Showdown: John Stockton vs. Isiah Thomas

August 11, 2014

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.


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.


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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