EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — By almost any statistical measure, Lakers star LeBron James has been the best passer in the NBA this year.
James is on track to lead the NBA in assists per game (10.9) for the first time in his career, but it’s not as simple as that. He’s also leading the league in assist points created (27.3) and potential assists (19.2), according to NBA.com. He’s also leading all players creating at least seven assists per game in assist to pass percentage (16.5), meaning that nearly a fifth of his passes are leading directly to points for his team.
Still, none of those stats sum up the area where James has been most brilliant, and most far ahead of his peers: the backcourt-to-paint pass.
Going into the Lakers’ 124-115 win against the Houston Rockets on Saturday night, no player in the NBA had passed the ball from their own backcourt into the opposing team’s paint as much as James (53), according to Second Spectrum tracking data. No one is really close to James, either, as James has made nearly as many such passes as the players ranked second (D’Angelo Russell, 29) and third (Trae Young, 27) in that statistic combined.
Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel said he’s never seen a player as good as James in that area.
“Short answer, no,” Vogel said. “I mean, Kevin Love is a great outlet guy, but not the way LeBron does it.”
The way LeBron does it has been a weapon for the Lakers, who don’t rank at or near the top of the NBA in pace (they’re currently ranked 16th, although it should be noted Vogel thinks pace is “one of the most misleading stats in the league”). But the team has been effective when they do get out in transition, ranking seventh in the league in transition points per game (21.7), and spending the sixth-highest percentage of their possessions in transition (17%) of any team, according to NBA.com.
In other words, the Lakers are having a ton of success while running selectively, and James’ ability to ignite breaks in this unique way has been a key weapon in that. It’s a skill Vogel said he and his coaching staff saw the star using when they watched film of last year’s team, so while it’s something they encouraged James to do, Vogel didn’t want to act like they had re-invented the wheel.
“It’s something that he does naturally that I’ve taught with past teams, that we’ve encouraged with him and with all of our guys. Run the floor, run your patterns, and whoever is getting the outlet or the rebound, make sure as soon as that ball touches your fingertips that you have your eyes down the floor and that you can see those passes,” Vogel said.
But as if to illustrate that this is something Vogel has always wanted his players to do, he paused his explainer of what he calls the “no-dribble advance pass” — when James or another player grabs a rebound and instantly looks for a scoring chance for one of the Lakers streaking up the court — to praise his daughter, Arianna, for making a good one the other day.
“By the way, my daughter had a great one yesterday in her eighth grade girls basketball game. I was praising her for it,” Vogel said, pausing and looking directly into the camera the Lakers had set up for his post-practice interview. “Good job, Ari! Great job!”
But just like his daughter’s unnamed teammate who caught and finished said pass, Vogel says that James’ success at such feeds is also a credit to his teammates this season, particularly the long arms and steady hands of Anthony Davis.
“You’ve got to have wide receivers that you trust will catch the ball and do something smart with it, and (Davis’) catches in transition are near unguardable, and he catches just about everything,” Vogel said.
That wasn’t necessarily the way most expected the James/Davis pairing to be most dominant this season, but it’s been a recipe for success for the Lakers. It’s also a clever way to keep James’ wear and tear down at age 35.
James is averaging the fewest minutes he’s ever played per game (34.9), and his current usage rate (31.5) ranks right towards the middle of the pack in his career, but these passes are just another way a player who perfected the art of resting in games is load managing while on the court.
Among players under 6’10 who are playing at least 30 minutes per game, James ranks fourth-to-last in the league in distance traveled per game (2.34 miles a night, per NBA.com). He ranks second-to-last among such players in average speed while on the court, too (3.77 miles per hour, on average). Seizing a rebound, identifying a streaking teammate and feeding them for a bucket without having to move much is an easy way to keep such numbers low while helping the Lakers’ offense remain effective.
“Easy buckets,” Vogel said simply when asked what the advantage of James’ long feeds into the paint is. “The more you can get attacks on the other team’s basket before your defense is set, the better your offense is going to be.”
All without moving much to boot. It’s just another way for the best passer in the league is giving the Lakers an advantage, while simultaneously utilizing his all-world brain to save his body for when the team actually needs it.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.