Utah Jazz legend John Stockton turned 58 years old on Thursday, which seems impossible, since he averaged 10 dimes per 36 minutes into the mid-2000s and still looks like he can run a pick-and-roll, but we should have seen this coming when his oldest son debuted in the NBA five years ago.
The point guard boom that has given us a handful of MVPs, a dazzling display of handle, some of the most explosive scoring seasons in NBA history, and the Point God Chris Paul have somehow left Stockton even more underappreciated than he was working as Karl Malone’s delivery man in Utah.
So, what better time to pause and applaud Stockton — a 6-foot-1, 170-pound mid-first-round pick out of Gonzaga — as an underrated great and maybe the best point guard ever not named Magic.
There are the accolades. He made 11 All-NBA teams, more than any other point guard but Bob Cousy (12). Only Cousy, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas have more All-Star appearances at the point than Stockton’s 10. And just a handful had more All-Defensive selections than Stockton’s five. There is no other floor general who can claim to have that résumé, a nod to Stockton’s longevity.
His 19-year career is truly astonishing for his consistency. He played all 82 games every season but three, and one of those he played every night of the lockout-shortened 50-game campaign in 1999. He led the league in assists for nine straight seasons from 1987-96. Five of those are in the top six playmaking seasons in NBA history, including his record-setting 14.5 assists per game in 1989-90.
You accumulate some mind-numbing numbers when you are that good for that long. Stockton’s 15,806 career assists are not just a record, they are nearly 3,000 more than Jason Kidd in second. That is practically a Wayne Gretzky-level of dominance over the field when it comes to table-setting.
Paul, the league’s active career leader with 9,607 assists, would need 653 more games (or eight full seasons) to catch Stockton at his current career average of 9.5 assists per game — or 912 more games (11-plus seasons) at his current season average of 6.8. Paul is 34 years old, the same age Stockton was when he averaged 10.5 assists for a Jazz team making consecutive NBA Finals trips.
We can argue how much Stockton benefited from playing alongside Malone or vice-versa, but you can bet the latter would not be the league’s second all-time leading scorer if not for the former. Stockton might still be the assist king, given the margin between him and any potential successor.
The Jazz point guard would certainly be higher than 47th on the all-time scoring list had Malone not attempted more field goals than anybody but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and even higher had the NBA’s 3-point era occurred earlier. Stockton was a 38.4 percent career 3-point shooter, knocking down better than 40 percent of his long-distance shots in seven seasons (twice better than 45 percent), and he only averaged 1.5 per game for his 19 years. That would be closer to eight now.
It is fascinating to consider what Stockton’s career would look like in today’s game, when ball-dominant guards have combined for four of the last five MVP awards with outrageous offensive production. Stockton’s usage rate topped out at 20.9 in 1990-91, when he averaged a career-high 17.2 points on 11.9 field-goal attempts per game and accounted for nearly 60 percent of his team’s assists when he was on the floor. Russell Westbrook, for example, required twice as many shots per game and twice the usage rate to average 31.6 points and 10.4 assists in his 2017 MVP campaign.
Stockton may not have been capable of bearing the load the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Westbrook did that season, but consider Steve Nash’s back-to-back MVP campaigns in 2005 and 2006. He averaged 17.2 points (on 51/44/91 shooting splits) and 11 assists with a usage rate of 22 percent for the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, who averaged 96 possessions a game in those two seasons. Over a full decade from 1987-97, Stockton averaged 15.6 points (on 52/39/83 splits) and 12.8 assists with a 19.3 usage rate for a Jazz team that averaged a similar number of possessions.
Oh, and Stockton made five All-Defensive teams during that run. Nash never came close to one.
Stockton’s status as the NBA’s steals king is similar to his assist reign. His 3,265 career swipes are almost a quarter more than Kidd’s 2,684 in second. Paul, again the league’s active leader, trails Stockton by more than 1,000 steals. He could catch Stockton if he maintains his career average of 2.2 steals per game until his 40th birthday, although he has not averaged that many since age 28.
Those assists and steals, they came in the playoffs, too, where he averaged 10.1 and 1.9 per game, respectively. Only Magic has more career playoff assists, and Stockton is fifth on the career playoff steals list behind LeBron James, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Magic. Not terrible company.
Stockton owns five of the eight best single-season playoff assist averages in history, including a six-year stretch from 1988-93 when he averaged 17.1 points, 13.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals over 49 playoff games. Eight players have combined to average 10 or more assists per game in the playoffs 22 times since Stockton did so for the 11th and final time in 2002, and among them only Russell Westbrook and Allen Iverson ever made a Finals as a starting point guard. Stockton made two, one of which came on his legendary series-ending buzzer beater to beat the Rockets in the 1997 Western Conference finals. He finished that game with 25 points and 13 assists at age 35.
And let’s not forget Stockton might have been the 1998 Finals hero had Jordan not made his final shot in a Chicago Bulls uniform with help from a touch of Bryon Russell. (He nearly was anyway.)
They do not make point guards like John Stockton anymore — or ever. Maybe in another 58 years.
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