On Mario Chalmers, The Plus Playmaker

Mario Chalmers with the ball
Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

There are some basketball skills that are very difficult to receive credit for improving. It’s very easy for everyone to credit LeBron James for adding a post-up game or Chris Bosh for extending his range to the three-point line because those are things we can easily see. Players become better shooters and we see their shooting percentages tick up, simple as that.

We’ll notice when someone improves in an area they’ve been generally awful in, too. If someone is always out of position on defense and gradually starts making better plays, viewers will catch on. The same goes for when a player that almost never passes the ball starts getting his teammates involved. Whenever you’ve spent a good chunk of your career hovering around one extreme, any deviation from that end of the spectrum will be hailed as a grand accomplishment.

But what about when someone already does something reasonably well? How can we tell when a defender or passer begins making the shift from good to very good?

In the recent case of Mario Chalmers, it’s been as easy as looking at his assist totals. Through five games, he is averaging 8.2 assists per 36 minutes, up from a career average of 4.9 and the highest mark since he posted 5.5 in his rookie year. Twice he has passed that magical double-digit barrier this season after a year-long drought, so naturally we take notice. But These numbers alone aren’t enough to make a case. Assists are highly volatile statistics, fluctuating based on a number of variables, including the rate at which pass catchers are scoring.

Sometimes, it’s the offense improving around the passer, not the player improving at passing. In the case of Chalmers, however, both the former and the latter seem to be happening right in front of us.

Let’s throw out raw assists for now, if only because it is so early in the season. What we really care about are the quality of assists. In Chalmers’ last double-digit assist game, he recorded 13 in the last regular season contest of the 2010-11 season with James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade resting before the playoffs. For one game, Chalmers’ role as a playmaker grew expontentially and so did his counting numbers. But most of those assists were on Eddie House jumpers as House was on his way to scoring 35 points. Chalmers simply waited at the top of the key as House ran around screens, delivered the pass and reaped the rewards.

There’s value in delivering well-timed passes to shooters, but dribbling around the perimeter and swinging the ball to open shooters is more of a passive version of playmaking. What we’ve seen in these five games is the complete opposite.

Tossing Fireballs

Most NBA diehards remember two years ago when Dwyane Wade quarterbacked a 90-foot, one-handed alley-oop pass to LeBron James. It was one of the highlights of the season, but those plays were largely confined to the natural chemistry between those two players. Miami was still a very efficient team in transition, but those hyper strikes were few and far between.

Two years later, everyone is getting in on the hijinks. Chris Bosh is running out ahead of the pack for easy scores, Ray Allen and Shane Battier are hitting trail threes and Chalmers is getting his fair share of cross-court helpers in transition.

The passes aren’t perfect – lobs are still a little off, and the bounces are a little behind – but it’s working, and it’s what Erik Spoelstra wants. James and Wade don’t have to double check to see who comes up with the ball before they streak out on the wings. The second the ball changes possession, they are off and running, and that doesn’t happen if there isn’t a trust that the ballhandler will be both looking for them and capable of delivering the pass.

As we’ll mention a couple of times, much of this is the offense helping Chalmers out. Setting the pace to 11 – literally, Miami’s best offense this year has come when the team is averaging around 11-second possessions – is going to boost assist opportunities, but it’s up to Chalmers to capitalize, and he is.

To a man, pretty much every player on this HEAT team has credited Chalmers for his continued development as a playmaker, and that maturation is coming off as well. For instance, take these two plays:

At first glance, Denver seems to have most of its defense getting back in transition, but with James, Bosh and Allen running as wide as possible, they are forcing each Nugget to commit to one side of the floor. In turn, this opens up a cutting lane for Bosh with the defense not leaving James or the ballhandler, Chalmers.

Here’s where Chalmers makes a subtle move. If his eyes got wide and he tried to hit Bosh the moment that lane opened up, he’s risking the pass being tipped by either Ty Lawson or Danilo Gallinari while also putting Bosh a dribble away from the rim, slightly slowing the play. So instead of opting for half-second shipping, he pauses and makes a slight step to his right.

Now Chalmers has options. He’s opened up a direct line of sight, and thus passing lane, to Bosh, while also forcing Gallinari to make a decision almost by telegraphing his own intentions – either step in front of Bosh and give Chalmers the free pass to an open James in the corner, or stick with James and force Chalmers to make the touch pass to Bosh.

Gallinari takes door number two, Chalmers makes the play and Bosh gets a wide-open dunk.

A few nights later against the Phoenix Suns, Chalmers is again on the break after receiving a lead pass.

At this moment, the defense has won the battle. Any scenario involving Chalmers trying to get to the rim at this point is a losing proposition, and passing back to James a few feet to his side is likely going to slow things down.

Instead, Chalmers pauses and waits for the shooters that he knows and trusts are coming to fill in.

Chalmers drove just far enough to attract the attention of the defense, so nobody is paying any attention to the far corner. After all, Chalmers isn’t known for his cross-court passes.

But here comes Ray Allen, filling the empty space where he happens to be the most efficient shooter in the league and Chalmers floats a backhanded pass over the top of the defense, hitting Allen perfectly in stride.

This is not a pass made by a placeholder point-guard, only on the floor to provide shooting and relieve the stars of ballhandling duties. This is a pass made by a plus playmaker, a point guard actually creating opportunities for others.

And Chalmers isn’t only doing it in transition.

You Asked for Value, I Give You a Point Guard

We can’t just watch video and look at pictures to show that Chalmers has shown dramatic improvement as a passer, can we? If we did, this would be a very long article indeed. Fortunately, we have some helpful numbers – though, again, we’re only five games in.

Two years ago, Chalmers averaged 1.98 assists on shots in the restricted area per 36 minutes. Last year that average improved to 2.74 and this season HEAT players are getting an astounding 4.97 assists from Chalmers at the rim. After getting Bosh 19 shots in the restricted area last season, Chalmers has assisted on six in five games – and he’s already filled 20 percent of his previous total restricted-area assists to Bosh, Wade and James.

For emphasis, Chalmers is already a fifth of the way to reaching last season’s total of high-value assists to Miami’s best scorers.

We’ve already shown Chalmers doing this in transition, and he’s also doing strong work finding cutters in the middle of the floor – helped of course by Miami’s incredible spacing and the improvements James, Bosh and Wade have made in playing off the ball – but the area where Chalmers is really impressing is the pick-and-roll.

So far, Chalmers is producing 1.3 points per possession, a number that puts him among the top ten in the entire league, but one that is slightly unsustainable only because it would have led all starting point-guards last season by a significant margin. But of the 21 assists Chalmers has in pick-and-rolls, 15 have been to the player setting the screen, something he did 84 times all of last year.

Doesn’t quite look like a guard making the easy passes to open shooters, does it? There are a few reasons these plays are possible:

1. As we mentioned before, Miami’s floor-spacing is a claustrophobic’s dream. When Chalmers comes off the initial screen and draws the big defender, shooters in either corner are often drawing the defense so far out of the paint that the screener can easily find the open zone and give Chalmers a comfortable target area for the pass. Guards aren’t as willing to throw those pocket passes – the passes that split the defenders when the ballhandler has one big coming behind the screen and a guard fighting his way through, creating a pocket – when they can see the help defenders ready to pounce on any less-than-perfect pass.

2. James didn’t become such an effective screen-roll player overnight, and Bosh hasn’t always been able to combine such patience and aggressiveness. These are plays years in the making for each player, James learning the intricacies of shadowing the ballhandler in space rather than pushing too far ahead and shutting off passing lanes while Bosh finds the balance between finding space for the open jumper, diving to the rim and slipping picks to draw defenses early and create open threes.

3. Chalmers is simply making passes he hasn’t made on a consistent basis before.

In other words, a HEAT offense years in the making is affording Chalmers opportunity after opportunity to make plays, but he’s the one doing so. It helps that with the lineups Spoelstra is using, any broken play that ends up with Chalmers forced to create a shot with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock has him running pick-and-rolls with capable shooters like Bosh and Rashard Lewis in space. But those plays are still made because Chalmers has improved his clock-awareness.

It’s not about the assists with Chalmers, and it isn’t about the assists for the HEAT. Those simple numbers will rise and fall as the season goes along and defenses improve – Chalmers only had one assist in an offensive struggle against New York – but the real improvements are coming in between the numbers. A subtle move in transition here, a patient pocket pass there, more accurate passers to shooters all around and high-value passes everywhere.

It’s no small feat for any NBA team just to get players to consistently hit the open man, but the HEAT are long past that. This is a team that is committed to passing, and it’s an enabling environment for a young point guard. It’s early, but returns so far indicate that Chalmers has taken advantage.

Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports