Russell Westbrook and the Value of the Assist

What constitutes a good passer in the NBA?

A good passer is a person who places his teammates at a level of importance that they deserve. He is one who does not overvalue his own shot. One who keeps his head up and his eyes open and recognizes his teammates at the proper times. One who not only recognizes his teammates, but creates for them by manipulating the defense. He is one who can deliver the ball at different speeds, from several distances, and can do so in a variety of ways.

However accurate this “criteria” may or may not be in actual reality, it remains subjective and unmeasurable as a whole.  What we do have, though, is the quantifiable passing metric: “assists”: a connection that is made before a basket is converted, via two players and a pass. With the completion of this action, the passer accredited with an assist.  Many assume this metric to be the best (numerical) indicator of passing ability.

But do high assist totals really indicate great passing ability?

I’d like to discuss how, with some players, “empty stats” tend to be recorded, and in the long run, are misinterpreted in terms of their value. Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder and his 2012-13 stats – primarily his passing ones – provide us with a prime example. Despite his increase to 8.7 assists per game this year, Westbrook remains as a very mediocre passer.

Here’s why:

1. Westbrook’s assists are coming while he is surrounded by offensive capability

  • The Thunder are currently the #1 offensive team in the league, with an offensive rating of 113.3
  • The team shoots a very high field goal percentage of 47.8%, which is currently 4th in the league
  • The Thunder have three talented offensive players next to Westbrook (Durant, Martin, Ibaka) with key role players that also shoot a high percentage (Collison at 63.1%, Sefolosha at 47% FG)
  • The Thunder manage to put up 112.1 points per 100 possessions and maintain an effective field goal percentage of 53.0% without Russell playing (52.3% with him playing)

2. Westbrook is playing beside Durant, Martin, and Ibaka who play almost exclusively within their team’s offense (allowing for many easy assists)

  • Durant engages in isolation plays only 19.5% of the time, compared to other top scorers in Melo at 31.4%, Kobe at 25.6%, Harden at 26.4%, and Lebron at 24.9%
  • Durant is assisted on 58.7% of his field goals, which is considerably higher than any of the top scorers in the league other than Paul Pierce (62.1%)
  • Ibaka is assisted on a staggering 75.3% of his field goals – 2nd highest amongst power forwards who score at least 14 PPG and 5th highest amongst all power forwards who play 20 MPG
  • Martin is assisted on 69% of his field goals – highest of any SG who scores 16 PPG, and 20th highest of all SGs who play 20 MPG

3. Westbrook is ball-dominant, and ball-dominance invariably leads to higher assist totals

  • Russell is 4th in the league in assists per game
  • Russell is 34th in the league in assist to turnover ratio
  • Russell is 46th in the league in assist rate (rate of assists per possession used)
  • Russell is 3rd in the league in usage rate (turnovers + FGA + FTA)

The above illustrates that though Westbrook is almost at the top of the league in assists, he’s using an exceptional amount of possessions for himself (3rd most in the league – a full 2% more of OKC’s possessions than his teammate Durant). It’s okay to use possessions for yourself if you’re good, which Russell is, but we can clearly see that he’s one of the most ball-dominant players in the league. There’s also a noticeable discrepancy between his rank in total assists and his rank in actual assist rate.

  • Almost all ball-dominant high-usage point guards have seen high assist totals regardless of passing ability: Allen Iverson (7.9 AST/G), Derrick Rose (7.9), Stephon Marbury (8.9), Gary Payton (9.0), Steve Francis (7.0), Calvin Murphy (7.4), Nick Van Exel (9.0), Baron Davis (8.9), Sam Cassell (9.0), Tim Hardaway (10.6)

4. The Thunder are not a very good passing team

  • The Thunder are 15th in the league right now in terms of overall assists, or just about average. There were one of the worst last year, though, so this may change over time (post-season note: the Thunder finished 21st in assists in 2013)
  • Average to below-average team passing means that ball-dominant players will see even more return in terms of assist totals

5. Westbrook’s assists are not doing anything great for his team’s offense

Here are Russell Westbrook’s on court/off court numbers (team):

Offense: Pts per 100 Poss.

114.7

112.1

+2.6

Assisted Field Goals

58%

61%

-3%

Effective FG%

52.3%

53.0%

-0.7%

Now compare Russ’ numbers to those of an underrated passer and point guard, Steph Curry:

Offense: Pts per 100 Poss.

109.3

102.8

+6.6

Assisted Field Goals

60%

55%

+5%

Effective FG%

50.9%

46.9%

+4.0%

As we can see, when Westbrook leaves the court, his team actually accumulates more assists, and even converts shots at a more efficient rate. His team sees a slight offensive decline overall, but this seems to be from the scoring he provides (rather than passing). This all despite the fact that his replacement in Eric Maynor clearly falls short of being a great playmaker.

A player like Curry, who is less ball-dominant, doesn’t record as many assists. But when he sits, his team doesn’t pass nearly as well, shoot nearly as well, or score as efficiently overall. This suggests that not only are all aspects of his game more heavily relied upon, despite his 6.5 or assists per game, Curry’s passing is more meaningful to his team’s offense. While Westbrook connects with teammates, Curry creates for teammates.

Here are two more ball-dominant point guards, Rajon Rondo:

Offense: Pts per 100 Poss.

104.3

102.5

+1.8

Assisted Field Goals

65%

57%

+8%

Effective FG%

50.8%

48.4%

+2.4%

and Chris Paul:

Offense: Pts per 100 Poss.

114.8

105.2

+9.6

Assisted Field Goals

63%

56%

+7%

Effective FG%

52.9%

51.1%

+1.8%

And once again, Paul’s and Rondo’s teams fare much worse than Westbrook’s when they leave the court.

We have one thing left to consider, and that’s that there is a bit of an argument in Russell’s favor. Part of what makes the Thunder an elite offensive team is the fact that they get to the line so frequently, and with this, some chances for assists are eliminated. I went ahead and calculated how this could affect Westbrook individual averages:

Thunder FTA/FGA average: .349

Thunder Total FTA/FGA: 824/2358

League FTA/FGA average: .273

League Total FTA/FGA: 683/2499

Russell’s Assist-Per-FGA average: .1103

Russell’s Projected AST/G if Thunder shot average amount of FGA: 9.19

A noticeable increase. But – given what the other stats suggest, this does not change much in terms how we interpret his passing value: his team passes and shoots better with him off the court; Westbrook is still surrounded by offensively-able players who play within the offense to a ridiculous degree – running off screens, popping out for jumpers, and making plenty of cuts; Westbrook is still one of the most ball-dominant point guards in history, and such players always incur high assist totals; most importantly of all, perhaps, is the fact that Westbrook’s passing does not exactly shine when given the eye test – he does alright at finding the open man, but does not have spectacular vision nor hook up with an improbable receiver very often. He often connects with his passes instead of creates. His quick passes have a tendency to fly out of bounds, and he simply cannot compete with the pinpoint passing of Rondo, Paul, or Nash.

Russell Westbrook acts as these things: A top-ten all-time NBA athlete, a world-class man defender at the point guard position, a great slasher, a fellow with nice shooting mechanics, a good post up player, an overly-enthusiastic celebrator, a great scorer, and overall, a top fifteen player in the league.

But what he does not embody is a great passer, and his assist averages are not going to change that.

Statistics from 82games.com, Basketball-Reference.com, and HoopData.com.

About Keeper Of The Court

KOTC is from the team-less city of Seattle, Washington. He is currently exploring the East Asian side of the world while living in Japan, but basketball never fails to occupy his mind. ESPN TrueHoop's Truth About It, Hickory-High, HOOP Magazine (JP), and @KeeperOTCourt (Twitter) are other places to find his thoughts on the NBA.
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