NBA / Sep 2, 2011 / 11:00 am

Who’s Better: John Stockton Or Isiah Thomas?

John Stockton

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.

Best Season
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.

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  • David

    Isiah is a winner, and the one of the toughest little guys of all time. With all due respect to John Stockton, my vote goes towards Isiah Thomas.

  • K Dizzle

    Longevity = Stockton
    Nobody did it better for longer.

    Winner = Thomas
    Won at every level and was the best player on the squad doin it. Playoff numbers speak volumes…

  • David

    John Stockton, hands down. He did it so well for so long (actually 19 seasons, not the 17 the article mentions). He was brilliant. While he had Karl Malone, the overall depth and talent around him wasn’t stellar like those extremely deep Pistons teams. He never missed the Playoffs. Was an All-Defensive PG and two-time Olympian (captain one year). He always placed his team first and was a joy to watch.

    Thanks for a good article!

  • http://www.zwani.com/graphics/funny_pictures/images/88funny-pictures128.jpg JAY

    This one’s tough… I vote John Thomas

  • IDOT

    Isiah all day baby.

  • http://www.glidehoyas.blogspot.com Kent

    It really doesn’t matter who was better Zeke has the rings, but Stockton was more of a “pure point guard” than Isaiah. Stockton didn’t have to put a lot of points as Isaiah. Stockton knew how to get everyone involved and make his teammates better. I don’t like when people start saying who is better especially when you have two “great” NBA players…it just doesn’t make sense…think these youngins have the game mixed sometimes!!! Both greatttttt players!!!

  • brad

    Isiah Lord Thomas in my opinion is the better player. he could score, defend, pass and like the article said he won at every level against better comp. The only reason the media does’nt tout him is because of his many incidents on and off the court. The Larry bird comments, Icing Jordan out of the All Star game,his failed friendship with Magic and his Knicks executive career have all damaged his reputation throughout the NBA. If he played in the NBA with the no handchecking rules of today he would be unreal.

  • heckler


    This is actually a tough one. And there is NO WRONG ANSWER.
    I think I’d take Isiah Thomas by a hair. He was a better pure basketball player and could do slightly a bit more on the court than John Stockton.

    But dont get me wrong, Johnny aint no slouch!

    I don’t care about the rings. Championship rings NEVER determine if one player is better than another. If so, we’d have to say John Salley is/was a better player than Karl Malone (‘fletcher’ got 3 rings; Malone went 0-3 in the finals).

    SIDE NOTE: one of the BIGGEST BULLSHIT moments in NBA history was when Isiah Thomas was LEFT OFF the Dream Team! That shit STILL bugs me. Zeke DESERVED to be on that team and have a place with Magic Johnson and John Stockton as the best point guards in the world. the NBA FUCKED UP!

    but I digress on that (for now)….

    this is such a close one.
    …But it def has to be Isiah Thomas.

    ..and for the record, the aftermath of his playing days are not a factor. unless you wanna factor in all of it.
    from the CBA debacle to his drafting/scouting resume

    Isiah drafted:
    Damon Stoudemire (’95 ROY)
    Marcus Camby (96) <<— Best Draft Class Ever!
    Tracy McGrady (97)
    Nate Robinson
    David Lee
    Wilson Chandler

  • JA

    Conveniently left out it seems is talk about Stockton being one of the most efficient players of all time … .515/.384/.826 vs .452/.290/.759 … with per of 21.8 vs 18.1

    Not to mention he put up his stats in 4.5 minutes less per game.

    An interesting note in the advanced stats for these guys is that Stockton nearly had double the Win Share per 48 than Thomas; .209 vs .109 over their careers. And although Stockton’s playoff WS/48 dropped slightly to .160, it was still higher than Thomas’ .143 mark. So it could almost be argued that Thomas’ playoff success was due to the fact he was on a better team.

    Best season, I can see the push.

    As for historical effect – I don’t see how the guy who is the all time leader in assists and steals and only missed like 20 games in 19 years doesn’t take that one.

    Stockton takes it – but Thomas was still an all time great.

  • http://www.zwani.com/graphics/funny_pictures/images/88funny-pictures128.jpg JAY

    The Greatest Team ever assembled, the 1st Dream Team, was comprised of the best US players(other than Laettner) of that era. Both Isaiah Thomas and John Stockton were eligible to be on that team, but only one made it.
    Who was that?

    Conspiracy theories are just theories… the fact remains only one of these guys was named to the Greatest Team ever.

  • Tre H

    Zeke by a landslide. Pulled together a lunch bucket crew of hard nosed players to overachieve and took down Magic, Bird, and Jordan. His career with the Knicks can never take away from his career as a player

  • http://www.nba.com heino skovgaard

    if stockton played for pistons,they would have been unstoppable for a decade or more–

  • Rainman

    Gimme Stockton, imo, the 2nd best PG of all time, and the best PURE PG of all time.

  • KenAdams

    Stockton all the way!!! Best PG of all time in my opinion.

  • heckler

    when one of these guys went into the Hall of fame recently, he had the other as is presenter.

    :end trans:

  • Promoman

    I’d roll with John Stockton. Isiah played with more Hall of Famers/above average talent than John. I don’t feel bad for Isiah not making the Dream team because that was karma coming due for the shit he pulled on Jordan in the ’85 ASG.

  • First & Foremost

    @Heckler – How does that end this debate? It only worked out like that because one player retired well before the other. So one player was inducted before the other and recently people inducted into the HOF choose to be presented by someone already in the hall of fame.

    So decades from now we people still argue over Kobe vs. Lebron. If Lebron chooses Kobe as his presenter will that finally be the end all be all fact used to determine who was better?

    P.S. @Dime Why couldn’t y’all get some updated pictures of these two legends? Really, is it that hard to find a picture of Stockton wearing shorter shorts and higher socks. I mean, HE IS THE ALL-TIME LEADER IN ASSISTS!!! You guys have no pictures of Isaih “glad-handing” the female interns of the Knicks? Either get with the times or partner with TMZ

  • Joe’s Momma

    Thomas, and it aint as close as everyone wants you to believe.

    Take out the rings in the equation, even if they were back to back titles and defending your title is harder than winning it the first time.

    Everyone seems to always give the “choke” label to Karl Malone, and some of it is warranted. But his partner in that lethal Pick and Roll was almost just as much as a choker than Malone. Stockton disappeared during stretches, and for a guy who shoots with the accuracy he did why not get more 3’s up?

    Isiah not only played point guard, he was responsible for scoring as well, and he did that. Every big game, dude brought his hard hat and went to war, anyone who doesn’t remember how much of a killer Zeke was, please watch him, he wanted to break you on the court, thats the guy I want. People forget how good Thomas was, and that is a damn shame. He is basically a better version of CP3. A BETTER VERSION OF CP3!!! You telling me you would take Stockton over a better CP3?

    Now if you want to ask who had the better post playing career? John Stockton worked with Deron Williams for his rookie season and that one offseason dwarfs all of what Isiah was able to do his entire post playing time. Other than drafting, Isiah was a mess.


    Hmm I really don’t know how to answer it; I guess if I’m looking for a go to guy for my team I pick Thomas, if I’m looking for a complimentary PG who’ll work within the confines of an already established team then I’d pick Stockton.

    In short… I still don’t know. Thomas was probably the better player, Stockton was by far the better point guard. Who’s better? Thomas. Who’d I rather have on my team? Stockton.

    I do think Isiah Thomas is one of the more underrated HoF players.

  • bobby stew

    Utah would have traded Stockton for Isiah but there is no way Detroit trades Isiah for Stockton. Stockton was great but he needed Jerry Sloan and Karl Malone more than you might think.

  • CTP

    STOCKTON… How can it be argued? He has more assists than anyone ever, and more steals than anyone ever. He gave 19 seasons and missed like 20 games. Are you serious? 20 games in 20 years.

    CONSISTENCY- rings are important, but if you’d switched them teams- Stock would have a few, and Isiah probably wouldn’t.

    Great article!

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    I take Stockton.

    From a point guard, I’d rather have the best passer and defender, and if he’s going to score, I want it to be efficiently.

    Let’s take a look…yup, still has the most assists of all time…still has the most steals of all time…yup, more efficient (by far) than the comp…yup, John Stockton.

    PS Isiah took down an aging Lakers squad and the Blazers, while Stockton lost to the best team of all time. The Lakers and Blazers were definitely no slouches, but the Bulls were better opponents.

    And you can talk conspiracy all you want, but a team full of winners would rather have run with Stockton than Thomas. Take that with you.

  • Kyle

    Wow, Thomas and the Pistons only beat the Celtics cause Bird and Ainge were injured with Dennis Johnson scoring 3 ppg and getting no assists in that postseason without Bird(year before he scored 16 ppg, got 4.5 boards and 8.2 apg as well.)

    Utah would have NEVER traded Stockton for Isiah, and had Sloan changed his game plan on the fly like most great coaches, he’d have let Hornacek(a great pure scorer who could have scored 25 every game against the Bulls)take more than 10 to 14 shots. It’s a shame the whole system was built to get Malone 18 to 24 shots without getting double teamed consistently. You do realize that the spacing on the floor the Jazz used made it to where you either had to fight the unstoppable pick and roll to get Malone a driving layup or a 17 foot jumper… or stick to Horny like glue or he’d hit a 3 with ease. Even Byron Russell could hit 3’s, and the Bulls would often leave him with Sloan instructing him to swing the ball to Hornacek(one of the best at entry passes to Malone.)

    Isiah was washed up at age 30 while Stockton’s numbers NEVER changed… he just played less minutes. From 25 to 34, Stockton had the sickest 10 year stretch of any point guard ever. He shot 52.8 percent, averaged 15.6 ppg taking 10.6 shots a game, 2.5 steals a game and dished out 12.8 assists with only 3.3 turnovers a game.

    Great article but Stockton was a pure point guard, and it’s not his fault if his teammates miss shots that he put on a platter for them. He was better at defense than Thomas not only cause of steals but he knew how to take charges better, and he set FAR better screens. Plus he hit more clutch shots throughout his career. Joe Dumars was the guy who hit the biggest shots for the Pistons during their two year reign as champs.

  • http://www.dimemag.com Austin Burton

    The worst pro-Stockton arguments in this debate are the ones about shooting accuracy and longevity.

    Was Stockton a better pure shooter than Isiah? Sure. But when looking at Isiah’s percentages, consider that when Detroit was on offense and the shot clock was running down, Isiah was usually the guy taking that possession-saving (often bad) shot. When they were down by a lot and needed somebody to force shots to maybe spark a comeback, Isiah was the guy shooting. Same for Kobe in L.A., Rose in Chicago, Iverson in Philly, etc. That’s a big reason why their shooting percentages don’t look great. And it’s not because they’re selfish or don’t know good shot selection; it’s because they were the most talented offensive players of their respective teams, and they were looked upon to lead the offense.

    Stockton, meanwhile, had Karl Malone to fill that role. Sometimes Stockton did it, but more often than not it was Malone. Utah could win games in which Stockton scored 8 to 12 points; Detroit needed Isiah to do more than that as a scorer.

    That said, Stockton did make more things happen defensively than Isiah, and while Isiah has been underrated as a passer, Stockton still gets him there.

    All things together, I’d take Isiah. But I know I have a personal bias because I feel like he’s been consistently underrated.

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    @ Austin – isn’t it the role of the point guard to get a better shot, rather than take it himself?

    Isiah’s teams were better. They were better by virtue of their defense, though. The Pistons may not have had another player that could score like Isiah, but in my opinion, that damns him all the more. For all his apparent talent, shouldn’t there have been fewer “bad shots” taken by the point guard? Isn’t that the worst shot in basketball?

  • erob

    It’s sad that people only look at these efficiency numbers when judging a player. I would rather have a player like Isaiah Thomas lead my team because I know when its winning time he will do whatever is needed to win. I’ve seen Thomas play aggressive on one leg in a playoff game, score 26 in a quarter and leave everything on the floor. Sometimes you have to force the issue to get what you want and some of stocktons playoff losses were a result of his conservative play. Ask Lebron how it feels to always make the correct pass instead of forcing the issue in big games, it gets you second place more often than not


    Zeke would wipe the floor with Stockton.
    That photo right thurr says it all.. I dont recall stockton ever having biceps
    Stockton prolly didn’t even have a six-pack! !
    This is how it would go down… Stockton would be like “ehh ehhh I dun wan no trouble” and throw some measley backwards-momentum jab while thomas counters with an over-the-top right hand.
    BAM ! ! !
    KO ! ! !
    Zeke by KO in round 3

  • http://kapatid7799@yahoo.com bucks fan

    Stockton was great, but you will never win a championship with stockton, Zeke was clutch and you can assemble a team around Zeke. whearas stockton will always be the 2nd best player on any team. Zeke could take over a game anytime he wanted wheras stockton will always need someone to pick and roll with.

  • http://www.dimemag.com Austin Burton

    @dagwaller — If you want to restrict players to the traditional confines of their position, sure. Personally, I don’t think that just because you’re a PG you always have to take smart shots. And just because you’re a PF doesn’t mean you can’t take threes, just because you’re a C doesn’t mean you can’t be a playmaker, etc. If you have the ability and your team needs it, why not do it?

  • http://deleted dagwaller

    @Austin – as you probably remember, I’m a HUGE Dirk fan. And he does not play that position traditionally.

    I feel like a point guard has a lot more responsibility in his role, though. Dirk knew he was the go to scorer, and just had to get himself in the best position to score.

    A point guard whose mentality is to shoot first is a problem because he’s generally in the worst possible position to shoot: on the perimeter with all eyes on him, with the entire defense in front of him.

  • Blk Caesar

    Stockton was a great player and I’ll never argue that, but Isiah was just better. Everyone talking about Isiah had a better team are obviously way too young (and just looking at stats)to actually remember watching how much he carried the Pistons until those other players either developed or were acquired/drafted. Kelly Tripuka was the 2nd best player on some of those teams and they still made the playoffs. Does anyone even remember his battle with Bernard King in the playoffs? Dude playing on a sprained ankle against the Lakers and dropping 43 points.. 25 of them in third quarter? Thomas was a warrior and did whatever it took to win. You can keep your efficiency and assists record. I’m taking the dude who is a beast on the biggest stage and gets the win.

  • douglalr

    Speak on Blk Caesar…Isiah no question…Stockton played with an all time great during his prime was had the same coach his whole career…the table was set to do what he did…still impressive though. And Hornacek wasn’t exactly a chump…Rodman was up and coming, Lambier was an overacheiver, Salley, Aquire was on his way down when he joined the Pistons…so was Dantley for that matter. Dumars was a beast but he was never in Malone’s weight class no matter how good his defernse. And by the way…Once Malone came into his own it was never Stockton’s team (same way it was never Pippen’s bulls)…The Piston’s were always Isiah’s team.

  • Ian

    “If so, we’d have to say John Salley is/was a better player than Karl Malone (‘fletcher’ got 3 rings; Malone went 0-3 in the finals).”
    no. role players vs stars dont count but u can use rings as tie breakers when two players are so close like these two. you cant say oh well longley is better than ewing but you sure can say that robinson , shaq , and hakeem were and one of the biggest reasons is the ring. its true that isiah had a better team (thats why i pick stock) but then again he did beat the lakers , celtics (jordan couldnt) , and the bulls (three times). its close imo no wrong pick here.

  • Ian

    really?? thats your take on the shooting percentages?? stockton got his teams high percentage shots and isiah forced shots that this is the pro isiah argument you are posting. pleaseeeeeee

  • http://www.wtf.com Chicagorilla

    Stop using nonsense like “such n such had a better team”
    or ” this guy is shot better than that guy”

    The bottom line is if you watched both of them play, you have to pick one.

    Without a doubt, I’d pick Zeke just from watching him play in a game vs watching Stockton play.

    Since they are so equal in most parts of their game, it comes down to intangables. And I’ll take Zekes heart and will over Stocks heart and will. Not that Stock was bad or anything, Isiah was just better.

    All that other stuff is an excuse to chose one player over the other.

  • SagJism

    Gotta go with Zeke, just look at any head to head game and you will see who the dominant player is. In fact, watch the game where Malone stepped in and elbowed Isiah inthe head because he was doing Stockton so bad. But Zeke did all the premier gaurds bad because at the time, he was number 4 best player inthe league behind Magic, Bird, at the time him and Jordan were about equal but jordan was on his way up and possibly Barkley. No one else in the league at the time could compare to Zeke. But you had to live in that era to know that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/prasad.metta.1 Prasad Metta

    Look at Stockton ‘s FG percentage. Way higher than Isiah Thomas.

  • Daryl Wade

    The Pistons won their two finals against teams that were not nearly as good as MJ’s Bulls that the Jazz had to face…Isiah was a better scorer and that counts for something. What I do when comparing players in a team game is imagine each player in the other’s team. I think both these guys would have done very well on the other’s team, but Stockton would have the edge…

  • Kenneth Kerch

    Are you kidding me they beat the Show Time Lakers With Magic in his Prime. Stockton is a great point guard one of the best complimentary players of all time. Isiah put the team on his back and bested JORDAN… and MAGIC… and BIRD!!! not just in a game but in playoff series the comparison is laughable. You ask anybody with a valid opinion who actually watched the NBA in that time if they didn’t tell you Isiah that’s because they hated him. Stockton has nice stats though.

  • Michael Alexander

    Hands down Zeke ! Stockton was a very good PG no doubt but he couldn’t hold Isiah’s jockstrap. To boot, Isiah should have been on the 1992 Dream Team despite the criticisms against it.

    Zeke on one leg torched the Lakers for 25pts in the 3rd quarter of the 1988 NBA Finals and the Lakers couldn’t do nothing with him.

    He was giving them the business all game long and keep in mind Isiah was listed at 6’1″ but I think he was more like 5’10 or 5’11.

    That wussy Karl Malone got so mad at Isiah for abusing John Stockton (Thomas scored 44pts all while torching Stockton) during the 1991-1992 season, he elbowed Isiah causing a gash over Isiah’s eye that required Isiah needing 40 stitches.

  • Prime Candidate

    Listen everybody Isiah Thomas was better because at the time he was in a better, tougher, and more brutal conference (Eastern) where ever night he had to play at a high level vs the western conference outside of the Lakers were pretty much run gun and see who going to out score the other team. You know what would settle this argument once and for all is what team had the better record when they played team in the other conference??? I’m almost certain the pistons were better because Isiah didn’t care who he went up against in fact the bigger the challenge the better Isiah played. Bottom line he has won TWO TiTLES and had to go through the best to get them, 3 straight finals appearances along with a finals MVP and did all of this without playing with another superstar vs John playing with the greatest power forward in the history of the NBA and only have two finals appearances to show for all those seasons! Where were the Jazz’s in the 80’s? Nowhere near the NBA finals when the NBA was at its best far as talent!

  • Prime Candidate

    Yo don’t forget the Pistons kept MJ Bulls from advancing in the playoffs 3 straight years! How many time has the Jazz’s dominated the Lakers in the 80’s or control the western conference?

  • Corba Kai

    Yes, it is. But look at how many points Stockton is scoring – 13 a game. Isiah is scoring almost 20 a game and is the go-to player on his team his whole career. Stockton deferred to the superstar Malone his whole career. You get different looks when you’re the #1 option vs the 2nd or 3rd option. But yes, Stockton was a better shooter than Isiah. Still, with the game on the line who you want creating a shot for themselves? Most sane people would want Isiah.

  • Corba Kai

    Agree with just about everything you’ve posted on Isiah. He was purposely kept off the Dream Team b/c MJ, Pippen, Magic and a few others didn’t care for him. I think that series where the Bulls finally beat the Pistons in the playoffs and the Pistons refused to shake hands had just happened and that pissed some people off. His own coach Daly didn’t fight for him either. But it was highway robbery. Then when Isiah faced off against Stockton in the season, he scored 44 on 22 shots just to show who’s who. Of course Mailman had to elbow Isiah into neek week, giving him 40 stitches. Although, I’m sure it helped get the white quota up for the team. Now you had Mullin, Stockton, Bird and Laettner.