In an effort to keep assist statistics honest, the Elias Bureau recently determined, using statistical analyses, that there should be one assist for about every 1.8 baskets. If Elias receives box scores that don't fit the formula, suspicious glances are cast. Under the rules, an assist is credited to the player who makes the last pass leading directly to a basket, as long as the shooter demonstrates "immediate reaction" to the pass. This holds for lay-ups as well as 50-foot heaves. Thus, Nixon, say, would pick up an assist for: a) hitting Jamaal Wilkes for a fast-break layup; b) tossing a high lob to Abdul-Jab-bar, who head-fakes twice before pivoting for a sky hook; and c) handing the ball to Don Ford, who somehow manages to sink a full-court buzzer beater.
But what of today's assist champions? Is a Porter or a Ford as good as a Cousy or a Robertson? "The only skill which has improved in recent years is shooting," says Cousy. "All other areas of fundamental basketball have regressed. Until I first saw Magic Johnson and Bird, I had not seen a true playmaker in a long time. Ernie DiGregorio was probably the last."
West, who is such a perfectionist that he ran out of patience coaching the less-than-perfect Lakers and gave up the job after three seasons, thinks the game has changed so much that now it belongs as much to the outstanding ball handler as to the seven-footer. "The traps and zone presses all over the floor have made for a looser game," he says. "When your team is being zone-pressed, you're going to give the ball to a player who's able to run by people. You hope he'll pick out someone to pass to. I don't particularly like that. I'd prefer that all players be able to handle and pass the ball."
As for the differences in the statistics between old and new passers, Moorawnick, whose strict standards probably cost Porter some assists in Detroit last season, believes Cousy or Robertson today would easily attain average-assists figures in middle to high double figures.
There are some other important facts regarding assists and assist leaders that must be noted here: 1) since Cousy last led the league in 1960, only one assist champion, West in 1972, played on an NBA championship team; 2) in none of the last four seasons has the NBA champion had a single player among the top 10 assist leaders; 3) in the NBA's 33 years, only five championship teams led the league in assists. Seattle last season ranked 17th. Washington in 1978 ranked 16th. Portland in 1977 ranked ninth.
What does all this mean? "It means that you're not going to have a winning team with one person controlling the ball," says Portland Coach Jack Ramsay. "In my opinion, the ball has to be moved all the time, which makes it incumbent on every player to be a good passer."
Few would disagree, but Motta pushed hard to bring Porter back to the Bullets. "Kevin is the premier fast-break guard in the league," he says, "the finest play-maker. He can bring the ball up quickly, and he knows how to get it to the right people. He's a creator. I don't want to get too bubbly, but it's hard not to get excited when I think of him running our offense."