Wilt Chamberlain’s Sabotage of the NBA’s Free Throw Percentage: A Pro Hoops History Investigation

Sabotaging Storm Troopers

The mammoth impact of Wilt Chamberlain has been written about often here at Pro Hoops History. Most notably his 100-point game and his 55-rebound game. But today I’d like to focus on a rather amazing correlation, perhaps even causation.

Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw shooting seems to have significantly reduced the overall FT% of the entire NBA for a decade.

The season before Wilt joined the NBA (1958-59) the league-wide FT% was .756. The next season Wilt was a rookie and the league’s FT% dropped to .735. The NBA wouldn’t climb above the .750 mark again until the 1969-70 season, when Wilt wound up missing all but 12 games due to a knee injury. The correlation is startling and shows the tremendous influence a force like Wilt could have in a league of eight teams in 1960.

The Percentages

Season Wilt’s FT% NBA FT%
1955 0.738
1956 0.745
1957 0.751
1958 0.746
1959 0.756
1960 0.582 0.735
1961 0.504 0.733
1962 0.613 0.727
1963 0.593 0.727
1964 0.531 0.722
1965 0.464 0.721
1966 0.513 0.727
1967 0.441 0.732
1968 0.380 0.720
1969 0.446 0.714
1970 0.446 0.751
1971 0.538 0.745
1972 0.422 0.748
1973 0.510 0.758
1974 0.772
1975 0.765
1976 0.751

Well, that doesn’t bode well for Wilt’s reputation. To make matters visually worse, here’s a graph of the Wilt-induced trough. The horizontal lines demarcate Wilt’s rookie year (black), his knee injury (blue) and his retirement (orangish):

Wilt FTs NBA FTs

Well, let’s dig a little deeper and see just how gargantuan Wilt’s share of FTs missed and attempted were these years. You’ll notice that as his share of total FTAs decreased – thanks to a combination of his own declining FT numbers as well as the NBA adding more teams and thus FT attempts from other players – Wilt underwent Herculean efforts to maintain his destabilizing impact by decreasing his FT%. Which, if you remember from above, bottomed out at 38% in 1968. He attempted 11.4 FTs a game that season, too.

Wilt FT chartsOk, so the entirety of the NBA’s bad FT shooting from 1960 to 1973 can’t be blamed on Wilt, but a whole helluva lot of it can. These were the worst years for NBA free throw shooting and Wilt was the most voluminous bad free throw shooter in NBA history. The Walt Bellamys (career .632 FT%) and Bill Russells (career .561 FT%) helped Chamberlain out, but in terms of just one overwhelming source, it was Wilt (career .511 FT%) that sabotaged free throw shooting.

NBA Playoff Travel: A Pro Hoops History Investigation

Train (Jim Hammer via Flickr)

The editorial staff of Pro Hoops History has advocated for reforming the NBA’s conference and division system based on intractable problems like the Eastern Conference being generally terrible for over 15 years. Also, the imbalance warps the allocation of draft picks to more talented Western Conference teams (that miss the playoffs) over worse Eastern Conference teams (that make the playoffs).

One argument that has been offered up opposing an “un-conferenced” NBA is that travel come playoff time would be hellish.

The retort I offer up is that – as far as travel is concerned – the Western Conference actually suffers under the current playoff system and the East benefits. Americans are notoriously bad at geography and the NBA is a reflection – perhaps catalyst? – of that notoriety.

This is after all, the same league that had a Los Angeles vs. Baltimore Western Division Finals in 1965. And the same league that had a Boston vs. Houston playoff series in the East in 1980, while also staging a Los Angeles vs. Milwaukee playoff series in the West that same season.

In terms of pure geographic space (and accepting the Mississippi River as the East-West demarcation line) the Western “half” of the United States is about twice the size of the Eastern “half”. Traveling from New Orleans or Memphis to Washington, DC, is less onerous than traveling to Oakland for the Pelicans or Grizzlies.

Applying this notion to the potential 2015 playoffs – as of the standings on March 3, 2015 – the Western teams are really going to feel the grind of travel compared to the East. By the way, the distances below are based on road travel, not “as the crow flies”. Team charter planes clearly travel as the crow does, but Google Maps isn’t easy at producing that distance. So there will be some discrepancy in the true numbers of the situation, but the veracity of the situation is aptly revealed with the following numbers.

Home Away Distance (mi.)
1 vs. 8 Golden State Oklahoma City 1616
2 vs. 7 Memphis San Antonio 727
3 vs. 6 Portland Dallas 2028
4 vs. 5 Houston LA Clippers 1548


Home Away Distance (mi.)
1 vs. 8 Atlanta Charlotte 247
2 vs. 7 Chicago Miami 1379
3 vs. 6 Toronto Milwaukee 609
4 vs. 5 Cleveland Washington 372


So for the Western Conference, the shortest trip right now (Memphis to San Antonio) is still higher than the average trip for the East. Conversely, the average trip for the West is twice the distance of the average East trip and  the average West trip is longer than the longest East trip. So, the relatively crummy East teams get a less rigorous travel schedule while the Western juggernauts face more wear and tear thanks to longer trips.

Now, moving to a conference-less playoff format would not only expunge mediocre Charlotte and Miami in favor of New Orleans and Phoenix, but it would also make travel more equitable for all involved. Here are the numbers for such a playoff formatting:

Home Away Distance
1 vs. 16 Atlanta Phoenix 1847
2 vs. 15 Golden State Milwaukee 2170
3 vs. 14 Memphis New Orleans 395
4 vs. 13 Portland Oklahoma City 1909
5 vs. 12 Houston Washington 1416
6 vs. 11 LA Clippers San Antonio 1354
7 vs. 10 Dallas Cleveland 1182
8 vs. 9 Chicago Toronto 521


Lookie there, the average distance traveled actually falls below the average for the current West scheme. Of course there will be luck involved in the ultimate seeding as to who you face and how far you travel. And it is going to suck when, say, Portland squares off with Philadelphia in a 1st Round match up, but the East’s safety net of easy travel being shredded is a systemic bonus in my eyes. After all, Philly has access to SEVEN other NBA teams within 600 miles, while lonely Portland has none.

So, if there’s going to be a chance at long, uncomfortable travel, everyone deserves an equal shot at bearing the pain.

(Like any investigation this is to spur commentary and provoke thought. Have at it with the logic and examples.)

Race, Coaching, and Championships

Wilkens Coaching Sonics
Don’t look so bummed, Lenny!

Piqued by Jacob Greenberg’s post on black NBA coaches being “hired last, fired first”, I was curious on just how often NBA champions are led by black coaches.

So, looking at the NBA’s 65-year history, the deck is stacked in favor of white coaches. For starters, a black coach wasn’t hired until 1966. Thereafter it was slooooow for the league to fully embrace the idea of black coaches. But a larger look across the whole coaching spectrum lies in the future. For now let’s just stick to the championship cream of the crop.

Right off the bat, it’s important to acknowledge that over half (34) of the league’s 65 titles have been won by just five coaches: Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Greg Popovich, Pat Riley, and John Kundla. Among the remaining titles, eight coaches received two each. The last remaining 15 titles were won by 15 different coaches.

Coaches Titles

Flipping the racial light switch creates an even more preponderant hoarding of titles into a small, collective group. In other words, the vast majority of NBA titles have been won by white coaches.

Coaches Titles by Race

22 white coaches have won 86% of the NBA’s championships, unsurprising given the fact that the Big 5 coaches seen above were all white. Meanwhile only five black coaches have won a total of seven NBA titles. And kudos to Erik Spoelstra for giving Asians a place in the discussion with his two titles.

Lastly, I’d like to take a look at when black coaches were winning these titles and did they have previous NBA playing experience. For the first topic, it’s quite clear the NBA has actually been quite horrible over the last two decades. Again, kudos Spoelstra for keeping this decade from lily whiteness, so far.

Coaches Titles by decade and race

As for the second parameter still begging my interest: what’s the breakdown on playing experience for these title-winning coaches?

Coaches by race and experience

Clearly, it pays to be an ex-NBA player to winning NBA coaching titles. But not having pro experience isn’t that much of a handicap for white coaches. For blacks? It’s a death sentence. Notice that 0%. Not a single NBA title has been won by a black coach with no prior playing experience.

So What?

So what does any of this mean? It means that the upper echelons of NBA coaching – at least when it comes to winning titles – remains starkly white. And there is a sound counter-argument that there just aren’t that many titles to go around, so maybe this is a bad measurement.

To somewhat deflect that critique – but not to dismiss it – let’s include the runner-up coach in the Finals in the discussion. Only nine times in NBA history has the coach on the opposing sideline been African-American. So, from 130 possible chances to be the winner or runner-up coach, just 16 times has a black head coach been in that position.

And only once… ONCE… has a black man simultaneously occupied both spots. That would be the 1975 NBA Finals when Al Attles’s Golden State Warriors defeated KC Jones’s Washington Bullets.

What’s worrisome, though, is that the pool of runner-up coaches is extremely similar to championship coaches. And with the exception of Mike Brown, all of these coaches spent lengthy time as NBA players.

Coach Titles Runner-Ups
Bill Russell 2 0
Al Attles 1 0
Lenny Wilkens 1 1
KC Jones 2 3
Doc Rivers 1 1
Mike Brown 0 1
Byron Scott 0 2
Avery Johnson 0 1

For a league that had its first black coach in 1966 and has been majority-black since the same period, this isn’t exactly a sterling track record on having black coaches ascend to the top of the profession. What’s striking is that we don’t find it the least bit odd or notable  that year-after-year in a sport so heavily filled with black athletes that white men continue to lead and instruct them at disproportionate levels. Hard to imagine a similar scenario ever playing out with the racial roles reversed.

I suppose that’s the ultimate “so what?” of this story.

All-Time Minutes Leaders… 30 Years and Under

Saatchi Gallery - Young & Old (via Flickr user vintagedept)
Saatchi Gallery – Young & Old (via Flickr user vintagedept)

As the Spurs and Heat prepare to do battle in Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals, the dramatic discrepancy in age between each team’s anchor is a popular topic. You have the just entering his NBA middle age LeBron vs. old man Duncan. At nearly 40 years old, Duncan’s geriatrics is not in much dispute.

The 29-year old LeBron is a harder fish to tackle.

Yes, he’s just 29 and typically in NBA history that’d be considered at the apex of his prime. An NBA star smack dab in the middle of his NBA career. But a 29-year old NBA player in 1990 was likely to just be in his 7th season. LeBron is currently in his 11th. He’s racked up over 33,000 minutes in the regular season and another 6500 or so in the playoffs.

LeBron is a physical marvel, even freak, in many ways but in this he is not alone. In the last two decades, young stars – not just superstars or surefire Hall of Famers – are increasingly passing absurd minutes played marks by the time they’re 30 years old.

Thanks to the wonderful folks at basketball-reference, here are the most minutes played by NBA/ABA players under the age of 30…

Under 30 minutes played

Looking at these top 15 players two themes stick out. 1) to get into the top in this exercise you have to either skip college or just play one season in the NCAA and 2) this happened a lot more frequently in the last 20 years.

Nine of the 15 players here began playing in the last 20 years, including seven of the top 10. Of those nine players from the last 20 years, five had no college experience whatsoever (KG, Kobe, LeBron, Dirk, and Rashard Lewis). The other four (Marbury, Walker, Joe Johnson, and Mike Bibby) all had just one year of college ball.

Observing the six other players who began playing pro ball prior to 1994, they largely uphold the rule of thumb established above. Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas – although starting their careers in the very early 1980s – played just two years of college basketball. And of course, Moses Malone went straight from high school to the ABA.

The other three players logged significant college time. Julius Erving had three seasons at UMass before jumping to the ABA. And our 1960s titans Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain also crack the list. Oscar played all four seasons of his NCAA eligibility at Cincinnati. Wilt meanwhile abandoned Kansas after just three years, but was still barred from the NBA, so he played a season for the Harlem Globetrotters before joining the NBA.

This minutes played story is part of a larger context, which will likely see players over the ensuing seasons steadily replace numerous all-time records for aggregate stats thanks to laxer NBA draft eligibility rules – barring any CBA nonsense on age restrictions.

The per game numbers, however, will still fall to the previous generations. For example, check out top 15 players under 30 years old in minutes per game (minimum 20,000 minutes player)…

MPG under 30Checking out this second table, only three players from the last 20 years crack the list. That’s a stark contrast to the previous table. Sure enough the only players to appear on both these lists are Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and… LeBron James.

Yeah, LeBron’s gonna be setting all kinds of records pretty soon. Admire the greatness while it lasts and before some upstart player 20 years from now re-writes the record book.

The 6’2″-and-Under Champions Club


Life should be grand for Chris Paul. He delivered 22.5 points, 12 assists, and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 51% FG, 75% FT, and 45.5% 3PT in the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His regular season saw some injury woes but he’s still likely to make another All-NBA 1st Team, which would be the 4th such selection of his career. Of course the Clippers losing their series against Oklahoma City is dispiriting, but basketball fans can bask in Paul’s great efforts.

Well, some can. Not all.

Roll that beautiful Chris Paul critique footage!

The criticism will start anew after the Clippers playmaker delivered more heartache during his team’s season-ending 104-98 loss to Oklahoma City in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night at Staples Center.

Paul finished with 25 points and 11 assists but will be recalled mostly for the offensive foul with 3 minutes 35 seconds left that probably sealed the Clippers’ fate.

Paul was dejected after the loss and his continued failure to reach the Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals:

“It’s not just to get out of the second round. It’s to win a championship. I don’t know anybody in our league that plays for the Western Conference finals. That’s not enough.”

Well, given the circumstances of the NBA, having a 6’0″ tall player as your leading man rarely means winning a championship. Extending the height to 6’2″, only five NBA franchises have garnered a title with a player that tall reasonably, not unequivocally, considered their best player.

The Rochester Royals 1950-51

The first franchise was the Rochester Royals back in the 1950-51 season. Their best player was Bob Davies, a 6’1″ guard/forward who was one of the first players in the major pro leagues to dribble behind his back. The Royals, however, were a well-balanced machine with Bob Wanzer and especially Arnie Risen contesting best player honors. Indeed during the postseason, the 31-year old Davies had a miserable time averaging 16 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3 assists on 34% shooting over 14 games. However, Risen and Wanzer rose to the ocassion. Wanzer notched 12.5 PPG, 5 RPG, and 4 APG while shooting 47% FG and 91% FT. Risen was a beast in the post with 19.5 PPG and 14 RPG including a dominating NBA Finals against the Knicks which would have secured a Finals MVP for Risen had it existed then. There was also defensive ace Jack Coleman who threw in 10 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists per game in the postseason.

Davies may have been the best player, but it was truly a full team effort.

The Boston Celtics 1956-57

The Celtics were the next NBA champ to exhibit a wondrous 6’1″ dribbler as their best player. Bob Cousy was the regular season MVP for the NBA and had appeared in the All-Star Game all seven seasons of  his pro career. The Celtics had also made the postseason every year of his career, but had never made the Finals. Finally, in 1957 Boston won the Finals as Cousy averaged 20 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds in the playoffs.

Don’t be too quick to give Cooz all the credit, though. His longtime running mate Bill Sharman averaged 21 PPG. Rookie forward Tommy Heinsohn dropped 23 PPG and 12 RPG. Oh yeah, another rookie – Bill Russell – contributed 14 points and 24 rebounds nightly. Russell would wind up winning MVP the very next season in 1958 quickly supplanting Cousy as the Celtics’ best player.

But in 1957 was Cousy or Russell the better Celtic? It’s debatable. Nonetheless, the point is still standing: a short star needs a some equitable talent.

The Los Angeles Lakers 1971-72

No one can still figure out who was better for the Lakers in 1972: Wilt Chamberlain or Jerry West. The team won 33 straight games on their way to 69 wins in the regular season. They trounced opponents in the playoffs breezing to the title with 12 wins and 3 losses. West and Wilt played vastly different but complementary roles. Wilt cleaned the glass, defended the paint like crazy, and produced highlight dunks here and there. West pestered the perimeter, ran the offense as the point guard, and drained long-range bombs.

Their regular season stats reveal their productive schism.
Wilt – 15 PPG, 19 RPG, 4 APG
West – 26 PPG, 4 RPG, 10 APG

Jerry West, however, played the worst postseason of his career that year. Prior to 1972, he had averaged 31 PPG, 6 APG, and 6 RPG on 48% FG and 81% FT shooting. In 1972 he bottomed out at 23/9/5 – still great for a 33-year old guard – but shot a miserable 37.5% from the field. It was even worse in the Finals where Mr. Clutch put up 20/9/4 on 32.5% shooting. The Big Dipper meanwhile feasted on the Knicks to the tune of 19.5 points and 23 rebounds a game on 60% shooting.

In the end, it’s likely a wash as to who was more instrumental for those Lakers.

The Seattle SuperSonics 1978-79

The champion oft-forgot, the 1979 Sonics were one of the most egalitarian teams to take the title. The youthful trio of Jack Sikma (23 years old), Dennis Johnson (24) and Gus Williams (25) did the heaviest lifting while veterans like Paul Silas, Freddie Brown, and John Johnson capably helped out the young bucks.

The splits of three contenders for Sonics’ best player don’t concretely solve the question, but it gives a tentative answer…

Regular Season

Gus Williams 19.2 3.2 4.0 0.4 2.0 49.5% 77.5%
Jack Sikma 15.6 12.4 3.2 0.8 1.0 46.0% 81.4%
Dennis Johnson 15.9 4.7 3.5 1.2 1.3 43.4% 76.0%


Gus Williams 26.7 4.1 3.7 0.6 2.0 47.6% 70.9%
Jack Sikma 14.8 11.7 2.5 1.4 0.9 45.5% 78.7%
Dennis Johnson 20.9 6.1 4.1 1.5 1.6 45.0% 77.1%

On balance, Gus Williams emerges as the premier, but not definitive, candidate for best player on the 1979 Sonics. The 6’2″ guard would lose out on Finals MVP to the 6’4″ Dennis Johnson. Guess that didn’t help settle matters.

The Detroit Pistons 1988-89 and 1989-90

The only time a multiple championship teams were led by a diminutive player. Still in his prime, but maybe a hair past his peak, Isiah Thomas was the linchpin of the Bad Boys Pistons. If ever a team won a title based on gang tactics, it was these Pistons squads. Bill Laimbeer, James Edwards, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley delivered body blows to frustrate opponents. But the real threat to Thomas’s claim to best player on these teams came from his young, stoic backcourt mate: Joe Dumars.

Dumars proved so valuable he snared the 1989 Finals MVP in a sweep over the LA Lakers. Put winning Finals MVP doesn’t automatically catapult you to best player on the team. When it’s all said and done, Isiah was the orchestrator of the Pistons’s assault even if the disparity between himself and his teammates wasn’t the chasm we like to imagine exists between a team’s best player and the secondary pieces.

So what does any of this mean for Chris Paul? Or for any future pipsqueak star?

It means that they can be the best player on a team that wins an NBA title, but the team has to be extremely well-balanced. And even if that short star plays the role of best player, it’ll be hard for contemporaries and future generations to easily discern that.

Sam Jones in the Clutch

Sam Jones ClutchSam Jones’s glorious Hall of Fame career was notable for how late it started and how Jones performed late in games.

To see just how great Jones was in the clutch, I went to basketball-reference.com and looked up every playoff elimination game Jones played in. Granted, this isn’t the surefire way to gauge his whole capacity for clutch play, but it’s the best quick look we can take.

Key –
ESF: Eastern Division Semi-Finals
EDF: Eastern Division Finals
GX: Game X of series
Result: Celtics win/loss margin for that one game

Sam the Reserve (1958 to 1961)
From the 1957-58 season through the 1960-61 season, Jones backed up Bill Sharman as the Boston Celtics’ two-guard. As Jones matured, he carved out a bigger role after getting a DNP in his first chance at playing in an elimination game and being used sparingly his rookie season.

Regular Season PPG (1958 to 1961): 11.0 PPG
Postseason PPG (1958 to 1961): 9.1 PPG
Elimination PPG (1958 to 1961): 10.8 PPG

Year Game Opponent Points Result
1958 G4 EDF Warriors DNP -15
  G5 EDF Warriors 0 5
  G6 Finals Hawks 3 1
1959 G6 EDF Nationals 10 -12
  G7 EDF Nationals 19 5
  G4 Finals Lakers 2 5
1960 G5 EDF Warriors 9 -21
  G6 EDF Warriors 9 2
  G6 Finals Hawks 16 -3
  G7 Finals Hawks 18 19
1961 G5 EDF Nationals 17 21
  G5 Finals Hawks 16 9

Jones’s first big game came in 1959 against the Syracuse Nationals in the 1959 EDF. The Celtics survived the Nats attack thanks in no small part to Jones scoring 19 points. However, Jones didn’t truly arrive as a big game player until the 1960 postseason in the Finals against the St. Louis Hawks. From there on out, Jones would ratchet up his big game play to heights few could have predicted in 1958.

Sam Hits the Big Time (1962 – 1965)
During this period, Jones became a perennial All-Star and was named to his first of three All-NBA 2nd Teams. He was Boston’s starting shooting guard and became their go-to player in pressure situations. Jones without fail raised his scoring output as the heat was on in the playoffs.

Regular Season PPG (1962 to 1965): 20.9 PPG
Postseason PPG (1962 to 1965): 23.9 PPG
Elimination PPG (1962 to 1965): 26.3 PPG

Year Game Opponent Points Result
1962 G6 EDF Warriors 15 -10
G7 EDF Warriors 28 2
G6 Finals Lakers 35 14
G7 Finals Lakers 27 3
1963 G6 EDF Royals 22 10
G7 EDF Royals 47 11
G5 Finals Lakers 36 -7
G6 Finals Lakers 5 3
1964 G4 EDF Royals 33 -9
G5 EDF Royals 23 6
G5 Finals Warriors 18 6
1965 G6 EDF Sixers 20 -6
G7 EDF Sixers 37 1
G5 Finals Lakers 22 33

Well, sometimes even the great Sam Jones fails. Game 6 of the 1963 NBA Finals was a big dud for Jones as he scored just 5 points. But holy molely did he tear up the other games. In particular his 47-point outburst against the Cincinnati Royals in ’63 remains monumental. It was also one of the great duels in NBA history as Oscar Robertson put up 43 points of his own in that game.

The 1965 season was the best of Jones’s career as he averaged a career-high of 26 points per game at age 31. For the next few seasons, he’d maintain that crest before finally dipping in his final year in 1969.

Sam with the Encore (1966 – 1969)
Jones was still flying high as this period began, but the Celtics were aging and found it harder to finish off opponents in the postseason. More elimination games presented themselves as Boston often fell behind late in a series and actually were dethroned by the Sixers in 1967.

Regular Season PPG (1966 to 1969): 20.8 PPG
Postseason PPG (1966 to 1969): 21.5 PPG
Elimination PPG (1966 to 1969): 23.3 PPG

Year Game Opponent Points Result
1966 G4 ESF Royals 32 17
G5 ESF Royals 34 9
G5 EDF Sixers 30 8
G5 Finals Lakers 15 4
G6 Finals Lakers 23 8
G7 Finals Lakers 22 2
1967 G3 ESF Knicks 19 11
G4 ESF Knicks 51 9
G4 EDF Sixers 32 4
G5 EDF Sixers 19 -24
1968 G6 ESF Pistons 22 8
G5 EDF Sixers 37 18
G6 EDF Sixers 20 8
G7 EDF Sixers 22 4
G6 Finals Lakers 12 15
1969 G4 ESF Sixers 19 -3
G5 ESF Sixers 16 3
G5 EDF Knicks 3 -8
G6 EDF Knicks 29 1
G6 Finals Lakers 9 9
G7 Finals Lakers 24 2

Sam hit his all-time elimination game high in a 51-point outburst against the New York Knicks in the 1967 ESF. In the 1966 postseason, he strung together three straight 30+ point performances in potential elimination games.

But by 1969, old man Jones was feeling creaky. In four of the six elimination games, he scored under 20 points and had two games under 10 points. However, he still strung up the biggest points for the biggest moments. To silence the Knicks in the EDF, Jones scored 29 points to pull out the one-point victory. In Game 7 of the NBA Finals, in the final game of his career, Jones scored 24 points as the Celtics won by two to defeat the Lakers.

Those 24 points matched Sam’s jersey number and gave him his 10th and final NBA title. An outstanding haul for one of the NBA’s most clutch players.

Estimating Jerry West’s Career Steals

(via Hazel Motes' Flickr)
(via Hazel Motes’ Flickr)

“The league did not officially keep steals stats until the 1973-74 season – West’s final abbreviated campaign, in which he played only thirty-one games. Even in that abbreviated campaign, West registered 81 steals, a 2.6 average per game. Lakers scorekeeper John Radcliffe said that if steal stats had been kept for West’s career, he would easily be the league’s all-time leader, with little hope of anyone catching him. In his prime, there were many nights where he registered 6 or more steals, and many other nights where he had more than 10, explained Radcliffe, who closely observed nearly every home game that West ever played.”

– Via Jerry West: the Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon by Roland Lazenby ( follow him on Twitter @lazenby)

In one of the more bizarre and oafish moves in sports history, the NBA did not keep track of steals and blocks until the 1973-74 season. It’s understandable that they weren’t kept off the bat in the 1940s, but when Bill Russell started swatting shots with impunity in 1957, you think some curious mind in the league office wanted to track that.

Or maybe when Jerry West started swiping the ball from opponents with his freakishly long arms in 1961, some person would consider keeping official tally of his thefts.

Alas, we have nothing of Russell’s blocks and just a tiny smidgen of West’s steals total. At the start of that season West was 35-years old and had played 1054 games and 41,911 minutes total in the regular- and post-season. And he was fighting a groin pull that would limit him to just 31 games his final season.

And still he managed to average 2.6 steals a game. A busted up, over the hill West had a steals average that would have been 2nd in the league that year if he played enough games to qualify.

So taking that 2.6 average, I decided to estimate just how many steals West may have acquired through his career. This is purely an exercise of “what-if” in the highest order, but dammit, I want to have an idea of how many steals Mr. Clutch had!

This is how I came up with the projection:

  • I selected the NBA/ABA players in the top 20 all-time in total steals
  • Next, I created a table of their steals per game and obtained the trajectory/percentage for how their SPG rose and fell when the players were between 22 and 35 years old, since that was the chronological age Jerry West played in the NBA.
  • I took these percentages and applied them to West starting retroactively with that 2.6 SPG.

Average Steals by Age and Percentage Change for the Top 20

So to get West’s numbers, I took his SPG at 35-years old (2.6) and multiplied it by the average percentage change I found from the other stealers (92.86%) to get his 34-year old average. And then took that number (2.41) multiplied it by the next percentage (114.86%) and so on…



% of following season










































Jerry West’s Estimated SPG and Season Totals



Total for Season














































So basically, this is the time for your jaw to drop if this projection is the least bit accurate.

The NBA/ABA record for SPG in a single season is Don Buse in 1975-76 when he took 4.12 SPG for the ABA’s Indiana Pacers. West equals that exactly in 1963-64. For what it’s worth, both would be age 25.

Oh but it gets more insane from here.

Only 11 times has a player averaged over 3.00 SPG for an entire NBA/ABA season. West appears likely to have done that at least 9 times all by himself. In fact, his projected career average is 3.36 which would be higher than all but 4 single seasons.

Again, West’s career average is higher than all but four individual seasons.

Now taking that 3.36 SPG and multiplying it by West’s 932 games played and you see he ends up with 3129 steals. That is a mere 136 behind John Stockton‘s all-time record. Stockton’s career SPG is 2.17 and he played in 572 more career games than West.

To make up that steals difference, West would have had to play just 40 more games. But considering West’s constant battles with pulled muscles, sprained ankles and the countless broken noses, we’re lucky he showed up for the 932 he did play.

Again, I stress these are just fun projections trying to get a glimmer of West’s steals and by no means should be considered COLD HARD FACTS. But there is more than a grain of truth in what they speak to: West was a frightful, aggressive defender who could pick-pocket his man using those lanky arms and strong hands of his.

Furthermore, this should give everyone pause to consider what other spectacular records and feats were accomplished by West, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others at a time when stats were so rudimentary. Considering his blocking ability, Wilt surely has more than the 78 recorded triple-doubles he got just with points, rebounds and assists. He and Bill Russell also probably got a couple quadruple-doubles if blocks had been counted.

Hell, Nate Thurmond got a quadruple-double as 33-year old in 1974-75 when he was old and busted up like Jerry West. Larry Steele was one assist away and Rick Barry one steal away from pulling off quadruple-doubles that season too. But they all would have gone unrecorded just a couple years earlier since blocks and steals weren’t kept.

It’s nice to know that some of the best records are the ones that aren’t even recorded.