Standing just 6’1”, John Stockton had some clear limitations in defending the giants littering NBA rosters. But, given those limits, Stockton maximized his skills to become a great defender. He made five all-NBA defensive second teams and retired as the all-time leader in steals.
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John Stockton on Defense: Statistics
While the use of advanced statistics was rare in John Stockton’s day, today we can use them to look back on how good players from previous eras really were. Advanced stats have their limits. They are not as effective at measuring defense as they are at judging offense. But they can still give us a view of players that is less biased and hazy than using people’s memories and stories.
Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced statistics section. They also list defensive rating in their per 100 stats, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive effectiveness per 100 possessions.
A look at these statistics make a pretty strong case that John Stockton was a great defender who had some clear limits.
Individual Skill Advanced Stats
One would not expect a 6’1” inch point guard, with a reported 6’0” wingspan, to block many shots or collect many rebounds. Stockton did neither.
His career 7.3% defensive rebounding percentage does not leave him in the NBA all time top 250. But his percentage noticeably climbed throughout his career from a rookie rate of 5.4% to a max of 9.6% in his second-to-last year.
While you cannot say Stockton was ever a great defensive rebounder, you would also not expect him to be. And he got better consistently as his career progressed.
Stock’s block rate was predictably anemic at .5%. This never changed much. While this is low, it is somehow nearly tied with Magic Johnson’s shot blocking percentage. But it is still not good. Unlike Magic, Stockton was simply too little to block NBA shots.
This is where the defensive statistics take a major turn. If a man of John Stockton’s size was going to be a good defender, he had to steal the ball. A lot. And he did! He set the all-time NBA steals record with 3,265 and led the league twice early in his career.
Counting stats, like all-time steals or even steals in one season, can be influenced by factors like having a long career or playing on an up-tempo team. That is why many modern analysts look to advanced stats which attempt to adjust for these influences.
Steal percentage is the advanced stat in this category and Stockton crushes this one in addition to the counting stats. He led the league in steal rate 2x early in his career and finished 7th on the NBA all-time steal percentage leaders list. Stockton was an elite thief!
Overall Advanced Stats
Defensive rating essentially measures how many baskets a player gives up per 100 possessions. John Stockton finished 163rd on the all-time NBA defensive rating list. He also finished top ten in the league for this stat three times in his career. This stat points in the direction of Stockton being a strong defender. The next two stats make that case even more strongly.
Defensive box plus/minus is an estimate of how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to a league average player & team. John Stockton finished 28th on the all-time leaders list at 1.93. The players on the list surrounding him in this category nearly all have very strong reputations as great defenders like Tony Allen who is one spot ahead of Stockton on the list.
Stockton’s final, and most compelling, advanced statistic is defensive win shares – a complicated stat that attempts to measure how much a player contributes to his team while on the floor. John Stockton is ranked 20th all time at 64.93.
The defensive win shares all-time leaders also stand out for their reputations as being among the greatest defenders the game has ever seen. Not only that, no one on the list, with the possible exception of Jason Kidd, is anywhere close to Stockton’s size.
Kidd was listed at 6’4” 210 pounds while Stockton was listed at 6’1” 170. Even here there is a pretty clear difference because Kidd had good size for an NBA point guard while Stockton was tiny by any NBA standard.
It is quite possible that John Stockton was the greatest tiny defender in NBA history. These stats make the case that he almost certainly had the greatest defensive career among tiny players in NBA history.
Did that make him a great defender? There were things he could never do: block shots, be a leading rebounder, easily switch onto NBA bigs. These limits make it so that John Stockton could never be one of the greatest defensive players of all time.
But advanced statistics show that John Stockton was elite at stealing the ball and was a positive force for his team on defense. He was a great defender with some clear limits.
John Stockton on Defense: The Eye Test
While advanced stats can give us a strong look at a player’s career, there are still those who will say the eye test is the better judge. While I mostly disagree with that, when it comes to defense, there are a lot of gaps in the statistics. They are not nearly as strong at measuring a player’s career on defense as they are on offense.
Another way to judge is to look to those who watched him. Did they think Stockton was as strong a defender as advanced statistics make him look? In general, the answer is yes.
John Stockton was widely regarded as a strong defender when he played. The best evidence is his appearance on the all-NBA defensive second team five times.
The voters who decide these awards could be mistaken. There are certainly cases where a player gets an award they did not deserve because of reputation. But when a player makes five all-NBA defensive teams, they are quite likely a strong defender. Voters are not usually that wrong!
Stockton was considered a good on-ball defender who battled hard. He had limits but also pushed his edges. He was often considered a bit of a flopper who drew more than his share of charges. It is likely his size disadvantage helped him draw many of those calls.
His real strength was off the ball helping. Stockton rang up many of his steals by crashing down on oblivious bigs. Much more of the game was played in the post in Stockton’s day. He was noted for cheating off his guard and swooping in on bigs for steals.
While getting many steals can be a sign of over-helping and could mean a player is not guarding his own man enough, that is not the case with Stockton. The Jazz’ defense was designed around Stockton roaming and he did it effectively while not abandoning his man.
John Stockton had a reputation as a strong team defender. His Utah Jazz teams were built defensively around his style. He battled one-on-one and could use charges, or even flops, to win those battles.
But his real strength was help defense where he rang up ungodly steal numbers often by quickly trapping weak ball-handling bigs in the post. That style helped his teams win and helped him to retire as the all-time NBA leader in steals.Embed from Getty Images
Would Stockton still be a good defender in today’s NBA?
The question of how well John Stockton’s defense would hold up in today’s NBA is an interesting one. Modern NBA offenses feature much more 3-point shooting, wider spacing and fewer post-up bigs.
Defenses today use much more switching, defend the three-point shot more and focus less on defending post-ups. It is likely that these features would cause problems for Stockton. His style of crashing down on bigs was much easier to do when fewer people were threats to shoot the three pointer and fewer teams focused much on stopping it.
Today’s great point guard defenders are strong on the ball and capable of switching. Not many strong defensive point guards focus on helping in the way Stockton did.
Stockton was weaker on the ball and would likely be exploited by many switches. Some teams might attempt to hunt him with switches in playoff series.
At the same time, there are players of limited size who have survived or even thrived defensively in the modern NBA. And defense correlates pretty strongly with willingness, effort, hustle and feel for the game. Stockton most certainly had those.
Sure, it is likely that changes in the NBA game would require John Stockton to change style on defense. And some of those changes would make him a less dominant defender. But a player who had a defensive career like John Stockton would likely find a way to adapt as he did throughout his career.
Summary: John Stockton on Defense
John Stockton was a great defensive player whose physical limits likely keep him from being considered one of the all-time greatest. He could not block NBA shots or switch on bigs easily. But Stockton stole the ball at an all-time level and made his teams much better with his pesky defensive play.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.