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Examining LeBron James' Place Among the NBA's Greatest Passers Ever

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2015

Dec 19, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) makes a pass against the Brooklyn Nets during the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to point a finger at any one facet of LeBron James' game and exclaim, "That's exactly what has made him such a special player!" 

This total package—not just one aspect of his performancehas made him one of the 10 best players in NBA history. He's been an athletic defender capable of shutting down men at numerous positions. He's won a scoring title and can routinely throw up gaudy numbers in the points column while maintaining his jaw-dropping levels of efficiency. 

But after his most recent accomplishment, Dan Feldman explained for ProBasketballTalk, "LeBron's scoring might get most of the attention, but records like this are why he rates highly among the all-time greats. His all-around game—which also includes rebounding and, at times in his career, defending—is on another level."

If James seems to pride himself on any one thing, it would be his passing. That's why he celebrated his moving ahead of Scottie Pippen to become the leading frontcourt assist man in NBA history after a Tuesday night victory over the Detroit Pistons:

As he told reporters after the game, via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin, this accomplishment meant more than passing Allen Iverson in scoring. "Way more," in fact:

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It means way more than what I did passing Allen Iverson on Sunday. I've always took a lot of pride and I get more of a rush seeing my teammates succeed more than myself. And that's what an assist is all about. I was taught the game the right way and seeing my teammates succeed has always been something that I've cared about more than anything and that's what it's all about.

James has so often played the role of point forward, whether he's been with the Cleveland Cavaliers or Miami Heat. He runs the show in transition, but he also controls the offense in the half-court set, where he can display a level of vision that should belong to a player who stands under six feet, not a behemoth of a man who can serve as a truck when barreling toward the rim.

Whether he's making relatively simple drive-and-kicks or throwing his near-patented cross-court skips to an open teammate on the perimeter, James has a knack for racking up the dimes. 

First, let's take a gander at where he stands among the frontcourt pack. You can also click over to see active players only, assuming you want James to stand out even more:

Keep in mind that the four-time MVP just turned 30, and that he doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. In fact, he's averaging 7.3 assists per game this season, and that number might only go up as he loses some of his athleticism to the clutches of Father Time and is forced to transition into even more of a playmaker.

But let's be conservative.

If we assume that James finishes this season at his current pace, averages "only" six assists per game for the rest of his career, plays another six years (which, again, is conservative) and suits up in 75 games each season, here's what the leaderboard would then look like: 

Is there any doubt that he's the greatest frontcourt passer of all time?

His total is inevitably going to blow Pippen's out of the water. No one else is going to be even remotely close to him when he hangs up the sneakers, and the same is true if we dig a bit below the surface. 

Assists per game shine a similarly favorable light on James, and the same is true of the advanced metric known as assist percentage. Approximating the percentage of shots made by teammates that a player assisted while he was on the floor, it's the top single-number look at how involved someone is in the passing game. 

Let's take a peek at how James fares among frontcourt players in these two more telling categories, as playing time and longevity are no longer going to be such major factors. Do note that as a qualifier, players must have suited up in at least 400 games, or else we'd be looking at passing standouts who are working with much smaller samples, whether due to short careers or ones that are still in their infancy:

Again, James leaves everyone else in the dust, particularly if we look only at active players.

His assist percentage is absolutely ridiculous for a non-guard, to the point that he actually has the top three single-season assist percentages among all frontcourt members in NBA history. In fact, he's so dominant in this one category that it's worth taking a look at the actual one-year standings.

Here's the top 15: 

What's most impressive is that before anybody other than Tracy McGrady shows up, we've already got one season from each era of James' career—his first stint with Cleveland, his time in Miami and this current season with the Cavs. 

This is now James' 12th go-round at the professional level. His worst assist percentage (27.8) came during his rookie year; it's still one of the top 25 single-season marks by a frontcourt player in NBA history. His 2006-07 campaign ranks No. 20, and you can see the other 10 in the above graphic.

Putting it another way, James' worst season as a passer, which was produced as a 19-year-old rookie straight out of high school, was superior—by assist percentage, at least—to anything produced by every frontcourt player in NBA history not named Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Tom Boerwinkle, Toni Kukoc, Allan Bristow, Larry Bird and Vlade Divac.

ORLANDO, FL - FEBRUARY 27:  LeBron James #23 (R) of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks with Tracy McGrady #1 of the Orlando Magic during the game at TD Waterhouse Centre on February 27, 2003 in Orlando, Florida.  The Cavaliers won in overtime 112-107.   NOTE T
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

His second-worst campaign eliminates Bird and Divac from the list, while his third-worst allows only McGrady, Hill and Boerwinkle to stick around.

Please proceed to pick your jaw up off the floor.

But enough with isolating this conversation to forwards and centers. James doesn't deserve to be pigeonholed into that classification, as he's always put up numbers in the assist column that need to be compared to guards.

First, let's look at total assists among all players, regardless of position. James currently ranks No. 27, and it's likely that he'll pass Jerry West by the end of the season, leaving him just shy of Norm Nixon and the all-time top 25. 

But let's use those projections once more, which have James conservatively finishing with 8,988 dimes. It's a total he'll easily surpass if he A) proves his health issues upon his return to northeast Ohio were a one-year fluke, B) plays beyond his age-36 season or C) continues to average more than six assists per game.

Still, let's run with it and see what the leaderboard would look like at that hypothetical end point:

Andre Miller will move up slightly, while Chris Paul, who currently sits at 6,671, should continue to place ahead of James. But even if we move the Cleveland superstar down one more spot in the rankings—there's no one else in sniffing distance at this stage, as you can see by looking at active players only—he's still going to be one of the 10 best assist men in NBA history.

Yes, no matter what position we're talking about.

He'll be ahead of point guard legends like Gary Payton, Bob Cousy and Kevin Johnson. He'll have a distinct shot at beating my conservative estimate and passing Isiah Thomas. If he averages seven assists per game and plays the same number of games but sticks around until he's 37, he'll even surpass Oscar Robertson. Beyond that, there's an outside shot that he could become the sixth—maybe the seventh, depending on Paul—player to hit a five-digit figure in the assist category if he sticks around long enough.

Dec 2, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) throws a bounce pass in the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

In the other categories, James is similarly elite, though he doesn't quite register at the very top of the heap. Among players with at least 400 games under their belts, this particular forward sits at No. 27 in assists per game, though he's trending in the right direction and could eventually move into the top 25. When looking at assist percentage, he's at No. 28.

So what does that say about James' overall placement among the game's greatest passers? 

He's without question the top frontcourt distributor in the history of the Association, and he's been so remarkably effective that he deserves to have his name bandied about with the top passing point guards in NBA annals. 

Think about it this way: If you were taking these legends and letting each franchise claim one to run the show, with the condition that they can only function as a pass-first player, James would be one of the 30 choices. There simply aren't 30 men who have had better careers as distributors, despite the myriad point guards who have laced up their sneakers on an NBA court over the many decades of this league's history.

And again, James has never just been an assist man.

How many of the players who would be taken ahead of him can claim that?

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into Feb. 25's games.