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.

8 thoughts on “Backpicks GOAT: #25 John Stockton

  1. These posts are great, but I’d encourage you to highlight some more positives, things the players did well and were exceptional at. The last two posts especially I feel like covered more negatives than positives. Those are very important especially when comparing players at this level. Often it can be splitting hairs so it’s essential to highlight deficiencies. At the same time….these are the very best players ever! Let’s celebrate what they did well and call those things out just a little more. That being said thanks for all the time and research. Love the series.

    • John, thanks for the feedback. All players have pros and cons, and my aim is to cover both. With that said, sometimes the focus shifts in one direction or another depending on the player and the “common knowledge” of that player.

  2. Loved the post. nice to see an intelligent breakdown with videos and stuff.

    as a jazz fan that watched stockton almost nightly from 89 onward, a few nit-picky things, since this post is nit-picky to begin with 🙂 haha

    “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: video:

    not sure how young/old you are. or if you watched the nba since the 80s, or just doing this based off of film clips. But please explain how “he jacks an undesirable shot.” that is the perfect shot for stockton. he was automatic in that area of the court. in that scenario, perhaps it is desirable to slow the play down to half court set… or perhaps its desirable to penetrate the paint into 2 bigs and perform a layup/draw a foul. stockton was very accurate in that area of the court. it is a very desirable shot, in my eyes, considering who is shooting.
    commentary from malone.

    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: video:

    question? as stockton drives, why do 4 players come on the help if they know he is just going to “dump it to malone”? You seem to focus on him making an “easy” pass, but first he must draw in the help defense. the video is fine, but i’d write something about this: stockton quickness beats his man on the dribble drive, which forces help defense, which frees up an easy assist.

    “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.”

    i disagree. he was a very capable scorer. he just chose not to score, but to assist. every jazz fan wanted him to shoot more, but he never did. perhaps its a fault in his playstyle/personality.
    perhaps a better analysis would be how often help defense resulted in an easy assist. if he was not a very good scorer, why did help defense bother coming over. again, no jazz fan who lived that era blindly accepted his lack of scoring. we all wanted him to score more.
    again, you stated stockton wasn’t capable of scoring. i disagree. Just because he chose not to score, does not automatically make him incapable of scoring. If he was an incapable scorer, why did help defense collapse on him so often?

    finally, when discussing stockton’s carrear why was there no analysis between frank laydin’s offense and sloan’s offense. the offensive scheme made a big difference in what stockton executed.

    my favorite clip of stockton’s quickness:

    even with jordan guarding him, you think a bulls juggernaut team would relax a bit. becasue jordan has height, weight, speed, arm length, on john stockton. but getting past jordan, kerr and kucos come over with the help defense (although late). and they are looking to help through the whole play. perhaps they had no faith in jordan’s defense. or perhaps they know something more about stockton. if anything, you have underated the threat of his scoring impact.

    anyways, good post overall. you highlighted many things well, and criticized many things well. and, like most people, underrated his, how did you put it, “offensive dynamo”.

    “Instead, his efficiency was fueled by conservatism — he shot well because he only took premium shots.”

    a very true statement. every jazz fan wanted him to shoot more. but he was john stockton; for good or for bad.
    anyways, a very nice post.

    • Thanks for the feedback Bongo. The long 2-pointer is the least efficient shot in basketball. Transition is higher efficiency than half-court. Thus, jacking a long 2 in transition (with no rebounders) is undesirable, and is ironic for someone so conservative at other times.

      The second video you posted IS an example of Stockton breaking down the defense, he just didn’t do this enough. The issue of his scoring is the crux of it. You’re saying he was “capable” but never did — whether he could or couldn’t, he didn’t, which is what I’m concerned with here.

      • You’re correct but in the late 80’s the idea was closer is better, no one took 3’s at the rate they do today or passed up a long two to shoot a three.

        Also, you’re way to definitive with your statements “never did?” He played 19 years and amassed 15,806 assists. Did you watch every assist?

          • You both make good points. A couple things on Stockton:

            – Stockton played his entire career on a smaller market team most star free agents avoided, and I wish your metrics took more consideration of quality of team/teammates. He didn’t have as many elite players to pass to as Magic or Bird (my favourite of all time, BTW). I get what you’re saying about CREATING those passes but let’s be honest, it’s a lot easier to create and pull off those passes when you’re passing to the HOF’ers – they’re better at getting free and more likely to come up with contested balls. Love your argument about K. Malone’s passing though, had no idea he had some superior elite numbers (by your metrics) compared to Stockton’s!

            – Where you see conservatism, I’m more inclined to see excellent basketball fundamentals. I haven’t watched every game like the other poster (a Utah fan) here, but I certainly watched a lot of basketball. But in all those games I did see, I only saw Stockton do flashy around-the-back type moves on a drive a few times – only when they were absolutely necessary to protect the ball and every time they were executed perfectly. Also never saw him dunk but with his speed and strength I’m sure he could have, at least when he was younger. He was just averse to flash or standing out as an individual scorer. Total team guy, perfect for a scoring teammate like Malone and a coach like Sloan (criminally underrated, never got COY, would love to see you do an article rating GOAT coaches).

            – Stockton was also a very hard-nosed player and an expert at drawing fouls. He could seemingly get under anyone’s skin and after initiating (or getting them to initiate) contact he had a way of basically forcing the refs to make calls. Thinking of a few times where he would be held then reach into the hold and turn his body, “losing his balance” and forcing a call, or similarly put his foot between an opponent’s legs to draw a “trip” foul – or even get bumped, stop the dribble and take a couple steps, thus forcing the ref to either call a travel or foul – in other words, they’d call the foul. His detractors dismiss him as “dirty” (even saw him tug an opponent’s shorts once) but he’s hardly the only one, especially of his era, and he was darn good at it. There are things like this that are very difficult to quantify… psychology, putting opponents off their guard and in foul trouble, being seen as hard nosed/dirty, getting refs on your side…

            All that said, you’re absolutely right, whether he couldn’t or chose not to (I think it’s more the latter) Stockton did not score as much as he could have. I believe he chose instead to be a team first defensive player who dished out assists believing they would lead to higher percentage shots, but the way most people judge the value of players focuses on their scoring, championships and “wow factor”, which Stockton didn’t exactly have in spades. His steals, assists and sport IQ however are criminally underrated in my books.

            Side notes
            – there’s very funny video of Stockton at the Barcelona Olympics talking to “Dream Team” fans on the street who didn’t even recognize him as being a member. Also he didn’t even hold a press conference when he retired, he just said “I think I’m finished” and was done. He just seemed like a very “shy” type of person who unlike most players didn’t care for the spotlight…
            – There’s a great clip I can’t find that may have been pulled, but it’s my favourite “Stockton IQ” clip I think from the second finals series vs. the Bulls. In it, Sloan is calling for a time out. Stockton takes the ball across half court like the guard always does, with the typical jog-toward-the-bench while looking at the ref. Acts like he’s calling a TO, then suddenly breaks for the net while the defenders are caught with their pants down. Wide open layup, easy two points, a brilliant play.
            – When he retired he still had very good per-48 min numbers. Really wish he’d stuck around another season or two, he seems like the type of guy who could have played another several years and happily embraced coming off the bench. He could have at least topped 20k points on his career and his assist/steal numbers would be even more sick.

          • Ron, there are a lot of good comments in here so I’ll let them stand (when I referenced his “latent” value, all these subtle areas are what I was speaking to). Look out for the Steve Nash profile coming up, which addresses the other side of a lot of these ideas.

            Also, I think a GOAT coaches project would be interesting too.

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