It was the fourth quarter of a February game against Oklahoma City when LeBron James caught Derrick Williams napping. The Cavaliers were down 101-99, James had the ball, and he and Cavs big man Tristan Thompson had just run a pick and roll at the top of the key. Williams, signed that morning to a 10-day contract, was in the far-right corner, resting with his hands on his knees. James dribbled left and fired a pass to Williams, 40 feet away. Williams dropped the ball, it careened out of bounds and the Thunder gained possession.
“I learned quick: He can find you just about anywhere — it doesn’t matter how far away you’re standing,” Williams said.
James, in other words, is one heck of a passer. He can get the ball to teammates, regardless of how far apart they are or how impossible the passing angle may appear. According to a query run by SportVU data analyst Brittni Donaldson at FiveThirtyEight’s request, a whopping 20 percent of James’s passes have traveled more than 30 feet this season; that’s the second-highest share in the league. The league-wide average1 is 6 percent. His passes that go that far travel north of 30 mph, according to SportVU.
On Sunday night, James will square off against the only person ahead of him on that list: Houston guard and MVP front-runner James Harden, who tosses 25 percent of his passes more than 30 feet, according to the data.2 As of Wednesday, Harden this season had thrown 944 passes that had traveled more than 30 feet; James had 586. To put those numbers into context, consider that the next-closest player, Washington’s John Wall, had only 464.
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That anticipation and unusual ability to find teammates, regardless of where they’re standing or how heavily they’re covered, leaves defensive players entrenched in a mental game of minesweeper. A step in any direction, or even just standing still, could result in a layup, dunk or open 3-point attempt at any moment. Because of Harden’s and James’s ability to thread the needle — at high speeds and from just about anywhere — no defense is ever truly safe.
Nearly everything that happens for the two teams’ offenses happens because of the effect that James and Harden have on the floor. And even though their scoring gets most of the attention, the two players are zipping passes at incredible speeds across incredible distances. Their teams are benefiting. Cleveland is beating opponents by about 8 points per 100 plays with James on the court — and getting beaten by about 7 points per 100 plays with him sidelined, according to NBA.com. And though Houston has maintained a healthy scoring margin this season when Harden rests, it’s notable that the high-scoring club — which thrives on its 3-point shooting and is one of the 10 best offenses in NBA history in terms of efficiency — becomes mortal without him as the floor general. If you want an insight into how their offenses work, keep an eye on James’s and Harden’s passes.
This isn’t to say that Harden and James are without flaws or that their long-passing risks always pay off. Quite the opposite. Both are in the midst of career highs in turnovers. This week, Harden broke his own single-season NBA record for miscues, while James has never turned it over this much, measured by both his turnovers per game and the percentage of his plays that ended with a turnover.
“LeBron’s a great passer and the greatest player I ever played with,” said ex-NBA forward Shane Battier, who won two titles as James’s teammate in Miami. “But he had a propensity for hitting me below the knees with a lot of his passes. And I had to tell him: ‘Look, I know you love your triple-doubles. If you want to get more, you’ve gotta start hitting me in the chest with these. Get me the ball in a good spot, and I’ll help you get there. It became a running joke with coach [Erik Spoelstra], where he’d stop the film and say, ‘C’mon LeBron; help Shane out!’”
But more often than not, the rewards with James and Harden have been great. They’re totally different players: James is one of the most physically imposing ballhandlers3 in league history, while Harden thrives on his craftiness and unusual ability to stop on a dime. Yet the fear that each inspires when hurtling toward the basket — whether it’s via a one-on-one isolation4 or a pick-and-roll — is what makes James and Harden arguably the sport’s two most lethal passers, especially in light of who their teammates are.
Both players operate in perhaps the NBA’s most spacious offenses and boast plenty of sharpshooting teammates. Of the 20 players who’ve drained the most threes this season, six play for either Cleveland or Houston. Knowing that those players surround James or Harden at the same time that a roll man like Thompson or Clint Capela dives toward the basket stops defensive players in their tracks for a split second as they come to the realization that they’re in a Catch-22.
“Teams have really gotta pick their poison as far as what they want to do when they play us,” said Rockets guard Eric Gordon, who’s enjoying a career resurgence with Harden and coach Mike D’Antoni. “Do they want to have everybody shooting threes? Because that’s what happens if you decide you want to take away [Harden’s] scoring. Or do you want to stay with us at the 3-point line? Because if you do that, I like his chances of finding a way to score.”
That spacing, and the fact that defenses can’t possibly cover that much ground on every play, is part of why James is averaging a career-best 8.8 assists per outing. If he ends the season there, it would be a single-season assist record for a non-guard. And in his first season as a point guard, Harden is logging 11.2 dimes a night, a 49 percent bump from what had been a career-high 7.5 assists per game last season. Within the next week or so, the two players will rank No. 1 and 2 in the list of players who have assisted the most 3-point shots in a single season.5
“Making sure I find guys and making the right pass is all I think about each game,” said Harden, who sprays the ball to spot-up shooters out of pick-and-roll plays an NBA-high seven times a game, according to Synergy. “As long as they get to their spots and are ready to shoot, I’ll find them.”
“Not just [adjusting to passes from] me, but everyone,” James told me during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. “I try to study my teammates and how they like the ball. Some guys like it with the seam; some guys like it seamless, because it puts different rotation on the ball. It all depends on how they like it before they shoot. So I study guys, and I just try to be one step ahead so that when [new players] get on the team, I’m already on Phase Two.”
Getting past Phase One with James takes a bit of time for newcomers, though. After a Cleveland loss to Boston last week, 16-year veteran Richard Jefferson pulled aside the 25-year-old Williams in the locker room to give him some advice: Don’t dribble a whole lot after LeBron finds you.
“You’re dancing too much,” he told Williams, who that night had been called for a charge after James had found him wide open in the corner. “He’ll get you the ball in perfect spots. All you’ve gotta do is shoot. Or pump fake, then shoot. But you don’t have to dance.”6
Kyle Korver, who joined the Cavs from Atlanta via trade, said he’s made two adjustments for playing with James. First, because of how much steam James puts on his assists, Korver has gotten more proactive about “attacking” James’s passes,7 as opposed to letting them get into his body. “If you let the thing come to you, it catches you on the back of your heels almost,” said Korver, who has shot 51 percent from 3-point range off James’s passes thus far, compared with an overall 3-point mark of 41 percent in Atlanta this season before the trade.8
The second adjustment is often standing and doing nothing.
In Atlanta, without a singular star, Korver often had to sprint around several screens to get open shots. But with James, and the dilemma his passing ability causes opposing defenses, simply standing at the perimeter is enough.
“If I do that,” Korver said of staying put and waiting on the ball, “then I’ve probably done my job.”