Recently the Voice of the Utah Jazz, David Locke, took a look at some “what correlates to winning?” statistics at Locked On Jazz. Noticeably absent was any reference to moving the ball, or assists, a huge part of the offenses run in Utah for decades now. Feeling like this was an oversight, I asked Locke about the lack of inclusion of the category in the post, to which he responded, “I will do assists, it has no correlation at all.”
I couldn’t disagree more. My eyeballs were telling me a different story, so I grabbed my shovel and went digging.
Note: Most stats collected are through December 22, 2012
Before we delve into the numbers aspect of this particular topic, I think it’s important to note a few things, firstly, that the Jazz lack the talent to compete one-on-one in many isolation matchup situations against the elite players and teams, making ball movement a critical part of a successful offense that leads to wins. The Jazz aren’t alone in this. Other such teams that lack that superstar iso player(s) are teams like the Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, and true contender Memphis Grizzlies.
Teams like these often have to move the ball and bodies more to beat defenses, where they lack isolation offense stand-outs. Having a big man who can pass is a boon to success, especially in today’s NBA where most big men don’t do it anymore — big man dimes have been steadily declining over the last decade, once a staple of NBA offenses. Two of this season’s most successful teams, the Grizzlies and Warriors, both have point guards averaging under 6.5 assists per game, but both also boast two of the elite big man passers of today in Marc Gasol, averaging 3.9 assists per game, and David Lee, who is dropping 3.8 dimes per game. 3.0 assists per game is considered an elite passing level for a big man.
11 of the 16 teams currently in playoff position are in the top half of the NBA in assists per game and assist rate — a figure that adjusts for pace of play and can be found at HoopData. Nine of the NBA’s 16 playoff positioned teams are in the top third of the league for assists per game. Six the NBA’s top nine teams by record this season, two-thirds, find themselves in the top nine in the league for assists per game.
Secondly, the Utah Jazz run a system based on Jerry Sloan’s flex offense with lots of UCLA cuts, systems predicated on player and ball movement, focusing on passing first that results in a high number of assists, often easy looks at the rim, if executed properly. If the Jazz aren’t running the offense as directed, they aren’t winning many ball games with their talent level, especially against the upper-echelon teams that thrive in isolation. Simply put, if the Jazz aren’t accruing assists, there won’t be much winning to correlate to at all.
• Through their first 28 games this season, in wins the Jazz average 24.3 assists per game. This would represent an average good enough for 2nd in the NBA in assists
• Through their first 28 games this season, in losses the Jazz average only 20.9 assists per game. This would represent an average good enough for only 20th in the NBA in assists
• After the Jazz’s four-game winning streak from December 5th-12th, culminating in a win over then top team San Antonio Spurs, a game in which the Jazz won the assists battle 27 to 18, Utah found itself 5th in the NBA in assists per game, a four-game stretch where they averaged 25.5 assists per game. They have since won only two of the last six and fallen to 10th in the NBA in assists per game, averaging only 19.3 assists per game*
• Through their first 28 games, the Jazz have won the assists battle with their opponent 14 times, lost the assists battle 14 times, and come up even one time, against the Washington Wizards
Locke wanted me to make sure that I wasn’t just looking at assists in the manner that they lead to field goals, because obviously making more field goals is a big factor in the correlation to winning. To that end, I looked at assisted baskets versus made field goals in all Jazz wins and losses through their first 28 games.
• In wins, the Jazz average assisted baskets on 64.1% of their made field goals
• In losses, the Jazz average assisted baskets on 58.3% of their made field goals
That rather slim margin in itself doesn’t seem to make much of a difference between winning and losing, especially with the Jazz playing around .500 basketball all season long. But an interesting thing emerges when we split the difference between winning and losing on assisted baskets at 61.2%.
• When the Jazz average assisted baskets is under 61.2% for a game they are 6-10
• When the Jazz average assisted baskets is greater than 61.2% they are 8-4
Maybe to many of the elite or playoff teams in the NBA assists matter less, when we take into consideration the extreme isolation play talent level and the drop-off from the top handful of players to the mid-level talents that largely inhabit the middle realms of the vast majority of teams. But to a team like the Utah Jazz, who run a system predicated on passing with a roster full of talent that can scarcely be differentiated from one another, top to bottom in talent level, assists most certainly do correlate to winning or not.
• When the Jazz have the same or more assists than their opponent they are 11-4 on the season
• When the Jazz have less assists than their opponent they are 4-10 on the season*
*Through all 29 games