From willing passer to league leader, LeBron James is ready to dish

In Year 17, James is making his push for all-time status

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

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Jan 3, 2020 11:26 AM ET

LeBron James is looking to his teammates more than ever, averaging a league-high 10.9 assists.

LeBron James held a 35th birthday party the other day and invited the entire Lakers team. The players showed up and spent the night puffing cigars, eating well and laughing loud. By all accounts, the private black-tie affair was on the celebratory level of any post-Oscar bash. LeBron did playfully grouse how he “had to pay for my own party” but whatever cash he burned through was a small price for unforgettable fun and camaraderie.

And yet, those very same players have benefitted far greater from LeBron’s generosity in another way, specifically by how he treats them on game nights, from tip to buzzer. To put it simply: if they’re open, the ball is finding them. The player who spent dollars for his party also drops dimes for his teammates.

The assists this season are rising right along with his case for being the most complete player in NBA history. LeBron is pushing the limits of his ability to distribute the ball, which was remarkable even before 2019-20. His Laker mates are keeping their heads swiveling, realizing that a timely bounce pass or lob will come their way if they work hard enough to spring free.

He’s fun, because you know he’ll always find you."

Anthony Davis on LeBron's passing

LeBron is leading the NBA in assists at 10.9 per game, the highest mark of his career (previous high: 9.1 in 2017-18), and is the only player averaging in double-figures so far this season. It's extremely rare for a scorer. In most cases, players who routinely get 25 or so points don’t throw the ball -- they ask for it. LeBron’s style of play, however, is far from routine.

His unselfish manner isn’t anything new; LeBron has always been a willing passer -- even while playing mainly power forward -- and the career numbers reflect that. He’s ninth all-time in assists (9,021) and will almost certainly pass Isiah Thomas (9,061) at No. 8 this season. The other seven ahead of LeBron (in order) are John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Mark Jackson, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and the still-active Chris Paul. Perhaps next season he’ll crack 10,000, especially if he remains in his current role and stays healthy.

 
LeBron James dished out his 9,000th career assist in December.

Since opening night, LeBron has been the Lakers’ point guard. This comes somewhat as a surprise because the Lakers initially wanted to ease LeBron’s multitasking, especially coming off a season where he suffered his first significant injury and missed 22 games. They also happen to have Rajon Rondo.

Coach Frank Vogel, in his first interview after taking the job last summer, was initially cool on the idea of LeBron being the point man. But after consulting with LeBron and the coaching staff, he decided the Lakers were best with the ball in LeBron’s hands as often as possible, especially after Rondo was injured to start the season. 

There’s a hunch among some Lakers folks that LeBron will not only finish as the assists leader this season, but that he desperately wants the title. It would set him apart from other greats in that sense and give him a unique place in history. The only other unconventional assists leader was Wilt Chamberlain in 1967-68. Wilt wanted to shatter the perception of him being a selfish scorer. (While Wilt did compile more assists than anyone that season, he did not have the highest per-game average. Back then, the league back then recognized total assists instead of average, something that changed three seasons later.)

The only drawback is LeBron’s hike in turnovers -- his 3.8 per game ranks sixth in the NBA. The Lakers will live with that because, more often than not, something positive happens when the play starts with LeBron. 

Not only are LeBron’s passes hitting the intended target, they’re entertaining as well. His signature passes are the cross-court bullets to teammates standing behind the 3-point stripe in the corners, reaching them in time for open jumpers. It’s also not unusual to see LeBron take risks, for the sake of flair, by throwing bounce passes in traffic to a teammate cutting toward the rim.

There’s not a pass that he can’t throw ... So when I see the numbers this season, I’m not surprised. He’s done it for a long time.”

Suns coach Monty Williams, on LeBron James

Yet the most effective pass usually ends up in the hands of Anthony Davis, and it’s not a coincidence that LeBron’s assists are up in his first season with Davis. Per NBA Advanced Stats, Davis has been the recipient of 25.4% of LeBron's assists (102), more than double the No. 2 recipient (Danny Green, 17.6% and 44 assists). Last season, the player most targeted by LeBron was Kyle Kuzma (who is now a valuable reserve).

Right from the start, LeBron said one of his goals is to connect with Davis and make him feel comfortable. One way is to feed him whenever possible, if only to cement a connection with a player who suffered losing seasons in New Orleans and manipulated a trade to L.A. chiefly to play alongside LeBron.

“I mean, he’s fun, because you know he’ll always find you,” Davis said. “That’s just the way he is.”

 
Take an all-access look at the Lakers' practice.

LeBron says his goal is to make everyone comfortable, not just Davis, and elevate the play of L.A.'s role players. He’s had that gene almost from the time he first embraced the game. Not only is he a great passer, he’s a willing passer.

“When I was a little kid I was somewhat better than some of my teammates,” he said. “My coach said it’s a much greater reward for you to get your teammates who can’t dribble or score for themselves an open look. We won the championship and we kept winning and winning and I knew that was the right way to play.”

In LeBron’s rookie season -- when he had the weakest supporting cast of his career -- he averaged 5.9 assists. That number perhaps would’ve been greater with more accurate shooters around him. Still, that 5.9 apg is a career low. By comparison, Damian Lillard’s career average is 6.4 apg.

 
Where will LeBron James rank on the all-time lists when his career is over?

There were times in the last 16 years when LeBron was accused of being too unselfish, especially late in games. Even if it was the right basketball play to find the open man, critics demanded LeBron take the shot whenever the game was on the line. In the 2012 All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant playfully scolded LeBron for passing in the final seconds of a tight contest. Through it all, LeBron refused to change his mindset, then and now. 

“He’s an underrated passer when you think about it,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “I mean, how many guys in the history of the game, 6-8, 6-9, 265 pounds can throw full-court passes off the dribble? In today’s game you think of Kevin Love throwing the standstill pass but nobody can throw off the dribble at that size. There’s not a pass that he can’t throw -- lob pass, bounce pass, all of his passes are on the button. So when I see the numbers this season, I’m not surprised. He’s done it for a long time.”

LeBron is the only player in history to be top 10 in scoring and assists and the only player to crack 33,000 points, 9,000 assists and 9,000 rebounds. Only five players -- Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jerry West, Tiny Archibald and Oscar Robertson -- have both scoring and assist titles to their name. LeBron would be the sixth if this keeps up.

In a best-case scenario where he stays healthy and motivated, LeBron can pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the all-time scoring leader and finish second to Stockton on the assists list. That would be a strong argument for being appointed as the game’s premier player.

Given his size and his true position, LeBron’s closest comparison as a passer is Larry Bird. Although in a sense, Bird was slightly more impressive, given his era. He played when point guards dominated the ball and were appointed as the official quarterback. Bird almost never crossed midcourt with the ball, or dominated it as much as LeBron, or played point-forward. His assists, by and large, came in the flow of the game by instinct and through spontaneous creativity.

As he ages and creeps into his twilight, the one element of LeBron’s game that will suffer the least slippage is his passing. It’s just another reason to suspect LeBron will find a way to thrive well beyond his 17th NBA season.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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