“The league did not officially keep steals stats until the 1973-74 season – West’s final abbreviated campaign, in which he played only thirty-one games. Even in that abbreviated campaign, West registered 81 steals, a 2.6 average per game. Lakers scorekeeper John Radcliffe said that if steal stats had been kept for West’s career, he would easily be the league’s all-time leader, with little hope of anyone catching him. In his prime, there were many nights where he registered 6 or more steals, and many other nights where he had more than 10, explained Radcliffe, who closely observed nearly every home game that West ever played.”

– Via Jerry West: the Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon by Roland Lazenby ( follow him on Twitter @lazenby)

In one of the more bizarre and oafish moves in sports history, the NBA did not keep track of steals and blocks until the 1973-74 season.  It’s understandable that they weren’t kept off the bat in the 1940s, but when Bill Russell started swatting shots with impunity  in 1957, you think some curious mind in the league office wanted to track that.

Or maybe when Jerry West started swiping the ball from opponents with his freakishly long arms in 1961, some person would consider keeping official tally of his thefts.

Alas, we have nothing of Russell’s blocks and just a tiny smidgen of West’s steals total. At the start of that season West was 35-years old and had played 1054 games and 41,911 minutes total in the regular- and post-season. And he was fighting a groin pull that would limit him to just 31 games his final season.

And still he managed to average 2.6 steals a game. A busted up, over the hill West had a steals average that would have been 2nd  in the league that year if he played enough games to qualify.

So taking that 2.6 average, I decided to estimate just how many steals West may have acquired through his career. This is purely an exercise of “what-if” in the highest order, but dammit, I want to have an idea of how many steals Mr. Clutch had!

This is how I came up with the projection:

  • I selected the NBA/ABA players in the top 20 all-time in total steals
  • Next, I created a table of their steals per game and obtained the trajectory/percentage for how their SPG rose and fell when the players were between 22 and 35 years old, since that was the chronological age Jerry West played in the NBA.
  • I took these percentages and applied them to West starting retroactively with that 2.6 SPG.

Average Steals by Age and Percentage Change for the Top 20

Age SPG % of the following season
22 1.861 85.52%
23 2.175 95.6%
24 2.275 94.01%
25 2.420 103.64%
26 2.335 106.86%
27 2.185 100.93%
28 2.165 99.08%
29 2.185 116.84%
30 1.878 108.05%
31 1.742 103.57%
32 1.682 102.43%
33 1.638 114.86%
 34 1.426 92.86%
 35 1.536

 

So to get West’s numbers, I took his SPG at 35-years old (2.6) and multiplied it by the average percentage change I found from the other stealers (92.86%) to get his 34-year old average. And then took that number (2.41) multiplied it by the next percentage (114.86%) and so on…

Jerry West’s Estimated SPG and Season Totals

Age  SPG  Total
22 3.16 250
23 3.70 278
24 3.87 213
25 4.12 297
26 3.98 295
27 3.72 294
28 3.69 244
29 3.72 190
30 3.18 194
31 2.94 218
32 2.84 196
33 2.77 213
34 2.41 166
35 2.60 81

 CAREER SPG average: 3.36
CAREER Steals total: 3129

So basically, this is the time for your jaw to drop if this projection is the least bit accurate.

The NBA/ABA record for SPG in a single season is Don Buse in 1975-76 when he took 4.12 SPG for the ABA’s Indiana Pacers. West equals that exactly in 1963-64. For what it’s worth, both would be age 25.

Oh but it gets more insane from here.

Only 11 times has a player averaged over 3.00 SPG for an entire NBA/ABA season. West appears likely to have done that at least 9 times all by himself. In fact, his projected career average is 3.36 which would be higher than all but 4 single seasons.

Again, West’s career average is higher than all but  four individual seasons.

Now taking that 3.36 SPG and multiplying it by West’s 932 games played and you see he ends up with 3129 steals. That is a mere 136 behind John Stockton’s all-time record. Stockton’s career SPG is 2.17 and he played in 572 more career games than West.

To make up that steals difference, West would have had to play just 40 more games. But considering West’s constant battles with pulled muscles, sprained ankles and the countless broken noses, we’re lucky he showed up for the 932 he did play.

Again, I stress these are just fun projections trying to get a glimmer of West’s steals and by no means should be considered COLD HARD FACTS. But there is more than a grain of truth in what they speak to: West was a frightful, aggressive defender who could pick-pocket his man using those lanky arms and strong hands of his.

Furthermore, this should give everyone pause to consider what other spectacular records and feats were accomplished by West, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others at a time when stats were so rudimentary. Considering his blocking ability, Wilt surely has more than the 78 recorded triple-doubles he got just with points, rebounds and assists. He and Bill Russell also probably got a couple quadruple-doubles if blocks had been counted.

Hell, Nate Thurmond got a quadruple-double as 33-year old in 1974-75 when he was old and busted up like Jerry West. Larry Steele was one assist away and Rick Barry one steal away from pulling off quadruple-doubles that season too. But they all would have gone unrecorded just a couple years earlier since blocks and steals weren’t kept.

It’s nice to know that some of the best records are the ones that aren’t even recorded.