Nylon Calculus: The Warriors are passing their way to history

Nov 18, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) throws a no look pass past Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk (41) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 18, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) throws a no look pass past Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk (41) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports /

Of the many offensive strengths exhibited by the Golden State Warriors this season, perhaps none has been more notable than their passing. Their shooting has certainly been impressive, as they lead the league in both effective field goal and true shooting percentages at levels that are comparable to last year’s marks. These results have been living up to the hype surrounding their unprecedented collection of shot-making talent. But, even by their lofty standards, the Warriors’ ability to move the ball and find high-value opportunities has been laudable in its own right.

Assist percentage is a good starting point for analysis. Of the 1,080 field goals that the Warriors have made through 25 games, 71.9 percent have been assisted. This figure is eight percentage points ahead of the second-ranked Boston Celtics and four percentage points better than last year. Historically, it’s in position to set a record:

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In the 3-point era, only the 2002-03 Utah Jazz team has finished the season with a higher assist percentage than what the Warriors currently possess. Note, however, that the league average was also higher back then (60 percent versus 57 percent). After accounting for different contexts using the same adjustment method that Matt Femrite employs here, the Warriors ascend to the top. Naturally, they still have a long way to go, and their numbers could slide if, for example, their key players rest as the playoffs draw near. But the point remains that their passing is at all-time heights.

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What’s additionally unique about the Warriors is the egalitarian nature of their assists. The top-10 rankings are populated by teams with renowned distributors like John Stockton, Jason Kidd, and Rajon Rondo, who typically had 40+ assist percentages all by themselves. They were then supported by two to four players with assist percentages over 15. By contrast, the Warriors do not feature a prototypical “pass-first” point guard. Instead, among their top ten players in minutes, six have assist percentages over 15, with Draymond Green and Steph Curry leading the way at 27 percent each. Their results stem from a balanced attack.

This sense of symmetry becomes more evident when we actually plot all of the Warriors’ assists to date and compare them with their contemporaries. The network maps below are common visualization tools that help us see connections between entities, as well as the centrality of particular individuals in the ecosystem. At Nylon Calculus, Matt d’Anna has previously displayed “points generated per 100 passes” in network form. Senthil Natarajan has tracked NBA Finals ball movement in similar fashion. Other analytics projects have visualized everything from pass activity to player teammates.

In the following graphs, each circle represents a player, with the size of the “node” reflecting the number of assists that he’s dished. The major distributors are highlighted with either large font or blue shade. The lines connect teammates who have assisted one another, and the frequency of their connections is marked by the thickness of the line. Alas, while the dataset has details on the “direction” of each play (which identify instances when, say, Kyle Lowry assists DeMar DeRozan rather than the other way around), this feature is left out to avoid cluttering the visualization. The assisting player is mostly discernible, though, and the broader objective in any case is to understand the varying assist distributions of teams.

Let’s focus initially on the league leaders in assist percentage (click on any ensuing images to enlarge):

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Two things immediately stand out, both of which highlight the diverse sources of the Warriors’ assists. First, the intricate web of crisscrossing lines illustrates the many different player combinations that they have already seen. Some of these connections amount to just a single assist, and the Warriors’ penchant for blowing out opponents, which allow Steve Kerr to get deeper into his bench, affords them more opportunities than average teams to share the wealth. Nonetheless, the wide range of the Golden State network speaks to superb ball movement in the aggregate.

The Celtics have a comparable number of player combinations, but unlike Golden State (as well as Charlotte and Atlanta), they lack high concentrations of assists. The Warriors network features a hub of intense assist activity between their four star players. We can see this phenomenon through the darkened kite-like shape at the center of their graph and the subsequent detailed breakdown:

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Warriors Assist Network (Labeled)
Warriors Assist Network (Labeled) /
GSW Assist Sequences
GSW Assist Sequences /

While Klay Thompson mainly performs a shooting role, Draymond Green, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant share the facilitation load. Their assists to one another come in largely proportional measures — a blend of volume and parity that other league-leading teams can’t match.

This dynamic becomes even more apparent when the point of comparison shifts to the top offenses in the NBA. Here are the assist networks for teams with the four highest offensive ratings:

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Both the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers have a pair of facilitators who involve their teammates in offensive action. The Lowry-DeRozan and LeBron James-Kyrie Irving tandems account for nearly 60 percent of their team’s assists. Meanwhile, in Houston, James Harden orchestrates the show, moving the ball toward efficient areas of the court. He has assisted Clint Capela, who takes three-quarters of his shots at the rim, 74 times, and he has delivered to Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza, who are behind the arc for roughly two-thirds of their shots, 51 and 49 times, respectively.

The Rockets’ assist network is fairly typical for a team with a primary distributor. Note the contrast between the Warriors and teams that have league leaders in assists:

assistnetworks_astleaders /

So where do all of these graphs leave us? For one thing, they highlight yet again that teams can achieve success in different ways. Some have limited personnel or other resources, necessitating greater reliance on a few facilitators to create for teammates and maximize offensive efficiency. Others have an embarrassment of riches and must find ways to exploit their advantages.

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Obviously, the Warriors are in the latter category. That’s clear from the eye test or any dataset we might care to compile. Still, I think these visualizations are useful in emphasizing just how unique their circumstances are and how momentous their season can potentially be.