Since his arrival in 2003, LeBron James has been one of the NBA’s most gifted passers. During what was his first game in the league, on the road against the Sacramento Kings, the highlight everyone remembers is James’ first dunk, both legs behind him as his arm cocked back at a logo-ready angle, effectively making him an 18-year-old greater-than sign. With the Cavs down 3-0 following a Peja Stojakovic trey, James quickly beat two Sacramento defenders down the floor before stopping at the free throw line and delivering a pin-point lob to Ricky Davis for an alley-oop finish.
Over the subsequent decade, James’ passing had taken a back seat as the four-time MVP has frequently been amongst the league’s most prolific scorers, averaging 27.7 points per game heading into 2016-17, and winning the scoring title in 2008. At 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, James is the consummate matchup nightmare. He’s too quick for most power forwards, too big and explosive for most wings. Having the ball in his hands when points are of the utmost importance makes sense given his ability to dominate at a moments notice.
Something changed, however, following the Cavaliers’ first championship. James, now just weeks away from turning 32, has altered his game to one more commensurate with a point guard. Professional basketball players entering their 30s oftentimes change the way they play. Los Angeles’ Chris Paul’s game has morphed from an under-the-rim style early in his career to one of a mid-range and three-point style that has seen considerably less wear and tear on his body. Most fans will remember Ray Allen for being a lethal shooter from long range while forgetting his participation in the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest. While James won’t necessarily admit that his focus on facilitating may have more long-term benefits in mind, the three-time NBA champion is finally on a team where his passing skills can be exploited while not having a negative impact on the final score.
Entering this week, James, a small forward who plays power forward when needed but also backs up point guard Kyrie Irving1, was fourth in the NBA in assists per game (9.2) trailing a trio of ball-dominant guards in Houston’s James Harden (11.6) Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (11.3), and Washington’s John Wall (9.9). Conversely, also entering this week, James was averaging the fewest amount of field goals attempted per game in his career (17.2), only to see that number increase over the last few games due to the loss of Channing Frye (personal) and J.R. Smith (knee).
Frequently dishing to the wing for open threes, or into the paint as multiple defenders converge, James’ passing has been an integral ingredient in the Cavs’ fourth-best, league-wide offensive efficiency. If you ask James, however, the basis for this increase in assists is nothing more than his teammates stepping up when called upon.
“Guys are making shots,” he said following the Cavs’ win over the Dallas Mavericks in late November. “They still have to knock down the shots, so that’s how I get the assists—it’s those guys working on their craft that allows me to do that… We have two workhorses who are capable of doing anything. Kyrie is playing more off the ball this year. Kev [Kevin Love] is catching and shooting. Channing, J.R. [Smith], the rest of the group.. They’re knocking down the shots, I’m just getting the assists.”
As is usually the case, James is selling himself short. Players at any level of basketball can pass the ball—it’s a fundamental part of the game that is incorporated into feet shuffling drills at camps around the country. James, however, takes things to an entire new level given the location of his passes depending upon not just the spot on the floor, but the player in whom the pass is designed for.
“For me, I just got to put the ball where all my guys have to do is catch and finish,” said James. “It’s my responsibility to know how my guys want the ball—no seams, with seams. I just get the ball right in my hand before I throw it. I know the guys on the team who like it with seams, the guys who don’t, the guys who like it high when they catch it, the guys who like it low… I know exactly where my guys want the ball so I just try to put it there on time, on target.”
If you’re sitting back reading this, wondering just how a player knows how to deliver a pass with such preciseness than the seams of the basketball are in a certain place, welcome to the world of LeBron James. Everything that others are doing as a fundamental, he’s doing at a level entirely foreign to not just those who cover the game, but many who play it. It’s also a big reason why, heading into this week, James’ passes to Kevin Love and Channing Frye beyond the three-point line have delivered the same point probability as a dunk.2
Also common to James is using precise word choice. In this case, an emphasis on James’ kicker—”on time, on target,” as in, not all passes are created equally.
“There’s one thing that’s constant in the game of basketball, no matter what level or what team you play on,” Cavs forward Richard Jefferson recently told WFNY. “The term called ‘on time, on target.’ On time is hit him when he’s open. Don’t wait to see if you can get a shot off and then say ‘OK I can’t, I’m going to throw it to you.’ Receiving a pass on time will increase your shooting percentage exponentially. Targets vary. It’s like a strike zone in baseball. For J.R., as long as you get it to his hands on time, he’ll do something with it. Ky might catch it and put it on the ground. Guys like myself, Dun [Mike Dunleavy Jr.], Channing [Frye]…You get it to us on time, it will increase how well we shoot.
“It will always be a thing in the game of basketball.”
On Monday night, as the Cavaliers were battling it out in Toronto against the Raptors, it was power forward Kevin Love who had 20 points at the half and converted on six of the Cavs’ 14 threes as a team. A key three for Love came off of a miss by James who, while wondering why he didn’t get a whistle blown in his favor, simultaneously kicked the ball out to the corner for a ready-and-waiting Love. The result was a crucial three-pointer given the back-and-forth nature of the game.
In the same regard, while Love’s shooting numbers are much better when passes are delivered from No. 23, James isn’t perfect all of the time—such is the case when 260-pound men are moving at full speed, but I digress. On this play, as Love is sliding into the left corner, Love has to stretch to his left to receive the pass, throwing his shooting motion off just enough.
Against the Bulls a few days earlier, it was Frye who was playing the role of super-efficient big man, making five of six attempts. Of these attempts, Frye was a perfect 2-of-2 on contested shots, but he would miss one of his uncontested shots. The difference? Ball placement.
Here is one of Frye’s five conversions. Notice where the ball hits the veteran stretch five before he shoots, and how quickly he is able to get into his shooting motion before the release.
On the flip side, when Frye has to extend like a wide receiver attempting to stay in bounds, things do not exactly go as planned. Here’s a late-shot clock, wayward pass from James who tosses this assist temp just a bit outside. Frye even has to adjust his feet, completely altering his spacing.
As if James actual assist total wasn’t already impressive, another area in which James is thriving is in secondary assists, or “hockey” assists, wherein a basket is created but the penultimate pass is from the hands of James with the assist going to a teammate. In Monday night’s win against the Toronto Raptors, James was credited with four secondary assists—the same amount as the entire Raptors roster. In addition to dropping 13 assists in Friday’s loss to the Chicago Bulls, James added two secondary assists and one that led to a teammate getting to the free throw line. The result? Love is averaging 5.4 more points per game this season than last, shooting 30 points better from the floor and 71 points better from three-point range. Kyrie Irving, the team’s on-paper point guard (who is averaging 4.7 assists per game) has seen his scoring bump up nearly five points per game to a team-high 24.4 per night. And Frye, who was acquired midway through last season and did not play in the NBA Finals due to perceived matchup issues, is fourth on the Cavs in scoring, averaging 10.7 per night, a 4.7-point jump over 2016-17, large in part to him shooting a career-best 47.3 percent from three-point range.
“For me, it’s just getting to open spots,” James’ long-time teammate James Jones tells WFNY. “It’s your job to get there. It’s not always [James] chasing our targets as much as us chasing his. Get it to my hands. Sometimes it’s not going to be delivered to your perfect point—that lane just won’t be there. It forces you to progress as a shooter. He can put you in a position to be effective, but you have to take it.”
On opening night of the 2016-17 season, James doled out 14 assists in a Cavaliers win over New York. While that number is impressive in its own right, eight of these resulted in three-pointers made, showing that not all assists are created equal. On the season, of James’ 166 dimes, 95 of them have resulted in three-pointers (57 percent).3 To put this in perspective, of James Harden’s assists, just 41 percent have resulted in threes, while Russell Westbrook’s total is even lower at 26 percent. Given the current gap on the leader board in per-game totals, James has an uphill battle if he wishes to lead the league in assists, but there is no denying the point-per-assist metric is clearly in James’ favor, and the Cavaliers’ 14-5 record has been a direct product.
There is long-standing rhetoric about certain players in the league making their teammates better, but oftentimes this simply comes down to a guy who can attract plenty of defenders and trusts his teammates enough to defer. Pass location is not a traceable statistic at this point in the NBA world, but given James’ propensity to deliver passes not just to indefensible spots, but to those where his teammates have to get the ball to the rim with minimal effort, it would be shocking if some form of radius-based metrics were not discussed in the not-so-distant future. It’s the least we owe him after 13-plus years of LeBron exhibiting a skill which has been universally taken for granted, seams or not.