Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
[Previously: Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki • Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter • Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan • Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas • Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili • Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson • Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon • Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson • Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell • Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash • Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller • Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone • Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady • Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo]
THE MATCHUP: Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
Stockton took over the starting point guard spot full-time for the Utah Jazz in the 1987-88 season and led the NBA in assists for the first of nine straight seasons. The end of his prime is less clear. He dipped below 30 minutes per game at the age of 35, when he was still the second-best player on a Finals team, and he was still productive playing all 82 games at age 40. For argument’s sake, let’s go with his final All-Star season in 1999-2000, when he was the starter on a 55-win team that reached the second round.
For those 13 seasons, Stockton averaged 14.9 points (on 52/39/83 shooting splits), 12.0 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 steals in 34.8 minutes per game, playing every night for 11 of them. His entire prime coincided with Karl Malone, the second all-time leading scorer, and both benefited equally from each other as arguably the greatest pick-and-roll combination in league history. Utah featured only one other All-Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Mark Eaton, during that run. The Jazz made the playoffs in each of those 13 seasons, reaching five Western Conference Finals and back-to-back Finals in 1997-98.
Payton made his leap in 1992-93, when he was a key contributor on a 55-win Seattle SuperSonics team that came within a game of the Finals. He made his first All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive teams the following year and remained on at least one of those until 2002-03, when he was traded for the first of three times in three seasons. Payton played significant minutes for the 2004 finalist Los Angeles Lakers and 2006 champion Miami Heat over his final four seasons, but he was clearly past his prime by then.
For 11 seasons from 1992-2003, Payton averaged 20.1 points (on 47/32/73 shooting splits), 7.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals in 38.4 minutes per game, missing only six games in that span. His prime spanned five Shawn Kemp All-Star seasons, two from Detlef Schrempf and one by Vin Baker. That trio combined for only one All-Star selection after playing in Seattle with Payton. His teams made the playoffs in all but two of his prime seasons, reaching a pair of Western Conference finals and the 1996 Finals.
Among backcourt players, Payton was voted one of the six best overall and four best defenders in nine of his 11 prime seasons. He finished top-10 in MVP voting eight times, placing sixth on five occasions and topping out at third place in 1998. Stockton was voted a top-six guard nine times and a top-four defensive guard five times in his 13 prime seasons, finishing top-10 in MVP voting four times and placing no higher than seventh in 1989. There is little doubt that at his peak Payton was considered the more impactful player, but it is hard not to take those two extra seasons of prime Stockton in a call this close.
Payton’s apex as a player came two years before he made the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team for the first time in 1998. No guard has been named Defensive Player of the Year since Payton won the award in 1996, the same year he and Kemp led the Sonics to the Finals opposite the Chicago Bulls.
He averaged 19.3 points (on 48/33/75 shooting splits), 7.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and a league-leading 2.9 steals in 39 minutes per game for a Seattle team that won 64 games and entered the playoffs as the West’s No. 1 seed. He finished sixth in MVP voting behind Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Penny Hardaway, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen — and two spots ahead of his high-flying teammate.
In 21 playoff games, including a second-round sweep of the two-time defending champion Houston Rockets and a seven-game Western Conference finals win over Stockton’s Jazz, Payton averaged 20.7 points (49/41/63 splits), 6.8 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 43.4 minutes. He owned Stockton in the conference finals, and his defensive switch onto Jordan in the midst of the Finals — despite nursing a calf injury — transformed a 3-0 series deficit into a competitive six-game set against a 72-win monster.
There are few players who have ever been capable of making that kind of pound-for-pound impact.
Stockton was so consistent that any of his 10 straight All-Star seasons could be considered his peak, but fittingly for a player of his longevity the last of them was probably it. He averaged 14.4 points (on 55/42/85 shooting splits), 10.5 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 35.3 minutes for a 1997 Jazz team that also won 64 games and entered the West playoffs as the top seed. A Third Team All-NBA pick and All-Defensive Second Team selection, Stockton finished 15th in the MVP voting, 14 spots behind Malone.
In 20 playoff games, including a five-game conference semifinals win over the nascent Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers and a six-game conference finals victory against a retooled Rockets team, Stockton averaged 16.1 points (52/38/86 splits), 9.6 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 37 minutes. The biggest shot of his career eliminated Houston and sent Utah to the franchise’s first Finals, and his Jazz also pushed Jordan’s Bulls to six games, losing three of them by four points or less.
It is fascinating to imagine what might have been had Payton and Stockton switched teams those two seasons. Would Stockton’s scoring have soared in the absence of Malone, and could he have made Kemp anything more than the efficient 20-point scorer he already was? Would Malone have been the model of consistency he was with Payton as his point guard, and could a generational defensive guard have pushed Utah over the top in a tight series? If I were a betting man, that last point seems the safest.
Stockton appeared in two Finals in his prime to Payton’s one, and it easily could have been the other way around. Had Stockton not made the buzzer beater to beat Houston in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference finals, the Rockets may have taken one of Utah’s appearances. And had Charles Barkley not had the night of his life in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference finals, the Sonics may have reached another one. But Stockton did make that pressure-cooker three, and that is a massive point in his favor.
Every other clutch analysis between the two point guards is fairly close.
Stockton averaged 12.3 points (on 50/33/81 splits), 8.8 assists (against 3.4 turnovers), 3.3 rebounds and two steals in 34.9 minutes in his two Finals appearances. Payton averaged 18 points (on 44/33/73 splits), seven assists (against 2.5 turnovers), 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 45.7 minutes in the 1996 Finals.
They faced each other four times in the playoffs, splitting the series, with each outproducing the other twice. Overall, Payton averaged 16.1 points (47/40/70 splits), 5.1 assists (2.5 turnovers), 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 35.9 minutes over their 22 playoff games opposite each other. Stockton averaged 12.3 points (44/35/72 splits), 10.9 assists (3.0 turnovers), 2.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals in 38.5 minutes.
In 11 win-or-go-home playoff games in his prime, (3 Game 7s, 8 Game 5s), Stockton averaged 14.9 points (44/36/88 splits), 11.6 assists (2.6 turnovers), 4.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals. The Jazz finished 6-5 in those games. Payton averaged 19.1 points (43/44/68 splits), 5.1 assists (1.9 turnovers), 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals in nine prime win-or-go-home games (4 Game 7s, 5 Game 5s). The Sonics finished 4-5.
It should not go unnoticed that Payton averaged 24.3 minutes per game in the playoffs during Miami’s 2006 championship run. He provided a steady hand in a number of close contests, including a couple clutch buckets in crunch time of the pivotal Game 5 victory against the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals.
Still, in another photo finish, why not take the guy that made one of the biggest shots in NBA history.
• Payton: First-ballot Hall of Fame inductee; 2006 NBA champion; nine-time All-NBA selection (2x First Team, 5x Second Team); nine-time All-Star; 1996 Defensive Player of the Year; nine-time All-Defensive First Team selection (NBA record); 1996 steals leader
• Stockton: First-ballot Hall of Fame inductee; 11-time All-NBA selection (2x First Team, 6x Second Team); 10-time All-Star; 1993 All-Star Game MVP; five-time All-Defensive Second Team selection; nine-time assists leader; two-time steals leader; NBA all-time assists and steals leader
Would you rather have that championship ring, even if it came as a 37-year-old backup, or be the NBA’s all-time assists and steals leader? I think if the title also comes with a Defensive Player of the Year trophy and your name in the conversation for greatest defensive guard ever, you would take that trophy case.
For the culture
Interestingly enough, Payton asked Stockton to introduce him at his Hall of Fame introduction in 2013. Payton told Marc J. Spears, then of Yahoo Sports, that he believed himself to be the more complete basketball player, but Stockton was smarter and more difficult to defend than Jordan. Even they might have a difficult decision choosing between each other’s trailblazing and record-setting NBA careers.
Stockton, who just turned 58 years old, is one of the NBA’s most underrated all-time greats. A career spent in small-market Utah before the League Pass boom was largely overshadowed by Malone. For the most part, he has avoided the spotlight, save for the occasional Jazz event or his presence in the crowd at one of his kid’s games. Four of his six children have played college ball, including David Stockton, who had a cup of coffee in the NBA, and Michael, who has played in a couple NBA summer leagues recently.
Stockton was certainly at the forefront of the NBA consciousness throughout the 1990s, regularly appearing in the All-Star Game, playing two Finals opposite Jordan and making the Dream Team. Both Stockton and Payton won a pair of gold medals, but neither was the driving force behind any of them.
Stockton certainly did not have a nickname as cool as Payton’s “The Glove.” The Sonics star was the far flashier performer, making a name for himself as one of the game’s greatest trash-talkers. Those vocal skills have served him well off the court, as he is a regular on the sports talk circuit and has appeared in a number of movies, including roles as himself in “Like Mike” and “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.”
His son, Gary Payton II, is currently a member of the Washington Wizards.
If you are talking about cultural impact on the game, Payton probably gets a slight nod, given he is still fighting to bring basketball back to Seattle and countless Oakland natives count him among their greatest mentors. His brash style also helped pave the way for the NBA’s embrace of personalities.
THE DAGGER: Gary Payton had the better career.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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