Passes Per Possession – an eye opening metric

Sometimes events happen in such a way as to smack one in the face with a realization of an obvious premise that one has always known.  Witness the following three illustrations:

  • In a recent high-school game, the head coach and his assistants must have yelled the instruction, “Move the ball” at least 100 times.  And move the ball, they did.  Every time, the ball was stuck for any reason, the staff hollered the mantra, the ball moved and something good tended to happen.  Honestly, the team in question really is no more than fair but for their efforts, they beat a better team.  
  • In a recent Sports Illustrated article on the Los Angeles Clippers’ excellent start to the 2016-17 season, it was mentioned that they were averaging 306 passes per game, illustrating how well the Clippers were sharing the ball this season.  (The league average is 301.5 and the Golden St. Warriors average 311 passes a game).  As of Dec 15, the Clippers were averaging 100.5 possessions a game which happens to be a moderate NBA tempo.  Simple math tells us the Clippers are averaging about 3 passes a possession.  Simple math also tells us that to average 3 passes a possession, a team has to have a fairly high number of 4, 5 and 6 pass possessions to counter the no pass and 1 pass possessions that one gets after turnovers and fast breaks.  Quite frankly, five and six pass possessions during a 24 second shot clock is really moving and sharing the ball.  For their efforts, the Clippers are 19-7 on 12-15-16 and they were 15-10 a year ago.
  • In a mid-November LA Times article, it was mentioned that Lakers’ Coach Luke Walton on some nights had his team passing up to 20 more times a game than they did last season, when they were just about dysfunctional.  Up to that point of the season, they were 3-1 in games where they hit 300 or more passes and of their 5 losses at that point, 4 came with game pass totals under 300 passes.  (By the way, the high school and college equivalents of 300 passes are 201 passes and 250 passes, respectively.  In the case of the high school figure, it doesn’t take into account the absence of a shot clock).  For their efforts, the Lakers are 10-18 this year and were 3-21 on the same date last year.

The suggestion here might be one of two options for a coach who already doesn’t do so, to try his hand at counting passes before committing totally.

    1. Take an earlier game film and count the number of passes each possession and the consequence- FG, fouled, good shot, bad shot, turnover.  Add up shots for a game total and assess overall game’s offensive performance.
  1. Have a trusted someone chart passes per possession in your next practice or two and evaluate the consequences.  Establish correlations.  Are higher number pass possessions generally better than lower pass possessions?

Like any stat, passes per possession can be empty if the goal is just the stat.  Attacking and getting good looks is obviously the real goal and number of passes can be a means to an end.


  1. Do you consider an inbounds pass to start a possession an actual pass?
    For example, inbounding the ball after a turnover or dead ball situation. Or, inbounding the ball after a made basket.

    1. Coach, I personally don’t count any inbounds pass but I’m sure there are some coaches who do- especially after made FG’s against. Of course, it’s difficult to run when the ref has to handle the ball but there are even coaches who try to speed up these possessions up. I think the short answer for most is that inbounds passes aren’t counted.

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