When teams discuss the Golden State Warriors the first topic of conversation is their efficiency. Everything this team does is based on scoring the most points per possession and limiting how many points their opponents score per possession. In yesterday’s power rankings I detailed why this strategy provides Golden State and immense room for error. Essentially, by scoring significantly more points per shot than your opponent, you have more room to accidentally create offensive turnovers and defensive mishaps.

Nevertheless, one efficiency stat that is rarely discussed deals with passing efficiency. People love discussing the Spurs’ motion offense and Golden State’s moving run-and-gun, however, nobody talks about how these teams make efficient passes. Effectively, efficient passing is passing that leads to quicker scoring.

To further learn about the importance of efficient passes, let’s examine how the best teams over the past three years rank in SportVU’s adjusted assist-to-pass ratio, and then analyze afterwards. This statistic examines the percentage of a team’s passes that are assists, secondary assists, and free throw assists. Thus it looks at passes that lead to scores.

Figure 6 Stats via SportVU

What Figure 1 shows is that, over the past three seasons, only two elite teams had a assist-to-pass ratio under 10%: this year’s Toronto Raptors and the 2013-14 Pacers.What one should notice about both teams, though, is that their offenses are/were archaic and not focused on maximizing efficiency.

The question then is why do the best teams every season have a high pass efficiency? I will provide three competing hypotheses. First, high efficiency passing is a product of motion offenses. If this hypothesis were to be true we will see all motion offense teams having a high assist-to-pass ratio and isolation teams will have significantly lower.

The second hypothesis is that, as teams grow offensively, their assist-to-pass ratio also rises. Essentially, because shooters are better and converting on more shots, the teams have more assists on less passes. If this hypothesis were true we would see that, as teams gain better shooters and have higher true shooting percentages, the assist-to-pass ratio will also rise. This is because, as teams shoot better, there will be more assists, and thus a higher ratio.

Finally, the third competing hypothesis is that, rather than a natural evolution of the game, the best teams are attempting to incorporate more efficient passing into their offenses. If this were true we would expect to see a season-on-season increase of pass efficiency by playoff teams, therefore signifying adoption of this metric by the best teams. We would also expect to see higher offensive production, because teams would have determined pass efficiency is crucial to better offenses.

Let’s begin by testing the first hypothesis, that increased pass efficiency is a product of the modern motion offense. Again, if this were true, we would expect more iso-heavy teams to have a worse assist-to-pass ratio. Consequently, we will examine two iso-heavy teams: the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Figure 6 Stats via SportVU

Consequently, Figure 2 refutes the first hypothesis. Cleveland and Oklahoma City run the second and third most isolation plays out of playoff teams respectively. Thus, because we see high pass efficiency in isolation teams, the emergence of this stat is not related to more teams playing with a motion offense.

In fact, more than likely, pass efficiency will help isolation offense-heavy teams. In sum, by increasing the importance of passes, isolation offenses will result in better drive-and-kick plays. For example, let’s watch the video below:


Here, rather than passing to Kyle Singler, which with a pass back to Westbrook would have resulted in a three-point shot, #0 passed to the cutting Ibaka for the easy basket. This shows how passing efficiency can improve the effectiveness of an isolation offense.

Thus, moving on to the second hypothesis, as a team improves general shot efficiency, their pass efficiency also inherently rises. Here we would expect to see that, as a team has a higher true shooting percentage, their pass efficiency also rises. Let’s examine the Warriors, Hawks, Heat, and Cavaliers between the 2013-14 season through the present.

Figure 6 Stats via SportVU

Thus, Figure 3 somewhat refutes the second hypothesis. With that said, though, it is not completely invalid. Looking at the Warriors and Hawks, higher true shooting percentages did not have any relationship with their pass efficiency. Moving to the Heat and Cavaliers, however, we see that massive changes in talent, resulting in a higher true shooting percentage, does correlate with a higher pass efficiency. Moreover, when you look at this chart holistically, the theory that teams with higher true shooting percentages having higher pass efficiency is validated.

Here is the issue, though, because the temporal size and sample size is small we cannot attribute the majority of explanatory cause to this hypothesis.

Moving on to the third hypothesis, that the best teams are attempting to incorporate more efficient passing into their offenses, let’s look at the causal explanations. As a reminder, we would expect to see a season-on-season increase of pass efficiency by playoff teams and overall increase in offensive production.

Figure 6 Stats via SportVU

What Figure 4 shows is interesting. Essentially, the year-on-year pass efficiency of playoff teams has actually decreased. Thus, this hypothesis is also flawed, but let’s look at offensive production over the three seasons just in case.

Figure 6 Stats via SportVU

Thus, what is so interesting, is that the average offensive rating has decreased every season, along with the decrease in passing efficiency. What this would imply is that pass efficiency is correlated with a worse offense. Nonetheless, the best offenses each season have an equally high pass efficiency (see Figure 1). So what explains this correlation?

Frankly, it is fairly easy to understand. While the best teams have been improving their offenses each year, the weaker playoff teams have not, thus explaining the statistical noise. To test this I want to examine the top four offenses each season and their pass efficiency.

Figure 6 Stats via SportVU

Figure 6 does a better job validating our third hypothesis. By removing some of the statistical noise, we find that the best offenses are incorporating greater amounts of pass efficiency into their gameplans. What is interesting, though, is that the offenses below the top-four, are utilizing it less. This helps explain the deviation between the best offenses and the great offenses in today’s NBA.

We have two main takeaways from this article. First, the best teams in the NBA incorporate greater levels of pass efficiency in their offenses. Furthermore, if your team does not have an assist-to-pass ratio greater than 10%, your odds of making a deep run is slim-to-none.

But the second takeaway extends this argument even more. The increase in pass efficiency is due to an evolution in the game, where the best teams incorporate it continuously more in their offenses. And this is seen most in the best four offenses every season; however, the rest of the NBA offenses are not incorporating it as much as they should. Consequently, to have an elite NBA offense it is necessary for a team to incorporate greater levels of pass efficiency.

In summation, if your team does not utilize efficient passing, more than likely they are not evolving with the best in the association. Additionally, as passing efficiency becomes increasingly popular – and do to its current successes this is a given – expect players who pass for assists, and not just to pass, to grow in demand.

Have any comments/questions? Let us know in the comments section!


  1. […] I have written previously regarding the advent of pass efficiency in the NBA. If you haven’t I highly recommend you read my introduction (linked above) about the role this plays in the modern NBA. My overall conclusion is that good NBA teams are slowly beginning to adjust to the idea of moving away from “pass-heavy” offenses to “pass-efficient” offenses. The below article will demonstrate statistically that having an offense with a high degree of pass-efficiency is correlated with a team’s chance to advance further through the entire season. […]


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