John Stockton played his 1,204th and final NBA game on April 16, 2003 in Sacramento, California. He was checked out of the game, received a standing ovation from the visiting crowd, and quietly retired. There was no press conference, no farewell tour, no season long distraction or speculation as to what John would do after the season was over. He just quietly walked away. It was characteristic of what this most underrated, under-appreciated NBA superstar he had done his entire career.
He was the antithesis of an NBA star. In a game dominated by big men, John Stockton was short. In a game where stars demand the spotlight, he preferred the backseat. While other stars complained for not getting enough shots, he would have rather passed the ball than shoot it. In a world of huge egos, he wanted his teammates to have the glory. He was a perfectionist that focussed on his three mistakes per game instead of beating his chest for all the great things he was doing like we are used to seeing with stars. All that made him the most unique player to ever play the game.
NBA circles and talking heads will have you believe that Magic Johnson was the greatest point guard to ever play the game, but I just disagree. We are much more likely to see the next Magic Johnson than to ever get another John Stockton. James Worthy once said, “I don’t know if you will ever see another six-nine point guard smiling at you, as he humiliates you.” Well, Luka Doncic is that guy only he’s six-seven instead of six-nine. And Doncic is doing it while scoring and rebounding more than Magic did. Name one player in today’s game that even somewhat resembles John Stockton?
Look at the head-to-head comparison of Magic and Stockton’s on-court production.
Stockton amassed 15,806 assists in his career to Magic’s 10,141. Some will argue, but if Magic hadn’t had his career cut short, he would have had more career assists than Stockton. Really? Well, let’s look at that claim.
Magic Johnson retired after playing twelve seasons and retired as a 32-year old. He never experienced an end-of-career decline that virtually every player experiences and skews career averages down. As a result, he finished his career with the highest assist per game average of 11.2 to Stockton’s 10.5.
Over Stockton’s first twelve seasons Stockton had 11,310 assists and averaged 12.4 assists per game. Stockton did this despite coming off the bench his first three seasons sitting behind “The Fastest of them All” Ricky Green. In Stockton’s first nine seasons as a starter Stockton averaged an astounding 1,068 assists per season. In NBA history, there are just nine seasons in which a player has recorded 1000 assists. Stockton has seven of those seasons.
Some will argue, that Magic was a flashier passer than Stockton and I won’t disagree with that. But is flashier, better? With Magic’s flashy style, came more mistakes. Not only did Stockton pile up more assists than Magic, but he also piled up fewer turnovers. Magic’s career average was 3.9 turnovers per game. Stockton’s was 2.8 per game and in no season did he average as many as Magic’s career average. Magic’s Assists-to-Turnover Ratio was a stellar 2.87. Stockton’s was 3.75!
Some might argue that Magic isn’t a good comparison to Stockton because due to his size he did so much more when it came to defense. However, when it comes to defensive stats Magic and Stockton’s Defensive Rating is an identical 104 and Stockton averaged more steals per game (2.2) than Magic (1.9).
Well, Magic won championships! This one is my favorite argument. This is the equivalent of yelling, “Well, my dad is bigger than your dad” when you run out of intelligent things to say. Championships are a TEAM accomplishment. Is it Stockton’s fault that the best player other than the Mailman he ever played with was a broken-down, undersized two-guard who couldn’t play defense? No offense to Jeff Hornacek, but that’s who he was, and the Jazz retired his number for it. Magic played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We’ll call Magic having Kareem and Stockton having Malone, a wash, even though most have Jabbar as a top 5 of All-Time player and Malone in the 10-15 range. For argument sake, we will call that even. Magic also played with Hall of Famers Jamaal Wilkes and James Worthy (a seven-time All-Star who was also named one of the NBA at 50’s greatest 50 players). He played with All-Stars Norm Nixon, A.C. Green, and eight-time All-Defensive Team Guard, Michael Cooper. Malone was Stockton’s only other Hall of Famer and played with just one other All-Star, defensive specialist, Mark Eaton. Yes, believe it or not, Mark Eaton made an All-Star team in a season in which he averaged six points and ten boards. A little asterisk here, Stockton “played with” Adrian Dantley his first two seasons while Stockton was a back-up and before Malone replaced him as the Jazz’s primary scorer. Jeff Malone, Thurl Bailey, Greg Ostertag, Bryon Russell, Donyell Marshall, and Antoine Carr were nice role players, but comparing supporting casts of Magic and Stockton will tell you everything you need to know about why one had five rings in nine trips to the Finals and the other had no rings in two trips to the Finals.
What about Steve Nash? Is he a better comparison?
Nash was a point guard in the mold of John Stockton and won two MVPs. How does Stockton measure up to him? Steve Nash led the league in assists six times and was one of the greatest shooters of all-time. Nash’s first MVP featured averages of 11.5 assists per game and 15.5 points. Stockton had four straight seasons between 1988-89 and 1991-92 in which he averaged 13.6 or more assists per game while scoring more than 15.8 points per game in each season. In Nash’s second MVP season, he upped his scoring average to 18.8 and his assists dipped to 10.5. Stockton’s top scoring season was 17.2, but in that season also averaged 14.5 assists per game. Nash won MVPs in those seasons because of the popular 7-seconds-or-less offense Nash was asked to run. Just ask Shaq who should have won MVP those seasons.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Stockton and Nash was on the defensive side of the court. Nash’s highest steals per game average was 1.0, while Stockton averaged more than two steals per game ten times, is the all-time steals leader, and was named to the All-Defensive Team five times. Nash’s career defensive rating was 111 (high numbers are bad) compared to Stockton’s 104 and was never considered anything but a defensive liability.
Lastly, Stockton holds a monumental edge over every other point guard when it comes to durability. Stockton missed just 22 games in his 19 seasons. By comparison, Magic missed 121 in his 12 seasons. Stockton missed four games in 1989-90 with a severely sprained ankle and missed the other 18 games in 1997-98 for knee surgery. That’s it. In the other 17 seasons he played every single game. No days off, no injuries, no rest, no “load management.” Stockton went to work every, single, day.
Will anyone ever break Stockton’s career assist record? Consider this.
Chris Paul is the active leader in career assists with 9,653 as of the end of the 2019-2020 season (including bubble). He is widely regarded as the best point guard of his generation with a stellar average of 9.5 assists per game. He is also the closest thing this generation has to a John Stockton. Paul is now 35-years old and on the tail end of his career. To catch Stockton at his current pace (6.7 assists per game), Chris Paul would have to play 11 more seasons, until the age of 46, without drop off, and without missing another game (Chris Paul played every game of the season only one time in his career), and would still be 103 assists shy of Stockton’s record. That’s kinda close. I guess…
Lebron James in the only other active player in the league even half way to Stockton’s record. And at the age of 35 (he’ll be 36 in December), Lebron would need to have over seven and a half more seasons like this year’s league-leading performance without missing a game or seeing a drop off to break Stockton’s record.
He was a short man by NBA standards in a tall man’s game. He compiled the game’s most unbreakable record while quietly going about his business, and we will never, ever see another one like him.