Exploring the Art of the Steal

By John McCool

While watching NBA games we tend to focus on the tantalizing dunks, pinpoint passes, and high-arching threes glide that glide effortlessly through the hoop. Instead, for a moment, try visualizing a steal instead. Imagine the instantaneous swipe of the ball and the rush down the floor. Steals can be a game changer, shifting momentum or providing a spark of defensive inspiration for any NBA team.

Steals are too often glossed over in the box score, hidden among a player rebounds and field goal percentages. However, we should consider the importance of steals in the NBA. Here is how 538 sports columnist Benjamin Morris describes the value of the steal:

If you had to pick one statistic from the common box score to tell you as much as possible about whether a player help or hurts his team, it isn’t how many points he score. Nor how many rebounds he grabs. Nor how many assists. It’s how many steals he gets.

The steal is very much a craft that resembling an art form. It requires a combination of timing and patience to the strip the ball loose and the ability to anticipate a pass.

Compared to the art of the steal, the modern style play also at times resembles a theater performance. Outside of the paint, where big men fight for every inch in the paint, there is a fluid dynamic in the tempo and flow of guard. Just look at the ways Stephen Curry carries the ball up the court and releases three pointers with the slight flick of the wrist. Combined with his no look passes and delicate footwork he sometimes appears to be a ballet performer on Broadway.

Among the all-time great steal artists were John Stockton and Gary Payton. Their ability to pressure ball handlers and consistently generate steals was one of the key components that made them into NBA legends. Today, the torch is passed on to another small collection of players, who also have also mastered the art of the steal ranging from the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry to the Wizards’ John Wall, who are averaging 2.17 and 2.02 steals per game (STPG) in 2015-2016 respectively.

PLAYER TEAM MPG STL STPG
Kyle Lowry, PG TOR 37 126 2.17
Russell Westbrook, PG OKC 34.6 134 2.16
Chris Paul, PG LAC 33.3 116 2.11
Ricky Rubio, PG MIN 30.7 115 2.09
Stephen Curry, PG GS 33.9 119 2.09
Trevor Ariza, SF HOU 35 125 2.08
John Wall, PG WSH 36 121 2.02
Rajon Rondo, PG SAC 35.3 112 1.96
Kawhi Leonard, SF SA 32.7 103 1.84
Monta Ellis, SG IND 34.2 111 1.82

The 2015-2016 steal leaders are unsurprisingly either guards or small forwards, who are generally in better position to intercept a pass or the knock the loose. There is a moderate correlation (.36) between these leaders’ in 2015 STPG and 2014 STPG.

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Figure 1: Steals Per 48 Minutes vs. Points From Steals Per Game of players, who have topped 1.20 STP48 and played more than 40 games during 2015-2016

When Lowry creates a steal two things happen for the Raptors. First, he effectively ends the possession of the opposition and creates an opportunity for a transition breakout. More often than not, transition possessions result in better-shot quality and higher field goal percentages.[1] James Harden is among the best transition players averaging 4.49 PPG on 1.7 STPG. On the flip side, guards Tony Allen (1.59 STPG) and Otto Porter Jr. (1.67 STPG) are converting only respective 0.93 and 1.02 points in transition.

Yet, there are pros and cons to Harden’s style of play. While Harden is a prolific scorer in transition, his career .50 steal to turnover ratio (STL/TO) ranks near the bottom of the NBA since his 2009 rookie campaign. On the other hand, Allen owns a stellar 1.03 STL/TO creating 30 more steals than turnovers in stints with the Celtics and the Grizzles.[2]

We have established the value of steals and transition possessions. However, another question remains- “What factors play into the art of the steal?”

For a more in-depth look, let’s look at Russell Westbrook’s progression as a steal artist. Westbrook is widely considered as one of the most athletic players in the NBA. He is the complete package: a gifted scorer and passer with a talent for generating steals. [3]

At the moment, Westbrook is averaging 2.16 STPG falling only behind Lowry in the steals department. According to NBA.com, Westbrook averages 1.17 points per possession (PPP)[4] in transition on a league leading 371 possessions and owns a 4.4% and-one buckets.[5]

Since his arrival at UCLA, the Long Beach native has been labeled a freak athlete. Unlike his peers such as Durant or Kevin Love, who excelled in the college ranks, Westbrook was unpolished in his ball handling and shooting skills. In fact, he spent the majority of his freshman year on the bench, averaging only 9 MPG and 3.4 PPG. By his sophomore campaign, however, Westbrook improved his overall shooting, passing, and defense while displaying elite athleticism during UCLA’s run to the Final Four in 2007.

in the 2008 NBA draft, Westbrook was selected 4th overall by the Seattle Super Sonics based largely on his untapped raw athletic abilities. Here is a brief snapshot of Westbrook’s draft profile according to NBA scout Aran Smith.

Athletic and explosive combo guard… A gym rat, really works hard to improve…His anticipation for steals and his on the ball defensive ability are special.

Westbrook finished with only 1.0 and 1.3 STPG at UCLA, significantly less than his career 1.7 STPG accumulated over the course of his NBA career.

One key physical advantage to Westbrook’s defensive repertoire is his 6’8 wingspan that gives him an extended reach to pick off passes and swipe unsuspecting ball handlers. In terms of creating steals, knocking the ball loose without drawing contact with the ball handler is half the battle

So how is valuable is a steal in today’s NBA game? John Hollinger, the current Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Memphis Grizzles, created a player efficiency rating (PER) that returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance.

Morris argues that Hollinger’s PER “vastly undervalues steals” because a steal is only worth about as much as a 2-point field goal.

Because steals and baskets seem to be similarly valuable, and there are so many more baskets than steals in a game, it’s hard to see how steals can be all that important. But those steals hold additional value when we predict the impact of the players who get them.

To chart the value of a steal, Morris first created a regression using players’ box score stats to determine how much their teams’ performances would suffer when someone was out of the lineup.

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source: 538.com

Morris’ regression model values steals the highest among blocks, turnovers, assists, and rebounds. In other words, a player that averages 2.0 STPG is predicted to have the same impact as a player, who scores 16 points during a game without a steal. These additional 16 points created from steals can be considered a players’ adjusted point per game (ADJ PPP).

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Figure 2: Histogram of the ADJ PPP of the top 40 steal leaders in the NBA.

There is a direct relationship between players’ STPG and adjusted point totals from steals. For instance, Chris Paul, who averages 2.11 STPG, adjusted point total (ADJ PPP) is 19.20 PPG compared to Rudy Gay’s 1.33 STPG and 12.1 ADJ PPP.

NBA Team Steal Leaders:

Team Steals/Game
Houston 10.1
Boston 9.5
Atlanta 9.4
Indiana 9.1
Sacramento 8.7
Washington 8.7

Among team steal leaders are the Rockets, Celtics, and Hawks who feature a steady supply of prolific stealers. In Houston, small forward Trevor Ariza and James Harden lead the charge with 2.1 and 1.7 STPG respectively. In Boston Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley have averaged more than 1.5 STPG this season. With the help of Monta Ellis’ 1.8 STPG, the Pacers are averaging a robust 9.0 STPG compared to merely 6.2 in 2014-2015.

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Figure 3: Histogram of steals per game by NBA teams

So far in 2015-2016, steals and points are only moderately correlated (r=0.33) suggesting that steals are not very good predictors in point totals. Note the point in the middle of the graph: the Golden State Warriors, who are averaging a staggering 115.3 points per game. Further, there is only a .10 correlation between steals and winning percentage during this season.

While steals are a valuable statistic there are drawbacks to an “all-out steal approach”. A player that makes an unsuccessful swipe at the ball or lunge for a pass lands out of position potentially giving the opposing offense a better-shot opportunity.

So the question remains: Are steals a form of gambling resulting in a high-risk, high-reward play? Morris downplays this all or nothing view.

A player’s reward is ending his opponent’s possession and getting an even more valuable than normal possession for his team, while his risk is possibly giving up a better shot. Even if some of those shots are layups, the overall difference in expected value of a failed steal attempt from no steal attempt is going to be much smaller than the value of the successful

Even if you fall on the other side of Morris’ argument, steals are nonetheless one of the most exciting plays in basketball. Steals occur in a blink of an eye propelling a fast break chance that can lead to easy transition points that can alter the momentum and energy in the game.


 

[1] Teams in transition have an average 54.1 FG% compared to 45.1 FG% on typical possessions

[2] Allen has 996 career steals and 966 career turnovers

[3] As of February 27, Westbrook is averaging 24.3 points, 10.2 assists, and 7.5   rebounds

[4] Points Per Possession(PPP)=transition PPP-total PPP/total possessions

[5] LeBron James tops the league in transition AND-ONE% at 7.3%

 

 

 

 

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