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NBA / Feb 3, 2014 / 4:00 pm

Who Was Better: John Stockton Or Isiah Thomas?

Isiah Thomas

John Stockton and Isiah Thomas were two of the greatest point guards in NBA history, combining for mind-numbing numbers and hours of highlights. While the two didn’t get to face each other that often on the court, considering they played in opposing conferences, their primes overlapped the same time period and were even involved in controversy surrounding the original Dream Team.

When Isiah Thomas was held out of the ’92 Olympics in Barcelona, many argued he should’ve been there over Stockton. He had the rings and the gaudy individual offensive numbers. In the end, one had a longer, more consistent career… the other probably had a higher peak. We had the argument over two years ago at DimeMag.com, and today, we’re asking again who was better: John Stockton or Isiah Thomas? We argue. You decide.

[RELATED: From 2011 – Who Was Better? John Stockton Or Isiah Thomas?]

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JOHN STOCKTON
John Stockton is a hard sell for the droves of NBA fans that didn’t see him play. Taking a quick glance at the former Utah Jazz point guard, he looks more like an accountant than the former leader of a perennial playoff team. Even in the midst of his peak as a player, he was quiet and unassuming compared to peers, like the self-promoting Charles Barkley and marketing wunderkind Michael Jordan.

His greatness, though, should never be in question.

Consistency was the hallmark of his game, which was a big part of the Jazz’s reign of success during his career. Along with the gruffness of Jerry Sloan and the imposing physique of Karl Malone, Stockton’s mop-top haircut and short shorts were among the league’s most familiar sights in the ’80s and ’90s. In 17 of of his 19 NBA seasons, Stockton played in every game for Utah, and didn’t miss the playoffs once before he called it quits.

That reliability helped him set several prolific records that still stand today. Lacking the plus-level athleticism of many contemporaries, Stockton used crafty defense to repeatedly strip his opponents and get out on the fast break. His 3,265 steals outclass well-respected thieves like Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, and are indicative of his lightning-quick hands.

Of course, the point guard’s primary duty is to set up his teammates, and he outclasses Thomas in this department without breaking a sweat. Doling out 15,806 assists over the course of his career, Stockton has the most in NBA history by a wide margin, outclassing his closest competition by over 3,000 dimes. He ranks second all-time in assists per contest with 10.51, the only player other than Magic Johnson to average double-digits in assists. Thomas, a great setup man in his own right, lags almost a full assist behind him with just 9.26.

Many point to Stockton’s partnership with Karl Malone as the basis for his gaudy totals, but this seems like a gripe by those who wish to discredit his legacy. After all, do we knock Magic Johnson for being able to throw the ball into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the paint? Stockton was a master of probing defenses who wouldn’t settle for a tough look. If he had to reset the offense rather than forcing a pass or taking an ill-advised shot, he would do it.

Being methodical is what allowed him to continue to be great in the latter stages of his career. While Thomas’ efficiency slipped as his athleticism faded away – his Player Efficiency Rating fell from 22.2 at its highest point to 15.2 in his final year – Stockton maintained his greatness well beyond his peak. In fact, Stockton had more seasons with a PER of 21 or higher than Thomas played total seasons, including a rating of 21.0 in his final season at age 40.

He was also far superior to Thomas as a two-way player, which is captured by their offensive and defensive ratings. Stockton’s almost impossible 121 ORTG paired nicely with a 104 DRTG, giving him a plus-17 net for his career. Thomas, despite playing for a team infamous for their bruising defense, ended his career with a negative net rating.

Thomas advocates will point to his superior scoring numbers to make his case, but Stockton was ruthlessly efficient in contrast to Isiah, who needed almost twice as many attempts as Stockton to average just six more points per game. Utah’s floor general was superior at shooting three-pointers (38.4 percent vs. 29 percent), free throws (82.6 percent vs. 75.9), and from the field overall (51.5 percent vs. 45.2 percent).

The other major tally for Thomas is his supposed status as the best player on two championship teams, while many feel Stockton was the the second-best player for a perpetual bridesmaid. Although this may be true, Thomas was blessed with a talented cast of his own, and in fact saw backcourt mate Joe Dumars capture the NBA Finals MVP over him in 1989. Stockton and Malone were the definition of a two-man team, while the Bad Boys Pistons were a deep unit, fortunate enough to bring a future Hall of Famer in Dennis Rodman off the bench.

When you go beyond basic information like points and rings, the numbers tilt heavily in favor of Stockton, whether you’re discussing average production or the totals built up over time. Because Stockton lacks the flash and the championship clout of Thomas, he’s often written off as a very good, but not great player. That’s simply not accurate.

Even Stockton’s most iconic moment, this shot that sent his team to the NBA Finals, is subdued in comparison to Thomas’ legendary busted ankle game in the Finals.

But perhaps that’s how it was meant to be. At the end of the day, give me the guy who was great at his job for more seasons than the other played in the league. Just tell him he needs to find a longer pair of shorts first.
-KYLE NEUBECK

Hit page 2 to read Isiah’s argument…

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  • SweetdickWilly

    I’d say John was the better player. Numbers aside, he was a better defender than Isiah and he was still playing at least an All-Star reserve level when he retired, after having microfracture surgery and against other HOFers such as Gary Payton to guys who’re on their way, like Jason Kidd and against guys who were very good/talented such as Stephon Marbury. His scoring was actually shackled by Jerry Sloan and since Sloan was so hard assed, Utah couldn’t get talent there to help them past everybody else. What talent they had there besides Stockton & Malone, Sloan usually burned bridges with them and those players bounced for better situations.That ultimately hurt them during the Finals years against the Bulls. Even DeShawn Stevenson won outside of Utah.

    When it came to Isiah not making the Dream Team because of Jordan, I’d say that’s karma coming due. He basically had both teams in the 86 All Star Game get in on the type of bitchmove that you see out of old and or sorryassed players at the park, Y, or any spot when they resent being outshined by a teammate when it came to freezing out Jordan. It’s even more pussy when you remember that the ASG is meaningless anyway.

  • Jose

    Well said.Stockton was just consistency personified.At their absolute prime Isiah was a better player but seems he has a habit of messing up and disappearing everywhere.
    Stockton outlasted and outplayed just about every great PG of his time.

  • mo

    Using MJ’s method of choosing Kobe over Lebaron as the better player, I’ll go with Isiah. Two rings are better than none.

  • theWolfmanFan

    With that logic, Steve Kerr also was better than Zeke. Its such a tough debate because Zeke has 2 rings and a Finals MVP. But John made 5 All Defensive NBA teams to Zekes 0 and Stock made 11 all NBA teams to Zekes 5. Stock made it in 3 all time top 25 categories in steals (leader), assists (leader) and games played while Zeke made the list twice with being in 7th in all time assists and 14th in steals. A lot of people want to give Zeke the nod cause of the rings but that Pistons team was 10 deep. and a strong 10 deep. Stockton had Adam Keefe starting when he went to the Finals.
    Stockton was better. Barely.