Numbers Updated April 2017
Unbreakable records. In Major League Baseball it’s Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak. In the NFL it’s Emmitt Smith’s 18,355 career rushing yards. It seems like every league has an unbreakable record, one that will stand for decades if not forever. So what is the NBA’s unbreakable record? Jabbar’s 38,387 career points? Hakeem’s 3,830 career blocks? John Stockton’s assist or steals record? There is no question that the NBA’s unbreakable record is John Stockton’s 15,806 career assists and here’s why.
Let’s put this record in perspective. Stockton had 15,806 assists in his career. Only 4 other men, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Mark Jackson, and Magic Johnson have amassed even 10,000 assists. To compare that to Kareem’s scoring mark of 38,387, that would be like having only 4 other players in the history of basketball to have scored 25,000 points. There are 23. Jason Kidd, the player in 2nd place on the all-time list with 12,091 assists, reached only 76.5% of the record. That would be the equivalent of Karl Malone having 29,366 points, instead of the 36,928 he actually has as the number two all-time scorer behind Kareem’s 38,387. There are 6 other scorers (with Dirk closing the gap as the 7th) closer to Jabbar’s record than Kidd is to Stockton’s.
Consider what Kidd had to do to get even that close to Stockton’s record. Kidd played only two seasons in college, starting his NBA career at the age of 21. Kidd played 21 seasons and experienced relatively good health, playing in 75 or more games 13 times. He finished among the top 5 assist men in the league 12 times and led the league in total assists 3 times. Kidd retired after the age of 40.
Steve Nash, 3rd on the all-time list, had 10,335 assists, enjoyed an 18-year career, and led the league in assists 6 times. He had 7 seasons averaging double digit assists per game and like Kidd, played after the age of 40 before his body seized up on him.
Another factor to consider when looking at the likelihood that someone will ever break Stockton’s record is to look at active players who could potentially challenge the record if they can keep up a current pace. Chris Paul currently ranks 10th on the all-time list with 8,159 and is easily the best assist man of his generation. He has a stellar 9.9 assist per game average for his career, led the league in assists per game four times, and in total assists three times. Paul will turn 32 in May this year and looks to have some good mileage left. That said, he has likely seen his best statistical seasons. He is playing in his 12th season. If he were to duplicate his assist rate from his first 12 seasons for the next ten years, and play, without a drop off in productivity, until the age of 42, he would be only 848 assists short of Stockton’s record.
Lebron James is currently 13th on the assist list with 7,370. He is in his 14th season and is also 32. At 7.0 assists per game for his career, Lebron would need to play until the age of 47 without drop off in his production to break Stockton’s record.
Stockton was simply the best and was extraordinarily healthy for so long, that nobody before or since has come close to challenging his record. In Stockton’s 19 year career, he played in all of the Jazz’s games in 17 of those seasons. He missed only 4 games for a severely sprained ankle in 1989-90 and 18 games in 1997-98 after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. There were no games off, no suspensions, no maintenance programs, and no days off for bumps or bruises.
Not only did Stockton stay healthy, but he maintained a consistent and extremely high level for an extraordinary amount of time. Consider this, since Stockton’s last assist crown in 1995-96, the season leader in total assists has averaged 795 assists. Stockton’s average season for his entire 19 year career was 832, 37 assists higher than the average assist leader in any given season. During his run of nine straight assist titles, he averaged an astonishing 1,068 per season. There have been only nine 1,000 assist seasons in the history of the NBA and Stockton has seven of them. The last to even approach the 1,000 assist mark was Chris Paul with 925 in 2007-08.
With the infusion of young scoring point guards like Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, and others it seems like the likelihood of any of the younger generation playing long enough, staying healthy enough, and having the propensity to pass first, is extremely unlikely at this point. The only players currently in the league that I believe has any chance to eclipse even the 10,000 career assist mark are Chris Paul, Lebron James, and John Wall, but likely health will prevent them from reaching even that mark.
Stockton’s record was impressive before, but digging into the numbers makes it all the more impressive. And in my mind, it makes Stockton’s assist mark the NBA’s unbreakable record.