The Kobe Assist
Kirk Goldsberry [ARCHIVE]
December 6, 2012
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Late in the second quarter of the Kings and Lakers game on October 21, something ordinary but deceptively important happened. With the Lakers in their half-court set, Dwight Howard set one of his monstrous picks along the right wing to free up Steve Nash, who has led the NBA in assists six of the last eight seasons.

Nash used the screen to get past Isaiah Thomas and head toward the right corner; he took one dribble with his right hand toward the corner, switched directions, employed a crossover, and by the time his second dribble arrived back up in his left hand he'd landed near the right elbow with the Kings defense collapsing upon him. He recognized this immediately and launched a beautiful left-handed pass in midstream to the left wing, where Kobe Bryant awaited. Kobe was wide-open; he caught the ball and shot without hesitation. He missed, and despite the great screen by Howard and the great playmaking by Nash, this beautiful basketball sequence was seemingly fruitless. Nash would not get his assist.

However, while Nash was busy playmaking and while Kobe was busy jump shooting, Dwight Howard had taken about seven steps toward his happy place — the restricted area — fought off the gigantic DeMarcus Cousins, and gained optimal rebounding position. Kobe's miss ricocheted upward from the rim before descending back down into the hands of Howard, who quickly put the ball in the basket; the Staples crowd went wild (in the dark). Did Kobe just miss a shot or did he just inadvertently set up Dwight Howard for an easy score? Are some of Kobe's missed shots actually good for the Lakers? Are some of his misses kind of like assists?

Basketball is a game of sequences. Unlike baseball or football, it is a relatively continuous free-flowing sport. The actions within a game are hard to separate because they are chronologically intertwined, and every event in every game is influenced in part by preceding sequences of actions. Every game is its own ecosystem characterized by teamwork, athleticism, and frequent episodes of magnificence. But the same things that make basketball so captivating to watch also make it more difficult to measure and to analyze.

Most basketball statistics refer to discrete events such as shots, steals, and rebounds that occur within the continuous context of a flowing game. Basketball is very different from baseball, but in the basketball analytics world, too often we treat our sport as if it were baseball; we kid ourselves and say a rebound or a corner 3 is akin to a strikeout or a home run, a singular accomplishment achieved by a player that's fit for tallying and displaying in a cell on some spreadsheet on some website.

But, unfortunately, it's not that simple. In reality we all know crediting a wide-open corner 3 solely to Matt Bonner, Kawhi Leonard, or Danny Green is akin to giving Javier Bardem sole credit for No Country for Old Men. Bonner, Leonard, and Green get great looks because of the splendidly directed, infinitely complex ecosystem that is the San Antonio Spurs offense. Over the last two seasons Matt Bonner has made 210 out of 480 3-point attempts (44 percent), which is incredible. However, how would these numbers differ if he played for the Wizards? Corner 3s are more like touchdowns than they are like strikeouts. They are punctuation marks at the end of complex strategic sentences. We may be really good at tallying those punctuation marks, but we are not so good at diagramming or even understanding those sentences; within our box scores and spreadsheets we are failing to give credit where it is due.

Just as the theoretical butterfly flapping its wings in Rio somehow influences the formation of a faraway hurricane, basketball outcomes exhibit sensitive dependence on previous environmental conditions, yet the analytical "baseball-ification" of our fluid sport too often neglects this basic tenet of basketball ecology. We disregard too much environmental context. As an illustration of how this baseball-ification of basketball ecology can hinder our understanding, consider the Kobe Assist, those missed shots that are more like accidental passes that lead to put-backs.

Jump shooters are the butterflies of the NBA, and each time a shooter releases a shot, a fascinating sequence begins to unfold. Depending on who is shooting, where on the court they are shooting from, the stratagems of each team, the rebounding abilities of each player, and the precise spatial configuration of the 10 players on the court, shot outcomes vary considerably. On the imaginary road map to a shot's outcome, the first fork in the road is the most important: Did the shot go in, or did it not go in? This is a vital and obvious thing to measure, and we do this pretty well with things like field goal attempts, field goals made, and field goal percentage. However, a shot's story arc does not begin at its release nor does it always end at the hoop. What happens after a missed shot is very important and directly related to the same set of environmental conditions on the floor that provided both the original context for the shot and the influential factors that determine what happens next. Conventional basketball metrics segment continuity too much. We quarantine the chicken from the egg; we divvy basketball events so much that we ignore obvious relationships between shooting environments and shot outcomes.

Missed shots are kind of like informal jump balls that happen dozens of times per game. Instead of a referee gently tossing the ball up in the air, some random ricochet off of the basket breaks the bad news to the offense, propels the ball skyward, and for a few moments the ball is disowned and its possession is literally up for grabs. But just like shot outcomes, rebounding outcomes also depend on who is shooting, where they are shooting from, the stratagems of each team, the rebounding abilities of each player, and the precise spatial configuration of the 10 players on the court; as a result, there is a less apparent tenet of basketball: All missed shots are not created equal, and their DNA is inherently dependent upon their ancestral events — some missed shots are good for the defensive team, and some benefit the offense, as many misses actually extend offensive possessions with the proverbial "fresh 24."

This is where the Kobe Pass — a necessary predecessor to the Kobe Assist — comes into play. I define the Kobe Pass as the missed shot that begets an offensive rebound and thus extends an offensive possession. Of course, offensive rebounds are an important statistic on their own, but sole credit for an offensive rebound is traditionally awarded to the player who acquires the rebound. Little else is considered. We conceptualize them as destinations but ignore their origins. Where do offensive rebounds come from?

Offensive rebounds are constructive...
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