By Reinis Lacis (@LamarMatic)
In 2016 the average fan has an arsenal of tools (interactive nba.com box scores, basketball fan communities ready to spread his work at a moment’s notice, etc.) at his disposal with which he can discredit any NBA stat line.
Members of reddit’s r/nba community have successfully challenged and reversed already proclaimed triple doubles thanks to their own research. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo have been among the victims of such action.
As a basketball community though we have no idea how many of such celebrated stat lines should have been revoked over the past decades, yet never were.
According to a former Vancouver Grizzlies scorekeeper named Alex stat fudging was widespread in the 1990s. The piece written by Tommy Craggs for Deadspin told the story of an industry full of stats guys completely fine with juicing the numbers of their own players.
Alex, the scorekeeper who was interviewed for the piece, also gave a few factual nuggets. Those included Shareef Abdur-Rahim statistically thriving at home thanks to the scorekeeper’s staff and a cooked 23-assist game by Nick Van Exel at Vancouver.
Thanks to Alex’s account Nick the Quick’s 23-assist game is, perhaps, the go-to example of NBA scorekeepers hyping up their local team’s heroes.
The Deadspin piece quoted him saying:
“I was sort of disgruntled,” he says. “I loved the game. I don’t want the numbers to be meaningless, and I felt they were becoming meaningless because of how stats were kept. So I decided, I’m gonna do this totally immature thing and see what happens. It was childish. The Lakers are in town. We’re gonna lose. Fuck it. He’s getting a shitload of assists.” If you were to watch the game today, you’d see some “comically bad assists.”
So why not watch the game today and see said assists ourselves?
Highlight reel of Van Exel’s whole performance:
In this case a Van Exel trip to the free-throw line shortly after the halftime break yielded a graphic of his stats and the much-needed assist totals (despite taking Spanish at university my knowledge was no match for the announcing style of the late great Andrés Montes, thus I couldn’t pick up any stats from him).
Ultimately, I still had to go back and re-watch every single basket by the Lakers to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything.
But this provided a nice starting point to determine the types and categories of fudged assists. I had to already have 13 assists in my notes, even though at that point I had credited Nick with only nine.
Category #1: Simple Entry Passes to Shaq
It instantly allowed me to understand that scorekeeper Alex had exploited O’Neal’s post-ups for Van Exel’s benefit. Van Exel could have picked up missing assists number 10 (1:19), 11 (1:28) and 12 (1:44) when he was the entry passer to Shaq.
I’ll get back to the latter one in Category #3 as you can make an argument there, however, the first two and a second half assist at 3:07 are indefensible.
On all three occasions there’s a catch and a gather and at least two dribbles separating Van Exel from the made basket.
No one in their right mind should suggest that this is an assist in basketball:
Results: Three assists ruled as fudged
Category #2: Passes Before Drives
Yet incomprehension about where assist number 13 came from made me go through the aforementioned task of looking at every bucket by the Los Angeles Lakers.
That’s where these words by the Grizzlies’ scorekeeper in the Deadspin article come true:
“Van Exel would pass from the top of the three-point line to someone on the wing who’d hold the ball for five seconds, dribble, then make a move to the basket. Assist, Van Exel.”
I couldn’t rule out ANY pass made by Van Exel before a score. So it made sense that this iso-heavy possession by a rookie Kobe Bryant was the missing assist.
What’s funny is that those previous three entry passes for a Shaq post-up are somewhat understandable. Van Exel was on a roll and already had eight (or rather seven real) assists to his name. Moreover, one can act and lie to themselves as if Nick the Quick entered the ball for O’Neal already in motion of a post move.
Meanwhile this gem was Van Exel’s first assist of the game and that previous quote doesn’t even do it justice. Bryant actually made seven dribbles and had the ball in his hands for six seconds before he scored.
Results: Two more assists ruled as fudged. We’re at five total.
Category #3: Shaq Sort of Being in Motion for a Score
This category holds the reaches by scorekeepers which are most frequently in question when arguing about assists in the NBA.
The NBA statistician’s manual says an assist should be “credited to a player tossing the last pass leading directly to a field goal, only if the player scoring the goal responds by demonstrating immediate reaction to the basket.”
The “immediate reaction to the basket” is the grey area where all sorts of shaky assists are credited.
Even if Player X took two or three dribbles before scoring the ball, Player Y supposedly could be awarded with an assist since he passed him the ball when X was in motion to make that move. That’s an everyday assist in the NBA.
Two such offenses (1:43 and 2:59) can be found in this game as well where Shaq somewhat semi-timely responds to an entry pass by Van Exel and turns around his shoulder towards the baseline for a nifty two points.
Results: Two arguable assists which will be ruled as assists in the NBA from time to time. Still at five total fudged assists.
Category #4: WTF
Despite seeing every basket made by the visitors, I couldn’t find a pass even somewhat close to a 23rd assist.
A close-up by the broadcast might have prevented me from seeing Van Exel hand off the ball to a fellow Laker who scored 10 dribbles and 12 seconds later. A mix-up might have occurred at the scorers’ table which awarded Van Exel with an assist made by a fellow teammate.
Or, perhaps, Alex felt like giving him another one for the heck of it. Either way, the 23rd assist wasn’t to be found.
Results: Six fudged assists, two arguable.
Verdict: Nick Van Exel shouldn’t have had more than 17 assists. You can make an argument for him deserving only 15.
In closing, don’t forget something that probably is lost in all of this. Nick Van Exel was a cool player.
Disregard the shaky assists and watch the highlight reel just for the four alley-oops with Shaq, the acrobatics by Eddie Jones, the scores by an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant and the man with dimes for all of them. Nick Van Exel.