SportsPulse: E News All Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt and AJ Neuharth-Keusch discuss a pair of surprising teams, but for different reasons.
CLEVELAND — The full array of LeBron James’ elite passing skills have been on display this season.
From the simple to the sublime, “LeBron the Passer” has dazzled in an area of his game that has been a constant since his rookie season in 2003-04.
He is averaging a career-best 9.1 assists (third in the NBA) this year, and before Saturday’s game against the Utah Jazz, James had three consecutive games with double digits in assists, including matching his career high (17) against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday.
“That’s always been an enjoyment of mine to be able to see my teammates reap the benefits of the passes I just try to put on time and on target,” James said.
James has reached double-figures in assists 11 times this season — seven times resulting in a double-double and four times in a triple-double — and he creates nearly 23 points per game on assists.
At the rate he is accumulating points and assists, James will finish his career as the only player in NBA history to rank in the top-10 in career points and assists.
He is seventh in all-time scoring (29,601) and should pass Dirk Nowitzki and Wilt Chamberlain in the next few seasons, and he’s 11th in all-time assists (7,725) and should move into the top-10 next season.
If James puts together another productive four or five seasons, he could rank in the top five in both categories. The only other player in the top-20 in points and assists: Oscar Robertson.
As he got gotten older and smarter, James’ recognition of what defenses do, especially when he is double-teamed, allows him to find open teammates — often cutting to the basket for a layup or waiting at the three-point line.
“My job is when I have two on the ball or I see a guy running or I see a guy open, just try to put it in his pocket,” James said. “I know how my teammates like the ball. I know if my teammates like laces or no laces or laces out or whatever the case may be. I just try to make them comfortable for when they catch the ball, all they’ve got to do is let it go either from the paint, from the perimeter and we live with the results.”
Nearly half of his assists are on three-pointers, and he is making the most of his passes, too. Of his passes that are labeled potential assists by NBA.com, James’ teammates have scored on 53.8% of those passes.
It helps that James has and has had capable scorers on his team. Of his 264 assists, 69 have gone to Kevin Love, 39 to Jae Crowder, 37 to Kyle Korver, 29 to Jeff Green, 28 to J.R. Smith, 19 to Dwyane Wade and 13 to Channing Frye.
James’ aptitude for passing has led to incredible, did-he-just-do-that assists — no-look passes, behind-the-back and anticipatory passes just out of reach of defenders.
“I can see plays happen before they actually happen,” James said. “It’s been a gift of mine for a long time. My teammates do a great job of making that gift that I have come to fruition at the end of it. I’ve been blessed with the ability to see things before they happen out on the basketball floor.”
Passing is just part of James’ desire to “make the right play” and demonstrates there are ways to impact the game other than scoring.
James elaborated on that last season after the Cavaliers eliminated the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
“It’s been part of the plan since I really started taking this game serious, to say ‘How can I get the youth to feel like passing the ball is OK? Making the extra pass is OK? Drawing two defenders, and no matter if you win or lose, if you make the right play, it’s OK,’ ” James said.
Photos: Week 8 NBA power rankings
Like this topic? You may also like these photo galleries: