NBA Retrometrics: Why John Stockton was the best point guard of the 1990s


AP Photo/Michael S. Green

When you hear the name John Stockton, a few things probably come to mind — the boy-scout haircut, two decades of meticulous professionalism and shorts so tight it often seemed like he was single-handedly taking on the Fab 5 baggy-shorts era.

His opponents would probably scoff before exclaiming, “Don’t forget all the illegal screens!” Also true.

To many basketball fans, saying Stockton is your favorite basketball player is akin to claiming a minivan is your choice vehicle. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not a particularly sexy choice.

But flashiness and on-court fashion aside, when you consider the numbers, you can’t deny that John Stockton was the NBA’s best point guard of the ’90s.

For this installment of NBA Retrometrics, we’ll be looking at how Stockton compares to other ’90s floor generals such as Gary Payton, Kevin Johnson, Mark Price and the Hardaway boys — Tim and Penny.

In order to keep things fair, we’ll only be looking at what these players did between the 1989-90 and 1999-00 seasons. For that reason, we’re not including guys like Jason Kidd or Steve Nash, who played in the late ’90s but didn’t hit their primes until this millennium.

In the ’90s, Stockton played in more games than any of those other players, due in part to entering the league earlier but also his incredible durability. Stockton played in 848 of a possible 870 regular season games, a LeBron James-like 97.4 percent, trailing only Gary Payton, who somehow played in 99.7 percent of available games but entered the NBA in the 1990-91 season. In the 1999-00 season, Payton was 31 years old, while Stockton was 37. What makes those numbers even more impressive is that they did this without the advantage of modern medical technology.

Stockton embodied efficiency. He led all players in assists per game (11.6), despite posting the lowest usage rate. None of the other players averaged double-figure assists during the same period.

Stockton’s efficiency can also be quantified by looking at his shooting numbers. Since 2000, only five other point guards have posted multiple seasons with a true shooting percentage higher than 60 percent. Chris Paul, for instance, has come close but never broken 60 percent.

This is not simply a case of assessing a past generation of players purely through statistics, without factoring in any qualitative factors. Although all-NBA teams can make occasionally questionable selections — Kobe Bryant being on the all-defensive teams so late into his career immediately comes to mind — they do provide a generally accurate snapshot of the best players in a given NBA season. In the ’90s, Stockton made an all-NBA team nine times, more than Payton (7), Tim Hardaway (5), Kevin Johnson (4), Penny Hardaway (3), or Mark Price (3).

Stockton is also the only player besides Payton to make the all-defensive team multiple times. Granted, Payton made the team on seven occasions compared with Stockton’s four appearances, and there’s no question “The Glove” was by far the best defender at his position.

In this discussion, Payton is clearly the runner-up for the best point guard title. You could even make a somewhat convincing case that Payton should top the list when considering each player’s three-year peak and arguing that Payton’s best seasons (’95-’98) were better than any three Stockton years. However, during Payton’s best three-year stretch, Stockton’s teams made the Finals twice, in large part due to his clutch shooting.

Exhibit A. (Sorry, Chuck.)

Often, player debates come back to a central point— longevity or highest ceiling? Payton’s skill set — and full disclosure, I prefer watching his old games — was more visually appealing, especially to those who gravitate toward brash personalities and scoring point guards.

But the bottom line is Stockton gave his teams the best chance of winning.

Some will argue that Stockton owes his success to Jerry Sloan and Karl Malone, and while this is true, it also misses the broader point.

Sloan’s system worked as effectively as it did and Malone became the most lethal pick-and-roll power forward in the league in large part to due to Stockton’s intelligence and playmaking. We never had a chance to see Stockton succeed elsewhere, the way Steve Nash did in Phoenix, and in some ways it hurts his perception. We see Deron Williams struggle after leaving Utah and chalk it down to Sloan’s genius. But again, this misses the point.

When you look at his body of work — including advanced metrics and qualitative assessment — there’s no denying that Stockton set the standard for ’90s-era point guards. But I totally understand if you want to tell people Payton is your favorite.

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