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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

SurPASSed: These Playmakers Narrowly Missed Winning the Assists Crown

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the March 2003 issue of Basketball Digest.

Scoring champions and rebounding champions literally have their fates in their own hands, but playmakers are dependent upon the recipients of their passes making shots and the official scorekeeper deciding that their passes should be recorded as assists. Two NBA assists championships have been decided by one assist, meaning that a single blown layup or one decision by a scorekeeper could have easily altered history.

The first of these incredibly close races happened in 1947-48 in the Basketball Association of America (BAA), one of the forerunner leagues to the NBA (the BAA's final three seasons, 1946-47 to 1948-49, are considered to be the NBA’s first three years). Howie Dallmar of the Philadelphia Warriors edged the Providence Steamrollers' Ernie Calverley, 120-119 in a 48-game season. In 1965-66 Cincinnati Royals' legend Oscar Robertson nipped Guy Rodgers of the then San Francisco Warriors, 847-846. Both of these photo finishes happened when NBA statistical leaders were determined by totals and not averages. Starting with the 1969-70 season the NBA ranked its league leaders by averages, while the rival ABA did so throughout its nine year run (1967-68 to 1975-76).

Rodgers finished second in assists behind Robertson five times and was also the bridesmaid in 1959-60 when Bob Cousy won the last of his then-record eight assists crowns. Robertson's 1960-61 win by 13 over Rodgers is the sixth closest race of the pre-1970 era. Rodgers won two assists titles, the second in 1966-67 when he set a league record (since broken) with 908 assists for the expansion Chicago Bulls. He finished first or second in assists every year from 1959-60 to 1966-67 before dropping to ninth in 1967-68 and he retired with 6917 assists, then the third best career total behind only Robertson and Cousy. Rodgers' career high 28 assists in a March 14, 1963 game tied Cousy for most assists in one contest, a record that stood until 1978.

Andy Phillip tallied four second-place finishes, the last two coming in 1952-53 and 1953-54 when Cousy claimed his first two assists titles. Phillip won his only two assists championships in the previous two seasons. Before that he lost to Bob Davies of the Rochester Royals by two assists in 1948-49 and to the New York Knicks' Dick McGuire by nine in 1949-50.

McGuire also came in second four times, including 1957-58 when Cousy beat him by only nine assists. He lost out on two other titles by 14 and 15 (1950-51 and 1954-55 respectively); no one else has lost three assists championships by such small margins. His more famous brother Al played briefly in the NBA, coached Marquette to an NCAA title and became a prominent college basketball color commentator before his recent untimely death.

Lenny Wilkens' lone assists championship came in 1969-70 but when he retired only Robertson had more career assists. Wilkens nearly matched Rodgers with five second place finishes, including the ninth closest race of the pre-1970 era (losing to the Philadelphia 76ers' Wilt Chamberlain by 23 in 1967-68) and the second closest apg race (.12630 apg less than the Los Angeles Lakers' Jerry West in 1971-72). Wilkens finished behind a different player in each of his turns as runner-up. He lost to the only center to ever win an assists title (Chamberlain) and the only player to lead the NBA or ABA in scoring and assists in the same year (Nate Archibald, with 34.0 ppg and 11.4 apg in 1972-73).

In addition to his 1973 assists championship Archibald earned a pair of second place finishes. Donald "Slick" Watts of the Seattle Supersonics edged him by .17636 apg in 1975-76, the third closest apg margin ever. The previous season Kevin Porter of the Washington Bullets won the assists title by .30317 apg over Dave Bing of the Detroit Pistons in the fifth narrowest apg race. Porter led the NBA in assists twice more as a member of the Pistons and the Nets before rejoining the Bullets. He edged Norm Nixon of the Lakers by .25160 apg in 1980-81 for his fourth and final assists title. Porter and Billy Melchionni of the ABA New York Nets are the only assists champions to appear twice on the list of the nine closest apg races.

Magic Johnson retired as the all-time assists leader and won four single season crowns. He also tied Rodgers with six second place finishes, including a record four straight times as runner-up (1987-88 to 1990-91, each time trailing John Stockton). Johnson lost the 1981-82 race to Johnny Moore of the San Antonio Spurs by .11993 apg, the closest margin ever for the years in which the champion was determined by average.

Several players traveled far up pro basketball's top ten career assists chart with very few single season assist titles or runner-up finishes. Maurice Cheeks' 7392 assists rank seventh all-time but his best ranking in a single season was third in 1981-82. No one has more career assists without winning at least one single season championship. Mark Jackson recently passed Robertson for third place on the career list but he has only one assists crown (1996-97) and no second place finishes.

Isiah Thomas ranks fifth in career assists and fifth in career apg average. He only led the league once, but his 13.9 apg in 1984-85 set a single season record that stood for several years and still is the third best average in pro basketball history. Thomas bookended that sterling performance with second place honors in 1983-84 and 1985-86.

Other players with multiple second place finishes are Jason Kidd (3), Robertson (2), John Lucas (2), and Stockton (2). Lucas is the only member of this group who never won an assists title. Kidd has won three, Robertson took six and Stockton is the all-time leader with nine (1987-88 to 1995-96), including a record 14.5 apg in 1989-90. Stockton captured all but one of his titles by a margin of at least 1.4 apg!

Chuck Williams is the only ABA player to finish second in assists more than once. As a member of the San Diego Conquistadors in 1972-73 he lost the closest ABA assists race (and sixth closest in pro basketball history) by .41418 apg to Melchionni, who won three straight ABA assists crowns (1970-71 to 1972-73). In 1974-75 Mack Calvin of the Denver Nuggets beat Williams--then a member of the Memphis Sounds--by .59159 apg in the seventh closest apg race.

Most sources--including the 1974-75 Official ABA Guide--list Chuck Williams as the ABA runner-up in assists for 1973-74 even though Warren Jabali posted a higher apg average and had enough assists to be listed among the league leaders. Jabali was waived by the Denver Rockets in the middle of the 1973-74 season after clashing with Coach Alex Hannum. Apparently the ABA chose to not list him among the leaders because he was not an active player--a strange situation to the say the least, possibly unique in the annals of professional sports. According to Terry Pluto's Loose Balls, Jabali was actually leading the ABA in assists when the Rockets cut him; Rockets' guard Al Smith finished the season with an 8.1 apg average, .8386 apg better than Jabali and nearly two apg ahead of Williams. Jabali finished his career with the San Diego Conquistadors in 1974-75 and the 1975-76 Official ABA Guide lists him among the league's assists leaders for that season.

Larry Brown won the first three ABA assists championships. His first and third titles were by comfortable margins but he won his second by only .64186 apg over Don Freeman of the Miami Floridians, the ninth closest assists race ever. Four of the nine closest apg contests happened in the ABA; the only one that we have not yet mentioned is Melchionni defeating the Memphis Pros’ George Lehmann by .60778 apg in 1971-72. Don Buse is the only player to win assists championships in both leagues and he did it in consecutive seasons, leading the ABA in 1975-76 and topping the post-merger NBA in 1976-77, each time as a member of the Indiana Pacers.

Assists are a more subjective statistic than scoring or rebounding and winning an assists title does not have the same prestige as being the league leader in either of those categories. Yet, when looking at the roster of assists champions and runners-up through the years the names of all-time greats appear prominently, including Cousy, the Big O, Magic and Stockton. Players such as Guy Rodgers, Andy Phillip and Dick McGuire are not as well known today but were highly regarded during their careers and each of these floor generals guided at least one team to the NBA Finals.

Pro Basketball's Closest Races for the Assists Title

Most NBA/ABA 2nd Place Finishes


Player Total


Guy Rodgers 6
Magic Johnson 6
Lenny Wilkens 5
Andy Phillip 4
Dick McGuire 4

Closest NBA Races, 1951-1969



Player/Season Margin Winner/Total Assists



Ernie Calverley/1948 -1 Howie Dallmar/120
Guy Rodgers/1966 -1 Oscar Robertson/847
Andy Phillip/1949 -2 Bob Davies/321
Andy Phillip/1950 -9 Dick McGuire/386
Dick McGuire/1958 -9 Bob Cousy/463
Guy Rodgers/1961 -13 Oscar Robertson/690
Dick McGuire/1951 -14 Andy Phillip/414
Dick McGuire/1955 -15 Bob Cousy/557
Lenny Wilkens/1968 -23 Wilt Chamberlain/702

Closest APG Races--ABA, 1968-1976; NBA, 1970-2002



Player/Season Margin Winner/APG



Magic Johnson/1982 .11993 APG Johnny Moore/9.64557



Lenny Wilkens/1972 .12630 APG Jerry West/9.70130



Nate Archibald/1976 .17636 APG Donald Watts/8.06098



Norm Nixon/1981 .25160 APG Kevin Porter/9.06173



Dave Bing/1975 .30317 APG Kevin Porter/8.02469



C. Williams/1973 ABA .41418 APG Billy Melchionni/7.42623



C. Williams/1975 ABA .59159 APG Mack Calvin/7.70270



George Lehmann/1972 ABA .60778 APG Billy Melchionni/8.36250



Don Freeman/1969 ABA .64186 APG Larry Brown/7.06494

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:58 AM

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