Those of y’all who’ve followed my work for any amount of time know I’m a fan of Oscar Robertson. Like many other greats of the 1950s and 1960s, Oscar gets a cursory acknowledgement for his achievements. Well-meaning, but perfunctory acknowledgement.
Instead of appreciating what he did during his career with a forward-looking approach, the dutiful tip-of-the-cap he receives is done backwards-looking.
Let me explain.
A backwards-looking approach to Oscar (and others of the 1950s/60s) seeks to only understand his achievements solely through the prism of today. Essentially, how would Oscar have played in today’s NBA? The viewer is stuck in the present lazily looking back in time. The approach doesn’t seek to understand Oscar on the terms in which he played.
A forward-looking approach rectifies the situation.
It takes the lazy observer, picks them up, and twists them around to the point where they now imagine themselves in 1960 and begin looking forward to see how the world changes. Thus when observing Oscar’s work, you are now actively seeing Oscar’s work and what it’s adding to basketball, what it’s changing.
There’s lots to observe with Oscar, but today I’m just forward-looking at his assists.
Ken Rogan, NBAE
Now rebounds from Oscar’s era were undoubtedly more prevalent, however relatively little is made of assists numbers from these bye-gone eras. More numerous, less so? Who dominated the category? Well, let’s get started on checking that and Oscar’s genius out.
NOTABLE ASSIST RECORDS OF THE BIG O
As a rookie in 1960-61, set the NBA’s single-season APG record (9.7)
In his 2nd season, became the NBA’s first player to average 10+ APG (11.4), which became the NBA’s new single-season APG record.
In 1964-65, averaged a career-high 11.5 APG, which again set a new single-season record.
Upon retiring in 1973-74, Robertson owned 8 of the top 15 APG seasons in NBA history.
As those quick bullet-points note, Oscar was an assist revolution upon the NBA. Prior to Oscar, only Bob Cousy - a revolutionary in his own right - neared these types of numbers. And during Oscar’s career only Guy Rodgers approached the Big O’s assault on passing norms.
Oscar (and Rodgers) is an aberration for his era, but he pointed the way forward to the future of passing and the accrual of assists in the NBA.
To illustrate this point further, only 85 times in NBA/ABA history has a player averaged 10+ APG in a season. Those 85 instances have been produced by 30 players. Only eight of those 85 occurrences came during the 1960s and from just two players: Robertson (5x) and his contemporary Rodgers (3x).
Starting your historical vision in 1960 and moving it progressively forward makes you notice that Robertson was someone truly special.
When Robertson debuted in the NBA for the 1960-61 season, the league’s career assists leaders were naturally from the 1940s and 1950s. Cousy stood head-and-shoulders above everyone else at this point with eight consecutive assist titles. By the time Robertson retired in 1974, he had surpassed Cousy and now he stood like a titan above all others.
Progressing through the decades, Robertson’s forebearers and contemporaries have slowly faded from the top of the record book. Cousy, Rodgers, Lenny Wilkens, John Havlicek, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer; and even subsequent dimers like Tiny Archibald, Norm Van Lier and Dave Bing have been pushed aside by the deluge of point guards from the post-1980 basketball world, who became Oscar-like in their control of the passing game.
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To an extent, there is the factor of total assists to consider. The average number of dimes have fluctuated over the decades, but have remained generally within a range of about 20 to 25 per game. What seems to have truly changed is how teams distribute the assist duties,* something we’ll check out in a later post.
*(Or perhaps NBA statisticians getting less stingy with awarding assists. We’ll leave that aside.)
Whereas Oscar’s (and Cousy’s and Rodgers’s) singular domination of distributing their team’s assists had been novel, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway, Mark Jackson, Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd have subsequently represented a remarkable replication of the Oscar methodology.
The 1950s-1970s rarely saw one player dominate assists. Indeed, in the 1970s assists numbers remained relatively high, but were diffused throughout the roster. (Again, we’re gonna check that out in a later post.)
With that diffused passing behavior superseded by the Oscar method, it’s unsurprising that by the end of the 2019 season, Oscar himself was the only player who debuted prior to 1979 season who was still in the top 10 of career assists.
Fleshing out the top 30 career leaders in assists the only basketball dinosaurs who did their diming primarily before 1980 and remain in these upper reaches are…
#6 - Oscar Robertson 9887
#14 - Lenny Wilkens 7211
#19 - Bob Cousy 6955
#20 - Guy Rodgers 6917
#26 - Tiny Archibald 6476
This isn’t to call anyone - whether Oscar, Magic, Stockton, Cousy, Nash, Wilkens, etc - the best passer or best assist-man ever. Wilt Chamberlain and Nikola Jokic were/are expert passers from the center spot. It just operates differently. Yet, having looked forward from the 1960s, it’s pretty remarkable to see just how influential the Big O’s strategy has been in its time and ever since.
PASS IT ON!
What are the assist numbers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s?
Why the hell are point guards so dominant in making assists now?