An NBA player amassing more steals than personal fouls is a thing that’s periodically referenced, generally in underscoring its rarity and that — with the occasional exception, such as the defensively ghastly Monta Ellis in 2012-13 — it’s often the result of some impressive defensive smarts, instincts, anticipation, quickness, and athleticism.
In recent seasons, Jimmy Butler has always had great steal-to-foul ratios, with a ratio north of 1:1 in six of the past seven years. It’s probably been most-mentioned with regards to Kawhi Leonard, who for the last few years has been playing with more career steals than fouls.
And while Kawhi’s certainly as good a perimeter defender that has ever walked this Earth, right there alongside names like Pippen and Payton (which, laugh at him and look gobsmacked all you want, Mike, but the facts happen to render the laughter as silly), there was one player that stood over all others in this department: former All-Star point guard Mookie Blaylock.
Blaylock was drafted by the New Jersey Nets back in 1989 following two seasons at the University of Oklahoma in which he led the nation in steals both years. He’s also the only Division 1 men’s college basketball player to ever record 13 steals in a game. Which he did twice. Blaylock was always a defensive ace, though after a few uneventful seasons in Jersey, the Nets traded him to the Hawks, where he started stacking together more eventful seasons. His first year in Atlanta, Blaylock was one of just two NBA players to rack up at least 200 steals.
He accomplished that feat each of the ensuing four years, too. And he did so while averaging barely 150 fouls per season.
Generally speaking, the average NBA player commits nearly three fouls for every steal they get. For bigs it’s usually more, for perimeter players usually fewer. But even for guards, more steals than fouls is an uncommon occurrence. That’s true of individual seasons, where no more than a few players do so annually, but it’s especially true across an entire career, which we’ll get to in a bit.
Let’s start with the former. If we take a look at every instance in which an NBA player had at least 100 steals in a single season since 1973-74 (when they began to be officially tracked), each of Blaylock’s 10 such seasons came with impressive foul avoidance:
Eight of those 10 green dots amounted to more steals than fouls, as you can see here:
But what’s especially impressive is that five of those eight stem from the five seasons in which Blaylock had reached 200 steals. Not only that, he didn’t just have more steals than fouls in those seasons — he had over 1.2 times as many steals as fouls in each of the five. Since the release of The Godfather, every other NBA player has combined for six such seasons:
As you’d imagine, with all those exceptional seasons in this department, Blaylock crushes the field on a career basis. There have been 1,572 NBA players with at least 100 career steals since 1973-74. Here they all are, plotted by fouls:
Allen Iverson’s there lurking just to Blaylock’s northwest. But even he had nearly 100 fewer steals and nearly 100 more fouls. That means Blaylock’s career steal-per-foul ratio was still about 10% higher than Iverson’s. Here are those ratios for Blaylock, Iverson, and the other 1,570 players:
Remember how it’s exceedingly rare for anyone else to have even had a decently voluminous season with over 1.2 times as many steals as fouls? Well, Blaylock maintained that rate across his entire 13-year career.
You’ll also notice he’s up near 2,100 career steals when only four other players with as many as 1,500 career steals had even one steal per foul. And by the way, one of those four was Gus Williams, who had literally one more steal (1,638) than foul (1,637) in his career:
It would appear a longshot at best that Blaylock’s career ratio of 1.23 to 1 will ever be approached among high-volume players. In the last few decades, Iverson and Butler are the only players who’ve (barely) eclipsed even 1.1 to 1 — and while Butler’s still active, it’d take a miracle for him to catch up to Blaylock.
Dikembe Mutombo got the most defensive recognition on those extremely smothering late-’90s Hawks squads. He got to hoist-in-the-greatest-warm-ups-ever a couple defensive player of the year trophies. But Blaylock was perhaps just as vital to all their success at that end of the floor.