Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Which NBA players hold the ball the longest?

Making quick decisions can give an NBA player an offensive edge. But some players excel by taking their time and holding the ball.

Every time an NBA player catches the ball, they are faced with a trio of options — dribble, pass or shoot. A player’s triple-threat tendencies can dramatically affect both the structure of the offense around them and how they’re defended, but there’s actually a fourth option … sort of. A player can simply hold the ball as they survey the options around them and prepare to make their choice, and this propensity for holding the ball is an offensive variable as well.

There are no public measures of how long a player actually holds the ball but we can get at it indirectly by looking at time of possession and how often a player dribbles. The graph below shows every player with at least 500 minutes played this season, marked by total time of possession and total number of dribbles.

Unsurprisingly, there is an extremely strong relationship between the two measures and we can use that relationship and a player’s actual time of possession to estimate an expected number of dribbles. Comparing that to a player’s actual number of dribbles helps isolate the outliers who spend more time holding the ball than we’d expect.

The table below shows the top-10 in the NBA this season in total dribbles below expected.

Nikola Jokic tops the list, essentially even with LeBron James. However, LeBron has had the ball in his hands for nearly three times as long as Jokic this season. If you parse the total dribbles below expected by the total time of possession, Steven Adams, Jokic, Domantas Sabonis and Joel Embiid rise to the top. Per minute of possession, Jokic dribbles nearly 23 times fewer than we’d expect.

Adams is a bit strange — he’s not a frequent post-up threat but he is getting more elbow touches in Oklahoma City’s offense this season, holding the ball while he looks for cutters or waits for ball-handlers to come off a curl for a dribble hand-off.  Jokic, Sabonis and Embiid all make a ton of sense though. All three spent plenty of time posting up and Jokic and Sabonis are high-volume facilitators as well.

Below, you’ll see the same chart as above, but with a Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Simmons and LeBron marked.

Holding the ball is not necessarily a bad thing. Jokic leads all centers in potential assists per game by a wide margin. Both LeBron and Giannis shoot better than 50 percent inside of the arc on shots with a touch time of six seconds or longer. Embiid is averaging 1.08 points per post-up possession, the same expected return as a Damian Lillard 3-point attempt this season. Having the ability to survey at their own pace before making a decision undoubtedly plays a role in their effectiveness.

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