Showdown: John Stockton vs. Isiah Thomas

I just finished re-reading Jack McCallum’s entertaining book Dream Team, the story of how the 1992 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball team was assembled and then proceeded to destroy its competition in Barcelona.

Those of you who were alive at the time will no doubt remember the biggest controversy when the team was announced: John Stockton was chosen over Isiah Thomas. I don’t want to rehash that debate here — McCallum has lots of inside information about what transpired in his book — but I would like to take a look back at these two players, pit them head-to-head to see who comes out on top in a comparison of their careers.

I. Awards and Honors

Let’s take a look at the qualitative information first:

  • Both players are in the Hall of Fame.
  • Stockton was an 11-time All-NBA selection (two first team, six second team, and three third team) while Thomas received five All-NBA nods (three first team and two second team).
  • Stockton was selected to five All-Defensive teams, all of them second team nods. Thomas was never named to the All-Defensive team.
  • Stockton received MVP votes in 12 different seasons, Thomas in 10. Each player received just a single first place vote, Stockton in 1994-95 and Thomas in 1983-84.
  • Thomas was named to 12 All-Star teams, Stockton 10.
  • Thomas was named All-Star MVP two times, Stockton once (co-MVP with Karl Malone).
  • Thomas played in three NBA Finals, won two titles, and was MVP of the 1990 Finals. Stockton appeared in two NBA Finals, losing both times to the Chicago Bulls.

In my opinion the qualitative evidence comes out on the side of Stockton, but it’s close. Let’s dig a little deeper and see what stories the numbers have to tell us.

II. Offense

There are many things a player can do on offense to help his team, but the five most important skills are probably the following:

  1. Make shots from the field.
  2. Get to — and make shots from — the free throw line.
  3. Minimize turnovers.
  4. Create shots for others.
  5. Extend possessions with offensive rebounds.

Let’s compare and contrast Stockton and Thomas in these categories.

Make shots from the field

Stockton was one of the most efficient shooters in league history: his career effective field goal percentage of .546 is good for 25th all time among players with at least 2,000 field goals made.

Thomas was nowhere near as efficient as Stockton, as his .465 effective field goal percentage places him 522nd on the all-time list.

Some will argue that Thomas shot at a much higher volume than Stockton did, making a direct comparison of their effective fields goal percentages a bit unfair.

The first part of that is true: Thomas did take a lot more shots from the field. Over his career, he averaged almost 60 percent more field goal attempts per 36 minutes than Stockton (16.1 for Thomas, 10.3 for Stockton).

And that led to Thomas scoring more points from the field, as he averaged 15.0 points per 36 minutes from field goals while Stockton’s corresponding average was 11.2 points.

But think about it this way: In order to score 3.8 more points per 36 minutes, Thomas had to take 5.8 more shots per 36 minutes. That translates to an effective field goal percentage of .328.

I have no way of definitively proving this, but I find it almost impossible to believe that Stockton’s effective field goal percentage would have even dropped below .500 had he been forced to shoot as much as Thomas.

In fact, in the 70 regular season games in which Stockton attempted 16 or more field goals, his effective goal percentage was .526. That’s a bit lower than his career mark, but still well above Thomas’ career effective field goal percentage of .465.

Verdict: Big edge, Stockton.

Get to — and make shots from — the free throw line

As noted above, Thomas took more shots from the field, so as one might expect he took more shots from the line: 5.4 attempts per 36 minutes as opposed to 4.4 for Stockton.

But Stockton was more efficient from the free throw line — a free throw percentage of .826 compared to .759 for Thomas — so Thomas’ edge at the line comes out to about half a point per 36 minutes.

If we look at free throw attempts relative to field goal attempts, we find that Stockton actually comes out well ahead of Thomas: 42.4 free throw attempts per 100 field goal attempts for Stockton, an advantage of about nine attempts over Thomas (33.4).

Verdict: Push.

Minimize turnovers

Stockton averaged 20.8 turnovers per 100 plays*, the sixth-highest turnover rate in NBA history (minimum 15,000 minutes played). Thomas was much better in this regard, averaging about four fewer turnovers per 100 plays.

* A play is defined to be a sequence that ends with the player (a) attempting a shot from the field, (b) taking two (or three) shots from the line, or (c) turning it over.

But this doesn’t take into account the numerous sequences that ended with an assist, sequences where both players presumably possessed the ball for a relatively long time.

If we look at turnovers per 100 individual possessions*, Stockton’s average of 20.7 is about the same as his average per 100 plays, but Thomas’ rate of 19.0 is much higher than his rate per play.

* The formula for individual possessions was developed by Dean Oliver. It takes into account most offensive statistics that can be found in the box score.

Regardless, I would score this category as a win for Thomas.

Verdict: Edge, Thomas.

Create shots for others

Thomas assisted on approximately 37.4 percent of his teammates’ field goals while he was on the floor, good for 14th (since 1964-65) among players with at least 2,500 assists.

But when it comes to assists, Stockton is in a league of his own. Stockton registered an assist on a little over one-half of his teammates’ field goals while he was on the floor, making him the career leader by almost four percentage points over Chris Paul.

Verdict: Big edge, Stockton.

Extend possessions with offensive rebounds

Neither player was a gifted offensive rebounder — Thomas’ career offensive rebound percentage was 2.9, Stockton’s was 2.5 — so there’s really nothing that needs to be said here.

Verdict: Small edge, Thomas.

III. Defense

What about defense? That can be harder to measure, of course, but let’s take a look at the evidence we do have, namely:

  1. Team Defense
  2. Defensive Rebounding
  3. Steals
  4. Blocks
  5. Personal Fouls

As in the section above, let’s compare and contrast Stockton and Thomas in these categories.

Team Defense

Thomas played for five teams that finished in the top five in points allowed per possession, although none of those teams led the NBA. He was on a top 10 defense in just over one-half of his seasons (seven out of 13).

Stockton played for six teams that finished in the top five in points allowed per possession, and four of those teams finished first in the league. He was on a top 10 defense in just over two-thirds of his seasons (13 out of 19).

Verdict: Edge, Stockton.

Defensive Rebounding

There’s not much to say here, as this was not a strength for either player: Thomas’ career defensive rebound percentage was 7.8 while Stockton’s was 7.5. I don’t consider that a significant difference.

Verdict: Push.

Steals

Thomas finished his career with 1,861 steals, 15th most in NBA history. Expressed as a rate statistic, Thomas averaged 2.52 steals per 100 defensive possessions, placing him 53rd on the all-time list (minimum 15,000 minutes played).

Once again, though, we find that Stockton is in a league of his own when it comes to this category. He finished his career with 3,265 steals, the all-time record by almost 600 steals over Jason Kidd.

Stockton was efficient too — surprise, surprise — averaging 3.46 steals per 100 defensive possessions, the eighth-highest rate in NBA history.

Verdict: Big edge, Stockton.

Blocks

This is another category where neither player shined: Stockton averaged 0.46 blocks per 100 opponent two-point attempts, while Thomas averaged 0.41.

Verdict: Push.

Personal Fouls

Stockton and Thomas both averaged 3.0 personal fouls per 36 minutes. Per 100 defensive possessions, those numbers are 4.2 and 4.1, respectively.

Basically, neither player really helped his team by avoiding fouls, nor hurt his team with excessive fouling.

Verdict: Push.

IV. The Decision

With the caveat that I would not place equal weight on all categories (e.g., shooting efficiency is much more important than offensive rebounding), Stockton gets the edge in four categories (three big, one small) and Thomas gets the edge in two categories (one small), with four pushes.

About ten years ago I developed the win shares system for basketball. In simplest terms, it is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player through his offense and defense. Stockton finished his career with 207.6 win shares (sixth all time), while Thomas earned 80.7 win shares (135th all time).

“That’s nice,” you might say, “but Stockton played in 525 more regular season games than Thomas did.”

That’s true, but Stockton also averaged .209 win shares per 48 minutes, the 14th-best rate in NBA history (minimum 15,000 minutes played). Thomas’ career average was .109 win shares per 48 minutes, which puts him 304th on the all-time list.

I’m not convinced the gap between them is as big as win shares suggests, but then again I have enough confidence in the system to say that I absolutely believe that Stockton did more to help his teams win games than Thomas did.

I know there are plenty of fans out there who are passionate about Isiah, but I’m sorry folks: this one is a majority decision for Stockton.

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15 thoughts on “Showdown: John Stockton vs. Isiah Thomas

  1. This did exactly what I have thought for many years about Stock, he was one of the most dominate point guards in the history of the league, if not the most dominate. He was one of the few players that could control a game, both offensively and defensively. But he rarely gets recognition for what he was able to do, hence so few All NBA and All Defensive nods.

  2. There really is no question that, on a day to day basis, Stockton was the better player.
    However, stats don’t show where Thomas could be a superior player.
    The best example I can think of is a finals game between the Pistons and the Lakers. I think it was game 6, 1988 but that was a while ago so I can’t be sure which game it was. What Thomas did in the second half of that game after turning his ankle (dropping 36 on the Lakers and simply taking over a game) was not something Stockton could do. It’s not so much the points as it is that ability to take over a game on an NBA level, a finals game no less, that set Thomas apart as a point guard. But Stockton was far more reliable and was the smartest point I’ve ever seen.

    1. Interestingly, Stockton did have some big games where he was the dominate player on the floor, and although he didn’t kill it in the Finals series he was a part of, he was key in many big playoff wins. Just to think, there was one or two buzzer beaters that Stockton missed against the Bulls that if he had hit, would have been considered GOAT for PG’s probably. What a difference just a few shots can have on your legacy even though you can be an all time leader in at least 3 of your 11 categories for a player at your position. While other players out there people consider better than Stockton might only own 1 of those categories.

    2. The stats certainly do show that Isiah is the one who was more likely to score 30 points and carry his team to a win. But they also show that Isiah was the one who was more likely to go 6-20 from the field and cost his team the game.

  3. I stil say this debate isn’t fair. In regards to the Dream Team Ommission, everyone knows that was about Michael Jordan, end of story. But in comparing these two players, you can’t compare numbers, as Thomas had to evolve with the various Coaching, systems and style of play changes that happened over his career. Where Stockton, had one coach, one system, one style of play for his whole career. And in regards to assist, having Karl Malone didn’t hurt those numbers either. I believe you have to look at this in two parts – early in their careers when Thomas was needed to be a scorer to be successful, as the team was built to score. Then you look at the Chuck Daly years when Defense came first. I think the numbers would be alot different then.

    1. Daly started coaching the Pistons in Thomas’ third season and was his head coach for nine of his 13 seasons in the NBA.

  4. Thanks for all of your info, but like anything else that deals with numbers it’s always how you present them that counts. Would you go back and do the same math but use the numbers before the 92 Dream Team was formed also could you share the head to head match ups, I believe the out come might shift. WAITING

    1. Lionel, I wrote at the top that I wanted to do a “comparison of their careers,” so I wasn’t willfully trying to mislead anybody. That said, I would have chosen Stockton at that time as well.

  5. Re Dream Team selection – The right choice would’ve been Stockton simply from the fact that the team could just run a pick-and-roll with Stock-Malone all day every time it’s a set-up play. Isiah’s talent is redundant to that team. They needed an assist-first pg that doesn’t care if he scores or not so the team could win..

  6. All this technicality, but the simple fact is Isiah would torch Stockton every time they played. And isiah never played with somebody as good as Karl Malone. Isiah was the heart and soul of a two time champion. No way on earth does Stockton have more heart than Isiah Thomas. And that’s the biggest stat right there, 2-0 in championships. If they weren’t famous and you saw them playing a pick up game, It would be obvious who the more spectacular player was. Not even close. And when isiah wasn’t picked in 92, Stockton called him and apologized, and conceded to isiah that isiah was indeed the better player. That’s right out of Stockton’s mouth. Isiah willed that team to greatness without one of the greatest power forwards of all time. Malone elbowed and cut Isiah’s eye because isiah was embarrassing Stockton so much. Forget the nerd stats, if you pick Stockton over Isiah, Isiah’s team is winning. Physically Isiah is superior as well. It’s not even close, Thomas was one of the quickest humans ever with a ball in his hand and he might be the best dribbler ever. Stockton’s speed and quickness even as a young man could be called adequate to below average. Check out clips of Isiah throwing down dunk tips earlier in his career. And Malone isn’t being factored in enough for Stockton’s stats and success. And neither one of them ever got a ring. Look at who isiah got it with, James Edwards. John Salley. Bill Laimbeer, for all his notoriety, is no Karl Malone. Not exactly a world beater frontcourt. The only all star he played with was Dumars. He wanted a ring so bad he went out and got it, Stockton isn’t from the same mold, not physically or competitive-wise. Isiah wanted it more and he got it. Just ask Stockton today and he’d tell you Isiah was better.

    1. Scott Douglas wrote:

      And that’s the biggest stat right there, 2-0 in championships.

      By that logic, Steve Kerr (five rings) is better than both of them.

      The only all star he played with was Dumars.

      Not true. Adrian Dantley was a six-time All-Star, Bill Laimbeer was a four-time All-Star, Mark Aguirre was a three-time All-Star, and Dennis Rodman was a two-time All-Star. Plus, Dantley, Dumars, and Rodman are all in the Hall of Fame.

      I hate it when people try to make the “Bad Boys” out to be Isiah Thomas and a bunch of misfits. Those teams were very deep and very talented.

  7. I think that there are 2 separate arguments presented here. 1 – If Thomas should have made dream team over Stockton. 2 – Who went down as the better player.

    I think #2 is probably a generally accepted answer that Stockton goes down as the better player all-time.

    #1 is much closer, though, in my opinion. Thomas has a really good peak in the early 90’s and the ’92 olympics were coming off the heel of that peek. He was probably the better player for those few years. However, the argument for a player that made the team better, rather than trying to score all night , surely helped push the pendulum in Stockton’s favor.

  8. AC Green played in an All-Star game. That doesnt make him one of make him one of the ‘stars’ Magic played with. Rodman was young and BECOMING a star; he was the sixth man when Detroit won their first championship. When the NBA named the Top 50 players some years back, Stockton was named along with Malone. Magic was named along with Worthy and Kareen. Jordan was named along with Pippen. Bird was named with McHale and Parish. Only Thomas was named with no other teammates. The argument that Thomas played without stars can be argued. To say that he played with stars anywhere close to Malone’s caliber would be absolutely ridiculous.

    Championships matter. Yeah Steve Kerr won five. What does that have to do with anything? How about we say that the amount of championships you win where you are the leader and one of the star players on the team matter. That way Steve Kerr and John Salley caliber players don’t enter the conversation. Between Stockton and Thomas, Isiah is CLEARLY the “winner”. I can’t believe this is a point people even bother to argue. Its like arguing that Wilt Chamberlain was more of a “winner” than Bill Russel.

    There are a couple things that made Isiah very unique; qualities that Stockton and almost every other player before or since did NOT have.

    First, How many NBA championship teams can you recall whose best player and unquestioned leader was a little guy (6’1″)? Only Isiah’s Pistons. That’s it. Tiny Archibald only won one title, and Bird was the star and unquestioned leader of that team. An argument for Cousy could be made, but come on, he played with Bill Russel, the clear star and at least co-leader on those teams. Iverson never did it. Nash never did it. Paul hasn’t done it. And Stockton never did it. Isiah’s Pistons are the only ones.

    Second, Isiah SACRIFICED stats in order to win championships. He averaged almost 5 fewer points per game in both of the years he won championships than he did in his best season. And he averaged almost almost 5 fewer assists per game in both of the years he won championships than he did in his best season when he set the single season assists record. (yes, sacrificing assists IS unselfish and it IS a sacrifice. Anybody who doesn’t understand that either doesn’t know what an assist is or doesn’t understand basketball) That kind of statistical sacrifice by a star player in order to win championships is HIGHLY uncommon and it set Thomas apart. If he hadn’t made those sacrifices, we would have easily averaged 23ppg & 12apg or more for SEVERAL years and that stats people wouldn’t even be arguing if Stockton was as good a player.

    Third, Thomas was a much better, a MUCH BETTER, leader than Stockton. he was the unquestioned leader of those teams and was the central figure in developing their toughness and building them into champions. No knock on Stockton…but he just never led the way Isiah did. If he had, he’d have at least one ring.

    Fourth and last, Thomas is one of the great streak and clutch shooters in NBA history. 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6 of the finals against the Lakers on a broken ankle, Game 1 of the Finals against Portland, the 16 points in 90 seconds against the Knicks in the playoffs, 24 points in the third quarter of a 1987 playoff game against the Hawks, countless game winners…in BIG games. Stockton never could have done those things. Stockton was an excellent, steady player who did his job. But he couldn’t put a team on his shoulders like Thomas, and he wasn’t the kind of star who was expected to take the bulk of the big shots. Thomas was. Stockton did have one big game winner to beat Houston and send the Jazz to the Finals. “I don’t think I can describe it,” Stockton said after the game. “It was a tremendous feeling.”.
    Isiah Thomas could have described it. He took those shots his whole career.

    Stockton was a great point guard. Isiah Thomas is a legend. There’s no comparison

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