NBA Assists Ain’t What They Use To Be

Nikola Jokic and NBA Assists

Nikola Jokic produced the fastest Triple Double in history. Graphic & Photo courtesy ESPN.

The game of basketball is constantly evolving in terms of rules, game strategy and the skill-sets / physical attributes the players bring to the court. This means you’re never far away from reading an article or online debate about whether ‘Old Skool’ NBA was better than today’s game. The simple answer? It’s like comparing apples and oranges – it just can’t be done objectively. Every era has its own hardwood legends and each style of ball has its own pros and cons, but at the end of the day it’s still the game we all love – Basketball Is Life!

Now, I’m sure if you’ve ever watched a game or laced up some kicks, then you’d probably know an assist is awarded to a player who ‘passes the basketball to a teammate in a way that leads to a bucket’. Essentially, the last player’s pass must have contributed directly to a made basket.

The keyword here is leads to a bucket!  Somewhere along the way this word may have been removed from the statistician’s vocabulary as now you simply need to be the last guy who touched the ball before someone scores.

While this might not sound like a big deal, it does have an impact on the game in a broader sense. Players sign lucrative contracts and sponsorship deals based on how big a name they are in the world of basketball. If a player can average 20+ points and 10+ assists per game, instead of 20 and 5, it can translate to more headlines and potential revenue for the franchise, player and sponsors.

A prime example of this in relation to the NBA is Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double last season. You couldn’t flick through your social media feed without seeing a Westbrook headline, despite Oklahoma City never being contenders. It makes sense for a team (especially a small-market franchise sans-superstar player) to want to achieve eye-catching headlines with manufactured triple-doubles, in order to stay relevant and visible in today’s information saturated media streams. It’s understandable that teams strive for huge stats and headlines to get their product noticed, even when a team is rooted to the bottom of the standings.

NBA Assists Can Get a Bit Murky

However, the reason the assist is the only statistic in question is because it is the one statistic in the game of basketball that is most open to interpretation. Any other statistic, be it rebounds, blocks, FG% or steals, are fairly obvious when they occur and there is a significantly reduced grey area around them being awarded. Assists on the other hand aren’t so clear cut.

You may have read the stories of NBA GM’s approaching score tables in the 4th quarter and subtly (or flat-out demanding) that a particular player better get a triple-double if they’re close. Now I get it, with the general public having the attention span of a goldfish, NBA franchises are pushed to manufacture highlights and headlines. A small market team won’t get any coverage on ESPN SportsCenter if they lose, however assist (excuse the pun) the stat line and suddenly a nothing game is getting airplay. Another reason for padding stats (or a guard’s assists in particular), may be that a team can inflate a player’s trade value and get more in return for player who may be mediocre at best.

Whether it’s pushy management, home court advantage, a guy paid an average salary to do statistics or just a difference in opinion, I think it’s fair to say that an assist in the NBA today just ain’t what it used to be!

Now this is no slight on the players or their performances, but if you have a look at some of the below examples I’m sure you’ll agree that players are being awarded an assist for simply passing the ball to a teammate on the wing, who then squares up and breaks down his man with a move in order to get a bucket.

Nikola Jokic Records Fastest Ever Triple Double

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