 80s they calculated assist differently but in the 70s and 60s and 50s it wasn't that much different than today.

 
At Thursday, January 08, 2009 6:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

You are right to stress the significance of Paul doing so much work without committing a single turnover. I mentioned that in the first paragraph of the post but it certainly bears repeating.

Fisher and Ariza had to take those shots. I have talked to many coaches about the dilemma that you mentioned and the reality is that in the NBA with the 24 second shot clock if a player does not shoot an open shot that is within his normal range it is unlikely that a better shot will present itself during that possession (an obvious exception to this would be Kobe passing up a three pointer to feed Gasol for an uncontested dunk). Also, one reason why most teams don't trap Kobe like that for a whole game is that would give those open shooters a chance to get into a good rhythm; instead, after Kobe carried the Lakers in the third quarter the onus was suddenly placed on the role players to make key shots in a close game in the fourth quarter. The Celtics pretty much used that strategy throughout the Finals but few teams have the personnel or discipline to trap one player so aggressively without giving up layups.

 
At Thursday, January 08, 2009 6:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Warsaw:

I agree that Gasol can create a shot for himself--when he gets the ball in the post--and he is also a good enough passer to on occasion create shots for others (as opposed to simply passing to someone who has been left open because the defense is trapping Kobe). However, Gasol cannot consistently create shots for others the way that Kobe, LeBron and CP3 do. Gasol is well suited to being the second best player on a very, very good team but I do not view him as a franchise player--i.e., an All-NBA First Team level performer or even an All-NBA Second Team level performer. Kobe and CP3 are All-NBA First Team level players.

 
At Thursday, January 08, 2009 7:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jason:

You are right that any comparison of Kobe with LeBron has to balance Kobe's skill set advantage with LeBron's athletic advantage. Your analogy to Shaq is very apt, though of course LeBron is much more skilled relative to small forwards than Shaq--even in his prime--is relative to centers. Yao is a more skillful shooter and passer than Shaq, though Shaq in his prime was clearly the better player because of his overwhelming physical dominance; I'd take Dwight Howard over Yao now for similar reasons.

I'm not a big fan of making a lot of MJ-Kobe comparisons; they are different players who played under different circumstances in different eras (though their careers did slightly overlap, of course). I prefer to compare Kobe to his contemporaries. As for the shots that Kobe took against Boston, that had a lot to do with his teammates being unable/unwilling to step into the vacuum and make open shots when the Celtics sent waves of defenders at Kobe. There is a good YouTube video that shows many examples of this.

I disagree that LeBron was a "tougher cover" for Boston or that LeBron had a better series versus the Celtics than Kobe did. LeBron had a great seventh game, while the Lakers got routed in the sixth game and that tends to distort people's impressions of how Kobe and LeBron played. The reality is that the Cavs pushed the Celtics to seven games because the Cavs are a more physical team than the Lakers and the Cavs play better defense. In the first four games of that series, LeBron set numerous records for low field goal percentages but the Cavs tied the Celtics 2-2 because of their great defense. For sure, LeBron had a great seventh game but his overall averages in that series were 26.7 ppg, .355 field goal shooting (including .231 from three point range) and an average of 5.3 turnovers per game. LeBron's inability to make outside shots enabled the Celtics to sag off of him and cut off his passing angles (hence his low shooting percentages and high turnover rates). Kobe averaged 25.7 ppg, shot .405 from the field (including .321 from three point range) and committed 3.8 turnovers per game versus the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. It is also worth noting that Kobe averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as the Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in the 2008 Western Conference Finals; in contrast, LeBron averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game as the Spurs swept his Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals. Again, the reason for the disparity between Kobe and LeBron's numbers in playoff series versus the two most recent NBA champions is that Kobe has a skill set advantage over LeBron as a shooter. This forces defenses to cover Kobe differently than they cover LeBron.

I do think that Kobe has lost a little athleticism but not enough that it has negatively affected his performance level. He's not dunking on a consistent basis like he did when he was 22-23-24 but few if any 30 year olds do. When MJ was at a similar stage of his career he was already developing the midpost game that served him so well during the Bulls' second three-peat. Kobe already operates effectively in that area of the court but he does this facing up, whereas MJ would catch often catch the ball with his back to the basket and go to work from that point.

 
At Thursday, January 08, 2009 7:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

I agree that Nash certainly got a lot of legit assists by feeding Amare for dunks and kicking the ball out to three point shooters. However, there is a general lessening of the standards for awarding assists, so it would not surprise me if Nash also got assists on plays in which, say, he passed to Barbosa, Barbosa faked a three, drove to the hoop and executed a tough shot in traffic.

The larger point, as you mentioned, is that Nash won his MVPs at least in part due to his assist totals and I think that he--and others--benefited from how the stats are kept now. This change does not affect players who rarely handle the ball but the players who do the vast majority of the ballhandling for their teams (Nash, Paul, Williams and a few others) stand to gain the most when there is a lower standard for awarding assists.

I have repeatedly said that in 10 or 15 years, people are going to look back and be astonished that Nash won MVPs over Kobe and LeBron.

I also think that some of the assist "records" that Paul has set are very questionable. That is part of why I started charting his assists in the first place; so much attention was being focused on these "records" and so much was being said about how he "made" West into an All-Star but I knew from watching the games (prior to doing the charting) that West is very adept at creating his own shot. After watching a game in which West did this repeatedly only to have Paul credited with assists on those plays, I went back and watched those possessions again in order to chart exactly what happened.

 
At Thursday, January 08, 2009 7:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree that home court "friendliness" is not the culprit; assists are awarded more liberally than they used to be but the rules about this were never formally changed and this lessening of standards benefits a few pgs who do a lot of ballhandling at the expense of many other players (in terms of how stat systems rank these players).

 
At Thursday, January 08, 2009 7:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Aaron:

I systematically charted assists in several games and I also researched how the rate at which assists are awarded has increased over the years. I will continue to chart more games, so this is hardly a finished project, but I have looked at enough plays to know that something is not right.

Vaguely citing one play from a non-specific game hardly refutes what I am saying. For one thing, just because the announcer said it was an assist does not mean that it actually was scored as one; he may have simply meant that Robertson helped to create the shot in some generic sense, not in the literal sense of getting an assist in the boxscore. Without actually seeing the play in question--and the official play by play sheet from the game--it is impossible to know what really happened.

Is it possible that an assist was wrongly scored in the game that you watched? I suppose but the statistical evidence (assists are awarded much more frequently now) and the anecdotal evidence (based on talking with Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and many other players) is that it used to be much harder to earn an assist than it is now. That is why some players who were very conscious of their assist totals would only pass the ball if their teammate could shoot a layup or a wide open jumper--and they would castigate that teammate if he missed the shot or made a move before doing so, thus "ruining" the assist. If assists are going to be awarded on plays in which the recipient of the pass makes multiple moves and fakes before taking a shot then the assist statistic loses any semblance of meaning.

An assist is supposed to be a pass that creates a scoring opportunity, not merely the last pass before a shot is taken.

 
At Friday, January 09, 2009 4:14:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

I'd take Oscar Robertson with a grain of salt, he's repeatedly complained of players today getting away with this and that - much like Wilt Chamberlain a few years ago. He may have a point, but his remarks have more than a touch of "sour grapes" (at being relatively forgotten for having played in a past era with extremely limited TV exposure, I guess).

It would be interesting to chart Deron Williams, Steve Nash and other similar PGs and compare results with Chris Paul. I think there may also be some bias by stat-keepers in favour of players who are famous for amassing big stats. Dennis Rodman getting a hand on the ball might mean a rebound is accrued to him, while Bill Wennington would not in a similar play; you know Rodman gets tons of rebounds, so in case of doubt you go for it. "It's Rodman, after all, I'm sure it's a rebound." That would be much more apparent in "judgement stats" like assists.

 
At Friday, January 09, 2009 5:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

I understand that some people quickly become annoyed when hearing retired players talk about the "good old days" but most of the things that I have heard Robertson say are valid, namely that stats are kept differently today than they were in his time and that many of today's players are better athletically but worse fundamentally than the players from his era. I don't agree with everything that Robertson says but in general I would say that he is a straight shooter (no pun intended) and not a bitter person who is living in the past.

When I get the chance, I plan to chart games in which Paul goes head to head with DWill, Nash, etc. I consider this to be an ongoing project.

I think that you are right that there is a bias in favor of players who are known to accumulate certain stats; I suspect that this tendency, along with the overall inflation of assist stats, explains Paul's "extra" assists more so than home court bias.

 
At Friday, January 09, 2009 12:43:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

David,

Do you want help in your study? It might be beneficial to have more than one person working on a project like this? I volunteer my services.

 
At Friday, January 09, 2009 3:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

My only concern about including other people in this is that if we all are not applying the same methodology then the results may be more confusing than clarifying. On the other hand, perhaps it would be interesting to see what results other people would find and, obviously, if more people become involved then it will be possible to chart more games.

My methodology is as follows:

After I decide which player or players to track--I have focused on Chris Paul because he is the league leader and recently I have charted Paul plus whoever leads the opposing team in assists--when I watch the game I note the time on the clock after every field goal that is preceded by a pass by that player and I immediately indicate if this is a rule book assist or not--and why; for instance, I will write something like "catch and shoot" or "took three dribbles, made up fake, shot over two defenders." Obviously, it is almost essential to be recording the game so that you can pause the action and/or go back afterwards to look at a play again.

Sometimes I make a note by certain plays that should not be assists but that, based on prior games, will probably be scored as one. After the game, I consult the play by play sheet provided at NBA.com and compare the official tally with mine. By the way, as I mentioned, I have yet to find a game in which too few assists are awarded--the errors always fall on the side of being too generous.

As I have mentioned in various posts, by rule an assist should only be awarded for a pass that leads directly to a score. Usually this means shooting without dribbling but in some cases there can be one or more dribbles if the shooter is not being contested (i.e., the passer throws the ball from the backcourt to a teammate who drives in for an uncontested layup; the pass obviously created the shot and there was no defensive resistance). A feed to a low post player should only be called an assist if the recipient immediately attacks the basket as a result of the pass; if the passer lobs an alley oop and the player catches it and dunks this is an assist even if a shotblocker is present but if the passer lobs an alley oop and the recipient catches the ball, lands without shooting, does an up fake or other moves before shooting then this is no longer an assist. A pass to a perimeter player is an assist if the player catches and shoots. If he catches, does a step back to create space and then shoots, no assist should be awarded. If he catches, takes multiple dribbles and evades defenders before making a layup, no assist should be awarded.

There is room for interpretation on some plays but most of the faulty assists that I have found are not even close, as indicated in my notes. When a play is marginal, then I say so and give a longer explanation (there are some examples of this in my earlier charting efforts).

 
At Friday, January 09, 2009 5:40:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

How about you tell me what game you're going to do next, and I'll do it too. I'll email you my results, and if they match up well, then I can follow other players, like Nash or Deron Williams. I think it would also be interesting to note when the games are played and against who. Nationally televised games might want to have flashier stats for ESPN or whatever. I have league pass and DVR so I'm all set.

 
At Sunday, January 11, 2009 3:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

chris paul is top 5 player in league and only 23 and best point in league he not better than kobe and lebron okay that doesnt take anything away from his greatness you seem to harp on that he isnt winning mvp this year. pau gasol has played great this year to me a all star level okay he isnt first team all nba or second david west isnt either but you overly praise him when gasol is as good or better and great second option too kobe and lakers arent nearly as good without him.

lebron mvp this year no debate kobe won it last year even jamal mashburn mark jackson doc rivers said it and there kobe guys lebron team didnt win enough games last year and kobe willed his team to finals without bynum and with addition of gasol. but it's all lebron this year he has outplayed kobe is best player lakers are deeper team and gasol is better than anyone on cleveland noone expected cleveland to be 29-6 most thought they would win around 52 games there on pace for like 65 66 his second best player is mo willams a good player but not all star level player this is akll lebron this is not kobe year of late kobe played great but lebron been great from beggining of season youre going kobe as usual but i think most in media are going lebron which they should

 
At Monday, January 12, 2009 3:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

I will keep your offer in mind. I have not really thought that far ahead in terms of which specific games I will chart; this "project" has been just one of many story angles I am covering during the course of the season. Thank you for your interest in the story and your offer to help.

 
At Monday, January 12, 2009 3:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

I'm not "harping" on anything. All I'm saying is that I would never take a small point guard (i.e., basically any pg in NBA history other than Magic or the Big O) over a dominant "mid-size" player such as MJ, Kobe or LeBron. I simply think that it is easier to find a competent pg (Kerr/Paxson/Armstrong, Derek Fisher, Mo Williams) to pair with the "mid-size" player than it is to start with the great pg and then try to find a good enough sg/sf who can help you to win a title.

MJ won six rings, Kobe has three rings plus two other Finals appearances and LeBron has already been to the Finals once. Wade has one ring plus a Finals MVP. Nash has yet to make it to the Finals and Paul--who admittedly is young and has a full career ahead of him--has yet to make it to the Conf. Finals. Isiah Thomas is probably the only small pg in history who was the best player on a championship team--and no matter what the stat guys or anyone else would say, I would still take him over Nash, Paul and just about any other pg in the 6-3 and under group.

I never said that Gasol is not a great second option. In fact, that is precisely how I have described him. He is probably a little more valuable than West, primarily because Gasol is a legit 7-footer, so he has superior length; Gasol is also a better passer. My point regarding Paul/West is that Paul has not "created" West; West would be an All-Star level player even without Paul because West can shoot from the outside, post up and rebound.

LeBron is certainly having an MVP caliber season this year, as he did last year. Kobe was clearly, if only slightly, better than LeBron last year. LeBron's defense has improved this season, but his outside shooting is about the same (his ft percentage has improved). On a skill set basis, I'd still take Kobe. Each year, the media tend to single out one guy and hype him up, saying that no one else deserves the award. How can anyone say in January that no one else is in the discussion? There is still more than half of the season left to be played.

Before the season, I expected Cleveland to battle Boston for the best record in the East (check out my season preview, which can be found in the right hand sidebar on the main page).

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 5:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

paul just started so i never compared careers you have a valid point i said i would take kobe lebron wade over him mvp is diffrent from who the better player in general that was last year he is not this year.

i agree west is a all star without paul gasol was a great second option i thought you was downing gasol when he a good player.

lebron is mvp right now you are right looking at it i got to be honest with myself kobe is creeping up and is number 2 right now it is not over i agree but if cleveland play at the same level and lebron play at same level he is the guy kobe has played great and of late is dominant and great to watch but noone expected cleveland to be this good and gasol is better than anyone on clevland everyone new the lakers would be a 60 plus team victor kobe parlty won it because last year none expected the lakers to win 57 games and alot of people thought they wouldnt make playoffs, plus he had no bynum as well. the mvp is lebron if lebron dip and cleveland dip and kobe play at same level it is kobe and lakers win like 67 games other than that there going to give to lebron.

 
At Sunday, January 18, 2009 3:46:00 AM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

01-17-09
Detroit vs. New Orleans (in Detroit)


Went over this game to continue your research. Paul’s final box score said he had 14 assists, but at least 4 of them were completely NOT assists. There were two that were not technically assists by definition, but, within the context of the game, could be seen as an acceptable assist.

Stuckey and AI were both awarded bogus assists as well.

FIRST QUARTER

11:20 Allen Iverson passes to Hamilton in the corner. Hamilton dribbles once towards the basket, pulls up for 17-foot jumper. (scored an assist, questionable)

10:47 Iverson drives to the hoop, draws two defenders, kicks it out to Rasheed on the baseline for a 12-foot jump shot. Assist.

8:21 Paul lobs to Butler over Iverson. Butler spins away and fades for an 8-foot jumpshot. Assist.

7:25 Stuckey passes to Iverson in the corner for a 17-foot jumper. Assist.

6:05 Bad pass from Wallace, Stuckey dives on floor to recover, then, while on the floor, finds Iverson in corner for 16-foot jumper. Assist.

5:07 Wallace sets screen and hands off to Stuckey for 18-foot jumper. Assist.

4:38 Stuckey dumps ball into Rasheed on the post. Wallace holds the ball for a second and dips his back into his defender to create space. He dribbles once, then fades away and hits 8-foot jumper. (scored an assist, not an assist by any stretch of the imagination)

3:02 Paul passes to Butler posting up Iverson top block. Catches, faces basket and squares AI up, shoots jump shot (scored an assist, questionable)

0:32 Paul drives to hoop, comes out and passes it to Posey who is beyond the arc for a three pointer. Assist

SECOND QUARTER

9:20 Antonio Daniels drives and kicks to Peja for 3. Assist

7:58 Antonio Daniels pump fakes, Stuckey flies by, Hamilton comes to help, passes to Devin Brown for a finger roll layup. Assist.

7:20 Rip drives and kicks to McDyess for jumpshot. Assist.

5:41 McDyess swings ball around 3-point line to Hamilton for three. Assist.

3:28 Chandler grabs defensive rebound pushes it up to Paul who dribbles twice and then scores a layup. (assist, understandable, but questionable by definition)

2:34 Paul drives towards hoop, draws double, kicks out to Posey who head fakes, then drives around his man, one dribble than teardrop floater. Scored an assist (Not an assist at all)

2:00 Paul and West run pick and pop. West hits a 16-foot jumpshot. Assist.

1:25 Paul and West run pick and pop, West picks and pops out, Paul gets him the ball, West pump fakes Wallace, dribbles twice towards the basket and scores running floater. Scored an assist, most definitely not an assist.

1:00 Fastbreak, Paul lobs to Butler for alley-oop. (assist)

0:22 Prince pushes to Hamilton on fastbreak, Hamilton stops and pops a 17-foot jumper. (assist)

THIRD QUARTER

10:27 Paul lobs ball inside to Chandler with deep position on Prince. With back still to the basket, takes a power dribble and comes through with a 7-foot right-handed hook. (Assist, questionable)

10:00 Allen Iverson drives baseline, come out on other side of key and finds Prince at bottom of red circle. Prince hits 8-foot fall away jumper. (assist)

9:04 Butler comes off a Chandler pick, Paul finds him for a 19-foot jumpshot. (assist)

7:30 Paul lobs to Chandler for dunk (assist)

7:17 Stuckey and Rasheed play pick and pop. Wallace hits 3 (assist)

6:35 Wallace fakes the same play but instead of setting the pick, simply floats out to the three point line while Chandler stays ready for Stuckey’s drive. Stuckey passes to Wallace for 3 (assist).

6:22 Paul splits Pistons defense and goes to the basket and then kicks it back out to a wide open West who drills from 17-feet out (assist).

4:41 (check back here)

4:20 Stuckey dumps ball in to Prince who is posting up Posey. Prince spins, takes two hard dribbles and floats in a layup and gets fouled. (scored an assist, NOT an assist).

4:06 Paul picks and rolls with West. Paul draws three defenders, kicks it out to West who is wide open. He pump fakes, drives to his left into the key with two dribbles, takes a step and a half and floats in a 5-footer. (scored an assist…are you kidding me?)

3:10 Out of bounds play. Prince finds a cutting Hamilton for a layup. (assist)

2:36 Hamilton leads break, passes to Maxiell on the left block who goes up and under for a right handed layup. (assist)

1:31 Hamilton makes a bad pass to Prince in the corner who chases it down and immediately passes back to Hamilton who has floated beyond the three-point line. Hamilton makes 3. (assist)

1:07 Paul passes to Butler who is beyond the three-point line. Butler drives past a rapidly closing Hamilton who manages to stay with him, takes two hard dribbles, jump stops then fades away for a 9-foot jumper. Scored an assist for Paul. This is ridiculous.

0:42 Prince posts Posey up on the right block, kicks out to Stuckey who drains a three. (assist)

FOURTH QUARTER

11:04 Daniels passes to Peja who is coming off a screen for a 17-foot jumper. (assist)

10:28 Daniels on fastbreak pushes it up to Butler on the baseline for a 15-foot jumpshot (assist)

10:03 Daniels fastbreak gives to Posey for a layup. (assist)

9:41 Hamilton finds a cutting Maxiell on the baseline for a dunk (assist)

8:27 Peja comes off screen, Daniels hits him for a 16-footer. (assist)

8:08 Hamilton finds Maxiell underneath for an and-1. (assist)

5:43 McDyess rotates ball from Iverson to Prince in the corner for 3. (assist)

4:30 Paul to West for 18-foot jumper. (assist)

 
At Monday, January 19, 2009 6:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

Your findings seem to mirror what I have seen in the games that I charted, namely that Paul gets the benefit of the doubt on plays in which the recipients of his passes dribble multiple times and/or make multiple fakes. Even if this is a league-wide statistical phenomenon and not merely special treatment for Paul and/or a select group of elite pgs, this still gives Paul an advantage statistically over other NBA players and over pgs from earlier eras, because Paul is his team's sole ballhandler, so he is much more likely than most players to make the final pass before a shot is taken, even if that pass is not a rule book assist.

There can be legitimate assists on plays in which the recipient dribbled multiple times--usually after a long outlet pass to a player who has no defenders in front of him--but in general I look at such assists with a jaundiced eye.

 

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