Passing is the New Pastime
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The Bucks played like they were taking lessons from a point guard this season.
At their best, they embodied their head coach by channeling Scott Skiles, the player – the player who still holds the NBA single-game record with 30 assists.
One season after finishing last in the league in assists, the Bucks refashioned their roster and emphasized not only ball movement, but also movement off the ball, from top to bottom, guards to centers. On Media Day before the 2011-12 season, Mike Dunleavy presciently noted the passing potential of his new team.
“It’s a good passing team, from small to big. Points to wings, the bigs can pass. I think it will be a fun style of play, the ball will be moving, sharing.”
But this goes far beyond simply passing and moving the ball. The Bucks very well might have ranked among the league leaders in sheer number of passes in 2010-11 – but too often the ball simply rotated around the perimeter for much of the shot clock, culminating in low-percentage attempts. Not coincidentally, the Bucks ranked last in the NBA in both field goal percentage and assists last season.
In a sudden offensive transformation, the Bucks sped up the pace and rarely fought the shot clock in 2011-12. Instead, they found higher percentage shots earlier in the shot clock and jumped all the way up to third in the league in assists. That placed them just ahead of the team with the best offensive efficiency in the NBA (Spurs) and the best team in the East (Bulls).
Remember the last time that the Bucks finished as high as third in the league in assists? If not, you are politely forgiven.
Only one current player on the Bucks was even born at the time – Dunleavy was looking forward to his first birthday. Tobias Harris was not born until 11 years later. There were 23 teams in the NBA back in 1980-81 when Don Nelson’s Bucks went 60-22, finishing third in assists and second in points. Quinn Buckner and Marques Johnson led six Bucks who averaged more than 3.0 assists that year.
Stat of the season: The Bucks dished out 1,550 assists this season, surpassing their 1,545 assists in 2010-11. That might not sound like a major increase – until you recall that the Bucks played 16 fewer games during this lockout-shortened season. It is safe to say that no other team came even close to managing this feat.
Not every basket is assisted in a basketball game, but most Bucks baskets were. In addition to ranking third in assists, the Bucks ranked second overall in percentage of field goals assisted. That means the Bucks did not play much one-on-one basketball. Instead, they moved off the ball, finding cutters and spot-up shooters.
Mike Dunleavy enjoyed one of the finest seasons of his career, but it was not without a little help from his friends. The sharpshooter ranked among the league leaders in field goals assisted on, at 83.3 %. Ersan Ilyasova (75.9 %) and Luc Mbah a Moute (70.7 %) also were assisted on the vast majority of their baskets, and both had their best offensive season yet. Of course, this goes both ways. The Bucks piled up a lot of those assists expressly because the likes of Dunleavy and Ilyasova shot the ball so well on perimeter catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Chris Paul’s Clippers registered 32+ assists twice this season. For four straight games in mid-March, the Bucks totaled 32+ assists each time on the court. To put that into further perspective, the Nuggets led the NBA averaging 24.0 assists this season. And the streak was hardly an anomaly. The Bucks reached 30+ assists in seven of nine games around that streak.
Of course, we would not pull these numbers if they were not meaningful within a context. The Bucks won all four games during the 32+ assist streak, and they went 7-2 during the referenced nine-game run. This marked the team’s best stretch of basketball.
This team knows how to pass. Just don’t forget, that includes the coach too.
No team notched more assists this season than when the Bucks dished out 38 dimes in a 115-105 win over the Cavaliers on March 14 in the same game that Drew Gooden notably collected a triple-double. The Bucks assisted on their first 15 baskets of that game. The team had reason to feel good about all of the assists this season. Reaching 30 assists in a game is impressive – the essence of a shared accomplishment. They reached 30 assists in 13 games this season, while their opponents only reached that number five times.
But the team could not get too carried away with those numbers, considering their coach once finished with 30 assists in a game – all by himself. One magical night in 1990, Skiles set an NBA record that he still holds today. In his second season with the Magic – and in the Magic’s second year of existence – Skiles played the Nuggets at Orlando Arena in front of a sold-out crowd of 15,077. But to the 26 year-old Skiles, he might as well just have been a kid playing ball outside.
“The game was like ones I played out on the asphalt when I was growing up. Denver was playing wild and crazy, and we were taking advantage of that by scoring on easy drives and dunks. It was like a layup drill at times. The Nuggets didn't contest many shots, and we opened a double-digit lead right away.”
Standing just 6’1” on a court of giants, Skiles still always saw the entire floor.
The Point Guards
“As a point guard, I thrived in a leadership role. It was my job to make things happen on the court. I always tried to do anything to help the team, including score, but my main job was to run the offense and get my teammates involved.”
As a coach, Skiles has a history of pairing multiple point guards on the floor at the same time. He did so with great success in 2009-10 by frequently playing rookie point guard Brandon Jennings together with veteran Luke Ridnour. In 2011-12, he started Jennings and Shaun Livingston 27 times in the same backcourt. And in the fourth quarter this season, he often paired Jennings with Beno Udrih. When those two point guards were on the floor at the same time, the team outscored their opponents by 92 points this season.
The team also played much faster this season, which Jennings also credited in part for the offensive revival.
"I think it's the fact we're running more than we did the first two years I've been here. There are not a lot of plays run, just a lot of ball movement."
But point guards were not the only players moving the ball for the Bucks. Jennings actually ranked fifth in the NBA in field goal attempts, and no one on the team ranked in the top 10 in the league in assists Jennings also shot more efficiently from the field than ever before, in part because his teammates helped set him up for baskets just as he helped set them up. Jennings played off the ball with success and was assisted on a career-high 38.7 % of his field goals.
Four Bucks set career highs in assists per game this season, and none of them were point guards, or even guards at all. In fact, they were all frontcourt players: Drew Gooden (2.3), Ersan Ilyasova (1.2), Ekpe Udoh (1.1), and Larry Sanders (0.6). Because just as rebounding is not limited to post players, passing is not exclusive to guards. And that is the real point: No matter who has the ball – guard, forward, or center – the Bucks now usually know when it is pass-time.
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