Let me pre-requisite this with a better question. Which do you value more: quantity or quality?
The caveat to that is that the quantity in this equation was also a very high quality. This is what makes these two players a very compelling argument for all-time superiority. John Stockton displayed the way a point guard should play the game over a 19-year career that ended with him as the all-time leader in assists and steals. His leadership pushed the Utah Jazz over the top and into the NBA Finals for back-to-back seasons in the late 1990’s only to be thwarted by Michael Jordan both times.
On the other side of the equation you have the quality. Isiah Thomas was able to do the improbable, get the best of Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the league’s most competitive era of basketball, the 1980s. Thomas played a shorter career. His 13 seasons were legendary as he carved his name in with the greats by battling with them and winning.
This is similar to the previous entry where Jason Kidd got the edge of Payton using these four basic categories: statistics, best season, playoff success and historical effect. Let the debate begin!
Looking at the players head-to-head, every stat is within 1.2 of the other, making this a virtual toss-up. Both were average rebounders for the position, but neither possessed elite size nor strength.
Stockton’s claim to fame was utterly brilliant consistency at basically everything. He never seemed to have peak years, but he never had any basement years. Every night you knew what you were in store for when the Jazz took the floor: flawless pick-and-rolls and Stockton working on another double-double. He has a clear advantage in double-doubles over his career that was four seasons longer in general, and had four seasons where double-doubles were not recorded for Thomas. Along the way, Stockton also collected 15,806 assists and 3,265 steals during his career, both all-time NBA records and first among point guards for each.
Pull up those same all-time record lists that Stockton sits atop of and you will not see Thomas that far behind him in assists (7th all-time) or steals (15th all-time). That speaks to his brilliance. Remember, Thomas was working off of six less seasons throughout his storied career and had to call it quits early due to injuries. He made good use of his time getting to the playoffs nine out of 11 seasons, winning back-to-back titles as the anchor of the Bad Boy Pistons. Thomas was also an 11-time All-Star, winning the game’s MVP honors twice.
Stockton brought consistency to the basketball court, creating a long career filled with quantity. Thomas had a limited career which was of the utmost quality, allowing him to be considered among the all-time greats. The argument can be made for either side, so in this category nobody wins and nobody loses.
John Stockton: 1990-1991 (45-37) 17.2 PPG 14.2 APG 2.9 RPG 2.9 SPG 50.7 FG% 34.5 3PT% 83.6 FT% 68 Double-Doubles and 0 Triple-Doubles
Isiah Thomas: 1984-1985 (46-36) 21.2 PPG 13.9 APG 4.5 RPG 2.3 SPG 45.8 FG% 25.7 3PT% 80.9 FT%
*Double-doubles and Triple-doubles were not recorded this season
In true Stockton fashion his elite season was a pick of the liter of similar seasons and was not anything to brag about, but was a very solid season. In this particular season, Stockton had all-around peaks across the board, but his team fizzled out in the second round of the playoffs to the Portland Trail Blazers in dominant fashion.
For Thomas it was a little different. He has had some great statistical seasons, but the end result was the same. In this particular season, playoff success also escaped Thomas. But it is where the name Isiah Thomas became a legend in the making.
The windows in which Stockton (1996-1998) and Thomas (1987-1990) were on the grand stage of the NBA Finals, they had more team-oriented stats and that is natural for players who transcend greatness.
Two rounds leave the score as 0-0.
It is a landslide looking at the graph, but it is even clearer when you look at these numbers:
Stockton – 12.3 PPG 8.8 APG and a 4-8 record
Thomas – 22.6 PPG 7.9 APG and a 11-5 record
Those are the numbers for each respected player in the NBA Finals. Not only does Thomas have a bigger sample, but he played equal or better competition… and won. In the Pistons back-to-back NBA Finals wins, they stormed through the Lakers and Blazers, losing only one game. The only blemish on his record was a three-point loss in Game 7 at The Forum (1988). No question as to the legacy and greatness displayed by the toughest and biggest little man in NBA history.
There are three major aspects of John Stockton that will be remembered forever. One is that he ended his stellar career as the league’s leader in both assists and steals, making him the epitome of a point guard. Two, he formed the greatest pick-and-roll duo ever seen and nothing like it is likely to be seen again. Lastly, his fashion sense was the butt of all jokes from the mid-’90s to his retirement. As the long shorts era began, he still wore the classically short shorts of his predecessors.
Thomas as a player was undoubtedly one of the best to ever lace up sneakers and played for â€“ in most people’s eyes â€“ one of the best teams ever in the Bad Boy Pistons of the late 1980s. There is no question how great he is, but in the conversation of the best, his name is rarely mentioned, mainly because his post playing career has been a hail storm of failures.
What should take precedent is the time he played on the court. As a point guard, he retired as the fourth-leading assist man and the second-leading thief in NBA history. Over time others have leaped in front of him, including Stockton, but during his 13-year career, he was unmatched as a point guard.
Tally up the categories and Thomas takes the win with a 2-0-2 upset. If you just look at the surface, Stockton is the easy choice while sitting atop most statistical categories that define a great point guard. He was a great leader, the textbook definition of a pure point guard and won in every capacity except on the stage of the NBA Finals.
Those are all fine accolades, all-time great accolades even. But when you begin to dig deeper than the simple surface, you unearth the greatness Thomas displayed season after season as not only one of the best point guards ever, but also as one of the best players in basketball history.
Which player was better and why? Who would you take?
Follow Kristofer on Twitter at @NBADraftInsider.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.