Season Preview: The Importance of Passing



Note: Starting my season-preview stuff with a series of posts on individual players and topics leading up to next week's season-preview piece in the print edition of the Flyer.

Lionel Hollins and his coaching staff will be challenged to makes the parts fit offensively, but they have plenty to work with.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Lionel Hollins and his coaching staff will be challenged to makes the parts fit offensively, but they have plenty to work with. made its Western Conference predictions today and, unsurprisingly, the Grizzlies didn't grade out very well, with a consensus prediction of 13th out of 15 teams in the West.

Two of the panel (John Hollinger and David Thorpe) referenced the Grizzlies' assist problems in their notes, and the potential of new additions Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson to only exacerbate the problem.

This is also not surprising, as passing and assists have been a constant topic of concern around this team, and for good reason: The Grizzlies were dead last in assist ratio among NBA teams last season, and it wasn't even close.

O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay both spent a lot of time going one-on-one last season, and Randolph and Iverson both have a long track record of being high-volume shooters who create a lot of their own shots. Can you really incorporate four players like this into a functioning offense?

But, still, the focus on passing and assists seems to miss the point a little bit. The goal of a basketball offense isn't to generate assists. It's to score points. Passing and assists are only meaningful to the degree that they facilitate scoring. (Though you could argue that this facet of the game has a secondary importance in reflecting and promoting team chemistry.) It's sort of like talking about a baseball team's batting average — the goal isn't to have a good batting average but to score runs, though a good batting average is typically an important component to run production.

Which begs the question: Do you need to be a high-assist team in order to have a good offense?

The Grizzlies need Zach Randolph to create his own shot, but especially off his own offensive rebounds.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Grizzlies need Zach Randolph to create his own shot, but especially off his own offensive rebounds.
If you stack last season's Offensive Efficiency (points per possession) standings up against the Assist Ratio (percentage of possessions ending in an assist) standings, you can see a correlation. There was certainly one for the Grizzlies, who finished 28th offensively, only slightly overcoming their low assists.

But there are also lots of exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. Portland (2nd offensively, 13th in assists), Orlando (8th and 26th), and Golden State (11th, 27th) were all far better offensively than their assist numbers indicated. Meanwhile, Toronto (22nd offensively, third in assists), Milwaukee (24th and 9th), and Charlotte (27th and 11th) were mediocre-to-bad offenses that generated good assist numbers.

Sometimes, it seems, a team generates a lot of assisted baskets in part because it isn't talented enough to generate enough unassisted baskets, while a team with really talented scorers can have an explosive offense even without looking like something from Hoosiers.

A classic, if extreme, example of this is the 2005-2006 Dallas Mavericks, who made it all the way to the NBA Finals with an explosive offense that featured relatively little assist-generating passing. From John Hollinger's season preview the next season:

I mentioned above that the Mavs had the league's second-best offense. What I didn't mention was what a weird offense it was. The Mavs were a purist's nightmare, running what was unquestionably the most one-on-one oriented system in basketball.

2005-06 Lowest Team Assist Rates
Team Assisted FG%
Dallas 50.0
Washington 51.2
Orlando 51.4
New York 52.0
Toronto 52.9
NBA Avg. 57.5

Most of their plays either began or ended with a clear-out, whether for Nowitzki at the top of the circle, Stackhouse or Howard off the wings, or a screen-and-roll play for Terry which, in practice, was more like "screen and shoot." Dallas had the lowest rate of assisted baskets in the NBA, teaming up on just 50 percent of the team's field goals.

That Mavericks team, with its effective isolation offense, could be something of a model for the Grizzlies. True, that was a veteran team filled with scoring threats led by a unique elite scorer (Nowitzki) in his prime, an array of offensive talent this year's Grizzlies can't match. But we aren't talking about going to the Finals, we're talking about trying to win 40 games.

The Grizzlies do need to improve on their dire assist numbers from last season, something that has been a focus throughout training camp, but no one should expect this collection of talent to morph into the 1986 Celtics in terms of team play no matter how hard they work at it. But one thing this team does have is plenty of talented individual scorers, so the Grizzlies need to improve their offensive effectiveness beyond their ability to improve their assists.

Rudy Gay doesnt need to put up big assist numbers, he just needs to limit bad shots and defer to teammates more.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Rudy Gay doesn't need to put up big assist numbers, he just needs to limit bad shots and defer to teammates more.
What the Grizzlies really need is better shot selection, and that can be improved in ways that aren't reflected in assists. Unselfishness isn't just about setting up a teammate, it's about recognizing when a teammate has a better match-up and deferring to him rather than forcing a shot against a double-team (talking to you, Zach and Rudy). That's how a isolation-oriented offense can be effective — by having lots of good scorers willing to defer to each other by recognizing good shots, going with the hot hand, or playing match-ups.

For the Grizzlies, this means having the team's four primary scorers — Gay, Mayo, Randolph, and Iverson — make small adjustments, having secondary scorers (chiefly Marc Gasol and Mike Conley) be willing to take on lesser roles, and having the coaching staff use the personnel well.

While those primary scorers are known as shot creators, most of them can still be offensive threats without dominating the ball. Randolph has shown in the preseason that he can get several shots a game off his own offensive rebounds. Mayo can flourish in catch-and-shoot situations. Gay is a catch-and-shoot threat, but is even better as a catch-and-dunk threat. Of the core group of scorers, only Iverson is truly dependent on dominating the ball to create shots. If his minutes are maximized in lineups filled with offensively deferential players, such as the team's three rookies — Hasheem Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll, and Sam Young — then Iverson could still be a ball-dominating, high-volume shooter in a context that could actually be beneficial to the team. (Remember, one reason the team was so bad offensively last season was the dearth of scoring punch among the reserve perimeter players.)

If Lionel Hollins and the rest of the coaching staff can find a good blend of offense and defense throughout the team's rotations and can get the team's core players to just make small offensive adjustments to their individual games, the Grizzlies can be dramatically better offensive team this season, even if that improvement isn't fully captured by the team's assist numbers.

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