Former Seattle Supersonics point guard Gary Payton will be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday, and in advance, he's doing the usual amount of press beforehan. In an interview wth Yahoo Sports, "The Glove" made a pretty bold statement: John Stockton was a harder player to guard than Michael Jordan.
Q: Why did you pick Hall of Famers George Gervin and John Stockton as your presenters during the ceremony?
A: "George Gervin was my childhood idol since I was little. In Oakland I had all his posters on my wall. The Iceman poster where he was on ice blocks in that silver suit. He presented to all my other Hall of Fame stuff for retired jerseys at Oregon State and my high school. John Stockton is because I liked him when I was playing basketball. Everyone said he was dirty. He wasn't as athletic as us. But he was smarter than us. We knew what he was going to do. We knew he was going to set [tough] picks. We had all the videos on Utah. We were so dumb. We would get caught up with the picks and get mad at him. He would shoot eight times and make nine. Shoot eight free throws and make seven. He'd have 15 assists and four steals. A complete game. That's just the way he was and I idolized him. I just imitated him while going about my business, talking trash and getting it done. After the game you would look at my stats and it would be right there."
Q: Did John Stockton ever talk trash back to you?
A: "Never. That is the reason I really respected him because you never could get in his head. He's the hardest person I ever had to guard. I tried to talk to him, try to do something and he'd just look at me, set a pick and cause me [to get mad and] get a tech. And then all of the sudden it was over. There was much respect to him doing that to me. It taught me a lot."
Q: Even so, you once said you were better than Stockton?
A: "I was. I really think I was better as an athlete and in everything all-around. But he was just a smarter basketball player than us. He just got it done. I do think I was a better basketball player. I can do more things skills-wise. He just showed he knew how to play the game and that was the biggest difference."
Q: You say Stockton was the hardest to guard, but what about guarding Michael Jordan?
A: "Those battles were a little easier. I would have Jordan get mad at me and go back at me. He knew he was really talented and could do whatever he wanted to. But [Stockton] was more of a challenge to me than guarding someone that would talk back to me. When you talk back to me and say something to me it made my game go to another level. John was one who wouldn't say nothing and you couldn't figure him out. He'd keep going in the pick and rolls and he and Karl Malone would score a big bucket. At times I would guard Jordan and get him mad and into other things."
So, outside of the obvious big point here: anyone on the planet saying that anyone was easier to guard than the Greatest Player of All Time, there's some interesting ideas here.
First, essentially, Payton is saying that any player who is emotionally compromised is worse than one who's in control, even Jordan. We have this idea in our heads that "Oh, you shouldn't make him angry," but in reality, and I'm spitballing here based on anecodotal evidence, there's a likelihood for perimeter players under such condtions to gun a little bit more, to be more reckless with their shot selection, to force themselves into scoring positions. There's a reasonable argument to be made that centers and forwards are better when angry, based on their ability to muscle inside. But guards need more composure to keep ther shooting form consistent. Same height on the jumpshot, same speed on the release, same pressure on the ball.
With all the advances in biometric data recently, you wonder if eventually there will be actual studies of NBA players to determine whether they play better when physical signs of aggression ("being mad") are evident.
Second, hidden in this is the idea that a smart player can essentially neutralize defensive efforts. Payton's talking about what it feels like to guard each one, not necessarily based on their performance. For example:
Now, Jordan's career average was 28 points on 49 percent shooting, meaning he scored more but shot worse against Payton. However, we're still talking 47 percent from the field, a ridiculously high percentage for a volume scorer against an elite level of defender. Conversely, Stockton averaged 11 points on 52 percent shooting and 11 assists, and that's right around how he played against Payton. Then again, a lot of that factors in later years with Stockton, where in some years he averaged upwards of 15 points on 54 percent shooting and in some seasons, 15 assists per game (!).
But the greater point here is that Payton was able to see that his trash talking and tough-handed defense frustrated Jordan, made him work, where as Stockton was able to ignore all that and simply execute. It's this same set of principles that has made the Spurs so successful. In a lot of ways, it's like comparing Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker. You'd obviously say that Kobe Bryant is the better player, but defending Bryant may be easier, in terms of what you can control. What you can't, however, is their ability to make tough shots. It'sa pretty fascinating discussion.
Stockton is set to introduce Payton for his Hall of Fame acceptance on Sunday, along with San Antonio Spurs great George Gervin.
As for the playoffs, well, if you want to see what Payton was able to do, even in a losing effort against the GOAT:
And those are merely some of the reasons that Payton enters the Hall of Fame on Sunday.