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Thursday, November 15, 2018

"Pass First" LeBron James Passes Wilt Chamberlain on the Regular Season Career Scoring List

LeBron James scored 44 points in the L.A. Lakers' 126-117 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night and he moved past Wilt Chamberlain into fifth place on the pro basketball regular season career scoring list with 31,425 points. James now trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928), Kobe Bryant (33,643) and Michael Jordan (32,292).

ESPN's Chauncey Billups commented about James being the only "pass first" player on the above list. What is remarkable is that the "pass first" myth persists even as James seems to be on course to become the sport's all-time leading scorer. We have covered this ground before but it is worth mentioning again: "Pass first" players do not score 61 points in a game, nor do they score over 30,000 points in a career.

LeBron James is a great scorer who also possesses high level passing skills--which is true, at least to some extent, of each of the other five players listed above. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the best passing centers of all-time and he averaged at least 5 apg three times. Karl Malone was purely an athlete who could dunk and rebound at the start of his career but he developed into a solid shooter and good passer. Kobe Bryant was the primary ballhandler/playmaker on five championship teams. Michael Jordan averaged 8.0 apg and rang up a string of triple doubles in 1988-89 when Coach Doug Collins shifted Jordan from shooting guard to point guard. Jordan remained a good playmaker the rest of his career, though Scottie Pippen was the primary playmaker as the Jordan-Pippen duo led the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990s. Chamberlain, who retired as the all-time leading scorer, led the league in assists in 1968, at a time when the leader was determined by total assists and not apg average.

Chamberlain, Jerry West, Nate Archibald, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are the only players who have won at least one scoring title and at least one assist title. Only Archibald won both titles in the same season. None of those players is considered a "pass first" player, though Archibald became one in the latter part of his career after suffering an Achilles injury and then landing on a talented Boston team featuring Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

James won the 2008 scoring title and he has ranked in the top five in scoring 14 times, including four second place finishes and six third place finishes. James spent more than a decade as one of the league's top three scorers, yet he is still called a pass first player! James finished second in apg last season, the first time he ranked in the top five in that category; yes, James is a very good passer but his first option--rightfully so, considering his skill set--is to score.

It interesting to contrast James' statistics and reputation with Westbrook's statistics and reputation.Westbrook won the 2015 and 2017 scoring titles. He led the league in assists in 2018 and has ranked in the top four in that category in each of the past four seasons. Westbrook ranked 10th in rebounding in 2017 and 2018 while averaging a triple double in consecutive seasons, an unprecedented accomplishment. Westbrook led the league in playoff apg in 2016 and 2017 and he also ranked first in playoff ppg in 2017. Westbrook is clearly a great all-around player and, at least statistically, on par with James as a passer--yet Westbrook is routinely derided as a selfish gunner.

I am the first to state that assists are not the only way to rate playmaking ability and assists are not necessarily the most accurate statistic. I would also say that Westbrook's shot selection and offensive efficiency are inferior to James' shot selection and offensive efficiency.

However, after granting those stipulations and considering all other factors in their totality, it does not make sense to say that a player whose career averages are 27.2 ppg, 19.6 fga/g, 7.2 apg and 7.4 rpg is an all-around player who has a "pass first" mindset but a player whose career averages are 23.0 ppg, 18.4 fga/g, 8.2 apg and 6.6 rpg is a one-dimensional gunner. The James-Westbrook comparison is especially relevant because they have played in the same era under the same rules.

That said, some historical comparisons shed further light on this "pass first" business. James ranks 11th in pro basketball history in fga/g, just ahead of Kobe Bryant and trailing only Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, Pete Maravich, Bob Pettit, Rick Barry, Jerry West, Dominique Wilkins and George Mikan.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a shoot first player, as James is. The best player on a team generally has an obligation and responsibility to score prolifically, because this helps his team not only by the points he directly creates but also by forcing the defense to trap him and therefore open up opportunities for players who cannot create their own shots.

James is a tremendous scorer who is also a skillful and winning passer. That is a great combination and there is no need to create false labels; praising James for his scoring takes nothing away from his passing or from any of his other skills--but artificially applying one ill-fitting label to James while also applying other ill-fitting labels to other players does not increase our understanding or appreciation of greatness but rather diminishes both while also being an affront to truth.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:09 PM



At Friday, November 16, 2018 12:40:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Great read David. I agree with everything you've written. One thing I want to add is I believe the reason everyone labels James as a "pass-first" player, is because when the going gets tough, James looks to pass first. As you've written on this site multiple times, James is a confusing player to compare and contrast with other all time greats. He dominates like no other player, but then becomes extremely passive in critical situations.

Contrast that with "gunners" like Kobe and Westbrook, who regardless of if they are 5-23 in the finals, they're taking that next shot to try and win the game. I think James has improved somewhat, at stepping up in those moments, but now that he's on the Lakers and I get to watch him every single game, what I observed of him from a distance, is pretty clear game in and game out. He just...lacks that edge. That's a poor way of describing it. He barks loud enough. He talks to the media about being unsatisfied and/or impatient. He talks about these uber high standards he sets for himself. And, in 95% of everything he does, he actually delivers on that talk. But, there's that 5%...

And, it's in that 5% that I lose my confidence in his ability to deliver in the most critical moments. I believe he's going to pass first.

At Friday, November 16, 2018 3:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

I agree that LeBron has a lamentable tendency to pass in clutch situations when he should shoot but I interpret the “pass first” label as supposed to be a compliment to contrast LeBron with selfish gunners. The reality is that LeBron is a shoot first player with superior passing skills who sometimes shrinks from the challenge of shooting in clutch situations.


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