DOES CRIME PAY? STEALS HELP A PLAYER EARN INDIVIDUAL ACCOLADES, BUT ARE THEY THE MARK OF A CONSCIENTIOUS BALL HAWK OR OF AN EASILY BURNED DEFENSIVE GAMBLER?

October 22, 1995

Thieves make the most romantic criminals. From the
silver-swiping Jean Valjean to the swashbuckling Robin Hood to
the safecracking Alexander Mundy, they have made felony seem a
most dashing pursuit. In the history of the NBA, no player
better epitomized that lust for larceny than Walt Frazier, the
Knicks' star guard of the 1960s and '70s. Frazier favored the
wide lapels of Clyde Barrow off the court and pilfered the ball
with Barrow's brio on it. Poised in a staggered stance that
oozed cool, he could spend the first 47 minutes of a game
imperceptibly setting up his opponent, only to strip him off the
dribble in the final seconds, uttering an audible "Chump" as he
cruised for a layup at the other end.

In an attempt to quantify such defensive prowess, the NBA
instituted the steal as a statistic in 1973-74. A player would
be credited with a steal (a.k.a. swipe, rip, strip, theft, pick)
by taking away the ball, pirating a pass, deflecting a dribble
to a teammate or snatching up a loose ball mishandled by an
opponent. Frazier and his artful heists could now be fully
appreciated; unfortunately, the most petty of thieves would wind
up sharing the same statistical space. A bold gambit or a bad
gamble--the stat did not say. As a result, ever since that
capital S first appeared in an NBA box score, there has emerged
no consensus among league cognoscenti about what, if anything,
it really means.

To some, it signifies savvy, skill and even success for a
defender. To underline its validity they cite the den of thieves
led by guard Gary Payton (page 174), who has transformed the
Sonics into one of the most feared defensive fives in the
league. "If you've got a team that consistently makes steals, I
think it's synonymous with aggressive defense," Clipper coach
Bill Fitch says. "It's a team that's usually pretty
intelligent." To others, that S stands simply for sham. They
point out that the record for steals in a game (11) belongs to
Larry Kenon, a well-known matador on D. "Anyone who gambles
continually on defense will lead the league in steals," Celtic
president Red Auerbach has said, "but that doesn't tell you how
many times [his man] burns him."

One thing is certain: The steal has gained popularity among the
NBA coaches who vote for the all-defensive team. Michael Jordan
wasn't all-D until 1987-88, when he set the league pace with
3.16 picks per game, and over the past 10 seasons the league
leader has always been named to either the first or second unit.
In 1985-86, San Antonio guard Alvin Robertson averaged a
record-setting 3.67 steals a game and received the Defensive
Player of the Year award. Pilfering errant throws, swooping down
on double teams and marauding for loose balls, the 6'4",
208-pound Robertson was a powerfully disruptive force. "Alvin
would take the ball," says guard Doc Rivers, "and break your
spirit."

But it takes no third degree to get Robertson to admit he was
the game's biggest gambler, and that he rarely stole from the
man he was guarding. "That just doesn't happen," he says. "The
guys are too good." Several league executives feel that
Robertson's penchant for poaching hurt his team's defense more
than it helped. When Don Chaney signed on to coach Robertson and
the Pistons in '93-94, he spoke about how, as an opposing coach,
he had exploited Robertson's roving. "When we played against
Alvin we always went at him when we got the ball in the
half-court," Chaney said. "We felt that one-on-one he wasn't a
good defender."

Clearly, then, the stat (not to mention the award balloting)
should be viewed dimly if the league's supposedly best defender
can't cover bread with jam. "A lot of people will say, 'Oh,
yeah, we look at that stat,' but I don't consider it a big
issue," says Larry Riley, director of scouting for the
Grizzlies. "Can you tell me who led the league in steals last
year? I don't know, and I'm in the business." (It was Chicago's
Scottie Pippen, with 2.94 per game.)

Consider, too, that Rick Barry, Magic Johnson and M.L. Carr were
all league-leading thieves who were defensive sieves. "The
number doesn't really mean anything," says Carr, now Boston's
G.M. "It's how the guy gets the steal. If he gets it in a way
that hurts his team, it's not good. If he does it by staying in
the team concept and making a good move, then it's great." And
Carr's move? "What I'd do is wait until the player put the ball
above his head. When he did that, I'd jab him in the midsection
with my palms up. His natural instinct was to bring the ball
down to protect himself. When he did that, I'd just pick up my
hands and pop the ball free."

Joe Dumars, on the other hand, has never relied on such
gimmickry. A stalwart guard for the stingy Pistons in their
championship years, Dumars has never come up with more than 89
steals in any of his 10 seasons. "If you're the type who goes
for a lot of steals, you're going to get maybe two or three on a
good night, but you're going to be lunging eight or nine times,"
he says. "So the numbers say you're gambling a lot. I feel my
chances of stopping a guy are better by playing straight up.
Steals are just too iffy for me, but I don't feel like my
defense is iffy."

Unfortunately for Dumars, his if-free D is hard to measure--and
racking up rips can help come contract time. Sonic guard Slick
Watts, who led the league in steals in 1975-76, claimed he had
the quickest hands in the West and would practice his fast draw
in the mirror, marveling. Yet Paul Westphal, now the coach of
the Suns, used to salivate at the sight of Watts at tip-off
time. "Everybody wanted Slick," Westphal says. "He was running
all over the court trying to get steals, and he was supposed to
be guarding you." On those nights when he faces one of the
league's stat-mongering kleptomaniacs, Dumars hums a three-part
mantra to himself: Be patient, wait for the opening and fill it
up.

Those who defend the legitimacy of the steal point out that even
though many swipes occur in the passing lanes, such
aggressiveness can successfully disrupt an offense even if no
theft actually takes place. Rick Pitino charted deflections when
he was reviving the Knicks with pressure defense in the '80s,
and he rode his players hard if they weren't coming up with at
least a collective seven per quarter. Robertson knew his mere
presence could have an impact. "If somebody in the low post
knows you're coming, maybe he slows up, doesn't make a strong
move," he says. "Or maybe the offense has to rotate the ball
that extra pass that gets it out of the shooter's hands. All
that helps down the line."

Some coaches, emulating the trapping style of the championship
Bull teams of the early '90s, have come to rely on robbery not
only to stop teams, but also to trigger their own attacks: No
maneuver is as likely to lead to an easy deuce as a clean steal,
and sticky fingers are increasingly indicative of success in a
given game (chart, page 170). Says George Karl, whose Sonics
made a league-high 917 swipes last year, "If a team's philosophy
is based on pressure, then steals are a sign of good pressure. I
enjoy coaching defensive players who have good hands, who can
hit the ball and create steals. The best pressure on an offense
is the shot clock, so we try to use our defensive philosophy and
the shot clock to create pressure. Before every game we have hot-
button defensive plays--spots on the court--where we're going to
double the ball and go after it."

That aggression can be exploited: Despite huge success in the
regular season, Karl's plunderers have come up penniless in the
last two playoffs. "As the competition improved in the playoffs
and teams were able to zero in on their gambling and switching,
you could beat them by showing patience and moving the ball
around," says Sacramento G.M. Geoff Petrie. But last season
Seattle was bumped off by the Lakers, who also revel in larceny.
"The way we play, if we're alert, we're going to come up with
eight steals," L.A. coach Del Harris says. "At halftime if we
have one, two or none, I'll say, 'Let's take some chances.' I'm
willing to give up some, to make some mistakes. I'd rather make
some mistakes and be aggressive than lay back there and not
cause anything to happen."

Indeed, to swipe the ball with frequency takes a rare blend of
attributes: timing, guile, intelligence and anticipation. "A
steal guy has got to have audacity," Frazier says. "At the key
time of the game, if you can steal the ball, you can steal
momentum." The range of thieves today speaks to these
characteristics too, from strong-armed robbers like Pippen to
sneaky pickpockets like Muggsy Bogues to stealthy pass-pilferers
like John Stockton. And let us not for a minute overlook how
devastating a steal can be. Who will ever forget such golden
fleeces as John Havlicek's to lead Boston past Philadelphia in
the 1965 playoffs, or Larry Bird's against the Pistons that
helped the Celts take the '87 Eastern Conference finals, or Nick
Anderson's against Jordan last season in Orlando's big
second-round win? Says Harris, "The three-point shot, the steal
and the blocked shot are the three most exciting plays in the
game."

Yet as significant as one steal may be, the stat as a whole is
unrevealing at best and misleading at worst. The team that leads
the league in steals usually fares relatively poorly in the
other major defensive stats (chart, page 171). And while the
steal purports to represent a defender's skill, it too often
shows his greedy willingness to abandon man-ball fundamentals.
If it is a gauge of his disruptiveness, then it doesn't go far
enough.

A more illuminating category should be developed (call it
"stops") that would encompass not only steals, but also shots
blocked (on which the defensive team gains possession) and
charges taken. What is also needed is a scoring system for
steals with some proportion--a penal code, if you will--that
classifies a generic S as first degree (robbing one's man),
second degree (stealing in the passing lane) or third degree
(picking up a loose ball), thus distinguishing between
on-the-ball and off-the-ball thieves.

To illustrate these new statistical approaches, we've reviewed
the tapes of last season's Orlando-Chicago Eastern Conference
semifinal series--which featured some of the league's top thieves
(Jordan, Pippen and Anfernee Hardaway) and Anderson's memorable
robbery of Jordan with 10 seconds left in Game 1--and compiled a
defensive box score (above) that includes stops as well as a
breakdown of steals by category. The numbers favor the Bulls,
the more aggressive defensive team, on an aggregate basis
(Chicago generated 54 points off first- and second-degree
steals, while Orlando's numbers were padded by the third-degree
variety), and particularly in Chicago's two victories (Games 2
and 4). In those games the Bulls had a total of 25 stops to the
Magic's 16 and held a significant edge in points off steals
(25-8); Chicago had just a 49-43 advantage in stops and trailed
41-38 in points off steals in the four games it lost. The
Magic's ability to match Chicago's aggression in those four
games was crucial to their success.

Which only proves that in NBA defense, crime often pays.

COLOR PHOTO: SHEEDY AND LONG Frazier (left, guarding Jerry West) set a slick-hands standard that Jordan, Anderson and other NBA stars reach for today. [Walt Frazier guarding Jerry West] COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK [See caption above--Michael Jordan guarding Nick Anderson] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (3) The thievery of Stockton (left, on Kenny Smith) and Bogues (eyeing Kevin Johnson) can't be sold short. [John Stockton guarding Kenny Smith; Muggsy Bogues guarding Kevin Johnson] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (3) The Sonics' trapping style has made them tops in steals, but they haven't been super in other stats. [Overhead view of Seattle SuperSonics playing Los Angeles Lakers] THREE COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER (3) In a playoff series rife with "stops" of all sorts, (from left) O'Neal stuffed, Grant swiped, Perdue swatted and Hardaway stood his ground. [Shot by Michael Jordan being blocked by Shaquille O'Neal, Nick Anderson shooting against Will Perdue, Scottie Pippen being guarded by Anfernee Hardaway] COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK [See caption above--Horace Grant guarding Toni Kukoc]

BASKETBALL'S TWO-FACED STAT

Statistically speaking, the steal has its good points and its
bad points; as the tables below indicate, the value of the
steal and its merit as a stat are subject to question.

THE CASE FOR

Do steals translate into victories? Looking at the numbers, one
would have to say yes, they do, at least indirectly. Over the
past 15 seasons the team that had more steals in a game than its
opponent won nearly 60% of the time (that percentage increased
in each of the past five years), and a team that had at least
five more steals than its opponent won those games at a .676
clip. It's also worth noting that for each season the winning
percentage in the second category is higher than in the first.

More steals At least five more
than opponent steals than opponent

W L Pct. W L Pct.

1994-95 607 382 .614 200 87 .697
1993-94 615 396 .608 262 108 .708
1992-93 610 396 .606 231 91 .717
1991-92 605 397 .604 205 100 .672
1990-91 581 418 .582 204 100 .671
1989-90 569 441 .563 204 125 .620
1988-89 560 374 .600 225 107 .678
1987-88 491 367 .572 170 85 .667
1986-87 519 351 .597 190 102 .651
1985-86 488 365 .572 188 100 .653
1984-85 495 372 .571 180 103 .636
1983-84 501 345 .592 177 78 .694
1982-83 522 319 .621 192 85 .693
1981-82 498 342 .593 172 87 .664
1980-81 532 322 .623 196 79 .713

15-year 8,193 5,587 .595 2,996 1,437 .676
totals

THE CASE AGAINST

Does a high steals total mean success in the major defensive
categories? Usually not. Over the past 15 years the team that
led the league in steals finished in the top five in opponent
field goal percentage just once, while winding up in the bottom
half of the league nine times. In points allowed per game, the
steals leader in those 15 seasons finished in the top five just
twice, and lower than 10th seven times. Seattle's fourth-place
finish in opponent field goal percentage last year was the
highest finish by a steals leader in either category in the past
20 years.

Opp.
Steals FG Opp.
leader SPG Pct. Rank PPG Rank

1994-95 SuperSonics 11.18 .453 4 102.2 15
1993-94 SuperSonics 12.84 .453 7 96.9 6
1992-93 SuperSonics 11.51 .469 11 101.3 5
1991-92 Bucks 10.52 .498 27 106.7 16
1990-91 Bucks 10.90 .486 20 104.0 10
1989-90 Bucks 10.07 .479 17 106.8 13
1988-89 Spurs 11.72 .488 18 112.8 21
1987-88 Nuggets 10.15 .490 17 112.7 19
1986-87 Bucks 10.30 .470 7 106.5 5
1985-86 76ers 10.51 .493 17 108.0 8
1984-85 Nuggets 10.90 .512 22 117.6 22
1983-84 Pacers 10.17 .495 14 109.3 11
1982-83 Nets 11.11 .478 9 103.0 6
1981-82 Nets 11.20 .484 8 106.7 10
1980-81 Pistons 10.78 .509 22 106.0 7

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

NEW MEASURES

An assessment of last season's Chicago-Orlando playoff series,
using a new statistical approach, illustrates the Bulls'
aggressive defensive style. For example, Chicago had three times
as many second-degree steals (thefts in the passing lanes) as
Orlando, and those Bull takeaways led to 38 points in six games.

[Table not available--table provides Games Played, Minutes
Played, Steals, Blocks, Charges taken, Total stops,
First degree steals, Second degree steals, Third degree
steals, and Team points off steals for individual Chicago Bulls players (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc, B.J.
Armstrong, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Will Perdue, Bill
Wennington, Jud Buechler, Ron Harper, Pete Myers), individual
Orlando Magic players (Horace Grant, Nick Anderson, Anfernee
Hardaway, Shaquille O'Neal, Dennis Scott, Brian Shaw, Donald
Royal, Tree Rollins), and totals for both teams]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)