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Our Favorite Passers in NBA History

An ode to the outlets, entries, nutmegs, dimes, cross-court passes, behind-the-back throws, and between-the-legs assists that we’ll always remember

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is teeming with talent from the backcourt to the frontcourt, but even as space and versatility have changed the way we evaluate player roles, there still is no position that captures the fan imagination quite like the point guard. This week, we’re celebrating the masters of tempo, the architects of system, and the athletes who have altered our understanding of game management. There is no consensus on who—or what—constitutes as the “best,” but it’s always a conversation worth having. Welcome to the Great Point Guard Debate.

Everyone loves a good poster dunk, but the pass is really where it’s at. In honor of the Great Point Guard Debate, the Ringer staff selected their favorite assist artists in NBA history and the passes that put them on the map.

Jason Williams

John Gonzalez: I primarily use my elbows to bend my arms. They’re good for that. I also enjoy propping my elbows on a table while eating, good manners be damned. Once or twice, when bored, I tried that thing where you see how many quarters you can balance on one elbow before trying to catch them with the same hand. I’m not sure what the record is for that, but I won’t break it anytime soon.

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What I have never used my elbows for is passing a basketball. It would have never occurred to me to try such a thing, because such a thing seems silly and inefficient and even impossible —or at least it did, until I saw Jason Williams do it the first time.

We should make it clear that Jason Williams was not good at basketball. He was a terrible shooter and a worse defender. I do not care about those things. Nor do I care that the above pass occurred during the rookies vs. sophomores exhibition game at All-Star Weekend in 2000, or that he should have been called for traveling. What I care about is that—after thousands of years of human civilization, and over 100 years of basketball—Jason Williams invented a way to use his elbow that no one before him ever did. And the best part is that he's still dining out on it—with real celebrities and the faux famous alike.

Arvydas Sabonis

Katie Baker: One of the most creative and audacious passers in NBA history averaged just 2.1 assists per game. The Portland Trail Blazers drafted Arvydas Sabonis 24th overall in the 1986 draft, but Cold War politics precluded him from entering the league for nearly a decade: He was already in his 30s during his rookie season in 1995-96, with the bod of a much older man. (By the time he suited up for his first game with the Blazers, a team doctor quipped he “could qualify for a handicapped parking spot based on the X-ray alone.”) Imagining the 7-foot-3 Lithuanian proto-unicorn playing the entirety of his career in the NBA is one of the league’s great what-ifs. But I digress.

His passing was delightfully disrespectful, a greatest-hits compilation that dabbled in other sports: the two-handed rugby passes, the overhead volleyball tips, the “eyes in the back of his head” something-from-nothings reminiscent of soccer. It all combined for some radical basketball. “Sabonis was Bill Walton as far as passing,” former LSU coach Dale Brown told Sports Illustrated. “He had the skills of Larry Bird and Pete Maravich,” Walton himself told Grantland. Blazers backup point guard Rumeal Robinson described Sabonis in 1996 to SI as “an oversized Globetrotter from overseas.” If only the NBA had been able to get the big guy when he was an in-his-prime 20-something. Those box scores surely would have been different; those Blazers may have raised extra banners. We can only dream.

LeBron James

Micah Peters: I know that there are other people here in this post saying things that make a certain kind of sense. But they are all wrong because LeBron James is the best passer, however boring it is to say so. But it’s only boring because his aim-assist accuracy makes it that obvious. Remember last season, when he ruined Valentine’s Day for Andrew Wiggins?

It wasn’t off an elbow on a fast break or off a backboard—he does that, too—but it was a no-look bounce pass banked to Derrick Williams on the baseline off of Wiggins’s right leg, and it was thrown so fast that Wiggins saw it coming from the 3-point line and still couldn’t do anything about it. Next question.

Pete Maravich

Jason Concepcion: Pistol Pete Maravich’s shadow looms large over the sport of basketball. Kids around the world still do the handling drills that he, and his domineering father Press, invented. He was the ultimate showman, the hot dog and the mustard. A remorseless scorer, he once hung 68 points, BEFORE THE INVENTION OF THE 3-POINT LINE, on my beloved New York Knicks. And he was the most creative passer of his time. My favorite of his is his brutally deceptive wrist pass—a feigned two-hand forward bounce pass that, in actuality, skids wickedly backward for the trailer.

Now, grab an iced coffee, put up your feet, and watch the best thing you’ll see today.

Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol

Jonathan Tjarks: History will remember the Lakers’ titles in 2009 and 2010 as Kobe Bryant’s fourth and fifth rings, but those teams were so much more than him. The Lakers closed games with Pau at the 5 and Odom, the Sixth Man of the Year in 2011, at the 4. Their two big men would alternate in the high post and low post, whipping passers to cutters, drawing double-teams and kicking the ball back out to shooters, and playing high-low basketball with each other. When executed correctly by intelligent big men, the triangle is beautiful basketball.

Everything worked in concert. In this sequence, Odom knows where the ball is going before he flashes to the high post. As soon as he catches it, he’s finding Pau cutting to the rim:

It worked just as well with the roles reversed. The Lakers were interchangeable upfront. In this sequence, Pau is posting up, but he’s really just watching Odom’s man. As soon as he comes over, Odom is cutting to the rim, and Pau hits him with a beautiful wrap-around pass:

Don’t remember them for how their careers ended (or, in Gasol’s case, is ending). These guys were incredible basketball players.

Ricky Rubio

Megan Schuster: Ricky Rubio’s been doing this shit since he was 14.

Back in 2005, during his first professional game in the ACB, he dropped no-look dimes and alley-oops from all over the floor. His passing skill in the Spanish league quickly became a thing of legend and made him an important figure in U.S. basketball circles, with the American media calling him things like “prodigy,” “big time,” and “La Pistola” (after Pistol Pete Maravich). And with good reason.

Rubio’s style was clearly developed when he was young —nothing that fun and uninhibited could be created by an adult—but he’s fine-tuned it with experience. By the time he hit the NBA, he was fooling defenders with fake behind-the-back passes only to whizz a simple bounce pass by them; the league overcorrected because no one wanted to wind up on the other end of his highlight reel. In the 12 years since his first pro outing, Rubio’s turned the untamed, youthful, and just-a-little-bit-reckless ACB version of himself into a more polished NBA passer. But he’s still got the ability to flick his wrist and make the ball disappear.

Rajon Rondo

Kevin O’Connor: Before Twitter existed and NBA Reddit blossomed, many of us stayed up late to watch the SportsCenter “Top 10.” I did it for the entertainment value, but also as a bit of a hate-watch. It was borderline infuriating to see open-court dunks make the night’s list rather than spectacular passes that were just as magical as a Houdini trick.

Dunks are cool and fun, but I always wondered why the worldwide leader didn’t appreciate passing the way I did. I was a grouchy basketball hipster. Naturally Rajon Rondo resonated with me more than any other player. He had pure imagination on the basketball court.

Aside from the highlights that come up when you plug “Rondo” into YouTube, Rondo transfixed me because of his elite efficiency as a passer. His accuracy was top-notch; he always seemed to put it exactly where the intended receiver wanted it. He put perfect velocity on the ball, like a star NFL quarterback would. It’s painful to the core that Rondo has dissolved into a ball-hogging eyesore on the basketball court, but the magic that once grew my love for the game still remains. I’m thankful for Rajon Rondo.

Steve Nash

Paolo Uggetti: If Kobe Bryant was the NBA player that made a kid born in the ’90s fall in love with his shooting, Steve Nash left you head over heels with passing.

Nash made the strongest case for the “He’s got eyes on the back of his head” cliché. It was like he had a sixth sense combined with hands that acted as accurate projectile springboards. Look at this sorcery:

Nash dribbled and passed behind his back like his hands had magnets that kept the ball within his grasp at all times. His vision on the fast break made you believe he saw the game in slow motion. It was like he took the pill from Limitless before every game and played on a different spatial plane.

Gary Payton

Justin Verrier: My favorite players are the fuck-you players. My favorite passes are the fuck-it passes. Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul may fill the role of the former in today’s NBA, and Milos Teodosic, with his recent display of unnecessarily flashy passing in the preseason, is making a strong push for the latter. But no one fills both of my heart’s requirements quite like Gary Payton.

Payton, a trash-talk virtuoso, was always at his best when he applied that same lust to show up an opponent to his actual game. It most memorably came through on defense—“The Glove,” steals, etc.—but it was most enjoyable when he decided, usually in midair, to dish it off between his legs or behind the back, just because he could.

It was the perfect counter to the raw power and leaping ability of Shawn Kemp. There hasn’t been a better alley-oop combination since, and there maybe never will.

Jason Kidd

Danny Chau: My favorite passes reestablish order in chaos, which means my favorite passes were Jason Kidd passes. Kidd is second all-time in career steals (and there is no one from this generation even remotely on pace to catch him), and in the split second when possession changed hands and there was momentary disorder, Kidd seemed to have the ability to slow everything down and map out the routes that his teammates were taking as they leaked down court.

His hand-eye coordination had the power to tell time; it’s the only way to explain the video above, where Kidd spends half of the play stealing the ball with his back facing his own goal, only to turn and immediately toss a low, tumbling bowling hook that lurched down court and reached Lucious Harris at the perfect moment in stride. The magic in Kidd wasn’t always the physics of the pass, it was in his ability to manipulate space according to his internal clock.

Kobe Bryant

Matt James: As any die-hard Laker fan can tell you, Kobe Bryant ranks 29th among the NBA’s all-time assist leaders (6,306). The Black Mamba racked up more assists than Jerry West, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone …

I’m sorry, I can’t keep this up for even one more sentence. I’m just kidding. I’m not going to tell you that Kobe Bryant was one of the great dish-dealers of all time. His career per-game assist average (4.69) ended up being marginally better than NBA legend Luke Ridnour (4.47). Kobe was one of the most notoriously selfish superstars the NBA has ever seen. But just because Kobe didn’t love passing to other teammates doesn’t mean that he can’t be on this list of great passers. Kobe Bryant was one of the most elegant passers the league has ever seen whenever he linked up with Kobe Bryant.

Magic Johnson

Haley O’Shaughnessy: History remembers Magic Johnson, the league's greatest passer, fondly: The ahead-of-his-time point guard–forward hybrid still tops the NBA in career assists per game (11.19) and nearly all postseason records in the category. To name a few: most in a single playoffs (303 in 1988); most career postseason assists (2,346); the two highest averages in a single playoffs (15.21, 15.07); sole possession or a tie for the six top slots for the most assists during a Finals game; the top four rankings in a Finals series; most career assists throughout the Finals (584); and tied for the most ever assists in a playoff game (24, with John Stockton).

But even that chart-topping list doesn’t properly glorify how it feels to watch Magic. (Present tense, yes, because I’ve only been alive long enough to see the documentaries. I asked my dad two years ago if he saw Giannis was playing point forward; he told me, very simply, we had one of those, too.) No stat really shows the visionary behind those record-breaking dimes, a contorted 6-foot-9 Magic hurling a bounce pass midtransition to James Worthy underneath. Defenders were always a step behind, and so was the crowd, whipping their collective heads to trail the ball.

Nikola Jokic

Jordan Coley: Nikola Jokic is not only the best passing center in the NBA, he is one the best passing players in the NBA. When we talk about great passers, we often focus on their amazing vision. But with “The Joker,” that feels silly. The dude’s proved time and time again that seeing the player he’s passing to or the general direction that his passes are headed in are not necessities.

Jokic has the reaction time of a F1 driver and the spacial sense of an Earthbender. This past February, the 6-foot-10 Serbian center made it to the semifinals of the NBA skills challenge at All-Star Weekend, just barely losing to the Unicorn himself. Don’t be surprised if he fixes that result next year.