How Important is Passing?

July 24th, 2014 | by Denim Millward
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Being that most of you are all supporters of the former team of the NBA all-time assists leader and one of the greatest passers in history, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you know a thing or two about passing.

Passing, unselfishness and ball movement are some of the first aspects of the game youth league coaches make every effort to hammer home; a mantra that is repeated ad nauseum at every level of competitive basketball.  With the natural inclination to ballhog that seemingly exists within each and every one of us early on, it certainly makes sense.

In high school and college basketball, crisp passing and quick ball movement can go a long way to even the odds against teams with superior athleticism or talent, but in the NBA where the cream of the crop has been plucked from college and international play, does it still matter?

Of course it does.  But to what extent?

Prior to beginning research on this post, I hypothesized that there was a distinct correlation between team passing proficiency (measured by total number of assists in a season) and playoff appearances.  While an analysis of the past five seasons didn’t bear out as strong of a link as I would’ve guessed, it did point out a number of interesting things.  Over the past five years, an average of about 10 of the 16 playoff teams have been in the top half of the league in assists.  More interesting was a quick perusal of the playoff teams during that span who were well below league average in assists yet still made the playoffs.  Among teams that made the finals in the past five years, six have been top ten in assists.   Almost without exception, the teams closer to the bottom of the league in assists had either excellent defensive numbers (Memphis), one or more players who were very good to great in isolation and able to create their own shot with ease (Oklahoma City), or some combination of the two (Indiana).  While not being a better-than-average team in the league assist-wise certainly wasn’t a death knell to a team’s playoff chances, it certainly had to be made up for in spades in other areas.  The lower a playoff team ranked in assists, the demonstrably better they were in other areas.  Conversely, for any team devoid of a Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook that also didn’t have the defensive prowess of Tony Allen and Marc Gasol on which they could rely, good to great assist numbers were almost always present when such a team overachieved and snagged a playoff spot.

Passing proficiency and importance cannot be measured by assist numbers alone.  Even on plays which will almost certainly not add another assist to the box score, passing can be critical.  For example, let us hearken back to the days of the Jazz offense running through Big Al in the low post.  Good ball movement prior to the entry pass made it significantly harder for defenses to cheat over towards Jefferson in preparation for a troublesome double team.  After Jefferson got position on his defender, delivering an on-target entry pass was crucial.  An errant pass could knocked away or cause Big Al to lose his position, which subsequently could result in a much lower-percentage shot being taken if not a totally busted play.

The new Quin Snyder-led Jazz regime understands how crucial being an excellent passing team is, a fact clearly indicated by the immediate emphasis placed on passing and ball movement.  Deseret News beat writer Jody Genessy eloquently detailed this new emphasis in an article posted July 19.  Snyder’s quote from this article regarding passing eloquently yet succinctly sums up his “play with a pass” philosophy.

Just the idea of the ball movement. If you run 100 feet and I pass 100 feet, I’m going to win. The ball moves faster than people’s feet,” Snyder explained. “When you play with a pass, hopefully it keeps the defense guessing and on the move.”  This emphasis on passing can potentially add a tremendous amount of synergy when combined with the lack of a bona fide number one scoring option, as well as the ability to play Dante Exum and Trey Burke together  in the back court.

A laser-like focus on precise and quick ball movement, while smart for any NBA team, certainly seems like the best way to go with a young and balanced team like the Jazz.

Denim Millward

Denim Millward

Denim Millward, before SCH, wrote for Bleacher Report about the Jazz and the NBA. Despite this, he is actually a good writer, and we promise we will eschew the slideshow format on this site. He also contributes to The Color Commentator Magazine, and strangely, likes wrestling.
Denim Millward
Denim Millward

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One Comment

  1. LKA says:

    Stockton is and will always be the all time assist leader in the NBA.It was a thing of beauty to watch hi “thread the needle.” “Stockton to Malone” is as famous as “bread and butter”, salt and pepper”, “Ham and Swiss on Rye.. Our famous “Duo” it seems had eyes in the back and side of their head. They always know where each were and when the pass was coming. It was automatic and yet still always on the money. Having a combination of Burke, Burks, Hayward, Exum on the court the defense will not know where and how the ball will be comming. It will be fun to watch..

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