I’ve been watching a lot of Denver Nuggets basketball recently, and I was struck, once again, by how often Nikola Jokic can find Aaron Gordon for easy dunks and layups. They have developed a uniquely beautiful two-man synergy. This isn’t Stockton and Malone, running classic P&Rs ad nauseam. It’s not even LeBron and [insert corner shooter here]. Instead, it’s a one-of-a-kind pairing in the high-volume assist network world: a big man feeding a wing spoonfuls of buckets almost exclusively at the rim.
Watching those two made me wonder about the league’s top assist combinations. Luckily, our friends at PBP stats track this sort of thing, so let’s dive in.
1) Harden → Embiid, 127 assists
Harden passing to Embiid is by far the most prolific assist combination in the NBA this season. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the well-known success of the Harden/Embiid pick-and-roll. Harden is leading the league in assists with 11.2 per game, and a whopping 127 of his 337 dimes this year have been to the big man (38%!).
Embiid mixes and matches his attack to probe the soft parts of the defense. He’ll sprint to the rim hard, short roll, or pop for the midrange jumper with equal aplomb. For a passing maestro like Harden, it’s the rare “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel that always has a happy ending.
Harden has perfected the pocket pass that slides right between defenders who know what’s coming but can’t stop it. Embiid has excellent hands and a fluid grace with the ball, able to grab the rock and make a decisive move without having to gather himself:
The 76ers also have a plethora of capable three-point threats, which makes it much riskier for defenses to aggressively help on the roll. A whopping seven rotation players are shooting above league average from three. With that kind of spacing and the individual brilliance of Harden and Embiid, it’s tough to see how defenses can adjust to slow them down.
One note: Harden has recently become a little too enamored with the between-the-legs passes. When it works, it looks great, but when it doesn’t, well…
Even a hobbled Kawhi probably isn’t the guy to try that on.
2) Tyrese Haliburton → Buddy Hield, 107 assists
A lot of people underestimate how well-rounded Buddy Hield is on offense. He’s one of the best shooters in league history, hitting 40% exactly for his career on nearly eight attempts per game, and he can drop bombs in any number of ways.
But he’s a better driver than people give him credit for, and he knows how to leverage the threat of his jumper to gain a step on overzealous defenders for an easy layup.
It’s especially potent in transition, where Haliburton will zip up the court and feed the hard-charging Buddy, who pauses for just a second before driving to the hoop. The hesitation causes the nearest defender to rise out of their stance as they worry about the three-ball, giving Buddy a clear lane for his preferred lefty layup.
A full third of Haliburton’s assists to Hield are on two-pointers, and the vast majority of those are at the rim:
These half-pump-fakes are a simple but effective counter to defenses overplaying Buddy’s shooting.
3) Jamal Murray → Nikola Jokic, 93 assists
4) Nikola Jokic → Aaron Gordon, 92 assists
Are you surprised to see that Jokic as a scorer ahead of Jokic as a passer? It speaks to the tremendous versatility of the Joker that he can be on both sides in the top five of assist combinations.
But Jokic is scoring 25 points per game on a field goal percentage so strong it looks like a typo: 67.1% on twos is third in the league behind Nic Claxton and Rudy Gobert.
For context, 36% of Claxton’s FGAs and 40% of Gobert’s are dunks, the highest-accuracy shot in the league. Conversely, Jokic has just 12 dunks on the entire season (2% of FGAs).
If the guy receiving passes never misses, it makes for a promising duo with virtually any passer. Murray, as the primary non-Jokic ballhandler, gets the glory.
The Murray/Jokic pick and roll isn’t quite Harden and Embiid, but there’s no denying the effectiveness when they use it. Jokic loves to loft soft, high-arcing, one-legged floaters that gently drift through the net with a grace belying the awkwardness of the launch procedure:
The Jokic to Gordon assists are easy: Jokic rumbles into the paint, Gordon’s defender has to help, and Jokic has a drop-off for an easy dunk. Alternatively, Gordon ducks in with a strong post-up on a helpless smaller player, Jokic passes to him, easy dunk:
An astonishing 80 of the 92 assists are at the rim, by far the highest geographical concentration of any of the top duos. You have to go all the way down to Trae Young and Clint Capela at #13 to find a greater concentration of assists to one region of the court.
I’ve posited that playing with Jokic effectively adds two inches to a player’s vertical leap, since he will always put you in the most advantageous position possible to catch a ball. And when a player can already jump like Gordon, well, those two extra inches open up a whole new world of finishing possibilities.
We covered the Gordon and Jokic duo more extensively here, but their brutally elegant dance is a rare sight in this league at lower altitudes. I can’t get enough of Gordon’s dunk-hunting this year.
5) Marcus Smart → Jaylen Brown, 88 assists
6) Marcus Smart → Jayson Tatum, 88 assists
Well, now, isn’t this interesting? Marcus Smart has taken a leap this season as a playmaker (7.3 assists per game this season; he’d never previously even hit six), and a full 61% of his assists go to one of the Jays.
Unlike most of the pairings above, there isn’t an easy way to pigeonhole these assists into one or two categories. The Celtics’ offense this season has been a shock to the system, a perpetual-motion machine that employs its two main characters in a boatload of varied, creative roles.
The distribution of assists is virtually the same between both Jays. Smart has dimed up Tatum 43 times at the rim compared to 38 for Brown, and Brown has 27 above-the-break threes compared to Tatum’s 26. That speaks to both players’ well-rounded skillsets and their interchangeability in many actions.
It doesn’t hurt Smart’s numbers that Tatum and Brown (especially) have become elite shotmakers inside the arc. It’s nice, from a point guard’s perspective, when the receiving player can do all the work:
That’s not a backhanded dig at Smart, either. He’s become very capable of passing guys open and flinging darts through tiny holes:
That’s beautiful. Smart sees the cutting Brown, hangs in the air forever, and finally delivers a creative bounce pass to ensure that the surprised Brown is the only player who can reach it.
But what most stands out about Smart this year, to my eyes, is that he’s achieving more by doing less. He’s making the correct read and committing to the extra pass, even when it’s just a simple swing. Smart is hitting singles and doubles instead of aiming for the fences every time, and the Celtics’ offense is far better off for it.
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