LeBron And Harden Are The NBAs Best Quarterbacks
Eric Bledsoe38511.9 PASSES THAT TRAVEL MORE THAN 30 FEET Kyle Lowry36013.2 Stephen Curry32411.8 Jrue Holiday30912.2 PLAYERNUMBERPERCENTAGE OF ALL PASSES T.J. McConnell3038.3 Ricky Rubio39311.9 Through March 8. Data excludes handoffs and passes shorter than 8 feet.Source: SportVU Russell Westbrook3059.9 John Wall46414.6 James Harden94425.0% The 2016-17 season’s top 10 NBA quarterbacks 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.https://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/williamsdrop.mp4James, 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. LeBron James58620.4 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.https://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ridiculouslebron.mp4Nearly 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.https://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/longpassharden.mp4https://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/harrelloop.mp4“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.