Isiah Thomas: Was He Any Good?

At what point do NBA statistics become completely meaningless?

The Detroit Pistons won three straight Eastern Conference championships between 1988 and 1990, initially falling short in the NBA Finals against Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers before slaying the demons from Tinseltown a year later and providing the first of what would be two close-but-no-cigar Finals defeats for Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers for their second title.

But when you look at those Pistons teams statistically, what you see is what was supposed to be a very good but not quite great team, exactly the team the Pistons were earlier in the decade when they twice got upended in the playoffs by Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics and two more times failed to make it out of the first round.

Isiah Thomas was the best player by any reasonable advanced metric, Bill Laimbeer was the capable big man, and a solid lineup of two-VORP guys in Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, and OG Sixth Man Supreme Vinnie Johnson anchored an eight-man rotation (see also James Edwards, John Salley, and Mark Aguirre on the second title team) good enough to win those two rings at their peak.

But when you look at “Zeke” in a vacuum, your first reaction is not going to be “this was the best player on a squad that went to three straight Finals.”

Let me lay some numbers on you, then let’s talk about the oldest counter-argument on NBA Twitter, namely “you have to watch the games.” When this is all said and done, we’ll decide if leadership is truly better than on-court prowess. Perhaps more to the point, we’ll establish a threshold beyond which statistics are good enough to where you’re not just papering over a garbage career by saying the guy was “a good leader”, using it as a backhanded compliment.

Anyway, you’ll see what I mean by all this as we go.

The Counting Stats

The “pass-first point guard” archetype owes itself to guys like Magic, Zeke, and John Stockton, guys who racked up a ton of assists while being especially selective about how they themselves chose to get their scoring numbers.

That’s not to say none of those guys could put points on the board. Magic averaged 19.5 points per game for his career, Stockton put up 13.1 in an offense where he was the third option behind Karl Malone and whoever was the shooting guard in coach Jerry Sloan‘s offense (Jeff Malone early on, Jeff Hornacek later), and Isiah averaged 19.2 points in 979 career games, good for a solid 18,822 career points.

What’s more, Thomas was a decent enough shooter for his position and era, knocking down a career 45.2 percent of his shots. Sure, that wasn’t remotely as good as Magic (52 percent) or Stockton (51.5), but Zeke was a high-volume shooter as the second option on those Pistons teams while Stockton averaged just 9.1 attempts (scoring 13.1 points on so few tries!) and Magic only attempted 13.2 shots per contest.

Point is, Zeke was still a decent shooter despite the demands of a higher usage rate that saw him take 16.2 shots per game and not have the luxury of being able to take only the shots most likely to go in.

Compare guys like Russell Westbrook if you want examples of a high-volume-shooting point guard. Russ has a career eFG% of .467. Thomas posted a .465 in that same stat. And Russ is playing in an era where guard eFG% is a lot higher than it was 30 years ago thanks to high-volume three-point shooting.

But let’s talk about pass-first, since Thomas led the league in assists in 1984-85 with 13.9 per game, averaged 9.3 for his career, and dished almost nine dimes a game during the two title seasons when Detroit finished last and next-to-last in pace, playing slow, ugly basketball that perfectly suited the style of Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn.

Perhaps not surprisingly with Thomas setting up the big men, Detroit was in the top half of the league in eFG% both of their title years, finishing sixth in 1989 and 13th out of 27 in 1990, that latter dropoff being less of an issue when you consider they held opponents to the lowest shooting efficiency in the league with their Bad Boys defense.

Speaking of defense, Thomas was a competent rebounder for a little guy in the ’80s, averaging 3.6 a game, and his quick hands led him to just shy of two steals a game, topping that mark in each of his first five seasons.

Put it all together and what you’ve got is a damn good NBA point guard fully deserving of his reputation as one of the greats of his era.

The Advanced Stats

Where things get more interesting is where things get more advanced.

During the three Finals years, Thomas had a WS/48 of .124, .115, and .107, barely numbers you’d expect from a competent starter and far below the .173 and .151 he’d put up in 1984-85 and ’85-86 when he was much more of a “best player on a mediocre team” guy carrying the load statistically.

You don’t expect to win titles with a team whose best player doesn’t crack four VORP (Thomas, during the Finals years, posted 3.7, 3.4, and 3.7 respectively, in each case leading the team.)

Kawhi Leonard posted 4.7 last year. Kevin Durant posted 5.5 and Stephen Curry posted 4.0 in 2018. Curry, Durant, and Draymond Green put up 5.9, 5.7, and 4.3 VORP respectively in 2017. And LeBron James put up 7.5 VORP in 2016, trailed by Kevin Love‘s 3.3, with Love putting up a number not too far off from Laimbeer’s 3.4 in 1989 and 3.6 in ’90, and again, Laimbeer’s teammate wasn’t LeBron James.

For some perspective, Thomas put up the same VORP in 1989 as Luka Doncic did as a rookie 30 years later.

And while we’re on the subject of Win Shares and Hall of Fame cases, Thomas is the next guy up the list in the 3-point era ahead of Mitch Richmond, who did not fare well in this column’s treatment of him when we discussed his case.

But never mind that, because…

The “Other Stuff”

Yes, Other Stuff. The 12 All-Star appearances in a 13-year career. The two rings and a third Finals appearance. Two All-Star MVP nods. Five-time All-NBA. Finals MVP in the Blazers series. The heart and soul of a team that built an identity around working-class Detroit basketball that echoed the grit of the city itself. A guy who put the “Fame” in “Hall of Fame” as one of the most marketable players in the league.

And a guy who would’ve capped it all off with an appearance on the Olympic Dream Team in 1992 except everyone else on that team hated his guts and stories abound about Larry Bird and Michael Jordan in particular categorically refusing to play with him if he was named to the team.

Which is its own form of flattery, isn’t it? What was it Winston Churchill said about making enemies?

Oh, and Thomas also has that whole infamous freeze-out of Jordan in the ’85 All-Star Game when His Airness was a rookie that may have had something to do with all that unpleasantness seven years later.

That’s where you have to watch the games. Guys like Laimbeer and Mahorn and Rodman are not anything even slightly resembling a championship team without the leadership of Thomas to guide them. Nobody elevated his teammates statistically like Thomas.

Of the eight guys in the rotation of that 1990 team, Thomas was seventh in WS/48. Only “The Microwave” was worse, a victim of the curse of the volume shooter that has plagued advanced stat analysis of such players since the dawn of time.

Six guys posted 1.5 VORP or better, a year after five guys broke 2.2 and another three broke the one-VORP mark, all while Thomas tied with Salley for last (.115) in WS/48 among Pistons rotation players.

When that many guys have advanced stats that good, when the eighth man is posting numbers that would make him a starter on a lot of other teams, that’s when you know that you have a true leader, a guy who is not necessarily setting the stat sheet on fire himself (although 18.2 points, 8.3 assists, and 7.0 Win Shares in ’89 and 18.4/9.4/6.7 in those three stats a year later isn’t exactly invisible on the scoreboard)…and the ultimate point I’m trying to make here.

THE VERDICT!

Some guys lead teams to titles by putting up such on-another-planet god tier advanced stats that any decent team put around him could win a championship. Look at LeBron and His Airness.

But other guys do it by not just being genuine All-Stars in their own right but by sacrificing that S rank statistical insanity in favor of the ability to elevate everyone else on the floor into if not All-Stars themselves then man-for-man better than whoever the other team could put up against them in a head-to-head matchup from the third man through the eighth man. It’s like a baseball team whose best player only hits 30 homers…but everyone else in the lineup hits 20. You can’t pitch around anyone because all nine guys can mash.

And unlike baseball, that only happens in the NBA when you have true leadership, and that puts Thomas squarely in the Confirmed category as a Hall of Famer and a legitimate all-time great among greats.

I know I said I was going to do Steve Nash today; that’s been pushed to Thursday since I decided to approach the topic a little differently today. We’ll get to Nash next. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!