The Los Angeles Lakers rank No. 3 in the NBA in assists per field goals made. Only the Hawks and Heat get more of their baskets off of assists. Some 65 percent of the Lakers' buckets this season have resulted from assists. That's up from 60 percent last season, which landed the Lakers at No. 17 in assists per field goal. Only the Heat have increased their assist rate more this season. Steve Blake is delivering lots of dimes (7.3 per game, 8.2 per 36), Jordan Farmar is getting plenty per minute (8.4 per 36) and Pau Gasol is facilitating well (3.9 per 36 minutes). The Lakers are doing a great job sharing the ball. We've always been told by the disembodied voices calling the game that this is important, that this is the route to good offense.
The Lakers rank No. 25 in offensive efficiency this season.
This is not a new phenomenon. For at least the last decade, data has suggested that the rate at which a team's field goals are assisted has little relationship to a team's shooting performance and no meaningful relationship to a team's overall offensive performance. The case held with last season's data: assist rate at the team level had a very small direct correlation with shooting percentage, but a stronger direct correlation with team turnover percentage. The overall impact on offense is negligible.
The real reason that the Lakers' assist percentage has shot up is that the team has been without one of the NBA's premier soloists: Kobe Bryant. Last season, only 33 percent of Kobe's made field goals were assisted. And, of course, he made far more field goals than any other Laker — he made 57 percent more than L.A.'s No. 2, Dwight Howard.
With that lower assist percentage, by the way, the Lakers' offense ranked No. 9 in the NBA.
This myth — that assists help offense — has one major ramification beyond the fetishization of point guard purity: it downplays the importance of shot creation in its other forms, which is the self-created shot. The important thing is getting high-percentage shots. Some of those are created by the pass. Some are created by single-player execution. The former tend to lead to more turnovers. That might mean that the latter are more important, though the data to determine that it's readily available. (There are also pretty big issues with determining what are high-percentage shots.)
The top five offenses in the NBA this season are, in order, the Heat, Clippers, Blazers, Hawks and Rockets. (The Hawks!) Those teams rank No. 2, 4, 16, 1 and 21 in assist percentage, respectively. There are many ways to crack the nut of offense. The Clippers do it with an elite point guard and great finishers (inside and out). The Heat do it with two wings who are among the best playmakers of their generation. (One is also the best player of his generation.) The Hawks do it with a heckuva lot of great passing. (Jeff Teague has been pretty phenomenal.) The Blazers do it with heavy doses of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Rockets do it with heavy doses of self-creation by James Harden and help from Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin.
The Thunder remain the keystone of sorts in this mystery. Russell Westbrook creates more shots than anyone in the NBA, for himself and teammates. Kevin Durant needs little help getting shots off. The team is a rising No. 10 in offense this season; it finished No. 1 last season with the No. 28 assist percentage in the NBA. It's the mirrored image of the current Lakers: scoring talent matters way more than whether your team shares the ball.
When Kobe returns in the coming days or weeks, the Lakers' assists per field goal rate will likely plummet. On this squad, Kobe is going to take 18 shots per game easy, maybe 20. (He peaked at 27 in 2005-06. My God.) Few of them will be assisted. Would you put the ball in Steve Blake's hands instead of Kobe's? Me neither. But if history is any indication, and if Bryant returns playing as well as he usually does, the Lakers' offense will be much better overall. A Kobe team isn't finishing No. 25 in the league in offense.
There's one more swerve in this discussion, though. Look at the most effective top creators in the league: Westbrook, Derrick Rose, LeBron, Kobe, Durant. All of them can pass. All of them pick up assists. It's a facet of their game inextricable from their self-creation. Without an ability to dish, defenses can more strongly key in on stopping them. The fact that LeBron is almost as dangerous passing the ball when he has a head of steam as he is going all the way to rim affects how the defense reads him. The same applies to the others. And a lot of those players the major creators are passing to — role players, most of them — need the assist because they struggle to create on their own.
This is why shot creation itself is a skill we need to measure. The presence of more assist opportunities doesn't necessarily help an offense. Assist opportunities from the right players — effective shot creators — and to the right players — good shooters — is what matters.