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28 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.

  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.

  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

  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.

      1. Great article. These kind of comparisons are always difficult to quantify and evaluate. Too many people let their passion and emotion for a particular player cloud their objectivity, but I find you to be very fair, and aware of the limitations of such comparisons.
        While I, too, would go with Stockton, I think the two players are closer than the numbers would indicate.
        Another point to consider in doing awards comparisons is the depth of selections in a particular year. I’m sure that Thomas would have had some All-NBA Third Team selections if they would’ve been available during his best years, but they weren’t. Robert Parish comes to mind as well, in that regard.
        As far as championship rings go, yes, Thomas has 2 and Stockton none, but it would have been interesting to see how Detroit would’ve fared against those Bulls teams that Utah went up against. (Especially Rodman on Rodman, LOL)

      2. Nahhhh. Scott Douglass is right. Stockton is no comparison to Isiah Thomas… Your point was understood. But what this article and many comments here fail to acknowledge here is THAT IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCES between Isiah and Stockton stem from this:
        There are really two kinds of point guards in the NBA. There are point guards that are, for the most part, pure point guards… Stockton belongs in that camp. And then there are point guards that brought more to the table… that’s Isiah’s camp. And now what I mean is this: Everybody knew the Pistons were Isiah’s team. He was the man… he was the main offensive threat. He was the go to guy in the clutch. All offense pretty much ran through him. There’s a big difference from that kind of PG to the kind the Stockton breed of point guard. Because when you’re Isiah Thomas the opposing teams will create defensive strategies to limit Isiah Thomas, and try to make the other Pistons beat them…
        Marquee point guards like this are more rare, and are the exception… They don’t shoot over 50%, because they receive so much focal attention. Guys like Isiah, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Tim Hardaway, Allen Iverson… Defensive strategies are geared around stopping them. This is a higher level of explosiveness in PG play though, than Stockton type guys.

        See the John Stockton’s, Rajon Rondo’s, Tony Parker’s, Steve Nashes… they always had at least a player or two that demanded more defensive attention than they do. Meaning I would rather lockdown Karl Malone, or Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitski, Shawn Marion, or Tim Duncan… I would rather limit those other guys from going off offensively, and let Stockton, or Nash, or Tony Parker beat me. So they are going to get a lot of better looks at the basket, because they are not the first option when the game is on the line, or for that matter almost any other play, in every game in the same way that Isiah was.

        When teams were playing against the Pistons back then they were thinking we have to find a way to limit Isiah Thomas… not Joe Dumars, or Dennis Rodman, or Laimbeer or anybody else… the other guys were great ancillary players, but nobody would build teams around those guys… and that’s the biggest difference, that never gets quantified in these type of statistical essays… which also selectively forget the politics that were truly a part of robbing Isiah of more the personal accolades he should of had.

        This article makes a great effort to put Stockton in a class by himself, but if that were so obvious there wouldn’t be a debate. The truth is Isiah was in a class by himself as a PG, leading a team without any dominate big men to 2 NBA titles. Past the likes of Jordan, Magic, and Bird… and that is why they are his only peers in the league.

        If Isiah and Stockton traded places and Isiah played with the Jazz, I can see him easily accomplishing Stocton’s accomplishments. But put Stocton on the Pistons and I don’t believe Johnny had enough of what it takes to do what Isiah did.

        1. thank you …the real differences are obvious…stocton was a great player isiah is /was a freak 6ft player who was the focal point of an nba champion always the best player and carrying teams to hs champions nccaa champions .nba champs …to those who choose stocton Iwould agree that he was special just not in the same class as zeke

  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

  9. i lol at the people who defend isiah over stockton i mean let’s look at individual stats first:

    rebounds-edge isiah 4.7-4.1
    assist- edge stockton 15.9-12.2
    turnovers- edge stockton 4.3-5
    blocks-wash same .3
    steals- edge stockton 3.3-2.5
    fouls-wash same 4.0
    2pts-edge stockton 54.1-46.8
    3pts- edge stockton 38.4-29
    free throws- edge stockton 82.6-75.9

    leadership? hmn the only players who are productive teammate that stockton had was hornacek and malone while thomas had dumars, laimbeer, rodman, dantley and mahorn…. wait i know i know thomas’s cock suckers will say that those players are not “elite” level…. hmn maybe but still laimbeer was a more serviceable center than ostertag, rodman better than carr and dantley /aguirre more useful than bryon and yet despite far less superior talent stockton was stil able to lead the jazz to 2 nba finals appearances why didnt they win? well if you face the team of the decade with mj, pip and rodman and you dont have enough weapons 95% of the time you will lose, the 2 championships of detroit? if i remeber it correctly magic and scott were injured during the 89 finals and in 1990 they faced a portland team who was very good but the difference is during stockton’s finals appearances the jazz only have few weapons to face the bulls while in isiah’s finals appearances the pistons have enough weapons to counter the lakers and the blazer.

    “isiah torched stockton everytime they face” ah that’s right because that’s the only thing thomas is better at scoring while stockton was a better playmaker, better defender and better shooter overall a better player

    1. I’ve never seen a more boring highlight reel than John Stockton… it is the same play over and over again… He just passes to the #2 all time scorer in history in Karl Malone… you’re not giving Karl enough credit… Stockton is overrated. How anyone can rate John a better defender is suspect. He was dirtier though… Isiah Thomas had no equals his size in the NBA during his hey-day. Not a one… you had to look at guys 6-6″ and up to find guys that might beat him. Stockton???… yawn…

  10. Do you have the Stockton vs Thomas head to head numbers (they must have faced each other enough times that it is statistically relevant)? That could be an interesting sidebar.

    I also wonder, if you ask executives and ex-players, who they’d rather have run the team.

    I think numbers help tremendously to evaluate talent, but when we are discussing two all time players, they fall a bit short.

    There are a few playoff games that are in NBA lore, won by Thomas. The numbers you mention don’t seem able to capture that sort of leadership.

    I don’t have a solution, but I hope us stats folks can find a way to quantify that.

    1. They played each other 17 times.
      Averages:
      Stockton: 12.3ppg 10.0 ast
      Isiah: 22.4pts 7.8 ast

      It’s hard, because each player is unique, but in todays NBA this is probably comparable to debating Rajon Rondo versus Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, or Chris Paul…

      It’s no comparison… Isiah was leaps and bounds better than Stockton.

  11. I remember a NBA Analyst and GM a few years back, that they are seeing a major change in how players approach the game. They said because of stats and data, players are modeling their game to win that area. Because Fans will stay off their back and they will get big contracts. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the player is any good or plays a winning brand of Basketball.

    Exhibit A, and I fought people for years about this is Kevin Love. I’ve said he is a stat geek, and analytics hero. But he doesn’t have what it takes to play winning basketball. In his first year in CLE it couldn’t be anymore evident. Look what Chris Bosh did in a very similar situation a few years back. Bosh figured out a way to be an effective player, and still be a factor offensively and defensively. K-Love has been an afterthought for most of the year.

    I like to equate it with making money. The companies that rake in the most money is Walmart and Exxon Mobile. Thats who people talk about, and thats who they want to be. No one gets excited about the the 35th most profitable company but they do it so “efficiently”.

    Thats what the stat geeks have turned sports into. You just can’t win anymore, you have to appease people in with all sorts of equations in order to prove you were contributing to the win.

  12. This is ridiculous analysis in this “article.”

    Thomas was by the far the better player if only because he torched Stockton regularly, and this is when he was the “old” player. Imagine if Thomas had been playing Stockton in his first 5 seasons.

    And then there is the caveat that Thomas’ Pistons actually defeated Michael Jordan teams 3 out of 4 times in the play-offs …something Stockton’s teams NEVER did.

    Stockton got so many cheap assists simply dumping it into Malone. So what?

    Thomas’ Pistons won 2 NBA titles while going up against virtually the best teams in history….Bird’s Celtics .. Magic’s Lakers … Jordan’s Bulls …

    This writer of this article doesn’t know heck!

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