Backpicks GOAT: #25 John Stockton

Key Stats and Trends

  • Inability to pressure defenses with scoring overstates assist numbers
  • Excellent plus-minus numbers when playing a smaller role
  • Fantastic consistency and longevity

Scouting Report

Stockton was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde. Before age sapped his speed, he was a fast break blur, attacking the hoop and dishing out assists with Mr. Hyde’s aggression. But in the half court, he was Dr. Jekyll, methodically attacking in selective spots and often passing on quality shots.

This dichotomy stemmed from Stock’s diminutive stature; he was listed at 6-foot-1, but played even smaller. He was bothered by larger defenders and struggled among the trees, both with his vision and scoring. He was even hesitant to enter the lane at times because he had a hard time scoring or passing when in there:

Unlike all offensive forces in history, Stockton rarely took the attack to his man. He was more Rajon Rondo than Steve Nash, often pounding the ball while options materialized out of Utah’s off-ball screens. Here he waits for screens before lobbing an idle pass out with nine seconds left on the shot clock.

This was a common occurrence in Utah’s offense, and it was not merely a function of the system, but of Stockton himself. Where elite offensive players look to attack, Stockton passively surveyed for teammates to pop. In the next play, he hunts for a mismatch, but notice how passive he is looking for his own offense:

He was so passive that Dick Enberg once asked Cotton Fitzsimmons on a broadcast if Stockton should shoot more, to which Cotton immediately said “yes!” 1

In transition, Mr. Hyde emerged. Although he was crafty enough to finish going left, he primarily finished to his right, using speed and quickness to push hard in transition:

Not only would Stock attack the rim, but he would sometimes take an ill-advised pullup or try overly aggressive passes. Below, he jacks an undesirable shot:

Next, he pushes without a man advantage, trying to fit the ball into a tight window, although hitting Karl Malone would have been the more advanced pass:

As the years went on, Stockton saw fewer transition chances, as they were replaced by his crisp half-court passes. He threw post-entries well, although such passes are only moderate- leverage plays:

In tracking film, I was surprised by how many vanilla, “Rondo assists” Stockton collected from hitting cutters or merely dumping it to Malone. He could architect brilliant plays, but only occasionally:

Overall, he was a very good, but not great passer. He uncorked a number of quality assists per game, but he missed too many elite passes. Here’s an example of his scoring aggression on the break while missing another layup pass:

Here’s another high-quality pass that he failed to see, this time in the half court (Malone missed one too at the end of the possession):

Sometimes, when creating, he would forego a higher-value play for a more conservative pass:

In my tracking sample, Stockton hit 3.5 “good” or “great” passes per 100 possessions — a formidable clip for his era, behind only Magic and Bird among ’80s and ’90s players on this list. However, he also missed an elite pass once per 100, leaving points on the scoreboard that the best passers would have found.2

As a result of all this, his creation rates appear significantly lower than what his Box Creation predicts. He was an anomaly, a player functionally closer to Brevin Knight who had the ball so much and shot just enough 3-pointers to trip up the creation estimate. It’s almost as if Stockton should be a significantly larger offensive mass, but isn’t.3

On defense, Stockton’s rotations were excellent. He used his quickness to overcome a size disadvantage, ping-ponging from one advantageous spot to another, darting to help-the-helper when needed.

In the clip below, notice his positioning — he shrewdly shades over toward the ball, then uses quickness to take the charge:

That’s masterful stuff. His court coverage was quite good too, despite an absence of shot-blocking talent. Here, he does a great job quickly recovering and closing out on a double:

Stockton was also an expert at sniping the post. He tallied an abundance of steals this way, and his gambles were calculated, rarely (if ever) exposing himself like so many others who try this. He committed defensive errors at a moderately low rate, and had some of the most “efficient” help steals you’ll ever see:

However, his size prevented him from bothering bigger players. Larger guards like Terry Porter fared well against him, backing him into the post where he was vulnerable. As Stockton aged, his Maradona foot speed faded, but even in his late 30s he possessed the same conservative approach and feisty defensive tactics.

Impact Evaluation

Stockton is one of the few secondary players on this list, and as such, directly evaluating his impact is tricky. He played alongside Malone, who shouldered an enormous burden in Utah’s offense over the years. Before Malone evolved into a scoring monster, Stockton’s emergence in 1988 helped bump Utah from three years of decrepit offenses to…slightly below average on offense.

In many circles, Stockton has the reputation of an offensive maestro, but as discussed above, his orchestration was conservative, his attacks tame. Utah’s offense correlated more with Malone’s fluctuations than Stockton’s, as it wasn’t until 1990 that the Jazz offense hopped above the line of mediocrity and crescendoed into a decade-long run of excellence. By all accounts, Stockton’s ’90 season was similar to his ’89 one, but Malone’s ’90 campaign was a huge personal improvement and one of the best scoring years in NBA history.

Stockton’s inability to pressure opponents and create havoc in the lane significantly dampened his impact as an offensive dynamo. Great players don’t have to score, but their threat to score generates global impact. Stockton simply wasn’t capable of this: He scored over 30 points just 11 times in his 11-year prime (1.2 percent of games), and hoisted over 20 true shot attempts just 2.4 percent of the time. This pales in comparison to the great 3-point era point guards, who could call their own number if the defense didn’t respect their scoring enough.

As that chart hints at, the playoffs exposed these weaknesses in Stockton. In 87 postseason games against teams with a defensive rating under 105, Stockton averaged 13.5 points per 36 on 57 percent true shooting, down from 15.5 and 62 percent in the regular season against such competition. Perhaps most importantly, his Box Creation in those games was only around 5 per 100, more inline with the sampling from the scouting report and drastically below some of his regular season estimations. In other words, he wasn’t breaking down defenses the way his assist numbers would suggest.

Even when granting Stockton his creation estimate (which captures some of the inherent value of his better passes) his statistical profile lags behind contemporaries. Below, I’ve scaled the Big 4 box stats (scoring, efficiency, creation and turnovers) for three-year statistical peaks. Notably, he is the weakest scorer among this group of point guards:

But Stockton’s regular season efficiency is deceptive. He wasn’t an unstoppable force like Shaq, nor did he gain an advantage with marksmanship like Reggie Miller or Steph Curry. Instead, his efficiency was fueled by conservatism — he shot well because he only took premium shots. Look at what happens to Stockton’s profile in the playoffs — it (literally) shrinks. Despite the selectivity, his efficiency fell off along with his scoring:

While passing like Stockton’s can be additive, it’s not game-changing. And while his shooting scales well, he was reluctant to fire open shots. In the last three seasons (2015-17), no player with a comparable scoring rate to prime Stockton cracked the top-10 percent of offensive RAPM scores, and the highest-impact player of that group, Kyle Korver (+3.5), was an all-time level 3-point specialist who posted a ridiculous +16.5 percent shooting efficiency (rTS) while spacing the floor. 4

Fortunately, the majority of Stockton’s career is captured by some form of plus-minus. There, he grades out well, with scaled and minute-weighted values around All-Star or all-league levels from 1994-99 (between+2.6 and +5.5). His best numbers came in his final few years in reduced minutes, likely due to the selectivity of his role and, in the case of 2001 — where he posted a monster +7.8 — losing longtime backup Howard Eisley. Either way, Adjusted Plus-Minus casts Stockton as a really valuable player who lacked top-tier impact during his formative years. His plus-minus numbers also suggest he was a small, but relevant impact player on defense, in line with the awareness and coverage he displays on film.

Stockton sat for 18 games to start the 1998 season, and Utah missed his strong passing and intelligent D. Without him, the Jazz played at a 48-win pace (2.1 SRS) and with him a 60-win pace (6.7 SRS).5 That result indicates Stockton’s importance, but it’s not earth-moving, which is expected given Stockton’s low-minute usage during the final chapters of his career. Unlike many stars who ramped up minutes in the playoffs, ’98 Stockton logged only 30 a night in the postseason and 32 per game in his final six playoff runs.

Still, his consistency was exceptional. For a decade, he ticked like a metronome, clocking out nearly identical seasons every year, veering outside the lines once in 1990 when he (barely) incorporated a 3-point shot and then again in 1993 when he had his only “down” season statistically.6 But it’s incredibly difficult to see an argument for Stockton as an elite offensive player based on the data.

His plus-minus hints at some latent value — his execution of Sloan’s system? passing? screening? — and I credit him for that in my valuations by casting him as an all-league performer. Defensively, I think he was worthy of accolades and made an impact, but there’s only so much a small guard who isn’t a shut-down defender can do to move the needle. A small (but generous) bump in his peak valuation would move him up two spots, and I can’t see him dropping much lower based on his longevity. In total, he produced 10 All-NBA years in my book and another four All-Star seasons, but Stockton’s lack of a meaningful peak prevents him from a higher placement on this list.

  1. This was during the 1993 playoffs, Game 5 versus Seattle. The NBA on NBC!
  2. Stockton’s conversion percentage on these “good pass” chances was 79 percent, just behind his teammate Malone (83 percent) and behind Magic and Bird, who were over 90 percent.
  3. Holding his 3-point proficiency term at their late ’80s rates brings his ’90s creation closer to 7-9 per 100, which is more in line with what I’ve manually tracked.
  4. Using Jerry Engelmann’s 3-year RAPM set for players under 18 points per 75 possessions with a minimum of 30 minutes per game.
  5. That might not tell the entire story. Utah was a veteran team off of multiple playoff runs, and performed steadily better over the course of the season.
  6. That year was the only time between 1988 and 2002 that Stockton dipped beneath .200 Win Shares/48.

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