Passing is an imperative aspect of basketball that is quite simple to understand and learn, yet nearly impossible to master. So few NBA players have truly captured the beauty and effectiveness of a perfect pass in the league’s history. Performing a perfect pass requires impeccable vision, the ability to make quick decisions, precision, and awareness.
These rankings will be based on statistics as well as play style and team performance. Players with higher assists totals and averages, lower turnover totals and averages, impressive ball skills and point guard instincts, and more playoff appearances and rings will be ranked the highest. In order for a player to make this list, they must show a certain degree of success in all of these categories. Some of the NBA’s greatest players ever have achieved that glorious label through their unselfish passes and heroic leadership. Without solid ball movement, a basketball team can simply not function properly at a high level.
The league’s best passers help their teams win more games for a reason, and that reason is the simple nature of the game. A great tale once stated, “Humility and unselfish play wins the race,” or something like that, but accurately quoting children’s stories isn’t really my forte, so without further ado, here are the NBA’s greatest passers of all time.
24 Honorable Mentions
23 Russell Westbrook
Say what you want about Westbrook, the dude excels at finding teammates for open looks. Yes, he often makes boneheaded mistakes that cause turnovers and yes, he has definitely taken some questionable shots over the years. The fact of the matter is that Russ has sported an inhuman concoction of athleticism and skill over his 7 years in the league, and passing is definitely in that mix. If Russell can reduce his turnovers and make smarter decisions with the ball in his hands, he could easily end up on this list by the time his career is over. Russell has averaged over 8 assists per game 4 times in his career and has recently blossomed into a fantastic distributor for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The only issue is that he has ended up in the top 5 in turnovers every single year he has been in the league. His rash decisions on the court can often overshadow his undeniable passing skills. Bottom line, Russell Westbrook is a phenomenal passer, who is currently just a bit rough around the edges.
22 John Wall
It may be a tad too soon to put Wall on this list, but he's the real deal. In just 6 NBA seasons, Wall already ranks 121st all time in assists and could easily creep into the top 80 by the 2016-17 seasons end (barring any long-term injuries). Another highly touted recruit coming out of high school, Wall has impressed millions of basketball fans with his unteachable basketball IQ since being drafted 1st overall in 2010. Wall has made his way into the top 10 in assists per game in every year in his career. He has even snuck into the top 3 the past two years in which he averaged double digit assists. The 3 time all-star is already one of the greatest passers the league has ever seen because of his elite decision making skills on the court. Wall has led the Wizards to the playoffs in 2 of the past 3 seasons and is the face of a promising franchise. He might just end up in the top 10 all time assists leaders when all is said and done.
21 Muggsy Bogues
There is a lot to be said about the success of Muggsy Bogues. For one, he is to date the shortest player to ever play in the NBA at 5’3”. However, even at his size, he was one of the most game-changing players on any court he would step on. Muggsy always found a way to strategically use his height to his advantage. The elusive point guard constantly ran right through defenders and had the superb court vision to spot his wide open teammates for easy buckets. With 5 top 5 assists per game finishes, Bogues dominated the league with his no-look passes and his ability to make quick decisions with the ball. Perhaps underrated due to his size, Bogues never made an all-star team. Although Bogues was a phenomenal starting point guard, he failed to ever lead a team past the second round of the playoffs. This little legend will be remembered for his leadership and true point guard skills.
20 Stephon Marbury
Perhaps one of the most hyped basketball recruits of all time, Marbury was supposed to be the next big thing in basketball coming out of high school. With his Brooklyn streetball swagger and raw talent, “Starbury” did not fail to meet expectations. Marbury finished his NBA career with averages of 19.3 points, 7.6 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. His crafty passes and incredible ball handling skills often left defenders in awe and shock. What made Marbury so great was his unpredictability. He could convincingly drive down the lane for a finger roll and change the dynamic of the play in the blink of an eye. Marbury would often fake defenders out with impossibly swift no-look passes that would set his teammates up perfectly for easy baskets. As evidenced by his 9 top 10 assists per game finishes throughout the late nineties and early 2000s, Marbury was one of the league’s best at ball distribution in his era. Not to mention his wildly successful high end basketball shoe brand (kidding of course).
19 Rod Strickland
A quintessential old-school, fundamentally sound basketball player, Rod Strickland was a solid starting point guard for the greater part of his 17 year career. Humble, intelligent, and never flashy, the late-blooming Strickland enjoyed his greatest success in the second half of his career. Strickland led the league in assists per game with 10.5 dimes in the 1997-98 season at the age of 31. Perhaps the most impressive statistic of that season for Strickland was his 3:1 assist to turnover ratio. Strickland was at the top of his game in passing, and still managed to take care of the ball at a very high level. Strickland enjoyed 8 full seasons with at least 8 assists per game en route to a long, successful career. However, he never managed to make an all-star team. At number 10 on the list of all time assists leaders, Strickland still remains one of the most underrated players in NBA history.
18 Mark Price
Aside from being one of the NBA's deadliest shooters, Price really had a knack for passing the rock. In his prime, he was the face of a Cleveland Cavaliers franchise that was a frequent playoff visitor. In the 1988-89 season, Mark Price joined the coveted 50-40-90 club in which a player shoots at least 50% from the field, 40% from three point range, and 90% from the free throw line. Because of this impressive feat, it is easy to overlook his 8.4 assists per game that year. In fact, Price reached the 8 assists per game mark 4 times in his 12 year career. Price excelled at pushing the ball down court and making plays for his teammates. His consistency and reliability made him one of the NBA’s greatest. Few players in NBA history have been blessed with such an effective shooting stroke and an elite ability to dish out assists.
17 Mo Cheeks
The starting point guard for the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers of the late 70’s and 80’s was quite the facilitator. With 6 career top 10 finishes in assists per game, Cheeks was dishing out dimes left and right for the majority of his career. A premier defender and unselfish teammate, Mo helped the Philadelphia 76ers win it all in 1983. The 4-time all-star ranks 12th all time in total assists and was the perfect point guard to compliment the likes of his show stopping teammates, Julius Erving and Moses Malone. Cheeks had a special way of finding his teammates on fast breaks. It wasn’t uncommon to see Mo strip the ball from an opposing point guard, take the ball all the way down the court and dish it out to Dr. J for an emphatic dunk. This was the Sixers’ bread and butter in their special run throughout the 70s and 80s. Mo Cheeks helped create the well oiled machine that was the Sixers of the 80s with his decisive passes.
16 Gary Payton
"The Glove" will ultimately be known best for his defensive abilities, but Payton's passing shouldn't be overlooked when remembering his legendary career. From the 1998-99 season to the 2002-03 season Payton was top 5 in the league in assists per game every year. His respectable span atop the league helped him accrue the 8th most assists in NBA history. Payton is arguably the Seattle Supersonics’ greatest player of all time and there is certainly a reason for it. The 2013 hall of fame inductee often found his star center, Shawn Kemp, on the fast break for a gorgeous connection that ended in a spectacular jam. The 9 time all-star appeared in the NBA Finals three times and even won a ring with the 2005-06 Miami Heat team that featured Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’neal. Payton’s incredible defensive abilities coupled with his ability to facilitate translated to a winning way for the majority of his 17 year career.
15 Deron Williams
Deron Williams became an NBA superstar right out of the gate after being drafted 3rd overall in the 2005 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz. The star point guard changed the face of the Utah Jazz franchise along with Carlos Boozer in the mid to late 2000’s. D-Will carried the Jazz to the playoffs every year from the 2006-07 season until the 2009-10 season. Williams enjoyed 4 straight seasons in which he averaged double digit assists. The 3 time all-star also boasted a 3.09:1 assist to turnover ratio during that span. He now ranks 24th all time in assists at age 32. Williams’ signature ball handling skills and clutch shot propelled his offensive game to elite levels, but his passing should never be overlooked. With career averages of 8.3 assists per game, it is hard to deny that Williams will always be one of the greatest playmakers the game has ever seen.
14 Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson knows a thing or two about winning, as a player and as a coach. Jackson coached the Warriors for three years and helped fuel their ascent to the top of the league with two playoff appearances and even a trip to the Western Conference Finals in the 2012-13 season. With 14 playoff appearances combined as a point guard for the Knicks, Clippers, Pacers, Jazz, and Rockets, winning has always been a part of Jackson’s nature. A large reason for Jackson’s success as a player were his pass-first point guard tendencies. Jackson made the no-look pass appear easy with fancy between the leg and behind the back passes performed with pinpoint accuracy. Jackson was top 10 in assists per game for 12 seasons and even led the league in assists and assists per game in the 1996-97 season. At 4th in total assists all time, Jackson’s fancy passes surely left a mark on the league.
13 Tim Hardaway
Crossovers were made famous by the great Tim Hardaway. A notoriously elusive trickster on the hardwood, Hardaway also had a fantastic ability to pass the rock. The 5 time all-star averaged 8.2 assists per game over his 13 year career and ranks 15th all time in total assists. Hardaway finished top five in total assists in 5 different seasons and was always among the league’s best at ball distribution. Hardaway’s stellar ball handling skills attracted defenders his way which allowed him to make great passes to open teammates. Hardaway was always one of the most vocal players on the court and consistently shined in clutch moments. As the star point guard for the Warriors, Heat, and Pacers, Hardaway reached the playoffs 9 times. He even carried the 1996-97 Miami Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals. Hardaway affected any team he was on in a positive way. His will to hustle and ability to create space for his teammates often propelled his team to victory.
12 Bob Cousy
Bob Cousy played alongside many all time greats. With a core of Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, and Cousy himself, the Boston Celtics of the 50’s and 60’s were nearly unstoppable. Bob Cousy never failed to make the playoffs in his 13 year career with the Celtics. Cooz was awarded all-star honors in each and every one of those seasons and was even NBA MVP in the 1956-57 season. With 6 championship rings, Cousy brought a winning way to Boston along with centerpiece Bill Russell. Cousy also led the league in assists and assists per game in 8 straight seasons. Cousy pioneered the behind the back pass, dazzling defenders and creating open shots for his teammates. The 10 time All-NBA 1st Team member now sits at 16th all time in total assists. Bob Cousy’s hall of fame career was nothing short of legendary, as he was one of the league’s first true point guards.
11 LeBron James
A true legend in the making, one of LeBron James’ many impressive skills on the court is his passing. The future hall of famer is already 18th all time in total assists at only 31 years old. LeBron has finished top 10 in total assists 8 times with a career average of 6.9 assists per game. The 4 time NBA MVP has won three rings to date, with his most recent victory coming in this past year’s season against the Golden State Warriors. LeBron’s unique combination of speed and strength allow him to make smart decisions on the court. While James has always been a prolific scorer, he is never afraid to get his teammates involved in order to win games. This unselfish mentality has led LeBron to 10 appearances on the All-NBA 1st Team and 12 all-star selections. King James’ tenacity and court vision are what make him a truly special player.
10 Andre Miller
One of the most perennially underrated basketball players of all time happens to be one of the greatest passers of all time. Great passers tend to be overlooked and Andre Miller is no exception. Miller led the league in assists and assists per game in the 2001-02 season when he put up a mind-boggling 3.63:1 assist to turnover ratio. In addition, he is the current active leader in total assists. Andre Miller has never been selected for an all-star game with his only form of somewhat substantial recognition being 4 career player of the week selections and a spot on the All-Rookie 1st Team in the 1999-00 season. Miller appeared in the playoffs on 11 occasions and performed as a very strong starting point guard for most of his career. When it comes to basketball IQ, few have been better than Andre Miller. The ability to make good decisions on the court is purely natural for Andre Miller.
9 Kevin Johnson
Aside from being an athletic freak, the high-flying Phoenix Suns legend was an outstanding passer. KJ was often atop the league in assist per game averages, having been top 5 six times in his career. Johnson even had a string of four straight seasons in which he averaged double digit assists. To date, Kevin Johnson is 6th all time in assists per game. The 3 time all-star had a spectacular 2.93:1 assist to turnover ratio over the course of his entire career. Johnson helped make the Phoenix Suns of the 90’s a consistent formidable playoff contender. KJ utilized his tremendous passing ability to help the Suns reach the Western Conference Finals in the 1989-90 season and reach the NBA Finals in the 1992-93 season. With the help of Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson created a Phoenix Suns dynasty that visited the playoffs often, and was always a threat to win it all.
8 Rajon Rondo
While Rajon Rondo will most likely not be remembered for his shooting stroke or scoring prowess, Rondo can facilitate an offense as well as anyone can. With his disproportionately massive hands and long arms, Rondo slings flashy and awe-inspiring passes like it’s nothing. The 3 time leader in assists per game also led the league in total assists this past season with the Kings. A career assists to turnover ratio of 3:1 only further proves how smart Rajon Rondo is with the ball in his hands. Rondo has been selected to four all-star teams in his career because of his game changing point guard skills. Rondo was also the starting point guard of the legendary 2007-08 championship Celtics team that featured Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen alongside him. Already 44th in NBA history in total assists at age 30, Rajon Rondo is poised to finish his career as one of the league’s greatest passers of all time.
7 Chris Paul
Chris Paul may be one of the most well-rounded point guards in the history of the league. CP3 has always done a little bit of everything at the point guard position, but passing is his most prominent specialty. Paul has led the league in total assists 3 times, and has had the highest mark in the league in assists per game 4 times. CP3 has a special way of dishing out marvelous passes for assists, yet rarely turning the ball over. Paul has averaged under 3 turnovers per game in every season besides the 2008-09 season in which he still only averaged 3.0. His career assists to turnover ratio is an unbelievable 4.3:1 (Point guards generally strive for a 3:1 assists to turnover ratio). The 9 time all-star is 11th all time in total assists at just 31 years old. Chris Paul is a gifted offensive and defensive talent that has the ability to control the outcome of any given game with his special passing capability.
6 Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas often played the part of the antagonist of the NBA in the 80s and early 90s when he was a member of the Detroit Pistons “Bad Boys.” Although he was widely disliked among the basketball community outside of Detroit, he was undeniably one the league’s greatest players and passers of all time. The 12 time all-star averaged 13.9 assists per game to lead the league in just his fourth season. He now ranks 7th all time in total assists and 5th all time in career assists per game. “Zeke” won back-to-back championships in the 1988-89 season and the 1989-90 season. In those two years combined, the Pistons only lost 6 total playoff games. The dominance of the Pistons in the late 80s was fueled by none other than Isiah Thomas. Thomas was a master at getting his teammates involved in games and was an integral part of the Detroit Pistons’ success in their “Bad Boys” era.
5 Oscar Robertson
There will simply never be another Oscar Robertson. Big O’s combination of size, strength, and speed allowed him to excel in all areas of the game. Robertson led the league in total assists in 6 of his 14 NBA seasons and sits at 6th all time in assists, with just under 10,000 total career assists. In addition to being a remarkable passer, Oscar scored the ball relentlessly and rebounded at an impressive rate. The 1964 NBA MVP averaged a triple-double in just his second year in the league and came within striking distance of repeating that feat on four other occasions. Big O was selected to the all-star team in each one of his first 12 seasons and was even named rookie of the year in 1961. Robertson also won a championship in the 1970-71 season with a Milwaukee Bucks that featured a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Dandridge. Big O will certainly be mentioned in the conversation of the top 5 NBA players of all time in large part due to his brilliant passes.
4 Jason Kidd
Jason Kidd always had his teammates in mind when entering an offensive possession. The 6’4” point guard as as good as anyone at creating space for his teammates to make easy shots. With a career assists to turnover ratio of 3:1, Kidd was smart with the ball and had a tremendous basketball IQ. The no-look pass came to Kidd with ease when he was weaving through a defense. Kidd would constantly know exactly where his teammates were on the floor when he dished out between-the-legs, behind-the-back, no-look bounce passes. J-Kidd always looked for the best shot available and would often make silky smooth passes after faking out defenders to create that shot for his teammates. Kidd was a frequent playoff visitor, reaching that stage 17 times in his 19 year career. He reached the Finals in back-to-back years with the New Jersey Nets in 2001-02 season and the 2002-03 season, but his lone ring came in the 2010-11 season with the Mavs. Kidd is a true NBA legend, with point guard skills that stunned opponents.
3 Steve Nash
Steve Nash was the epitome of everything a team searches for in a phenomenal point guard. Nash was a wildly efficient shooter, incredible passer, and reliable leader. The 2 time MVP led the league in assists per game 5 times and is now 3rd all time in total assists. He is one of just 5 players to ever reach 10,000 career assists. Nash visited the playoffs 12 times in his 18 year career and even reached the conference finals 4 times, but never managed to win a ring, or make a Finals appearance. Nash did however average double digit assists 7 times in his career, making him one of basketball’s best ever. The future hall of famer averaged 8.5 assists per game throughout his entire career playing for the Suns, Mavericks, and Lakers. Nash was capable of racking up 15+ assists on any given night and always made his presence felt. Steve Nash changed the game with his offensive awareness and flashy dimes.
2 John Stockton
The league's all time leader in assists (by a wide margin of nearly 4,000) comes in at number 2 on this list. To this day, John Stockton is the most statistically impressive point guard to ever play the game. Stock was the face of the Utah Jazz franchise for his entire 19 year career. The 10 time all-star and hall of famer used his massive hands to sling one-handed passes all over the court. He was the closest thing we'll ever see to a quarterback on a basketball court. Stockton had 7 1,000+ assist seasons. Only two other players in NBA history have had a single 1,000+ assist season (Isiah Thomas in 1984-85 season and Kevin Porter in the 1978-79 season). John Stockton led the league in assists and assists per game for 9 straight seasons between the 1987-88 season and the 1995-96 season. During that stretch, he averaged over 14 assists per game twice. No other player in the history of the NBA has ever averaged 14 assists per game in a single season. Stock clearly stands out statistically from any other passer on this list, but there is one major flaw when looking back at his tremendous career that keeps him at number 2.
1 Magic Johnson
This one was tough. I was tempted to put Stockton here but ultimately, Magic's impressive ability to find his teammates translated into 5 NBA Championships, while Stockton never managed to win a ring over his 19 year career. Both players had no shortage of talent surrounding them, as Stockton played alongside NBA greats like Karl Malone and Jeff Hornacek, while Magic had the assistance of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. The 6’9” point guard was perhaps an equally talented facilitator to Stockton, but if winning championships doesn’t give a player an edge, I’m not sure what does. Magic wasn’t very statistically inferior to Stockton, with 9 double digit assist per game campaigns under his belt. Had Magic’s career not been shortened due to his tragic HIV diagnosis, who knows who would be the all time assists leader in the league today? After all, John Stockton did play nearly 600 more games than Magic did and if Magic kept up his all time best 11.2 assists per game pace for 600 more games, he would easily surpass John Stockton as the all time leader in total assists. Magic Johnson really lived up to his nickname. With his massive frame and winning way, Magic is the greatest passer that has ever played in the NBA.