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The lost art of the Heist (for Seattle anyway)

A quick perusal of NBA stats for the season this morning had me noticing that Gerald Wallace of the Charlotte Bobcats is leading the league in Steals per game with 2.5 per contest. Of note is that there are only 7 players this season who are averaging at least 2.0 steals per game.

Gerald does his bit of thievery while playing 34 minutes per game. Ron Artest who is a former Defensive player of the year uses 39 mpg to average 2.3 steals/game. In the matchup tonight, we can see Shawn Marion, who is 7th in the league, and uses 40 mpg to average 2.0 steals/game.

The best thief on our current roster is Luke Ridnour, who averages 1.57 steals per game in 33.5 mpg. I have to admit, this surprised me; I was expecting Earl Watson to be the best. Not so, Earl doesn’t even average a full steal per contest. Luke raised his steals per game stat from last years 1.1 per game number, which tied for 1st on the team with Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen. This again surprised me, I expected Antonio Daniels to be the leader; but he also failed to average even one steal per game.

Now for those longtime Seattle Sonics fans out there, I have a question. When was the last time a Seattle player led the NBA in steals per game?

I won’t leave you in suspense, it was Mr. Sonic Nate McMillan in 1994 who averaged very nearly 3.0 steals per game (actually 2.96). For a little bit of context, his 2.96 steals per game that year would have led the league in each of the twelve seasons since, including this one; it would have led the league all the way back to 1992!

Nate did his wizardry while being on the court for only 25.8 minutes per game. If you extrapolate that a bit to a per 40 minute basis, Nate averaged 4.6 steals per 40 minutes that season.

For a bit more context, when John Stockton led the league in SPG in 1992 with 3.21 SPG, he was on the court for 36 minutes per game. This equates to a paltry 3.3 steals per 20 (that is not really paltry, I just used the word for comparison sake when compared with Nate’s astounding 4.6 steals/40).

Nate’s 4.6 steals per 40 is really quite remarkable. I had to scour the archives all the way back to 1978 to find a player with a better Steals/40 number; there I discovered a player named Ron Lee, a guard from the University of Oregon, who led the league in steals at 2.74 per game, and 4.7 per 40!

Nate was great at playing the passing lanes with his long arms, and ball hawking instincts; the trapping style of defense employed by George Karl teams of the ‘90’s was partially responsible as well. We need to give credit where credit is due. Gary Payton was a great thief as well; he led the league with 2.85 steals per game in 1996; and Slick Watts also led the league with 3.18 steals per game in 1976.

I don’t know if the new defensive rules have changed the defenses enough to reduce the number of steals per game by players; or perhaps it’s just the ebb and flow of gimmicky defensive schemes that are in vogue for a time, and are later put on the shelf. But for now it seems like we are witnessing the lost art of the heist.