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October 31, 2011
What if They Played Now?
John Stockton

by Kevin Pelton


If John Stockton had come along even a decade later, he would have had to make an unspeakably difficult adjustment that would have forever altered our perception of him as a player.

He would have had to wear shorts that extended to the knee.

Unfortunately, even our modern understanding of basketball analytics does not allow us to quantify how the extra material would have affected Stockton. Instead, we'll have to focus on how his game would have translated in a slightly different league setting.

In this scenario, we'll imagine that Stockton is Steve Nash's nemesis. The two players could have squared off for four years in the West Coast Conference, Nash at Santa Clara and Stockton a few years too early for the start of Gonzaga's domination of the conference, before being taken in the 1996 NBA draft. Like Nash, Stockton would now be winding down a Hall of Fame career. What might his stats look like?

Year    Tm    G    MPG    PPG   RPG    APG    FG%
1997   UTA   82   18.2    4.6   1.1    3.9   .418
1998   UTA   82   23.6    6.3   2.1    6.0   .431
1999   UTA   82   22.7    6.2   1.6    6.3   .426
2000   UTA   82   34.7   13.5   2.6   11.0   .535
2001   UTA   82   38.7   14.9   2.7   11.2   .499
2002   UTA   78   37.4   17.7   2.6   13.3   .502
2003   UTA   82   37.8   17.3   2.9   12.9   .478
2004   UTA   82   36.6   16.1   3.1   12.1   .477
2005   UTA   82   34.9   14.9   2.8   10.5   .471
2006   UTA   82   36.2   14.9   3.1   11.2   .504
2007   UTA   82   35.0   15.3   3.3   11.8   .534
2008   UTA   82   35.5   15.5   3.0   11.0   .533
2009   UTA   82   35.3   15.5   3.0   10.6   .551
2010   UTA   64   29.0   13.2   2.8    8.6   .539
2011   UTA   82   28.2   12.3   3.0    8.0   .511
2012   UTA   82   29.7   12.1   2.5    8.1   .510
2013   UTA   82   29.2   12.3   2.9    8.6   .524
2014   UTA   82   31.3   13.8   3.3    8.0   .534
2015   UTA   82   27.7   11.4   2.5    7.8   .504

It took Stockton a few years to establish himself as a starter. In this scenario, that would have happened a season before Nash's own breakthrough in Dallas. Stockton would have led the league in assists per game in 1999-2000 while shooting 53.5 percent, good for fourth in the league.

Because he was so effective as a three-point shooter, and because he peaked when the NBA was already starting to slow down in terms of pace, Stockton is the rare player in this series who actually scores more points in the present day. The real Stockton peaked at 17.2 points per game in both 1989-90 and 1990-91, while his modern counterpart would have averaged nearly 18 points in 2001-02, his best season in terms of per-game statistics.

Pace of play does take more of a bite out of Stockton's assist averages. He actually surpassed 13 assists a night every season from 1987-88 through 1991-92. In this scenario, he tops 13 only once, in 2001-02. Still, Stockton would have led the NBA in assists per game from 1999-2000 through 2003-04, at which point Nash emerged as an MVP in Phoenix. Stockton would also have beaten out Nash in 2005-06 and 2006-07, leaving the Canuck with just three assist titles to his credit and dropping Stockton from nine assist crowns to seven.

What hurts Stockton a little here is that his best seasons in statistical terms came so much earlier in his career than Nash's. That means he doesn't get to take as much advantage of the increased offense the league has seen since reinterpreting rules prohibiting hand-checking on the perimeter prior to the 2004-05 season. Still, some of Stockton's translated stats are remarkable. For example, his 55.1 percent shooting in 2008-09 would be the best by any guard since 1984-85. Actually, Stockton already holds that record, but he did in 1987-88, when such high-percentage shooting was still not unusual for a guard.

One of the interesting questions here is whether Stockton might have contended for MVP in a different era, one that values point-guard play more than the NBA did in the early 1990s. Because of the timing of his best years, that seems unlikely. Stockton's best chance would have been 2002-03, when Tim Duncan edged out Kevin Garnett for the award. It's unlikely leading the league in assists would have been enough to move Stockton ahead of big men who contributed so much at both ends of the floor.

Modern Stockton would have retired with 19,611 points, just 100 shy of his actual total of 19,711. His career assist total dips from 15,806 to 14,386--still far and away the most in NBA history and a figure Nash will never be able to catch. Nash currently has 9,252 assists, while in this scenario Stockton would already have 11,716. In any era, Stockton is the assist king.

The current era takes a larger chunk out of Stockton's steals total, which drops from 3,265 to 2,713. That would put Jason Kidd about two good seasons away from threatening Stockton's all-time record. As it is, Stockton's place atop the leaderboard is safe.

Stockton does get a huge boost in terms of career three-pointers. His actual total of 845 barely puts him in the league's top 100, ranking him 93rd in NBA history. The modern Stockton would already have 1,296 threes, putting him 29th and climbing. His translated career total of 1,503 triples would rank 15th.

No matter the era, Stockton would have been unique. That's even counting Nash as a possible contemporary. While the two players are similar in many regards, statistically they don't score as close, in large part because Nash comes up with so few steals compared to the all-time leader. The only player last season who scored as remotely similar to Stockton circa 1989-90 in our similarity score model was actually Chris Paul, who has adapted his game to become much more Stockton-like as a player.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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