While approaching the all-time scoring mark understandably gets most of the headlines, LeBron James has surpassed Magic Johnson to move into sixth on the NBA’s all-time assists leaderboard.
Since entering the league in 2003, James’ playmaking ability in a 6-9 frame has drawn countless parallels to Johnson, who broke the mold as a 6-9 point guard when he entered the league in 1979. James’ forthcoming accomplishment is yet another example of him moving the game forward during his career.
The career numbers of LeBron and Magic — who are two of just seven players in NBA history to dish out over 10,000 career assists — are a product of their otherworldly basketball IQs and innate abilities to pass the ball.
As James surpasses one of his basketball idols, the question needs to be asked: Is LeBron or Magic the better passer?
The case for LeBron James
McGregor says LeBron: The remix isn’t always better than the original, but in the case of LeBron vs. Magic, it is.
Over the course of his 20-year career, LeBron has built upon what made Magic so special, putting his own modern-day spin on the passes that were considered groundbreaking decades ago. In a day and age in which it feels like we’ve essentially seen everything before, LeBron does things we haven’t seen before.
If you need a reminder, head to YouTube and tune into 20 minutes of the best passes from James’ first 18 seasons.
Throughout his career, James’ pass-first mentality has been much-maligned. Sometimes, those criticisms have unfairly taken away from just how special of a passer he is.
Similar to a quarterback in football, James knows where each of the other nine players on the floor is, where they’re supposed to be, and where they’re going, making for passes like this one. It somehow looks routine.
— NBA (@NBA) March 21, 2018
As a passer, James is one-of-one. He can make passes like the one above or this one below. How did this not go out of bounds?
There’s really not a situation in that James isn’t an adept passer.
Want a lead pass in transition? He’s going to precisely place the ball with either an overhead or baseball outlet pass. In the half court? James’ no-look passes sometimes get his targets open, while his lobs are put where no one but his big man can retrieve them.
And, of course, there’s the penchant for flair and James’ ability to make normal things look cool. Did he have to toy with LA’s defense like this? Maybe not. Did it look awesome? Absolutely.
— NBA (@NBA) August 11, 2018
When it comes down to it, James makes passes that no one else could even dream of making, and he almost always puts his target in the perfect position to make a play. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The case for Magic Johnson
Greer says Magic: Let’s start with the statistical argument here — because Johnson easily wins it.
Through 19 seasons, James has only led the NBA in assists per game one time. Johnson led the league in assists per game four times in 13 seasons. James’ career-high in assists per game (10.2 in 2019-20) would be Johnson’s 10th-best mark in that department.
Yes, you read that correctly. Johnson averaged 10.5 assists per game or more nine times in his career. James will end up higher on the all-time list, but it took him nearly 500 extra games to surpass Johnson’s total.
Unlike James, Johnson didn’t play in an era in which lineups featuring multiple 3-point shooters could space the floor and open up passing lanes. He had to create those gaps with his own dribble moves and fakes, then perfectly time his passes.
Look at how many bodies are inside the arc when he throws these lasers. What could Johnson have done against defenders who had to worry about recovering to outside shooters?
This isn’t all about numbers and angles, though. Johnson has dished out some of the most aesthetically pleasing assists in NBA history. He wasn’t a player in a basketball game. He was the main attraction of a can’t-miss event known as “Showtime.”
“Magic was the only guy that I’ve ever seen really throw a no-look pass,” said Isiah Thomas, who is No. 9 on the all-time assist list. “Look at a guy, time him, look you off and then hit that guy on a dime without every looking at him.”
Johnson’s preternatural passing ability helped revolutionize the game, grow the NBA’s popularity and open doors for future players with forward size and guard skills.
Simply put, there is no LeBron James without Magic Johnson.
Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): This argument is closer than people think, which is a testament to the otherworldly talent that is LeBron James, but I’ve got to go with Jordan here. The answer is Magic Johnson.
LeBron will go down as one of the best playmakers in NBA history, without passing even being his clear-cut best skill and while we can only judge them against their competition at the time, there’s just something about Magic Johnson moving the rock that hits different.
Magic’s ability to improvise on the fast break and see plays unfold before they happen, mixed with his size, speed, basketball IQ, and the sheer degree of difficulty of some of his passes, puts him over the top.
Magic accomplishing what he did in the era he played in — again, no spacing or windows created by more sophisticated schemes — is simply stupefying.
The list of players who can get fans out of their seats with a slick dime is short, and Magic is at the top.