When Isiah Thomas was held out of the ’92 Olympics in Barcelona, many argued he should’ve been there over Stockton. He had the rings and the gaudy individual offensive numbers. In the end, one had a longer, more consistent career… the other probably had a higher peak. We had the argument over two years ago at DimeMag.com, and today, we’re asking again who was better: John Stockton or Isiah Thomas? We argue. You decide.
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John Stockton is a hard sell for the droves of NBA fans that didn’t see him play. Taking a quick glance at the former Utah Jazz point guard, he looks more like an accountant than the former leader of a perennial playoff team. Even in the midst of his peak as a player, he was quiet and unassuming compared to peers, like the self-promoting Charles Barkley and marketing wunderkind Michael Jordan.
His greatness, though, should never be in question.
Consistency was the hallmark of his game, which was a big part of the Jazz’s reign of success during his career. Along with the gruffness of Jerry Sloan and the imposing physique of Karl Malone, Stockton’s mop-top haircut and short shorts were among the league’s most familiar sights in the ’80s and ’90s. In 17 of of his 19 NBA seasons, Stockton played in every game for Utah, and didn’t miss the playoffs once before he called it quits.
That reliability helped him set several prolific records that still stand today. Lacking the plus-level athleticism of many contemporaries, Stockton used crafty defense to repeatedly strip his opponents and get out on the fast break. His 3,265 steals outclass well-respected thieves like Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, and are indicative of his lightning-quick hands.
Of course, the point guard’s primary duty is to set up his teammates, and he outclasses Thomas in this department without breaking a sweat. Doling out 15,806 assists over the course of his career, Stockton has the most in NBA history by a wide margin, outclassing his closest competition by over 3,000 dimes. He ranks second all-time in assists per contest with 10.51, the only player other than Magic Johnson to average double-digits in assists. Thomas, a great setup man in his own right, lags almost a full assist behind him with just 9.26.
Many point to Stockton’s partnership with Karl Malone as the basis for his gaudy totals, but this seems like a gripe by those who wish to discredit his legacy. After all, do we knock Magic Johnson for being able to throw the ball into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the paint? Stockton was a master of probing defenses who wouldn’t settle for a tough look. If he had to reset the offense rather than forcing a pass or taking an ill-advised shot, he would do it.
Being methodical is what allowed him to continue to be great in the latter stages of his career. While Thomas’ efficiency slipped as his athleticism faded away – his Player Efficiency Rating fell from 22.2 at its highest point to 15.2 in his final year – Stockton maintained his greatness well beyond his peak. In fact, Stockton had more seasons with a PER of 21 or higher than Thomas played total seasons, including a rating of 21.0 in his final season at age 40.
He was also far superior to Thomas as a two-way player, which is captured by their offensive and defensive ratings. Stockton’s almost impossible 121 ORTG paired nicely with a 104 DRTG, giving him a plus-17 net for his career. Thomas, despite playing for a team infamous for their bruising defense, ended his career with a negative net rating.
Thomas advocates will point to his superior scoring numbers to make his case, but Stockton was ruthlessly efficient in contrast to Isiah, who needed almost twice as many attempts as Stockton to average just six more points per game. Utah’s floor general was superior at shooting three-pointers (38.4 percent vs. 29 percent), free throws (82.6 percent vs. 75.9), and from the field overall (51.5 percent vs. 45.2 percent).
The other major tally for Thomas is his supposed status as the best player on two championship teams, while many feel Stockton was the the second-best player for a perpetual bridesmaid. Although this may be true, Thomas was blessed with a talented cast of his own, and in fact saw backcourt mate Joe Dumars capture the NBA Finals MVP over him in 1989. Stockton and Malone were the definition of a two-man team, while the Bad Boys Pistons were a deep unit, fortunate enough to bring a future Hall of Famer in Dennis Rodman off the bench.
When you go beyond basic information like points and rings, the numbers tilt heavily in favor of Stockton, whether you’re discussing average production or the totals built up over time. Because Stockton lacks the flash and the championship clout of Thomas, he’s often written off as a very good, but not great player. That’s simply not accurate.
Even Stockton’s most iconic moment, this shot that sent his team to the NBA Finals, is subdued in comparison to Thomas’ legendary busted ankle game in the Finals.
But perhaps that’s how it was meant to be. At the end of the day, give me the guy who was great at his job for more seasons than the other played in the league. Just tell him he needs to find a longer pair of shorts first.