When it comes to dishing out dimes, it seems fitting that a player wearing the No. 10 would be the all-time leader in assists. On Friday night in Washington, Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird dished out her 2,600th career assist to pass Ticha Penicheiro for the most in WNBA history.
The record-breaking assist came with 3:35 remaining in the first quarter on a perfectly executed pick-and-roll with Carolyn Swords. Bird took a high screen from Swords, forcing the big defender to step up as the guard fought over the screen. Before the Mystics defenders could recover, Swords dove toward the basket and Bird lofted a pass over the two defenders that Swords caught in stride and finished with a layup. It was the third of Bird’s season-high 13 assists – just one shy of her career-high – in Seattle’s 110-106 overtime loss to the Mystics.
While fans and media members have tracked the countdown to the record, the idea of becoming the all-time assist leader was never on Sue Bird’s mind.
“Truthfully, I’m not just saying this, it’s not something I paid close attention to,” she said last Tuesday as she sat just 12 assists shy of breaking Penicheiro’s all-time mark.
In fact, it wasn’t until the start of this season that it became a topic of conversation when a reporter mentioned that if she averaged a certain number of assists that she would be on track to break the record.
“It seemed like a high number, so I was just like ‘Oh yeah, whatever.’ I didn’t really think twice about it,” she said. “Then probably about a month ago it came up again where it was like now you’re only this many away.”
She’s not dismissive of the achievement, but it’s not what drives her when she takes the court. She’s not hunting assists. In fact, she’s hunting to find the proper balance between scoring and playmaking to help her team win each and every night.
“What makes it special is that with an assist there’s two or more people involved, so its something that as a point guard I know I take very seriously – and I’m sure a lot of point guards do – about getting your teammates involved and trying to get the ball in the right spots,” she said. “And it tells the story of a career where I’ve had some tremendously talented teammates around me and it tells the story of us playing together and that chemistry coming out and for me its coming out in the assist column.”
“I think with any record in this league, obviously it means you’ve probably played a long time,” she said with a laugh. “ And hopefully, more than that, it says that you’ve been a consistent player, somebody who shows that they have some longevity that they’ve been able to maintain a high level of performance. And then, of course, as it pertains to this record specifically, obviously the names at the top of that list are some of the best point guards to ever play, so it’s just an honor to be amongst them.”
Penicheiro had worn the WNBA assist crown for more than 13 years, taking the top spot back in June of 2004. The Portugal native spent 12 of her 15 WNBA seasons in Sacramento before playing with Los Angeles and Chicago and then retiring in 2012. She led the WNBA in assists a record seven times in her career.
“Sue is one of the top point guards in the world,” said Penicheiro. “I’m a huge fan of her. Now that I’m retired I can be a total fan. You have a little bit of a rivalry when we play against each other but she is somebody that has done a lot for the women’s game, not just in the U.S. but all over the world.
“She’s a four-time Olympian, a 10-time all star, somebody that I respect tremendously not just on the court, but off the court and who she is as a person as well. So I’m happy that if someone is going to take your spot that it’s somebody with the class of Sue Bird.”
Bird says she really didn’t have one particular player that she modeled her game after, but had favorite players growing up that she enjoyed watching. One of those was former NBA point guard Mike Bibby for a variety of reasons.
“It started when he was at Arizona. He wore number 10, he’s a little bowlegged, we have a lot of similarities in that way,” she said with a laugh. “But also he was the type of point guard that could get his teammates the ball but also could score. Sometimes at the spot it can be a challenge for players to find that balance and I always thought he had a really good balance in that way and I try to have that in my own game.”
When it comes to balancing scoring and distributing, no player has done it better in the WNBA than Bird. Take a look at these numbers:
Bird has assisted on 1,920 two-point shots and 690 3-point shots. That gives her a total of 5,910 points that she has created with her assists. That is just 70 more points than the 5,840 points she has scored herself. Not only is Bird now the WNBA’s all-time assist leader, she is also the ninth-leading scorer in league history and is just one point shy of Becky Hammon for eighth place.
Among the top 30 scorers of all time, only two players (Bird and Lindsay Whalen) have more than 2,000 assists and only five players (Bird, Whalen, Diana Taurasi, Hammon and Cappie Pondexter) have more than 1,500 assists.
Between the points she’s scored on her own and the points she’s created with her assists, Bird has been responsible for 11,750 points during her 15-year WNBA career.
This is definitely a point of separation between Bird and Penicheiro. The former record holder was a true pass-first point guard that finished with nearly as many assists (2,599) as she did points scored (2,747) in her career.
“Playing against her was always tough,” Bird said of her matchups with Penicheiro. “This is what makes Ticha so special; you knew what Ticha did, you knew what she did well, you knew what she was trying to do and you still couldn’t really stop it. You knew that when she penetrated she was always looking for her teammate and even knowing that you still couldn’t stop her from doing it.”
While it was a rarity to see Penicheiro look for her own shot, Bird has always been able to know when to set up her teammates and when to call her own number. She could just as easily thread the needle between multiple defenders to find a teammate cutting to the basket as she could execute the pick and roll to knock down a pull-up jumper or knock down a dagger 3-pointer with the game on the line.
Bird has been doing this night in and night out for 15 seasons as she has averaged at least 10 points and four assists in each season of her career. While her scoring peaked back in 2011 when she average 14.7 points per game, she is close to completing the best season of her career in terms of assists.
“I think it’s just the way that our team operates; I just try to make the right pass at the right time,” said Bird of her career-best 6.6 assists per game. “We’re ranked pretty high offensively in a lot of categories, so we have a lot of people on this team who can put the ball in the basket, and I think that’s really where all of that comes from.”
Of course the greatest point guard in league history would credit her teammates for her accomplishments. And it doesn’t stop at just teammates.
“I think truthfully what’s even more impressive is, yes I’m having a career year in assists, and then there are still two players who are a having better year in assists-wise,” she said. “It’s the year of the assist, so it makes me happy. Because I think assists and what that means in our game in terms of point guard play at times can be undervalued. So now you have Courtney Vandersloot who is filling it up, Layshia Clarendon is having a career year, so it’s great to see point guards doing their jobs.”
Not only does Bird celebrate the play of her point guard rivals in Chicago and Atlanta, respectively, she is also encouraged about the next generation of point guards and how they will play the position.
“What’s interesting about the point guard position is that it had evolved prior to me entering the WNBA, and it’s going to continue to evolve,” said Bird. “And I think what you see now is situations where you look at Skylar Diggins-Smith as an example, Tanisha Wright even before Skylar is another example in her last couple years in New York. You had these guards who can really put up big numbers in the scoring column playing that point guard spot.
“And like I said earlier trying to find that balance and it might be shifting more toward a scoring mentality, but it works. When you have five threats on the floor that’s always a valuable thing. So I think as time goes, Odyssey Sims is another good example, where you have these players that, yes they can run their teams as far as assists go they put up numbers there as well. But if you don’t pay attention they can also drop 20 plus points on you.”
Players like Vandersloot, Clarendon, Diggins-Smith and other young point guards will have their work cut out for them if they hope to challenge Bird’s record – wherever that may end up. Considering Bird is averaging a career-high in assists in her 15th season and showing little sign of wearing down, she could push the record toward 3,000 dimes if she chooses to continue to play a few more seasons.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Bird said of how high she can push the record. “I didn’t necessarily come into this league thinking about this milestone so I don’t really think on my way out I’ll be thinking about it either. I’ll just let the chips fall where they may.”
“I think the record is in good hands,” said Penicheiro.