Former Piston Mark Aguirre was usually the only player that gave me the news before a game with the Utah Jazz.
“Isiah is going to light up your boy John Stockton tonight,” he’d announce.
Isiah Thomas was a better player than John Stockton. If you never saw them play and went strictly by statistics, you might not believe that Stockton was better. If you saw them on the same floor at the same time, it is difficult for me to believe you’d choose Stockton over Isiah. But that’s exactly what NBA experts at USA Today did last week.
And that’s what USA Basketball did when it picked Stockton over Thomas for the 1992 Dream Team Olympic team. That decision was not because of talent. It was based on folks like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen not wanting to play with Thomas.
National NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt ranked Stockton 29 and Thomas 33 during his rankings of the top 75 NBA players of all time. Mark Medina placed Stockton 28th and Thomas at 30. Digital producer Matt Eppers got it right. He put Thomas at 27 and Stockton at 34.
Stockton is the NBA’s all-time assists leader with 15,806. Thomas ranked ninth with 9,061. There is no question that Stockton worked the pick and roll with his pal Karl Malone to perfection. I’m also willing to bet that friendly hometown scorekeepers padded those assists stats.
Stockton averaged 13.1 points and 10.5 assists per game for his career. Thomas 19.2 points and 9.3 assists per game.
The Thomas-Stockton debated heated up after the announcement of the rosters. Stockton got his spot on the Dream Team. And Thomas did not. Thomas attempted to embarrass Stockton when they played against each other. And for the most part, he did. That’s why Karl Malone cracked open Thomas’ skull when he drove by Stockton for a layup.
Thomas did so much more.
First of all, he changed the mentality of a franchise. The Pistons did not think of winning championships until drafting Thomas in 1981. He demanded excellence from teammates and General Manager Jack McCloskey and coach Chuck Daly.
Then he was willing to revamp his game under the watchful eye of legendary coach Wil Robinson who had an office at the Pistons practice facility.
“I’d always tell him Champ, your job is not to make yourself look good,” Robinson told me. “Your job is to make your teammates better. That’s the only way you are going to win.”
Thomas did what it took to win championships, making three straight NBA Finals, winning titles in 1989 and 1990 while holding off the younger and hungry Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The Jazz seemed content with winning 50 games a season and piling up nice statistics.
Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley said Thomas was the best little man to play the game. You can throw Allen Iverson and Steph Curry into the discussion also. Stockton was a very fine player, but he was not Isiah Thomas.
If you saw them play against each other, you’d know that.