A meditation on The Warriors and the secondary assist
If you’ve been reading this newsletter, you know that when it comes to basketball I’m kind of obsessed with ball movement. I’m fixated on the speed with which players make decisions. I hold it to be a tenet of the true religion that each pass thrown creates a minuscule advantage for the offense over the defense and that this advantage, followed up over and over again, can be overwhelming.
Of course, as a nerd, I’m also interested in our fumbling capacity for measuring this kind of thing. On the one hand, there are stats: passes thrown per possession, for example, or even something as crude and meaningless as the assist. How do you measure grace though? Where do you even begin? What I would like is for there to exist some sort of tool—something like a geiger counter—that fizzles and bops and provides a number that tells me the degree to which, emotionally speaking, the ball is flying around.
It doesn’t exist though, so I’m left to mess around with what I’ve got. This morning I found myself glancing, as I often do, at the tracking data on NBA.com’s stats page. What jumped out at me was the numbers for secondary assists. A secondary assist—also known as a hockey assist—is basically the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the made shot. It is, of course, an imperfect bucket to put passes into, but then again so is the assist. If a team is getting a lot of secondary assists, it stands to reason that they might be moving the ball well.
That said, this season NBA teams are throwing between 260 and 320 passes per game, and almost the entire league is averaging somewhere between two and four secondary assists per game, so it’s not exactly describing a huge percentage of passes or even a huge percentage of assists. There is one team, though, that’s an outlier, and that team is the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors are averaging 5.5 secondary assists per game. That’s a significant amount more than the second place Charlotte Hornets at 4.0. The difference between the first place Warriors and the second place Hornets is the same as the difference between the Hornets and the 25th place Sacramento Kings. The Warriors almost always lead the league in this stat (at least, since it started being tracked in 2013–14), but the previous highest total in the entire database was the 4.7 per game the Warriors averaged in 2017–18. Basically, 5.5 per game is an outrageous, unprecedented number, so that’s got to mean something.
Let me pause for a minute. It is important to note that secondary assists don’t fully account for the overall concept of ball movement that I’m trying to get at. I want to count tertiary assists. I want to count quaternary assists. I want to measure the feeling in the blood that a team has when the ball is hopping. I can’t do any of that shit though, so I’m stuck looking at this 5.5 per game and doing a kind of prayer at it. I’m meditating and imagining.
At some point between the time Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors years ago and the middle of last season, I think we all—I mean, the wide community of NBA discourse—basically came to the conclusion that Stephen Curry and Draymond Green were, as the saying goes, past their primes. There was evidence for this. Curry missed all but five games in the 2019–20 season, Draymond Green lost his ability to shoot, etc. The days of the Death Lineup Warriors seemed to be far in the distant past. This decline fell right in line with our expectations about aging. Steph and Draymond are now into their 30s. A decline would be expected.
Last season, when the Warriors were struggling to score points that weren’t directly created by Steph Curry, there was a lot of critique around coach Steve Kerr’s system. Why try to play this beautiful ball movement game? Just run an endless series of screen-and-roll with Steph—basically an ideal basketball play. Kerr resisted this, and this season, so far, has been a wild vindication of his methods. Not only are Steph and Draymond not past their primes, it’s possible to argue they’ve never played better.
5.5 secondary assists per game is meaningless in a lot of ways, but in the absurd degree to which is it an outlier from the rest of the league there is a lot of meaning. To watch a Warriors game right now is to watch a totally different sport than any other team is playing. The Warriors play with a relentless hum no other team can match. It’s not just that the ball is moving at all times; it is that everything is moving. Players are moving off the ball relentlessly. Players are cutting relentlessly. At the vortex of all this, Steph and Draymond are noticing everything. It’s not just that everything is moving, it is that everything is being interpreted, and processed, and acted-upon instinctually. The Warriors have practiced improvisation to the point that it is their primary language. It is their baseline method of communication. Simple actions that other players on other teams have to decide to do, the Warriors just do. There is no pause, so there is no real defense for it. The defense is a container full of holes at the bottom of the sea, and the Warriors are the ocean. The Warriors are the flood.
There are, of course, more efficient ways of doing things. The Utah Jazz actually are scoring more points per possession than the Warriors this season. There are teams that play better in transition than the Warriors; there are teams that play better in the screen-and-roll. You could list all kinds of individual situations. The Warriors turn the ball over way, way too often. Draymond Green, in fact, turns the ball over an absolutely hilarious 30 times per 100 plays according to the estimate of Basketball Reference, and it has become sort of a winking joke in the NBA community that the turnovers are the price the Warriors pay for their improvisational brilliance. Wink at it all you want: it is just true. You can’t really argue with the results. If you keep the machine humming at all times, there will be mistakes. Lots of them. But there will be fringe benefits, too.
For example: when you watch a Warriors game, inevitably, there will be a moment where some player—say, Juan Toscano-Anderson—who would not be given the opportunity to handle the ball or make any decisions on most NBA teams makes wonderful play. For example:
On most teams, Toscano-Anderson’s responsibility here would be to swing the ball back to Curry at the top of the key. He’d have reads he was responsible for making, habits learned and repeated. The habits he’s learned with the Warriors are more wild. JTA doesn’t even consider passing the ball to Steph here. Isn’t that great? He’s given the opportunity to attack when there’s room to attack. If he thinks for even a millisecond here, the advantage will be gone, and he’s not really a skilled enough player to create something out of nothing. The Warriors—Steph, and Draymond, and Kerr—have empowered him to make this play. The way they play is what empowers that. A bucket is a bucket, and it doesn’t matter who gets it.
It would be my assertion, also, that this is part of why the Warriors have played such elite defense over the past decade and especially this season. It’s wild to consider the fact that the Warriors defense is even better than their offense. The unequaled level of involvement and subsequent investment the players on the Warriors have is a direct result of the fact that they are given the freedom to play with their hearts and their souls. If they turn the ball over too much—and Toscano-Anderson absolutely does—that seems like an incredibly small price to pay. While we sit here trying to measure it, we are drowning. It’s fun to float.