It’s the off-season before the 2003 NBA season, the Celtics had just made the playoffs for the first time in seven years and were only two games off reaching the Finals.
Many people call LeBron James a ‘pass first’ player as if there is something wrong with being a ‘score first’ player. Perhaps this is because Kobe Bryant has often been criticised for shooting too much, and these commentators want to create some kind of narrative contrasting Bryant with James.
The reality is that great players have a responsibility to put pressure on the opposing defence. Usually this is done by being such a scoring threat that the opposing team must trap, thereby leaving someone else wide open.
Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd are anomalies; they broke down defences with their ballhandling skills and craftiness, drawing extra defenders even though everyone knew that they were really looking to pass the ball all along.
James at his best does not play like Johnson or Kidd.
When James attacks the defence aggressively and forces the opponent to either double-team him or else give him an easy shot in the paint, that opens up the passing lanes that James is famous for deftly exploiting.
The aggressive, attacking James led the Miami Heat to NBA championships in 2012 and 2013.
When James has failed in the playoffs (2007 NBA Finals, 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, 2011 NBA Finals, 2014 NBA Finals) he has not been in attack mode, instead settling for outside shots or passing the ball without first creating an advantage for his team. There is a big difference between a pass on the perimeter that does not threaten the defence and a pass that creates a high percentage scoring opportunity.
There is no question that James is a great passer, but when he plays passively (no pun intended) and makes non-threatening passes it is easier for the opposing team to sag off of him, clog the passing lanes and induce James to either turn the ball over or else settle for long jumpers.
Acknowledging James’ scoring prowess does not diminish James’ passing skills or all-around greatness.
James ranks fourth in regular season career scoring average (27.4 ppg, trailing only Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor) and fifth in playoff career scoring average (27.9 ppg, trailing only Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Jerry West and Kevin Durant).
James is not in the top 20 in regular season or playoff career assist average.
James’ teams have always been built around his scoring ability. James’ size, speed, strength and athletic ability enable him to attack the paint and force opponents to double-team him.
The San Antonio Spurs have beaten James’ teams two out of three times in the NBA Finals by lulling James into perimeter passivity, going under screens and encouraging James to settle for jump shots or for passes that do not threaten the defence.
Cleveland’s 94-82 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals is an excellent example of James at his attacking best.
James scored 13 points on 4-6 field goal shooting in the first quarter as Cleveland took an early 26-21 lead. With James on pace to score over 50 points, the defence had to adjust by loading up the strong side to prevent James from scoring so easily.
Only after aggressively establishing himself as a scorer and forcing Atlanta to leave at least one of his teammates open did James showcase his passing skills.
James finished with game-high totals in points (30) and assists (11) while also grabbing nine rebounds. James has now scored at least 30 points in 74 playoff games, tied for fourth on the all-time list with Jerry West and trailing only Michael Jordan (109), Kobe Bryant (88) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (75). There is not a pass first player in that group but all of those players are excellent passers.
James made some great passes against Atlanta. His court vision is exceptional, he is unselfish and his size/strength enable him to make some pinpoint cross court passes that other players could not do even if they had the vision to see the passing lane.
James’ passing is unquestionably a major weapon in his arsenal. But make no mistake what comes first: by aggressively looking to score (or at least put the defence in a compromised position by attacking the paint), James creates passing angles.