What happens when all five players touch the ball in the same possession?

January 3, 2017 by J.H. Yeh

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while and I think it’s something I imagine every team does. I believe in good ball movement and extra passes that can exploit the defensive inefficiency and find the open man for the easy uncontested shot before the defensive rotation can recover. Often times, when running a good offense, the ball usually only touches three men before it is being shot. Sometimes the ball may be touched by a fourth player. The ball doesn’t really touch all five players in one single possession because from a tactical standpoint, it is not practical as coaches want to maintain the fast pace throughout the game without delays in offense. Additionally, when running an offense, usually there are always one to two players who are being guarded and thus are not available to receive the ball. Moreover, if a team does intend to run its offense through all five players, usually the team will find a man who’s available to take the shot before the ball can be reached to the fifth person. With that in mind, in order to maintain a good offense, coaches prefer the players to shoot the ball whenever he is open. Coaches want players to take a decent or average-looking shot instead of passing over a decent shot selection and gamble for a better shot selection. Consequently, all these factors contribute to why the ball seldom reaches the fifth player in the same possession.

With that said, the games I chose to track this interesting record are the five NBA games played in last year’s Christmas (2016) because games played on Christmas Day are usually the most competitive matchups — where ball movement and offenses are in full display. Below are the results for the five NBA Christmas Specials.




Keeping this kind of statistic is actually a lot more interesting than I thought. It allowed me to see the game from a different perspective. Ideally, teams pass the ball to the open man under the basket for the easy two or to a wide open shooter for the uncontested 3-pointer, and such process varies depending on how the opponent’s defense develops. While keeping track of this record, I learned just how rare it is for all five players to touch the ball in a single possession. As I mentioned before, it is less common for four players to touch the ball in the same possession let alone five players. To my surprise, no teams had achieved such feat for more than five times. The Golden State Warriors had the most at five times whereas the Minnesota Timberwolves had none. The Cleveland Cavaliers only did it once. Even the San Antonio Spurs, who’s known for great ball movement, had only done it three times — and none in the second half.

Below are my findings and the aftermath on what happened after the ball was being touched by all five players in the same possession. The last player is responsible for the results. For example, Porzingis missed an open 3-point attempt with 5 seconds left in the 24-second shot clock in the first possession of the first quarter. I also included the chronological order of the players who touched the ball just to have a better understanding of how the ball was being moved.












This is just a very small sample, but still, it definitely is worth a look. In the five games being played, there were only 19 such occurrences where all five players on the court touched the ball — an average of 3.8 times per matchup. In those possessions, 13 were passes that found an open man for an open shot while 5 were contested shots in which 3 of them were fouled (including the And-1). As expected, the average time when the player released the ball was at 6.16 seconds — which is considerably late in NBA standard. Nonetheless, I was surprised by the time left on the clock because 6.16 seconds actually are a lot earlier than my initial guess. Note that I did not include the shot clock violation because no shooting attempt was made.



What I found interesting is that of these 19 possessions, only 5 were successfully converted into made field goals. And in those 19 possessions, 15 of them saw the ball being shot (without being fouled) and 13 of those 15 shots were open shots (mostly range shots).

This type of statistic certainly doesn’t tell the whole story and does not correlate with winning, therefore it’s not a good predictor. In summary, despite the mixed results, having five players to touch the ball in the same possession can increase the likelihood of finding the open man to take the shot. However, doing so will inevitably slow down the offense which may lead to rushed offense in the last-second or even committing a shot clock violation. There is no clear answer but the general consensus suggested by the aforementioned results is that effective ball-sharing does not necessarily require a team to have all five of its players to touch the ball in the same possession. Teams can usually run an effective offense and find the open man without going through all five players.

— J.H. Yeh

(all graphs are created by me, and all sources of stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Synergy Sports as of January 2, 2017)

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