Call it NBA mythbusting.
For years, decades now, there’s been a story spreading about John Stockton’s all-time NBA assist record of 15,806. That story: that biased Utah stat keepers inflated Stockton’s assists throughout his career, leading to his 3,000-plus assist lead on No. 2 Jason Kidd.
That tale persists to this day. For example, when Chris Paul moved into eighth place on the NBA’s all-time assist leaderboard in February, Paul was asked about Stockton’s record.
“I don’t like saying never, but ain’t nobody catching that,” Paul said. “I don’t know who the statisticians was, who used to do the stats in Utah, but ain’t nobody catching that.”
Paul’s not the only one. The story of biased Jazz scorekeeping is as old as Stockton’s nine consecutive years of leading the NBA in assists. So The Salt Lake Tribune looked into it. Did the Jazz’s scorekeeping crew artificially inflate Stockton’s assist totals?
|Player||Home APG||Away APG||% diff||Total Assists|
|Nick Van Exel||7.3||5.8||24.2%||5777|
It is true: Stockton earned more assists in the friendly confines of the Salt Palace and the Delta Center than he did on the road. Overall, Stockton averaged 10.9 assists per game at home and 10.1 assists per game on the road, a 7.3% difference.
But it turns out that a 7.3% difference is actually relatively small compared to the other NBA greats in assists. Among the top 50 NBA assist men — or at least, the ones who have detailed game-by-game assist information for their entire careers — the average home benefit has been 10.1%.
That makes sense due to a few different factors. First, NBA scorekeepers do have relatively wide leeway about what constitutes an assist. In a tell-all story on Deadspin, Alex (who chose not to share his last name), a former scorekeeper for the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1990s, said that assists varied wildly between arenas in his era.
“In the NBA, an assist is a pass leading directly to a basket,” he said. “That’s inherently subjective. What does that really mean in practice? The definition is massively variable according to who you talk to."
In fact, in one game, Alex decided to test the limits of his profession. He decided to give Nick Van Exel, point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, as many assists as he could.
“I was sort of disgruntled,” he told Deadspin. “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. … He's getting a s---load of assists."
The box score showed that Van Exel accrued 23 assists that day. But while Alex helped Van Exel on one occasion in 1995 on the road, the Lakers point guard actually had one of the largest home-road splits of any point guard in the top 50: a 24.2% advantage in L.A.’s home confines.
Only two of the top 50 accrued more assists on the road than at home: Steve Nash, third on the NBA’s All-Time list, got 4.4% more assists outside of his home arenas in Phoenix, Dallas and L.A. than from the scorekeepers he played for. And Miami’s Dwyane Wade picked up 6.2% more assists outside of South Florida than in American Airlines Arena.
Meanwhile, Cleveland guard Mark Price had the biggest home-road split. He earned 27% more assists at home than on the road. Doc Rivers, current Clipper coach and former Atlanta guard, was second with a 25.9% split. Van Exel ranked No. 3.
Interestingly, Utah’s scorekeepers in Vivint Arena remain largely the same as they were in the Stockton days: John Allen has called out the scores for decades in the Salt Palace and the now-Vivint Smart Home Arena, recently celebrating his 40th year with the Jazz.
And despite his reputation for inflating Stockton’s stats, it turns out Allen is a relative assist miser, at least in comparison to his modern counterparts. According to researchers Matthew Van Bommel and Luke Bornn at Simon Fraser University, Allen’s stats mean about 3.44 fewer assists at Jazz home games than expected when the pair looked at the 2015-16 season.
“Figures indicate the Utah Jazz scorekeeper is unbiased but not generous,” Van Bommel and Bornn state in the paper.
Whether Paul was informed of the reality of the Jazz’s scorekeeping situation, or just out of respect for Stockton’s legacy, he issued a correction to his statement a few days later.
“People misconstrued what I said last time about John Stockton,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “His record will never be broken because he was so durable. He played night in, night out.”
It’s easy to understand Paul’s defeatism: Even after accruing 9,181 assists himself over a 13-year NBA career, he’d still have to average over 10 assists per game for another eight seasons to approach Stockton’s 15,806 record. Paul, 34, last averaged double-digit assists three seasons ago.
And regarding his earlier statement, on average, Paul has accrued 7.3% more assists at home than on the road over the course of his career, nearly exactly matching Stockton’s home-road split.
So, yes, Jazz fans, you can breathe easy. Stockton’s assist record isn’t only safe from today’s point guards; it also stands through statistical scrutiny.