Perhaps the most fundamental skill in basketball is passing. Before dribbling became an effective way to beat defenders, passing was the sole way in which offenses flourished. Old tapes of professional basketball in its incipient years show players hardly using their dribbles, opting to pass the ball around like a game of European handball. Today, these tapes are nothing more than a remnant of a bygone era, but they elucidate the timelessness of good passing.
As the game has evolved, with offenses spreading the floor and defenses collapsing space, passing has become a more important skill, if offenses want to succeed. Little, imperceptible differences separate good passers from bad passers. For instance, when a player without the ball spots up for a three, the speed and location of the pass makes the difference between an easy, uncontested shot and a difficult, contested shot. Casual NBA fans rarely recognise that passing heavily influences shooting percentages and offensive efficiency.
In most cases, the league’s best passers are point guards, who quarterback their respective offenses. An adept passer facilitates the offense, exploiting porous defenses and giving their receivers a better chance of scoring. From Oscar Robertson to Magic Johnson to Steve Nash, the NBA has never had a dearth of passing talent.
This list looks at the Top 10 passers in NBA history. If available, each player’s career earnings have been listed. As the list will show, good passers often play on relatively successful teams—but that should not come as a surprise.
10. Andre Miller – Career Salary:$91,593,701
In the 2001-2002 season, Andre Miller led the league in assists, averaging 10.9 per game. He has generally been underrated throughout his career, as he has never quite ascended high enough to be considered one of the league’s best point guards. If, after he retires, Miller is forgotten, it will be a shame, as Miller has been one of the steadiest point guards since entering the league in 1999.
9. Tim Hardaway – Career Salary: $46,661,390
Over his NBA career, Hardaway was a dynamic point guard, averaging 17.7 points and 8.2 assists. He finished in the top 10 in total assists for a season eight times in his career. What Hardaway could do better than most, though, was push the ball. He effortlessly ran the fast-break, routinely setting up open teammates for easy scores. Though he might be remembered for his dribbling prowess, fans should not forget Hardaway’s deft passing ability.
8. Kevin Johnson – Career Salary: $29,568,100
Kevin Johnson is one of the most underrated players in NBA history. Over his career, which ended in 2000, he averaged 17.9 points and 9.1 assists per game. His career average in assists per game ranks sixth all-time, and in the 1988-1989 season, he averaged 12.2 assists, a career best. Hopefully, K.J. will not be completely forgotten as time leaves his dominant seasons behind.
7. Chris Paul – Career Salary: $95,982,896
As a passer, Chris Paul needs no introduction. Paul quarterbacks his Los Angeles team on a nightly basis, throwing alley-oops to Deandre Jordan and Blake Griffin. This season, the former standout at Wake Forest is averaging 19.6 points and 11.2 assists per game—numbers that have placed him in the MVP race. He has led the league in assists per game in a season three times, and at 28 years old, he should continue to put up staggering assists totals for years to come.
6. Oscar Robertson – Career earnings unavailable
A twelve-time all-star, Oscar Robertson dominated the NBA in its early days. Over his career, he averaged 25.7 points and 9.5 assists per game, and he played in an era without the three-point shot! He averaged over 11 assists per game in a season four times. In terms of total assists, Robertson ranks sixth all-time. At 6’5, Robertson was the first “big” point guard in the league. Although it is not uncommon for a point guard to be 6’5 in today’s NBA, Robertson paved the way for bigger players who wanted to play guard. Without Robertson’s success, coaches may have never let Magic Johnson play the point.
5. Isiah Thomas – Earnings from 1985-1994: $13,072,000
Over his 13-year career, Isiah Thomas averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 assists per game. From a statistical standpoint, his best season came in 1984-1985, when Thomas averaged 21.2 points and 13.9 assists per game. The leader of the “Bad Boy” Detroit teams, Thomas is both fondly and contemptuously remembered. He is undoubtedly one of the best passers to ever play the game, but his style of play—not to mention his unceremonious and unsportsmanlike exit from the playoffs in 1991—cost him a spot on the “Dream Team” in 1992, as there was a good deal of enmity between him and several of the players chosen to play on the team.
4. Steve Nash – Career Earnings: $137,235,620
Steve Nash, a two-time MVP, has led the NBA in assists per game in a season five times. He has averaged 14.3 points and 8.5 assists per game over his career. During his time in Phoenix, Nash had an uncanny ability of combining style with efficiency, as he made defenses look silly on a nightly basis. He currently ranks fourth all-time in total assists for a career, but he will likely move up a spot before he retires.
3. Jason Kidd – Career Earnings: $187,675,468
Jason Kidd, who now coaches of the Brooklyn Nets, ranks second all-time in total assists with 12,091. Like Nash, Kidd was both stylish and efficient as a passer, but in the final years of his career, fans and experts alike extolled Kidd for his efficiency and leadership. Over his long career, he averaged 12.6 points and 8.7 assists per game, led New Jersey to the finals in back-to-back seasons, and finally won the title as a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Many hope that Kidd will translate into an effective coach, since he was a dependable leader in his playing days.
2. John Stockton – Career Earnings: $66,703,000
John Stockton was an eminent fundamentalist throughout his career. Never flashy, Stockton delivered the ball to his teammates consistently and effectively. He is the NBA’s all-time leader in assists, and he averaged better than 10 assists per game in a season ten times. Amazingly, he averaged over 14 assists per game in two consecutive seasons. Those stats seem unattainable in today’s NBA. Unfortunately for Stockton, Jordan and the Bulls prevented him from winning a championship. Undoubtedly Isiah Thomas’ replacement on the “Dream Team,” Stockton, at least, has a gold medal.
1. Magic Johnson – Earnings from 1985-1994: $18,042,860
Like Mario Lemieux in hockey, NBA fans and experts will always ask: what if? Indeed, forced to retire from the NBA due to contracting HIV, Magic Johnson is, nevertheless, the greatest passer in NBA history. In his short career, he won five NBA championships, was named first-team All-NBA nine times, and won the MVP Award five times. Over his career, he averaged 19.5 points and 11.2 assists per game, and he ranks fifth all-time in total assists with 10,141. Johnson paved the way for flashy players like Kidd and Nash, as he was both showy and efficient. Fortunately for Johnson, he has done well for himself since leaving the NBA, serving as a basketball analyst and becoming part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.