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Blazers Average Fewest Assists in the NBA. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Matter.

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The Blazers are last in the league in assists by a wide margin. But Eric Griffith digs into the numbers and finds some data that should assuage any fears.

NBA: Miami Heat at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers have won 10 consecutive games for the first time since Nov., 2013 and are odds-on favorites to head into the playoffs with home court advantage! Success! Paradoxically, they’re also last place in the NBA in assists per game (19.2) and assist percentage (49.3).

It’s not just that the Blazers are in last places in assists — they are so far behind they have nearly become outliers. The 1.9 assists per game gap between Portland and the second-to-last team, the Thunder, is equivalent to the gap between the Thunder and the No. 12 Brooklyn Nets. Suffice to say, the Blazers do not move the ball a lot.

Given the presumed importance of passing to modern NBA offenses, how are the Blazers still thriving? Shouldn’t a team with the No. 14 offense and fifth best record in the NBA be better than hopelessly last place in assists?

Maybe not!

Assists Are Less Important Than You Think

Take a look at this graph charting assists per 100 possessions against offensive rating for this season (stats courtesy of Basketball Reference):

Visual examination of the chart reveals that the Warriors seem to be significant outliers (16 percent deviation from nearest team on assists per 100 possessions and no other team deviates by even seven percent from nearest), but otherwise no clear trends emerge. This suggests that assists per 100 possessions does not correlate with offensive rating (stats: r = 0.155, p = 0.422, after removing the outlier).

In other words, so far this season, generating more assists has not led to more successful offense for NBA teams.

Here’s the chart from last year to further examine the trend:

Again, the Warriors are a clear outlier and the other teams are mostly clustered together. There does seem to be a group of teams that average more assists and also have some of the best offenses — look at the cluster in the upper right.

As that cluster suggests, the stats bear out a weak trend here (r = 0.342, p = 0.069, outlier removed), implying that last season averaging more assists may have slightly helped offenses. That trend disappears again if the 2015-2016 season is considered (graph not included, r = 0.290, p = 0.128).

Overall, the data from the last three seasons suggest that averaging more assists can have a slightly positive effect on the offense, at best, and may have no effect on the offense at all. Unless your team has Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant suiting up, of course.

This is good news for the Blazers — it shows that the lack of assists has not significantly hampered their offense.

Assist Conversion Could Improve

The lack of assists does not necessarily appear to be hurting the Blazers, and the team has not excelled in this category since LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure, but it is still somewhat concerning that Portland currently has the No. 14 offense in the league — a Stotts-coached team hasn’t been this inefficient since the 33-win 2013 Blazers.

Closer examination of how often the Blazers are converting on assist opportunities suggests a path of possible improvement. The NBA tracks “potential assists,” which include completed assists and also instances in which a player misses a shot immediately after receiving a pass. With that information, it’s possible to calculate how frequently teams are missing shots after passes:

The Blazers are one of only five teams converting on fewer than half of their assist opportunities this season. There are many possible explanations for this — Portland’s poor shooters could be taking many shots, the passers could be delivering the ball poorly, players could be forcing up shots, etc.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Blazers are getting less out of their shots immediately following passes than almost any other team in the league. For a team with a mediocre offense, improving that aspect of the game offers an opportunity to increase scoring efficiency “for free,” even if assists don’t strictly correlate with good offense.

Hidden Highlights!

Lillard and Nurkic Overwhelm the Heat

Damian Lillard spent much of last night’s game feasting on the Heat’s poor pick and roll defense in Portland’s 115-99 victory over the Heat.

The ease with which Lillard both scored and created plays was on display on back to back possessions in the third quarter. On this play, Bam Adebayo inexplicably stays back in the paint, leaving Lillard wide open for a 3-pointer.

Gotta watch out for that Al-Farouq Aminu roll to the bucket, I guess.

On the next play, the Heat adjusted and trapped Lillard hard, but he immediately found Nurkic rolling to the bucket. Nurk completed the easy score over slow-to-rotate Goran Dragic.

Lillard’s immediate recognition and pass on this play, coupled with Nurkic’s unusually (for this season) smooth move around the basket were beautiful to watch. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was forced into an immediate timeout.

Teams that play poor pick and roll defense are going to have little chance against the Blazers if Lillard and Nurkic continue playing this well together.

Evan Turner Saves a Broken Play

I’m not sure what’s going on with this play, but I’m guessing Aminu driving to the hoop with Nurkic standing in the lane was not part of the plan.

Evan Turner has drawn a lot of criticism this season, but he deserves credit for his ability to fix broken plays. Many of the Blazers players have trouble when the Stottsfense starts to break down, but Turner can often find an open pass, or segue into a post-up opportunity, and find a good scoring opportunity out of an otherwise broken possession. This ability was on peak display here as he immediately hits Nurk with a touch pass for an easy score.

Silliest Touch Foul Ever

Of course, ET isn’t perfect. Friend of Blazer’s Edge Dan Carbaugh noticed Turner committing one of the sillier fouls of the season against the Heat:

But silly fouls are pretty easy to forgive when you’re riding a double digit win steak.