Talented playmakers are perhaps the most valuable kind of player to have in the NBA. They see the floor, set the table for teammates and deliver amazing passes that fuel the offense.
In today’s NBA, playmaking responsibilities are often spread throughout the whole lineup. Point guards are often score-first players and only opportunistic passers. Very few stars in the league are high-volume playmakers who continually crank out heaps of dimes for their teams. In decades past, however, there were many prolific floor generals who showcased their creativity and unselfishness nightly.
We built our list of the top five playmakers of all time on these factors: productivity and efficiency in the player’s prime, passing creativity and transcendent talent. We asked ourselves which passers from yesterday and today would shine in any era?
Honorable mentions: Mark Jackson, Rajon Rondo, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, John Wall, Isiah Thomas, Pete Maravich
Jason Kidd, PG
Best season (1998-99 Suns): 14.0 AST/100 possessions, 3.9 TO/100 poss, 44.0 AST%
When Kidd was in his prime, many referred to him as a Magic Johnson-esque player. It’s fair to say no other point guard has come closer to Magic’s flair and manipulation of the defense.
Kidd was a dazzling facilitator during both his stints in Dallas, but his years with the Phoenix Suns and New Jersey Nets were his most prolific. Kidd had the type of next-step anticipation that made it seem like he had eyes in the back of his head. In the middle of broken plays, he’d get the ball and quickly shovel it to a teammate before opponents had time to react.
Kidd’s playmaking magnificence took New Jersey to the NBA Finals two years in a row. And although he failed to upend the Los Angeles Lakers or San Antonio Spurs, he finally got a ring as floor general of the Mavericks in 2011. Kidd orchestrated a Dallas attack that spoiled the best laid plans of the much-hyped Miami Heat super-team.
Steve Nash, PG
Best season (2004-05 Suns): 16.7 AST/100 poss, 4.8 TO/100 poss, 49.2 AST%
Nash’s ball-handling and playmaking wizardry earned him two MVP trophies and several deep runs in the playoffs. Whether he was in transition or half-court sets, the Canadian quarterback pushed all the right buttons in a fascinating way.
He took Mike D’Antoni’s “7 seconds or less” coaching style and made it as powerful as anyone could have imagined at the time. Nash’s drive-and-dish finesse turned Amare Stoudemire into a star, and his transition vision made Shawn Marion uncontainable.
Nash also took the one-handed passing exploits of Magic Johnson and John Stockton to another level. Brett Koremenos of Grantland.com explained:
Nash not only made one-handed passing cool, but necessary. Trainers and coaches watching him play noticed that he passed with one hand not for flair or attention, but because it offered more efficient, less restrictive angles for getting the ball to his teammates.
Some detractors try to devalue Nash’s MVP awards because he never won a title and didn’t have a good defensive impact. But it’s hard to argue anyone was more valuable and dynamic to their team’s attack than Nash was in his prime.
Chris Paul, PG
Best season (2007-08 Hornets): 16.4 AST/100 poss, 3.6 TO/100 poss, 52.2 AST%
CP3 is the closest thing the NBA has to an elite traditional point guard these days. Aside from his diminutive stature, he has everything a coach could want in a playmaker: speed, handles, vision, sound decision-making and accuracy on his passes.
Paul is aggressive and innovative, yet he takes great care of the ball. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.1 is remarkable considering how many possessions he uses. With both the New Orleans Hornets and the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul has maintained superb control of the team’s tempo and spacing. He instantly made both of those teams dangerous offensively when he joined them.
Sometimes he’s dribble-heavy when probing the defense, but his movements are always purposeful. Just when you think he’s stuck and a pick-and-roll will fizzle, he flips a beautiful alley-oop or zips a pass out to a shooter. Paul’s footwork and court awareness are always sharp, and that’s what ultimately fuels his passing consistency.
John Stockton, PG
Best season (1989-90 Jazz): 19.4 AST/100 poss, 4.7 TO/100 poss, 57.4 AST%
Thanks to quick hands and impeccable timing, Stockton is the NBA’s all-time leader in total assists. He also holds five of the top 10 single-season marks for assists per game, and he led the NBA in assists per game for nearly a decade (1988-1996).
Stockton was a master at setting up post players from the top of the key or the wing. He put his teammates in prime position to score with perfect post-entry passes and crisp cross-court dimes. And most prominently, he was a pioneer of the pick-and-roll play.
His pick-and-roll partnership with the likes of Mark Eaton and Karl Malone turned the Jazz into a contender. Stockton would turn the corner around screens, survey the floor and then fit the ball through tight windows. He capitalized on the slightest mistakes from opponents, finding buckets for teammates when defenders were just a step out of place.
Stockton was just 6-foot-1 and wasn’t a great leaper or all-around scorer. But he knew how to use his foot speed and picks to create favorable passing opportunities. If he played in today’s NBA, he would be nearly as effective a playmaker as he was in the 1990s.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson, PG
Best season (1985-86 Lakers): 16.4 AST/100 poss, 4.9 TO/100 poss, 45.1 AST%
Magic was the ultimate creator, a brilliant pass-first leader who revolutionized the point guard position. He maximized the Lakers’ influx of talent in the 1980s by pushing the ball up the floor and spreading it around to everyone. With a 6-9 frame and tremendous vision, he routinely made eye-popping passes that were otherwise uncommon for the rest of the league.
Johnson led the NBA in assists per game for four seasons in the ’80s, and he averaged double-digit assists for eight straight seasons from 1983-1991. Those are impressive marks considering the Lakers didn’t utilize many pick-and-rolls or the 3-point line back then.
When Magic was in attack mode, it was impossible for the defense to predict what he’d do. His scoring talent kept opponents honest, and they never knew which direction he would fire the rock. Johnson was great at flipping no-look passes, quick one-handed lasers and behind-the-back passes in transition. He took advantage of his height and long arms to launch 30-foot bounce passes with ease. The Lakers had loads of talent around Johnson, but there would be no Showtime without him.