Holding record-breaking scoring stats over a player’s career is an extraordinary achievement. Only the best players of all time can achieve records that have truly stood the test of time. We have compiled a list of the best ball hounds in NBA history, where players with a natural ability to poke the ball away from ball-handlers and play passing lanes stood the test of time in terms of the all-time steals rankings. However, only the two leading players per position are considered to get an indication of the best players with spectacular ball-stealing talents.
By gathering stats of the greatest players in NBA history as it pertains to stealing the ball, we have collected the best players ever based on their total steals in the regular season while also taking into account that they will be distinguished by their positions. It will be amazing to see some non-guards occupy the top spots in the rankings because the majority of them were indeed point guards and shooting guards who were quicker, more agile, and simply better at coming up with steals. Without further ado, here are the greatest defenders in NBA history in terms of total steals in the regular season for players in each of the five positions.
Point Guard - John Stockton
Leader: John Stockton - 3,265 Steals (1,504 Games Played)
2nd Place: Jason Kidd - 2,684 Steals (1,391 Games Played)
No player will likely ever pass John Stockton in all-time steals rankings. There were a couple of reasons why Stockton managed to accumulate over 1,500 Steals over 19 seasons. The major reason was that Stockton was adept at playing dirty, getting physical, and getting underneath his opponent’s skins. Of course, John Stockton had an extremely high basketball IQ that he used to anticipate when the ball was going his way before taking advantage of that to run the fast break with Karl Malone trailing him.
Secondly, Stockton played an incredible 19 seasons and occupied the point guard position with elite efficiency. The point guard did not rely on explosiveness over his career, as his smarts allowed him to become an all-time great Utah Jazz player. The Jazz legend could control the pace of the game by coming up with steals and hounding opposing ball-handlers when he wasn’t assisting the ball to Karl Malone. Lastly, Stockton knew his limitations and made the most out of his career by being one of the most dominant point guards of all time.
Jason Kidd is one of the very few point guards with legitimate lockdown defensive ability when it came to defending opposing point guards and shooting guards. An incredible leader in terms of playmaking, Kidd was also able to poke the ball away from ball-handlers and play passing lanes. Weighing 205 lbs with a powerful build and elite quickness, Kidd was able to stand his ground against offensive players and also grab steals at a high level. He finished his career with an average of 1.9 SPG, with his best seasons coming in 1997 (2.3 SPG) and 1999 (2.3 SPG) as a member of the Phoenix Suns.
Ranking second all-time in assists behind John Stockton as well, the point guard clearly had a knack for stealing the ball from the opposition as he had 9 seasons of averaging at least 2 SPG. That gave him the number of steals to rank 2nd all-time in steals by a point guard, even ahead of other point guards. Kidd ranks 2nd all-time in steals all-time behind John Stockton, regardless of position. It will be difficult, although possible, for Chris Paul, ranking 4th all-time with 2,453 steals, to overcome what Kidd did in that regard.
Shooting Guard - Michael Jordan
Leader: Michael Jordan - 2,514 Steals (1,072 Games Played)
2nd Place: Clyde Drexler - 2,207 Steals (1,086 Games Played)
Michael Jordan might be the most dominant defensive shooting guard of all time, considering what he did at that position for the majority of his career. Even when playing alongside other elite defenders in Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, Jordan was often tasked with defending the opposing team’s best guard and primary ball-handler. No doubt, MJ has to rank among the 10 best-ever defenders because his ability to break opponents with his large hands and athleticism created unlimited fast-break opportunities for his teammates.
Michael ranks 3rd all-time in steals, with his teammate Scottie Pippen ranking 7th all time. Jordan and Pippen were a spectacular defensive duo, and they defended ball-handlers the entire length of the floor at times. Jordan averaged a career 2.3 SPG, a very high figure, and he also led the NBA in steals 3 separate times. No doubt, in terms of coming up with steals, there might never be another shooting guard on Jordan's level. We are already used to saying that when it comes to Jordan’s scoring and clutch ability as well.
It might seem shocking that Clyde Drexler is second among shooting guards for the most steals in the regular season by a shooting guard. Sure, Drexler is regarded as one of the most iconic offensive players in NBA history because he could create a very solid shot at any time whether it was at the rim or came via a jump shot. But the superstar shooting guard averaged a very strong 2.0 SPG over his career, a number which is far more impressive considering Drexler was not the main man for defending the opposing player’s best player.
Drexler was never the primary defensive guard for his team, but he had the basketball IQ to make the right plays whenever he saw an avenue to come up with steals. His best season, in terms of stealing the ball, came in 1989 with the Portland Trail Blazers at age 26 when he averaged 2.7 SPG. Clyde had 7 seasons out of his 15 played when he averaged under 2 SPG and averaged under 1.8 SPG only 2 times in his career. Clyde was not a pushover on defense, clearly, and was extremely adept at coming up with steals. In terms of all-time rankings regardless of position, Drexler ranks 8th all-time in total steals.
Small Forward - Scottie Pippen
Leader: Scottie Pippen - 2,307 Steals (1,178 Games Played)
2nd Place: LeBron James - 2,136 Steals (1,366 Games Played)
Even if he is known to be an all-time great defender, Scottie Pippen was surprisingly impactful as a player who steals the ball. Armed with some of the greatest intangibles and length, Scottie could read the offense with ease because he was defensively inclined and had a very high basketball IQ. But he was also a great player at coming up with steals, ranking 1st all-time among small forwards in racking up steals. Over his 17-year career, Pippen averaged a very impressive 2.0 SPG.
Sure, playing alongside Michael Jordan for the majority of his career certainly helped his steals totals because their duo was incredibly scary to come up against. Pippen was considered the primary defender for the Chicago Bulls dynasty because he could stop players and allow Michael the space to operate in his sweet spots on the other end. Standing 6’8” and weighing 210 lbs, Pippen also had the size and length to attack ball-handlers and also create fast-break opportunities. But amazingly, as great as Pippen was as a defender, and he was better than LeBron in that sense, he is almost 200 steals ahead of the second place LeBron James, which is a testament to the small forward’s defensive ability.
One of the game’s best players and a star who is easily a top-10 player of all time, LeBron James has been a sensational player over his career. A versatile all-around player with an innate ability to read the opposing team and come up with steals, James has proven to be unstoppable when he plays passing lanes, especially during his prime. Of course, he is considered the greatest player in terms of longevity by competing as the best player on his team his entire career. The King can read any pass at any time, and reads the offense better than most players even if he only made 6 All-Defensive Teams.
Over his career, which has spanned over 1,300 games, James is averaging 1.6 SPG, which eventually led him to accumulate over 2,000 steals in his career. At 6’9” and 250 lbs, James obviously has the size to put pressure on opposing players and force them to lose the ball at times. LeBron had the most success in his career when he was surrounded by other defenders because The King would always find a way to read the opposing offense and lead the break. On the fast break, James is even better because he can obviously go coast-to-coast to finish himself or hit his shooters for easy looks. At the small forward position, we have never seen a passer as gifted in terms of longevity as LeBron James and he is behind Scottie Pippen in all-time steals.
Power Forward - Karl Malone
Leader: Karl Malone - 2,085 Steals (1,476 Games Played)
2nd Place: Kevin Garnett - 1,859 Steals (1,462 Games Played)
Karl Malone is one of the greatest offensive players in NBA history, using his size and elite basketball IQ to average at least 20 PPG year after year heading into his late 30s. Amazingly, The Mailman still managed to accumulate steals at a very high level considering he was a score-first player and not known to be a defensive phenom. Over his 19-year career, Malone averaged at least 1.8 SPG 8 times over his career. The Utah Jazz legend had his best season in 2002 when he posted 1.9 SPG for the Jazz competing in the Western Conference.
Even as Malone aged, he was able to accumulate steals for his side. He had a powerful lower body which allowed him to bang down low and poke the ball away. But the main reason Malone managed to lead all power forwards in steals was that he played at a very high level for 19 years. The Mailman has to go down in history as one of the best all-around bigs even if he ranks 3rd all-time in total points scored and is considered a score-first player.
Amazingly, Kevin “The Big Ticket” Garnett is second on the list of all the great players when it came to coming up with steals in NBA history as a power forward. The superstar power forward was one of the most unstoppable players, even when taking into account his skill set and basketball IQ. In 1,462 total games played, The Big Ticket accumulated over 1,800 steals which are ahead of a ton of all-time great players from his position, including defensive monster Tim Duncan. Garnett also ranks 18th all-time in total steals and finished with a solid career average of 1.3 SPG. His best seasons came in 1998 and 1999 when he posted 1.7 SPG for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Garnett was extremely dominant at the power forward spot for the Minnesota Timberwolves in his prime, dominating multiple areas of the floor, including playmaking, scoring, rebounding, and playing defense. The Big Ticket had the athleticism at 6’11” which meant he had the ability to hang with opposing bigs and poke the ball away from them. KG was also very solid at playing passing lanes to kick start the fast break, where the big man was also capable of handing the ball and making things happen.
Center - Hakeem Olajuwon
Leader: Hakeem Olajuwon - 2,162 Steals (1,238 Games Played)
2nd Place: David Robinson - 1,388 Steals (987 Games Played)
In first place is 2-time NBA champion, Hakeem Olajuwon. The all-time leading scorer in Houston Rockets history was a fantastic offensive player who dominated the game thanks to the unstoppable “Dream Shake” maneuver. But “The Dream” was also a very dominant defensive player, dominating the game with his defensive ability as well. Standing 7’2”, the superstar center had the size to read the floor as one of the largest players on the court night after night. Of course, he was a terrifying shot-blocker and paint protector.
Hakeem Olajuwon won 2 Defensive Player of the Year awards and also led the league in blocks 3 times. Olajuwon also had his best season in 1989 when he averaged 2.6 SPG and had 5 seasons posting at least 2.0 SPG for the Houston Rockets. Olajuwon was great defending the rim, intercepting passes, and playing passing lanes. He could also handle opposing big men defensively as well, poking the ball from them and forcing them to lose the ball. Hakeem finished his career with an average of 1.7 SPG.
David Robinson is one of the most dominant physical specimens of all time, once winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. Robinson was an incredible defender, using his size at 7’1” and 235 lbs to punish opposing players by banging them and coming up with loose balls. After all, Robinson averaged at least 1.7 SPG in a single season 4 times. The dominant center averaged a career-high in 1992 when he posted a very solid 2.3 SPG as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. No doubt, The Admiral had a very high defensive basketball IQ.
But Robinson also benefited by being one of the biggest and most athletic players of his time, because he would use his advantages to deter opponents from scoring easily at the basket. He could leap and use his length to have a ridiculous advantage, and his steals numbers are a testament to that. Ranking 61st all-time in steals accumulated by any player, Robinson also ranks 2nd all-time in steals by a center. Obviously, these are numbers that will place Robinson among the top 30 players that ever played the game when taking into account his scoring, rebounding, and leadership.