Throughout his 17-year NBA career, there isn’t much that Lakers superstar LeBron James hasn’t done. He’s won three NBA titles and four MVP awards. He’s a 15-time (going on 16-time) All-Star and a two-time Olympic Gold medalist. He’s invented statistical categories and shot up the list of countless others. But James, who was often initially compared more to Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan because of his passing prowess, has never led the league in assists. That fact appears as if it will change after this season.
James has always been a willing passer. “The assist has always been my favorite because it gives my teammates an opportunity to score,” he told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin in November. “And that's what's always mattered to me." And entering Tuesday night’s action, the Akron native was the only player in the league averaging double-figure assists per game with 11. If that number holds, it’d be the highest per game average from a player in his 17 season, passing John Stockton, who averaged nearly nine dimes per contest in 2000-01.
While James being his team’s lead facilitator isn’t a novel concept, the extent to which he’s had to orchestrate for his Lakers teammates has been even more central to Los Angeles’ success this season than possibly was expected.
Back in July, Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes first reported that James was moving into the point guard role in 2019-20. Last year, under head coach Luke Walton, any number of players— Lonzo Ball, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Ingram and Lance Stephenson—were all encouraged to create. But it’s clear through nearly half of this season that James, and often James only, has been given the keys to LA’s car.
"We've created an environment where we want to have a primary ball handler, whereas last year it was both LeBron and other guys who could get out and push on the break," head coach Frank Vogel told reporters earlier this year.
James has been the primary ball handler now more than maybe ever before. He leads the league in touches per game with 96.3, his highest total since at least 2013-14, the last year tracking data is published on NBA.com. He’s continued to use either side of the pick and roll, often finding angles that no one else on the floor observes. He sees openings other can’t, sneaking lasers into tight windows that seemingly didn’t exist. And, he effectively controls the Lakers’ transition attack. As James takes on more of a facilitator role, the sheer number of passes made this season also helps separate his year two in Hollywood from year one.
Last year, according to NBA.com, James threw almost 55 passes per game, which was 20 in the league and second most on his own team behind Rajon Rondo. But heading into LA’s Tuesday night matchup with the Knicks, James was throwing the third most passes per game, at 67 per contest. As a further testament to his importance, while he’s giving up the basketball far more than he did in his first season with the Lakers, he is also second in the league in passes received per game, trailing only Hornets breakout star Devonte’ Graham.
James’ immediate connection with fellow superstar Anthony Davis is one reason for the former Cavs star’s uptick in passing. Both members of the duo are near the top of the MVP race, and the 35-year-old James has made sure to find his star forward in a multitude of situations. Of James’ nearly 70 passes per game, nearly 17 of them go to Davis, the most of any of The King’s Laker teammates. James’ 3.2 assists per game to Davis is not surprisingly the highest total of any Lakers pairing and the Kentucky product is shooting close to 50% on passes from James. The duo averages over 25 minutes on the floor together, and the two help anchor LA’s most successful lineups. Last season, James’ most frequent target was Kyle Kuzma, who finds himself in the middle of trade rumors as the February deadline approaches. But Kuzma only received 11% of James’ total passes, a far cry from the more than 25% that Davis receives this year.
The MVP-level pair’s success is why a conversation about how the Lakers’ current duo would fare against Shaq and Kobe isn’t totally unreasonable.
James manipulates defenders both on the break and in the halfcourt, using both his and Davis’ ability to score from all over the court to hold defenders off long enough and eliminate help or quick defensive recoveries. But the roster’s construction also plays a key role in James’ unselfishness.
LA as a whole is leaning more on catch-and-shoot players like Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Quinn Cook—all offseason acquisitions. The addition of Green in particular has paid immediate dividends as the former Raptor has becomes James’ second most frequent target. The star forward often whips passes to the corner or to the wing, finding Green for open threes. Green is taking more than 60% of his shots in catch and shoot situations, converting 38% of such attempts.
Entering the season, Vogel’s task was considerable. In acquiring Davis, LA gutted its roster, returning just five players from last season’s disappointing 37-win team. The jury is still out on how Los Angeles will look in crunch time of big games—see their Christmas Day loss to the Clippers as a further example that the Lakers have plenty of room to grow—but James’ mission to lead the league in assists for the first time coincides with the 30-7 Lakers’ attempt to claim the Western Conference’s top seed.
He is ninth all-time in assists and should pass Isiah Thomas for eight (9,061) sometime this season. Next season, it’s possible he’ll crack 10,000 assists, a plateau only five players have previously reached.
In his famous appearance on the cover of a Feb. 2002 Sports Illustrated, an NBA scout said the following of James: "The most surprising thing is that a guy who could dominate offensively is so unselfish.”
A lot has changed in the years since, but the guy who could, can and has dominated offensively (and defensively) remains as unselfish as ever before.