Was Isiah Thomas one of the greatest point guards ever?


You know, Dave has taken swings at some big names over the years. I can’t help but wonder if his Detroit fandom has kept Isiah Thomas off limits. Of course, by the time Dave got around to analyzing and writing about basketball Isiah had gone from an “all-time great” point guard to one of the biggest failures in NBA management. And, that’s helped Isiah’s legacy in a way. You see, Isiah Thomas simply isn’t anywhere near the same level as other point guards greats. Let’s just do a simple test, what if we look for point guards since 1978 with more wins than Isiah Thomas. Isiah is ranked 24th*! Is that “good”? probably. All time great though? Nowhere close.

Isiah does have one thing to his credit. He played over 35,000 minutes, which is pretty rare. What if we restrict our list to players with 30,000 or more minutes and then examine by per-minute rank. How’s Isiah fair then? Isiah still ends up ranked 13th, right behind Derek Harper.

In fact, if we check Isiah’s career totals, he ends with a WP48 of 0.099. What’s that mean? It means he was exactly average. Now, a long career of average play is in fact quite impressive (just ask Kobe) but it does not make you one of the top point guards of all time.

Let’s do a quick review of Isiah’s career to see what happened.

Season Wins Wins per 48 Minutes
 1982 0.0 0.000
 1983 6.1 0.095
 1984 11.7 0.187
 1985 16.8 0.260
 1986 11.4 0.196
 1987 6.9 0.110
 1988 4.7 0.077
 1989 3.8 0.062
 1990 4.6 0.073
 1991 2.5 0.072
 1992 3.9 0.064
 1993 1.2 0.020
 1994 -0.3 0.000

To recap. As a rookie, Isiah Thomas was useless and contributed no wins. As a sophomore, he played average. Then in third season he had a breakout year! He earned his team over 10 wins, was ranked top 15 in the league and was the second best point guard behind Magic Johnson! In 1985, he topped himself. He was 4th in the league, behind only Magic, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan! Not bad company to be in. He dropped from the ranks of top 15 in 1986 (the competition was fierce) but remained a top 3 point guard behind Magic and Mo Cheeks. After 1986 though, Isiah slid to being an average player. He stayed slightly below average through 1992. Finally in 1993 he stopped even being near average and in 1994 he played his last season as a negative player.

So, the reality about Isiah is that he was a top point guard, but only for three seasons. Unlike the careers of other players like John Stockton or Jason Kidd, he just didn’t keep playing well enough, long enough. The key behind Isiah’s perceived greatness is threefold.

Yay Points!

Allen Iverson wants the crowd to be louder

Did someone mention overrated scoring? 

First, he was able to score lots of points and get lots of assists (two important things for point guards.) But what’s important to note is that Isiah was never that efficient at shooting. His career True Shooting percentage was 51.6%. And only in his 1986 did his True Shooting percentage exceed 53%. Isiah also was very prone to turning the ball over. Career wise, he ended at just under 4 turnovers a game. Now, from 1984-1986, that was fine, because his assists were between 11 – 13 a game! But after that stretch he fell closer to 8-10 a game. Isiah’s inefficiencies were hard to notice, but impacted his performance.

The Isiah I used to know

magic-johnson-isiah-thomas-kiss-425 They used to be close

Next, Isiah actually did play that well. As I mentioned for a brief three seasons, Isiah was as great as people think he was his full career. And we’ve noticed that a player’s reputation can often blind people to how good they still are. Kobe is not the player he once was. Kareem and Shaq both fell apart but people still thought they were important pieces. Isiah fell apart much sooner than we’d have expected, but his reputation let people overlook that he was missing shots and not getting as many assists. Indeed, he made the All-Star game every year of his career! We’ll give the voters a little credit, he did not make the All-NBA team after 1987. He was still earning MVP votes up until 1991 though.

Count the rings!


Finally, Isiah did win two NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. Of course, the real credit goes to underrated stars Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer. That said, winning titles in the late 80s let him stay relevant  The fact that he was considered for the 1992 Dream Team being an example.

The thing about Isiah is that he’s hard to explain. You see, he followed the classic age curve flawlessly. He started slowly as a rookie, improved and was looking great heading into his prime. Except, at age 25, when most players hit their peak, Isiah degraded. It’s one of the most bizarre things to notice. You see, Isiah SHOULD have been an all-time great. Had he played another few seasons at that level and slowly degraded, he’d easily have been a top 5 or top 10 point guard. Except, his degradation was swift and at an unexpected time. I’d love inside analysis from Pistons fans. The key point I can make is that, even reviewing Isiah’s own numbers, it’s clear he was not the same player from 1987-1990 as he was from 1984-1986. The question is why? And the answer to that could reveal why Isiah ended his career a far cry from an all-time great.


* Here’s the list of point guards with better win totals than Isiah Thomas


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