Posted by Neil Paine on December 5, 2008
One of my favorite things to do when looking at old basketball stats is to compare players with different reputations and see if perception agrees with reality. Sometimes, it does -- any way you cut it, Michael Jordan was miles better than contemporaries like Dominique Wilkins or Clyde Drexler. Other times, though, it's not so clear-cut -- I present to you the case of Isiah Thomas v. John Stockton.
When they sit down to rank the "best point guards" or what have you, most people place Thomas slightly ahead of Stockton, primarily citing Isiah's 2 championships (against Stockton's zero) as the ringleader of the Detroit Pistons' "Bad Boys" of the late 1980s. It seems to make sense, right? I mean, Thomas was brash and cocky, an in-your-face competitor who grabbed the spotlight in the game's biggest moments; conversely, Stockton was unassuming and deferential, sometimes viewed as merely a cog (along with Karl Malone) in Jazz coach Jerry Sloan's pick-n-roll machine. So on the face of it, it looks pretty obvious that Thomas' career was superior to that of Stockton.
I'm here to challenge that assumption, however.
Don't get me wrong, Isiah Thomas was a great player. He earned first- or second-team All-NBA honors 5 times, led the league in assists twice, and had many indelible moments in the crucible of the playoffs (remember his MVP performance in the 1990 Finals, or his 25 3rd-quarter points on a badly sprained ankle in Game 6 of the '88 Finals?). In fact, in the postseason -- when most players' numbers decline due to the increased strength of opponent -- Isiah's numbers actually improved markedly, from 6.78 career regular-season WS/3000 min. to 8.68 in the playoffs. Face it, the man was tough, and he was one of the clutchest scorers in NBA history.
But why is it a foregone conclusion that his body of work outpaces that of Stockton? Stockton led the league in assists 9 times in a row from 1988-1996. With 15,806 career helpers, he's easily the league's all-time leader -- he has almost 5,500 more than runner-up Mark Jackson. Eight times he was 1st- or 2nd-team All-NBA. He made the All-Defensive team 5 times; he led the league in steals twice. In a rarity for a guard, his career FG% was .515 (by comparison, Thomas' was .452). He missed out on the mythical 20,000-point club by a mere 289 points. Perhaps Stockton's most amazing trait, though, was his durability: while Thomas played 979 career games and was oft-injured late in his 13-year career, Stockton suited up for 1,504 contests (3rd all-time) and missed only 22 games in 19 seasons!
You probably came here for the advanced statistical point of view, though, so here it is: Stockton had 205.4 career Win Shares (3rd all-time) in 19 years, for an average of 10.8 per season; per 3000 minutes, Stockton generated 12.9 wins for the Jazz over the course of his career. Eight times he finished in the league's top 5 in Win Shares, his career offensive rating of 120.5 (which he accomplished while taking on 21.9% of Utah's possessions when on the floor) ranks 4th in NBA history, and he had a career DRtg of 104.0 in an era where the league's average was 106.7. By contrast, Thomas's 80.3 career Win Shares ranks 88th all-time, and he averaged 6.2 per season; his career WS/3000 min. mark is 6.8. Only once (1984-85) did Isiah finish in the top 5 in WS, and he had a career ORtg of 106.3 and a DRtg of 106.8 in an era where the league's average was 107.5. The only facets of the game where Isiah was superior to Stockton were his shot-creating ability (Thomas did take on 26.5% of Detroit's possessions while on the court) and his rebounding (Thomas' 5.3 career rebound rate is marginally better than Stockton's 5.0), but in every other area -- TS%, assist ratio, steal rate, etc. -- Stockton kills Isiah in terms of regular-season numbers.
Oh, but what about the playoffs? After all, that's where Isiah really made his money (and Stockton always failed)... right? Um, not quite. Stockton had 21.2 career playoff Win Shares; Thomas had 12.2. Stockton's career playoff WS/3K rate: 9.94; Thomas' rate: 8.68. Turns out that in the playoffs, it's the same story as above: Isiah is superior in shot-creation and rebounding, but fails to outpace Stockton on the shooting, passing, and defensive fronts.
So why do people almost universally consider Thomas to be better than Stockton when they give their all-time point guard rankings? Stockton was more durable, more consistent, a better pure PG, more productive (both cumulatively and on a per-minute basis), and was even better in the playoffs, where Stock played a remarkable 182 career games. It is true that the Jazz never won an NBA crown with Stockton at the helm. It is also true that Isiah led Detroit to 2 rings. But hey, Robert Horry has 7 career rings, and no one is suggesting he's better than Karl Malone. In other words, in light of the overwhelming evidence I've laid out above, isn't it about time we reconsider the Stockton-Thomas debate?