Like peanut butter and jelly or Drake and Josh from Drake & Josh, some NBA players naturally fit together. Hear the word “Stockton” in a basketball context, and the mind instinctually continues “... and Malone.”
With the NBA shifting from the decade of Big Threes to a new league landscape of Big Twos, these pairings are highly relevant once again. And while there are numerous ways to measure the effectiveness of any pairing of players, one simple, appealing method involves the “Stockton and Malone” of it all—one player passes to a teammate, over and over again, to score a bevy of buckets all season long.
The top two-man assist combination in the 2019-20 season is a new pairing—but it’s not much of a surprise. LeBron James is leading the league in assists for the first time in his storied career, and new teammate Anthony Davis is his favorite target. James-to-Davis is in first place this season, and it’s not particularly close.
In 61 Lakers games before Sunday’s big win over the Clippers, James had assisted 164 Davis baskets this season, per PBPstats.com, which puts that combination on pace for 220 assists in their first run together. That’s a lofty total, especially considering that both players have missed games and that their minutes have been staggered more than almost any other star pairing’s—yet it’s nowhere near the highest on record. (Full play-by-play data extends back to 2000-01.)
So today, we’re going to search for the highest on record. But instead of analyzing only the best single-season assist combinations, which can include bizarre outliers due to the smaller sample—for the 2001-02 Cavaliers, Andre Miller assisted Wesley Person 256 times!—we’ll look over players’ entire multiseason partnerships, for those who played together for at least three seasons. And instead of focusing on the top assists duo based on career totals, we’ll look at the top combinations on a per-season basis—or else we’d merely be rewarding the partnerships who spent the most time together. Overall since 2000-01, the combination with the most total assists is Tony Parker to Tim Duncan, because they shared the court for 15 seasons. But Parker-to-Duncan produced an average of just 102.2 assists per season, which ranks 59th among all combos who played three-plus seasons together.
With those methodological considerations in mind, we’ll count down the best pairings this century in a moment. But first, here’s a look at the top combos who missed out on the top 10. (Because the 2019-20 season isn’t over yet, this ranking doesn’t include this season’s statistics.)
Best Assist Combos Since 2000-01, Outside the Top 10
|Rank||Assister||Scorer||Seasons||Assists per Season|
|Rank||Assister||Scorer||Seasons||Assists per Season|
|11||Rajon Rondo||Ray Allen||5||157.4|
|12||Stephon Marbury||Shawn Marion||3||154.0|
|13||Jason Kidd||Vince Carter||5||152.0|
|14||Jason Kidd||Dirk Nowitzki||5||150.6|
|15||John Wall||Marcin Gortat||5||147.0|
|16||Rajon Rondo||Kevin Garnett||6||146.3|
|17||Russell Westbrook||Steven Adams||6||134.8|
|18||Damian Lillard||Jusuf Nurkic||3||134.7|
|19||Gary Payton||Rashard Lewis||3||134.3|
|20||James Harden||Clint Capela||5||134.0|
|21||Chauncey Billups||Richard Hamilton||7||133.4|
|22||Antoine Walker||Paul Pierce||4||129.5|
|23||Jason Kidd||Kenyon Martin||4||128.5|
|24||Jason Terry||Shareef Abdur-Rahim||3||128.3|
|25 (tie)||Jrue Holiday||Anthony Davis||6||128.0|
|25 (tie)||Jason Williams||Pau Gasol||4||128.0|
As the pairings in this chart and the upcoming top 10 demonstrate, the assister-to-scorer dynamic can manifest in a few different positional archetypes:
The Guard and the Big
The guard-big pick-and-roll has long been an offensive staple at every level of basketball and often inspires the most productive pairings. Not every possession ends the same way—from Gortat’s hammer slams to Nowitzki’s rainbow jumpers—but mastery of the same basic premise can lead to incredible results, as defenses still can’t stop a guard and big with years of familiarity and repetition.
Note that many of the guards here were passers first, scorers second, and many of the bigs didn’t dominate the ball. At All-Star Weekend last month, I asked current players their favorite duos growing up, and many picked Shaq and Kobe. But the Shaq-Kobe partnership was somewhat different than the ones depicted here. Since 2000-01, Kobe assisted Shaq for 117.3 buckets per season, and Shaq assisted Kobe just 45.5 times on average.
Playing in the Triangle system and dominating the ball as they each did, there wasn’t as much opportunity for Shaq and Kobe to assist each other’s made baskets. The relative lack of mutual assists didn’t get in the way of their team success, of course, or their scoring: As I calculated before this season, Shaq and Kobe compiled the top two Big Two scoring seasons in league history and four of the top seven.
But if it seems strange that this ranking would include more Wall-Gortat–style pairings than two-star duos, that’s why.
The Two Guards Together
Backcourt partnerships like Rondo and Allen, or Billups and Hamilton, can thrive in the assists category because when one player subsists on zipping around screens to catch and shoot, well, he needs someone to pass him the ball first. Moreover, long-range shots are much more likely to involve an assist: This season, 81 percent of made 3-pointers have been assisted, versus just 50 percent of made 2-pointers.
Some guards, like Rondo here with Garnett and Allen, maintain robust combos in multiple categories. A lineup with a diverse set of scoring abilities and a pass-happy guard can thrive. (As Rondo and Allen prove, sometimes that success is limited to on-court matters.)
One of the best examples of this kind of fluidity in the 2019-20 season is Spencer Dinwiddie, who ranks 13th this season in assists to one partner (big man Jarrett Allen) and 22nd with another (shooter Joe Harris). And his offense has benefited as a result: With Dinwiddie off the court this season, the Nets’ offensive rating has fallen by 11.2 points per 100 possessions—the largest differential on the team.
Dinwiddie grew up a Lakers fan, but he says he learned the most from watching the Celtics’ Rondo figure out how to involve all his teammates to promote better team cohesion and ball movement. “You just understand what it’s like to try to be a little selfless out there, try to understand where guys like the ball,” Dinwiddie says. “You just try to play to their strengths as much as you possibly can.”
The Guard and the Wing, or Two Wings Together
This is the least common combo, pairing a passer with a scorer who’s not a pick-and-roll big, nor a pure shooter like Allen. Think of Shawn Marion—who’s not done on this ranking—for the latter spot. More interesting, perhaps, is the absence of any other kinds of pairings; there are no inverted big-guard or big-wing duos that have consistently produced assists this century. Nikola Jokic, with his pick-and-roll dances with Jamal Murray, is special.
Now, on to the top 10 per-season assist combos since 2000-01. The full list can be found here.
10. Chris Paul to JJ Redick
Los Angeles Clippers
Seasons: 4 | Assists per season: 158.5
Paul-to-Redick didn’t produce the loudest highlights of the Lob City era—one such duo remains on this list—but with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan crashing the paint for alley-oops, Redick kept defenses honest by stretching the floor for 3s.
During the four seasons that they played together, Redick made 674 total 3-pointers, ninth most in the league. Nearly half of those triples (317, or 47 percent) were assisted by Paul. No other assist combo this century has produced more 3-pointers per season than Paul-to-Redick.
At times, the Clippers boasted multiple best combos in the league. Check out the top 10 assist combos from the 2014-15 season, with a wide gap after the top two. (This was the season that the Clippers finished no. 2 in net rating and beat the Spurs on Paul’s Game 7 game-winner, before collapsing in the Western Conference semifinals against the Rockets.)
9. Jason Kidd to Kerry Kittles
New Jersey Nets
Seasons: 3 | Assists per season: 162.0
Given that Kidd enjoyed more memorable partnerships with Carter, Nowitzki, and Martin, it’s something of a surprise to see Kittles as his most prolific partner. More memorable, perhaps, is the level of team success the Nets experienced with the Kidd-Kittles backcourt. In three seasons together, they made two Finals and lost Game 7 of the 2004 Eastern Conference semifinals against the eventual champion Pistons.
Those Nets teams never actually won a title, of course, which isn’t unique on this list. In fact, none of the top 10 pairings here ever won a title together. Is that an unfortunate coincidence, rather than a warning sign for LeBron and Davis? Almost definitely—nos. 11, 14, 16, and 21 all won championships together. But it’s certainly strange that the best long-lasting assist combos this century never managed to win even once.
8. Deron Williams to Carlos Boozer
Seasons: 5 | Assists per season: 166.8
Williams and Boozer formed an underrated duo for half a decade. In 2006-07, their second season together, the Jazz made the conference finals; the next year, both players were All-NBA selections; and the year after that, they gave the first Kobe-Gasol Lakers team trouble before falling in the conference semis.
Yet as far as Jazz pick-and-roll duos go, Williams and Boozer take an obvious backseat to a combo higher up this ranking.
7. Steve Nash to Dirk Nowitzki
Seasons: 4 | Assists per season: 179.3
Nash and Nowitzki played together until 2003-04—and then, as Nash decamped for Phoenix in free agency, the NBA amended its defensive hand-check rules to open up a more free-flowing game. Nash immediately won two MVPs, and Nowitzki followed with an MVP season of his own. The Dallas duo still ranks seventh in assists per season this century, but it’s hard to look at this ranking, and the surrounding context, and not wonder what could have been, if only Mark Cuban hadn’t made his self-described worst move as an owner and let Nash leave.
6. Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant
Oklahoma City Thunder
Seasons: 8 | Assists per Season: 183.1
Westbrook and Durant played more seasons together than any other pairing in the top 10, and in fact rank second in total assists behind only Parker and Duncan. Their partnership, which began in 2008-09, Westbrook’s rookie season, extends back far enough that it helped inspire some of the best young players now matriculating to the league.
“Our favorite players are KD and Russell Westbrook, so that’s a duo you look up to a lot,” says Jaren Jackson Jr. about his partnership with noted Westbrook admirer Ja Morant. Jackson says he particularly tries to learn from “KD’s shooting and the way he spaces the floor, and the way you’ve got to have some ballhandling in there to relieve pressure from the guards.”
Westbrook and Durant are both singular talents; like Nash and Nowitzki, they’re both league MVPs. But especially as guards grow more aggressive hunting their own shots, and tall wings and bigs play more from the perimeter, the Westbrook-to-Durant combo seems like it might best reflect the future of the league.
5. Chris Paul to David West
New Orleans Hornets
Seasons: 6 | Assists per season: 186.7
West set plenty of picks for Paul when the two played in New Orleans, but he didn’t thunder toward the rim like the next big man, also a Paul partner, on this list. Instead, Paul and West crafted a nifty pick-and-pop game, tormenting opposing defenses with midrange jumper after midrange jumper.
Paul-to-West produced 134 midrange buckets per season, the best for any combo this century. They combined for nearly three midrange baskets for every one basket at the rim. It wasn’t glamorous, but it sure got the job done.
4. Chris Paul to Blake Griffin
Los Angeles Clippers
Seasons: 6 | Assists per season: 192.8
Some of the best pairings on this list trafficked in solid fundamental two-man play, beating defenses with timing and footwork and impeccable chemistry. Not Paul-to-Griffin. To be clear, they had all those other traits, too, especially as Griffin matured as an all-around player; in 2013-14 and 2014-15, both Griffin and Paul finished in the top 10 in MVP voting.
But more than routine baskets, Paul and Griffin combined for spectacular highlight-reel assists. It’s difficult to do their dynamism justice with words. Just watch the dang clips (or Clips) instead.
3. Steve Nash to Shawn Marion
Seasons: 4 | Assists per season: 205.8
We already discussed Nash in Dallas; as soon as he moved to Phoenix and began to benefit from the NBA’s altered player movement rules, he found a glitch in the Matrix. (Sorry.) The Nash-to-Marion combo thrived—and in fact could have looked even better had Marion not been traded to Miami midway through his fourth season with Nash.
Remember, this ranking averages assists on a per-season basis without factoring in games missed within those seasons. So instead of dividing their total number of assists by roughly 3.6, to account for Marion’s trade after the Suns’ 48th game in 2007-08, we divide by four, the number of seasons. With a 3.6 divider, though, this combo would have 229.5 assists per effective season—no. 2 on the list, and knocking on the door of a very familiar-looking pairing at no. 1.
2. John Stockton to Karl Malone
Seasons: 3 | Assists per season: 225.3
Context is important for the Jazz duo’s placement here. Because this data goes back only to 2000-01, this ranking captures Stockton’s age-38-through-40 seasons, and Malone’s 37-through-39. For the last three seasons of Stockton’s career, and three of the last four seasons of Malone’s (he went on to play one final season with the Lakers), the ur-pick-and-roll duo still averaged 225 assists, and nearly placed no. 1 this century.
It’s difficult to fathom just how many assists this combo tallied during the players’ prime seasons. Consider first that both players stayed incredibly healthy. When Malone was on the Jazz, he played 1,434 of a possible 1,444 games (99.3 percent); Stockton played 1,504 of a possible 1,526 games (98.6 percent).
Consider further that Stockton has the most career assists in NBA history. Even removing the one season he played without Malone, Stockton is no. 1 by far. And his assist totals were highest earlier in his career, before we had proper play-by-play data and before the cutoff for inclusion on this list. Across the three seasons accounted for here, Stockton averaged 8.2 assists per game; from 1987-88 through 1991-92, he averaged an astounding 14.0.
And consider finally that Malone made the second-most shots in league history, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Remove the one season he played without Stockton and that’s still true.
Take all those factors into account, and it’s clear that Stockton and Malone would lap the field if we had access to their earlier data. Even with just the available numbers, it’s clear how special this partnership remained. Stockton-to-Malone ranked first in the NBA in total assists in 2000-01. The combo ranked second in 2001-02. And it ranked first again in 2002-03, as Stockton completed his career with the only franchise he’d ever known.
1. Steve Nash to Amar’e Stoudemire
Seasons: 5 | Assists per season: 231.0
Edging out Stockton and Malone for the top spot is a combo that served as an inspirational pick-and-roll example for those not old enough to watch the two Utah Hall of Famers.
Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke ranks second this season in points per pick-and-roll possession as the roll man (minimum 100 possessions). He scores 1.48 points per try, an outrageous figure—and he says that because he grew up in Phoenix, he first learned the value of an unstoppable pick-and-roll play from this very duo.
“I was a really big Suns fan, so I was always watching Nash and Amar’e play,” Clarke says. “So it’s actually kind of funny to have something that’s kind of similar to that now—it’s not as good, but it’s kind of similar to that.”
In addition to leading the overall average, Nash and Stoudemire also posted the best and third-best single-season assist totals on record. Here’s that top 10. (Again, behold Miller and Person, completely out of place on this list.)
Top Single-Season Assist Combos Since 2000-01
|1||2008||Steve Nash||Amar'e Stoudemire||PHX||282|
|2||2011||Russell Westbrook||Kevin Durant||OKC||279|
|3||2010||Steve Nash||Amar'e Stoudemire||PHX||277|
|4||2008||Deron Williams||Carlos Boozer||UTA||270|
|5||2006||Chauncey Billups||Richard Hamilton||DET||268|
|6||2015||Chris Paul||Blake Griffin||LAC||262|
|7||2008||Chris Paul||David West||NOH||257|
|8||2002||Andre Miller||Wesley Person||CLE||256|
|9||2016||Russell Westbrook||Kevin Durant||OKC||255|
|10||2004||Sam Cassell||Kevin Garnett||MIN||251|
James-to-Davis won’t approach Nash-to-Stoudemire in terms of sheer volume, but their presence atop the 2019-20 leaderboard, a decade after Nash and Stoudemire last played together, is a remarkable statement about the evolution of the sport around them. When Nash assisted a Stoudemire basket, it was a 2-pointer 99.6 percent of the time; Stoudemire, who’s listed right at Davis’s height, made 15 total 3-pointers with the Suns. When James assists Davis this season, however, the Lakers big sinks a 3-pointer 18 percent of the time. Davis has already made 60 3s this season, half assisted by James.
And while Nash and James both averaged north of 10 assists per game in the seasons in question, the latter has 6 inches and more than 50 pounds on the retired guard. Heck, James is bigger than Marion, Nash’s other top assist recipient. In an increasingly positionless league, the best distributors aren’t automatically the slightest players on the court. The best “guards” are now as likely to resemble LeBron or Jokic or Ben Simmons or Luka Doncic as Nash or Paul or Kidd.
Nash-to-Stoudemire rates as the most prolific assist combo of the century thus far. But if they’re surpassed in the years to come, odds are the statistical upstarts won’t look much like that duo did in Phoenix—even if their staple play, an unguardable pick-and-roll, remains the same.