John Stockton: The NBA’s Greatest Ordinary Player

Is it possible to be any less cool than John Stockton? It wasn’t just the short shorts either, or the fact that he played in Utah. It was because everything about him was so, quite literally, vanilla. As old-school as old-school gets. Putting together a decent highlight video for Stockton might be one of the hardest things an NBA TV executive could do. His YouTube videos have to be the first time – and possibly the last time – it’s ever not fun to watch a tape of one of the greatest basketball players ever. Stockton was really only memorable because he was so boring.

I was skimming through NikeTalk today, and stumbled upon a thread proclaiming “John Stockton was the best NBA player to ever live.” It was admittedly hyperbole, an appreciation post masked by an erroneous headline. But the thread starter did make a decent point: there are really five major all-time statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks) and Stockton is tops in two of them. No one else can say that. He also made 10 All-Star Teams, 11 All-NBA Teams and amazingly played the full capacity of games for 17 of his 19 seasons. He was so consistently good that we always forgot about him. It didn’t hurt that he played in Utah and the team ran possibly the most boring system in the league. But you know you’re boring when I can barely get myself to use you in 2K12. Still when you put up the numbers he has – can you possible deny his place just below Magic at the apex of the point guard debate?

As Bill Simmons has put it before, Stockton thoroughly benefitted from the Great Point Guard Drought of 1997. Seriously, name me another great point guard outside of Gary Payton (who DESTROYED Stockton in the 1996 playoffs. I can’t capitalize it enough.) at that time who was really killing it? The great lead guards of the 1980s and early ’90s were gone or on their way out. Players like Penny and Tim Hardaway were dealing with injuries nearly every few months. The rest of the class – guys like Damon Stoudamire, Kenny Anderson and Nick Van Exel – just weren’t that good. Then all of a sudden, Stockton makes two straight Finals trips even though he wasn’t nearly the same player as he was during his prime (especially in 1998, when he fell to 11 points and 7.8 dimes a night in the playoffs). Utah failed and failed every year in the Western Conference until their two core Hall of Famers turned 33 and 34 years old. Something doesn’t smell right. During those two runs, Stockton faced off against Darrick Martin, Van Exel, Matt Maloney, Ron Harper (and Steve Kerr), Maloney again, Avery Johnson, Van Exel (and Derek Fisher) and Harper/Kerr again. But because he faced off with Chicago and MJ in the Finals, that’s what we remember most about him (I swear it’s some type of requirement: if you play against Jordan in the Finals, your career must automatically be moved up one or two points on a scale of 1-10).

[Related: Who’s Better: John Stockton Or Isiah Thomas?]

And that’s a problem because for most of his career, Utah underachieved and as the point guard and conductor of that offense, it all should’ve come back to him. Swept by a No. 7 seed in 1989. Dominated by Terry Porter in 1991/’92. Blew a series lead with a clincher at home in 1993 against Seattle. Lost another home clincher in 1995 as he scored five points. Then in 1996, Payton dismembered him.

No matter what I write, Stockton was still the NBA’s ultimate marathon runner. Put him in a sprint and he would’ve looked ordinary. At his best, he was a great player, but never transcendent. His prime never really existed because he lacked another level to push himself to. There’s a reason why his numbers almost always went down during the playoffs. When the intensity picked up, the game became more physical and other players cared more, Stockton couldn’t push himself any further. He was already at max effort.

So it comes down to what you’d rather have. Stockton was as consistent and as reliable as you can get for around 15 seasons. But he’d never win you a championship. Even as a second-fiddle, the Jazz never won it all, and didn’t come close for most of his career. Was Isiah Thomas better? He won two titles, and at his peak was a better defender and more complete offensive player. But he didn’t do it as long… barely half as long as Stockton did. Stockton would never be considered the best (never finished in the top six in MVP voting). But his consistency could make up for that.

Where should Stockton sit amongst the best all-time points guards?

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