The offense might be at an all-time high, but you can still use defense to translate points on the board. While the defense might take a backseat to offense these days, we can’t forget that some players take this metric very seriously. Steals turn into points in transition, so we normally see leaders in assists around the top of the steals category as well.
Looking back at the last 40 years, here are the steals champions from 1981 to 2021. Some names will appear more than once. Some players saw this as the highlight of their careers. Here are the last 40 steals champions in the NBA.
1981-82 - Magic Johnson - 2.7 SPG (Los Angeles Lakers)
In Johnson’s third season in the league, he ran it back as the king of steals. It was Johnson’s second and final steals title. In his first five seasons in the league, Johnson had at least two steals per game. After that, he was more of an offensive guru in a stretch that featured nine straight seasons averaging double-digit assists totals.
1982-83 - Michael Ray Richardson - 2.8 SPG (New Jersey Nets)
Richardson won a steals title in 1980, which barely misses the cut for our 40-year throwback. He was named an All-Defensive First Team selection in both 1980 and 1981. Richardson claimed the title in a year where he was traded. Richardson was traded to the Golden State Warriors with a fifth-round draft choice in exchange for Bernard King before the season started. Then, he was traded to the Nets in exchange for Sleepy Floyd and Mickey Johnson.
1983-84 - Rickey Green - 2.7 SPG (Utah Jazz)
This was the best season of Green’s career where he made his only All-Star appearance. He was strong on offense with 13.2 points and a career-high 9.2 assists. His 215 total steals were a league-high, but this was a redemption season. Green led the league in total steals the year before (220), but did not win the steals title. The Jazz won the Midwest Division title and earned their first-ever appearance in the playoffs this year too.
1984-85 - Michael Ray Richardson - 3.0 SPG (New Jersey Nets)
Richardson was named an All-Star in 1985 in a season that saw him start all 82 games. His 20.1 points per game were career-high as well. This was the tail-end of his NBA career. Richardson did not play in the NBA after 1986. In 556 career games, he averaged 14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 2.6 steals.
1985-86 - Alvin Robertson - 3.7 SPG (San Antonio Spurs)
This was an interesting year for Alvin Roberston. With a steals title in his pocket, Robertson won the Defensive Player of the Year Award but did not make the All-Defensive First Team, landing on the Second Team instead. Robertson was also named the Most Improved Player of the Year. His 3.7 steals per game remains an NBA record for a single season steals total. Robertson is one of only four NBA players to record a quadruple-double (double digits in four statistical categories in a single game). On February 19, 1986, Roberston recorded 20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 steals against the Suns and became the only non-center to record this feat.
1986-87 - Alvin Robertson - 3.2 SPG (San Antonio Spurs)
Robertson ran it back the following year where he was named to the All-Defensive First Team. The play of the Spurs didn’t follow through as the team missed the playoffs. As a whole, Robertson led the Spurs in steals four of five seasons, where three times he averaged at least 3.0 steals or more. Dating back to his previous season, Robertson recorded a steal in a then-NBA record of 105 consecutive games. This record was eventually broken by Chris Paul.
1987-88 - Michael Jordan - 3.2 SPG (Chicago Bulls)
Jordan wasn’t just a masterful defender, but he led the league in scoring with 35.0 points per game and won his first league MVP. He was also named the Defensive Player of the Year. Along with his steals title, Jordan averaged 1.6 blocks as a guard. The Bulls eventually lost to the Bad Boys Pistons in the playoffs, but Jordan was inching towards establishing history with this franchise.
1988-89 - John Stockton - 3.2 SPG (Utah Jazz)
Stockton had a special season as a starting guard for the Jazz. Stockton made his first All-Star Game, led the league in assists, and steals. It was the first of nine consecutive appearances in the All-Star Game. Stockton and his running mate Karl Malone helped the Jazz go from mediocre to superteam during the 1990s.
1989-90 - Michael Jordan - 2.8 SPG (Chicago Bulls)
The Bulls were on the rise this season with a young improving group of players in Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant under the guidance of new head coach Phil Jackson. Jordan accomplished quite a few feats this year, including a 69-point effort in a win over Cleveland. To go with his 33.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.3 assists, Jordan led the league in steals before falling to the Pistons in the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
1990-91 - Alvin Robertson - 3.0 SPG (San Antonio Spurs)
Robertson was acquired by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1989 where he played until 1993. He would remain a premier defender with the Bucks, leading the team in steal percentage in each of his first three full seasons. Robertson was named to the All-Star team this year and he would lead the league in steals a third and final time.
1991-92 - John Stockton - 3.2 SPG (Utah Jazz)
The Jazz reached the Western Conference FInals this year for the first time but was defeated by the Portland Trail Blazers in six games. It was a special year altogether for the Jazz franchise as the All-Star Game was held in Salt Lake City. Stockton and Malone were named the co-MVPs.
1992-93 - Michael Jordan - 2.8 SPG (Chicago Bulls)
Jordan fell short in the Defensive Player of the Year voting as he finished second. He also saw a streak of consecutive MVPs broken by his friend Charles Barkley. Consequently, nobody remembered any of that once the Bulls captured their third straight NBA championship. Jordan won his third steals title, but what might be even more impressive was his Finals-record 41.0 points per game in the six-game NBA Finals against the Suns.
1993-94 - Nate McMillan - 3.0 SPG (Seattle SuperSonics)
The future head coach was a pretty good basketball player too. He is the last player to average at least 3.0 steals per game, a record that has nearly hit 30 years in time. McMillan was known for his balanced play, which also led to four triple-doubles. He was named to the All-Defensive Second Team for leading the league in steals. With Gary Payton by his side, the SuperSonics were one of the top defensive teams in the league.
1994-95 - Scottie Pippen - 2.9 SPG (Chicago Bulls)
Jordan retired from the league in 1993 after the death of his father. He missed the entire 1994 season and returned midway through the 1994-1995 season. At this time, Pippen was the best player on the team as Jordan tried to get his conditioning back. Pippen was nearly dealt during the 1994 offseason, but he would remain a Bull and lead the league in steals. Pippen led the Bulls in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks this season, joining Dave Cowens in 1977-1978 as the only players in NBA history to accomplish the feat at the time.
1995-96 - Gary Payton - 2.9 SPG (Seattle SuperSonics)
Payton was selected to the All-Defensive First Team a record nine consecutive seasons from 1994 to 2002 and won the Defensive Player of the Year in 1996. He was the first guard to win the award in eight seasons. In 1996, Payton and the SuperSonics reached the NBA Finals after winning a franchise record of 64 games but lost to Jordan’s Bulls. It was the series that critics analyzed George Karl’s decision to not place Payton on Jordan as a defensive assignment earlier in the series.
1996-97 - Mookie Blaylock - 2.7 SPG (Atlanta Hawks)
When Blaylock joined the Hawks, he flourished under head coach Leny Wilkens. He spent seven years with the Hawks, leading the team in career three-point field goals and career stalls. In this season, he led the NBA in three-point attempts and finished second in three-pointers made. Despite never winning a Defensive Player of the Year Award, Blaylock finished his Hawks tenure as one of the best defenders in team history.
1997-98 - Mookie Blaylock - 2.6 SPG (Atlanta Hawks)
Blaylock is one of five players to lead the league in steals in consecutive seasons. That includes Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Allen Iverson, and Chris Paul. It was also a consecutive year that he made the All-Defensive Second Team, which was a run of four consecutive seasons.
1998-99 - Kendall Gill - 2.7 SPG (New Jersey Nets)
From 1996 to 2001, Gill was a proud member of the Nets, where he would help the team make the playoffs in 1998. The following year, Gill would see a dramatic increase in his defensive production, which included an 11-steal performance against the Heat, tying a single-game record set by Larry Kenon in 1976-1977. In the game, he also recorded 15 points and 10 rebounds for a rare points-rebounds-steals triple-double.
1999-00 - Eddie Jones - 2.7 SPG (Charlotte Hornets)
It was the third and final time that Jones would make the All-Defensive Second Team, but this would be the one year he would make the All-NBA Third Team. Jones averaged 20.1 points, led the league in total steals (192), 4.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. He was the top-voted guard for the All-Star game and the Hornets made the playoffs before losing in the first round to the 76ers.
2000-01 - Allen Iverson - 2.5 SPG (Philadelphia 76ers)
Iverson did it all this season, earning the MVP, winning All-Star Game MVP, making the All-NBA First Team, leading the league in scoring, and finishing with the most steals. The 76ers made the NBA Finals before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite losing out on the title, it remains the last time the 76ers made the Finals and a revered memory among fans.
2001-02 - Allen Iverson - 2.8 SPG (Philadelphia 76ers)
The 76ers were plagued by injuries and could only muster a 43-39 record to barely get into the playoffs. Iverson played only 60 games but averaged 31.4 points to earn his second consecutive scoring title. The season was also the same year that head coach Larry Brown criticized Iverson fr missing team practices, which resulted in Iverson’s famous practice rant where he said “practice” 24 times.
2002-03 - Allen Iverson - 2.7 SPG (Philadelphia 76ers)
The team started poorly after the team traded defensive standout Dikembe Mutombo to the Nets and saw a decrease in production from Aaron McKie and Eric Snow. Iverson would have a great individual season, but the team stumbled out of the playoffs in the second round. Brown left the team and many forgot that Iverson led the league in steals for a third consecutive season.
2003-04 - Baron Davis - 2.4 SPG (Golden State Warriors)
Davis was a foundational member of the New Orleans Hornets that made the playoffs four of the five years he played. Despite leading the league in steals, the Hornets traded Davis to Golden State for Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis. The trade came from tension with the team’s coaching staff and several nagging injuries.
2004-05 - Larry Hughes - 2.9 SPG (Washington Wizards)
Easily the highlight of Hughes’ career came during the 2004-2005 season when he led the league in steals and made the All-Defensive First Team. This strong showing led to the Cavaliers signing Hughes to a five-year, $70 million contract to help assist a young superstar by the name of LeBron James. This was the only time that Hughes averaged over 2.0 steals in a season in his career.
2005-06 - Gerald Wallace - 2.5 SPG (Charlotte Bobcats)
Wallace was a bright spot for a pretty non-competitive team. Wallace had a productive offseason season where he ranked in the top-10 in the league in field goal percentage and blocks while leading the league in steals. Since the league started counting blocks as a statistic in 1973, only two players in league history had averaged over 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals in a single season. Wallace joined Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson when he averaged 2.5 steals and 2.2 blocks this season.
2006-07 - Baron Davis - 2.1 SPG (Golden State Warriors)
Before the Warriors became the dynasty they became, Davis was a solid player for the Warriors. While his steals count was impressive, it was more impressive when the No. 8 seed Warriors defeated the No. 1 seed Mavericks, who won 67 games in the regular season. The 25-win differential between the two teams was the largest upset in NBA history. In the playoffs, Davis upped his total to 2.9 steals, as well as 25.3 points and 6.5 assists.
2007-08 - Chris Paul - 2.7 SPG (New Orleans Hornets)
Chris Paul the master of all swiping and it all started in New Orleans. Paul made his first All-NBA First Team and his first All-Defensive Team. Paul led the league in assists and steals, something he would accomplish three times in his career. At the end of the year, he finished second in the MVP voting.
2008-09 - Chris Paul - 2.8 SPG (New Orleans Hornets)
During the season, Paul set an NBA record for consecutive games with a steal at 106. There were multiple times that Paul came close to recording a quadruple-double. His best effort came in January with a line of 27 points, 10 rebounds,15 assists, and seven steals against the 76ers. Despite his accomplishments, the Hornets missed the playoffs.
2009-10 - Rajon Rondo - 2.3 SPG (Boston Celtics)
Once upon a time, Rajon Rondo was a true defensive specialist. Rondo was an All-Defensive selection each year from 2009 to 2012, making the First Team in 2010 and 2011. Rondo made the All-Star and eventually tired Rick Fox’s record for most steals in a single season (167). He also broke Bob Cousy’s record for most assists in a season. The Celtics would make the NBA Finals before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers.
2010-11 - Chris Paul - 2.4 SPG (New Orleans Hornets)
Paul gave everything he had in the playoffs as the Hornets just couldn’t get over the hump against the Lakers. That included a 33-point, 14-assist, and four-steal performance in Game 1, as well as a 27-point, 13-rebound, 15-assist performance in Game 5. Nevertheless, the Lakers would be victorious and the team would look to trade him in the offseason.
2011-12 - Chris Paul - 2.5 SPG (Los Angeles Clippers)
Paul was eventually traded to the Lakers before the NBA nullified the deal. Paul was then traded to the Clippers and it paired Paul with two solid bugs in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The evolution turned into “Lob City.” Along with his playmaking, he was solid on the defensive end too. His efforts landed him on the All-NBA First Team list, which was the first time a Clipper was named since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s.
2012-13 - Chris Paul - 2.4 SPG (Los Angeles Clippers)
Paul earned his first All-Star Game MVP this season, helping the Clippers win a franchise-record 56 games. The Clippers secured the No. 4 seed but were defeated by the Grizzlies in the first round. Vinny Del Negro’s contract was not renewed with speculation that Pual was the main force that drove him out. With all the outside distractions, it was easy to forget that Paul led the league in steals for the third year in a row.
2013-14 - Chris Paul - 2.5 SPG (Los Angeles Clippers)
Before the year began, the Clippers re-signed Paull to a five-year, $107 million contract, and they were rewarded with a season that saw him average 19.1 points, 10.7 assists, and 2.5 steals. The season was seen as a disappointment given that Paul’s poor playoffs performance saw the Clippers eliminated by the Thunder in the first round in six games.
2014-15 - Kawhi Leonard - 2.3 SPG (San Antonio Spurs)
The league saw a star born the year before. Leonard was coming off a Finals MVP with the Spurs over the Heat. His defense was praised during the series and it carried over the following year. Leonard won the first of two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards. Leonard made his first of three consecutive All-Defensive First Teams as well.
2015-16 - Stephen Curry - 2.1 SPG (Golden State Warriors)
When you talk about accomplishing it all, Curry nearly did that in 2016. He was named the first unanimous MVP in league history. Curry made the All-NBA First Team, led the league in scoring, made the 50-40-90 club, and helped the Warriors win an NBA record 73 games in the regular season. It was a perfect season, except that the team blew a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals to fall short of their second straight championship.
2016-17 - Draymond Green - 2.0 SPG (Golden State Warriors)
Green is one of the most ultimate glue guys in the history of the game. A three-time champion, he is a foundational member of the Warriors dynasty. From 2015 to 2017, Green was a member of the All-Defensive First Team but would win his only Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in steals, among other things. Green was a power forward asked to play center. We don’t normally see “centers” lead the league in steals, but Green found a way.
2017-18 - Victor Oladipo - 2.4 SPG (Indiana Pacers)
The first of two All-Star appearances, Oladipo made the All-NBA Third Team and won the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. Oladipo, along with Domantas Sabonis, was traded to the Pacers for Paul George. In his second season, Oladipo recorded the sixth-longest streak with at least one steal in a game, tying Chris Paul and Gary Payton. Oladipo averaged 23.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists as well, setting career-highs in all stat categories.
2018-19 - Paul George - 2.2 SPG (Oklahoma City Thunder)
George had an amazing season with the Thunder that cost the Clippers their entire future in draft picks to snag him in a trade. George finished the year third in the MVP voting in a year that saw him average 28.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and a league-leading 2.2 steals. George made the All-Defensive First Team for the first time since 2014, as well as his first All-NBA First Team nod.
2019-20 - Ben Simmons - 2.1 SPG (Philadelphia 76ers)
Simmons was named to the All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive First Team. The 6-foot-11 guard is a unicorn among point guards. With his length, he can defend at a high-efficiency rate, which led to him leading the league in steals. While his offense has taken a back seat to his defense, Simmons remains an elite guard that gets a lot of negative energy because he does not shoot three-point shots at a high rate.
2020-21 - Jimmy Butler - 2.1 SPG (Miami Heat)
Butler established history in the 2020 NBA Finals when he had multiple 30-point triple-doubles, joining the likes of LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, and Draymond Green. He followed that up with a season that saw him become the first Heat player in franchise history with three consecutive triple-doubles. He was doing all of that, while defending at a high rate, leading the league in steals for the first time in his career. In the offseason, Butler resigned with the team to a four-year, $184 million contract.