Top 20 best passers in NBA history

Profile Picture: Ryan Murphy

Ryan Murphy

November 2nd, 2020

Scorers tend to get most of the glory in the NBA, but many of their highlight-reel baskets wouldn't be possible without the crisp passes of their teammates. We believe those dishes can be every bit as satisfying as the emphatic slams and buzzer beaters they produce, which is why we're turning the spotlight on the men who facilitate them. Join us now as we salute the top 20 passers in NBA history.

20. Scott Skiles

NBA teams: Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, Washington Bullets, Philadelphia 76ers
Career assists: 3,881
Assists per game average: 6.5
Accolades: NBA Most Improved Player

Scott Skiles never came close to winning a championship or cracking an NBA All-Star roster, but he did etch his name in the history books on Dec. 30, 1990, when he dished out 30 assists in a laughably lopsided 155-116 victory over the Denver Nuggets. His improbable record has stood for more than 30 years and may never be touched.

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) looks on before an NBA game. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

19. Nikola Jokic

NBA teams: Denver Nuggets
Career assists: 2,098
Assists per game average: 5.5
Accolades: 2x All-Star, 2x All-NBA Team

The only center on our list, Nikola Jokic has emerged as one of the best passers in NBA history after just five seasons in the league. The 7’0" "Joker" has finished in the top 15 in assists in each of the last three seasons and has become legendary in Denver - and beyond - for his no look passes to cutting teammates. If you’re anywhere in the arena, he’ll find you.

18. Muggsy Bogues

NBA teams: Washington Bullets, Charlotte Hornets, Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors
Career assists: 6,726 (23rd)
Assists per game average: 7.6
Accolades: Ranked in the top 10 in assists six times

Luckily there are no size restrictions on our list of the 20 best passers in NBA history, or otherwise Muggsy Bogues may not have made the cut. The 5'3" dynamo was an exceptional pass-first point guard who used his diminutive stature to his advantage by spotting angles that were unavailable to his taller peers. Bogues was third in the NBA in assists in 1990 and ranked in the Top 5 four times from 1992-95.

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Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. (Photo by John M. McDonough/Icon Sportswire)

17. Larry Bird

NBA teams: Boston Celtics
Career assists: 5,695 (42nd)
Assists per game average: 6.3
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, 3x MVP, 3x NBA Champion

You didn’t think we were going to leave Larry Legend off our list, did you? The three-time MVP was a passing savant who consistently set up teammates for easy buckets with his perfect touch passes and laser-like dimes. Unlike some of the players on our list, Bird could likely have scored on every possession, but he took great joy in setting up his fellow Celtics and making the right play.

16. Maurice Cheeks

NBA teams: Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, New Jersey Nets
Career assists: 7,392 (13th)
Assists per game average: 6.7
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 4x All-Star, NBA Champion

You don’t have to be flashy to be an exceptional passer. Just ask Mo Cheeks. The longtime Sixer managed to climb to 13th on the career assists list by delivering no-nonsense, pinpoint passes to lights-out scorers like Dr. J and Moses Malone. His passes may not have been poetry, but they were the kind of workmanlike prose that everyone can appreciate.

15. Rod Strickland

NBA teams: New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Bullets, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets
Career assists: 7,987 (12th)
Assists per game average: 7.3
Accolades: All-NBA Team, AST leader

There must be something in the water in New York, because the city has produced some of the finest ball-handlers and passers to ever lace ‘em up. Example No. 1,543 is Rod Strickland, a Bronx-born maestro who led the league in assists in 1997-98, and averaged seven dimes or more per game 10 times.

14. Andre Miller

NBA teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, L.A. Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Wizards, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs
Career assists: 8,524 (11th)
Assists per game average: 6.5
Accolades: AST leader

No less an authority than George Karl called Andre Miller one of the 10 best passers to ever play in the NBA. "He has a knack of doing the fundamentals and doing the little things of basketball probably as good as anybody I’ve ever coached," Karl said in 2014, near the tail end of Miller’s outstanding career.  "Andre knows how to win basketball games and he knows how to lead people."

13. Gary Payton

NBA teams: Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, L.A. Lakers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat
Career assists: 8,966 (10th)
Assists per game average: 6.7
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 9x All-Star, NBA Champion

Although best known for his tenacious D, Gary Payton was also an accurate and creative passer who was especially lethal in the open court. His epic alley-oops to Shawn Kemp were responsible for getting more people out of their seats than the national anthem.

12. Isiah Thomas

NBA teams: Detroit Pistons
Career assists: 9,061 (9th)
Assists per game average: 9.3
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, AST leader, 2x NBA Champion

"Zeke's" accolades are well known, but he makes it onto our list of the top 20 passers in NBA History because of his patented bounce pass alley-oops. Love him or him (and chances are you probably hate him), it’s impossible not to admire his style.

11. Bob Cousy

NBA teams: Boston Celtics
Career assists: 6,955 (20th)
Assists per game average: 7.5
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 13x All-Star, 6x NBA Champion

Watching a video of Bob Cousy is almost like see a time traveller who’s hurtled 70 years back in the past. Most footage of the 13-time All-Star includes him dribbling around his back, weaving the ball through his legs, and throwing a gorgeous no-look bounce pass to a teammate who releases the kind of two-handed set shot that would get you laughed out of every gym in America in 2020. It’s more than a little jarring to see a man who was so far ahead of his time.

10. Oscar Robertson

NBA teams: Cincinnati Royals, Milwaukee Bucks
Career assists: 9,887 (6th)
Assists per game average: 9.5
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, 6x AST leader, NBA Champion

You don’t average a triple-double over the course of a full season without dishing out a whole heap of assists. That was the case for Oscar Robertson, who averaged 11.4 helpers during his magical sophomore season and led the league in dimes seven times. The "Big O" used his size well to see over the tops of defenses and find teammates for easy buckets.

9. Mark Jackson

NBA teams: New York Knicks, L.A. Clippers, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets
Career assists: 10,334 (4th)
Assists per game average: 8.0
Accolades: All-Star, Rookie of the Year, AST leader

Many younger fans only know Mark Jackson as that guy who argues with Jeff Van Gundy on ABC broadcasts, and that’s a shame, because the Brooklyn-born point guard was a hell of a passer in his prime. Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game in his rookie year with the Knicks and captured his first – and only – assist title with the Nuggets 10 years later. His offensive game (and dance moves) left much to be desired, but his passing was unquestionably elite.

8. Jason Williams

NBA teams: Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic
Career assists: 4,611 (83rd)
Assists per game average: 5.9
Accolades: NBA Champion

We know what you’re thinking: How does a guy ranked 83rd in career assists weasel his way into the top 10? The answer is panache. Williams was an absolute artist with the ball and gained legions of fan worldwide for his fearless array of around-the-back, between-the-legs, and off-the-backboard passes. His 1,643 turnovers are an indication that his approach didn’t always work, but when it did it was a thing of beauty.

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Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul being defended by Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

7. Chris Paul

NBA teams: New Orleans Hornets, L.A. Clippers, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder
Career assists: 9,653 (7th)
Assists per game average: 9.5
Accolades: 10x All-Star, 9x All-NBA Team, 4x AST leader

Chris Paul’s postseason struggles and acerbic personality have sometimes overshadowed what he can do on the court, and that’s unfortunate because he’s a hardcore baller who can pass with the best of ‘em. The veteran point guard is as fundamentally solid as they come and has a surprising amount of showmanship, as evidenced by his time as conductor of L.A.’s fabled Lob City collective. CP3 can truly do it all, it’s just too bad that constant whining is a big part of his total package.

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Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James makes a move against the Houston Rockets. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire)

6. LeBron James

NBA teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, L.A. Lakers
Career assists: 9,346 (8th)
Assists per game average: 7.4
Accolades: 16x All-Star, 4x MVP, 4x Finals MVP, 4x NBA Champion

Fans love to compare Michael Jordan and LeBron James, but one category where MJ falls seriously short is passing. Whereas Jordan often only surrendered the ball when he had no other options, James consistently looks for his teammates first before calling his own number. His selflessness and vision have allowed him to rack up the second most assists in NBA playoff history and the eighth most assists overall. Expect those numbers to continue to improve as King James further cements his legacy.

5. Rajon Rondo

NBA teams: Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans, L.A. Lakers
Career assists: 7,215 (15th)
Assists per game average: 8.3
Accolades: 4x All-Star, 3x AST leader, 2x NBA Champion

Where would the Lakers have been in 2020 without Rajon Rondo? The three-time assist leader became L.A.’s third best player in the playoffs as he averaged 8.9 points and 6.6 dimes per game for the eventual champs. His ability to run the offense took pressure off of LeBron James, and allowed the 35-year-old superstar to take a breather on the bench without L.A. falling into a hole. You can argue that Rondo dribbles the air out of the ball and only gives up the rock when he knows it will lead to an assist, but you can’t argue about his ability to find open teammates.

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Dallas Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd #2 in an NBA game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks. (Photo by Albert Pena/Icon Sportswire)

4. Jason Kidd

NBA teams: Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, New Jersey Nets, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks
Career assists: 12,091 (2nd)
Assists per game average: 8.7
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 10x All-Star, 5x AST leader, NBA Champion

Few players in NBA history have taken more joy in setting up their teammates than Jason Kidd, who dished out over 12,000 dimes during his 19-year Hall of Fame career. His selflessness made him a superstar, and paved the way for 17 trips to the NBA Playoffs and a perfect 56-0 record in international competition.

3. John Stockton

NBA teams: Utah Jazz
Career assists: 15,806 (1st)
Assists per game average: 10.5
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 10x All-Star, 9x AST leader

If this list were based merely upon number of assists, John Stockton would be No. 1. After all, the Hall of Famer dished out an NBA-record 15,806 dimes during his illustrious 19-year career. However, it’s also based upon style, and Stockton with his purple nut-huggers and blue collar game was the complete antithesis of cool. His pick-and-roll passes to Karl Malone were always perfectly executed and exquisitely timed, but they seldom cracked the top 10 in anyone’s highlight reel.

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Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson is awarded the NBA All-Star Game MVP trophy. (Photo by Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

2. Magic Johnson

NBA teams: L.A. Lakers
Career assists: 10,141 (5th)
Assists per game average: 11.2
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, 3x MVP, 5x NBA Champion

Close your eyes for a moment and picture Magic Johnson. If you’re over the age of 30 your imaginary game reel probably has Magic leading a 3-on-2 break flanked by Lakers teammates Michael Cooper and James Worthy. Magic looks to Coop as he glides into the lane, making both defenders overcommit, and then puts the ball right in Worthy’s bread basket for a perfect one-handed flush. That kind of scenario played out thousands of times during the 1980s, and made the Hall of Famer one of the most exciting - and efficient - passers of all time.

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Standing (L-R) Phoenix Suns guard Leandro Barbosa (10), center Amare Stoudemire (1), guard Steve Nash (13), and forward Shawn Marion (31) wait for a fouls shot to be completed. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

1. Steve Nash

NBA teams: Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Lakers
Career assists: 10,335 (3rd)
Assists per game average: 8.5
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 7x All-Star, 2x MVP

Didn’t expect to see a floppy-haired Canadian at the top of our list, did you? Steve Nash never won a championship, but he did win the hearts and minds of fans around the globe with his endlessly creative passes. The two-time MVP expertly probed defenses at mock speeds, and ventured into nooks and crannies that lesser guards would have avoided. Then, just as it seemed as if he were trapped, Nash would hit a teammate with a perfect no-look pass right in the numbers. It happened multiple times every single game every single season, and it never, ever got old. 

Honorable mentions: Lonzo Ball, Tim Hardaway, Pete Maravich, Tony Parker, Ricky Rubio, Bill Walton, Deron Williams