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.