Ask a room full of NBA fans over the age of 40 who the best under 6’ 3” player of all time is, and I bet a majority of them will answer with the same name: Isiah Thomas. Thomas was the fiery leader of a Detroit Pistons team that won two titles, made three consecutive NBA Finals, made five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, and defeated Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and Larry Bird’s Celtics in the process. Bill Simmons, author of The Book of Basketball, swears up and down that Isiah is the best point guard of his lifetime (excepting Magic as something more than a point guard with his 6’ 9” frame). Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe pretty much echoes that sentiment (excepting also Oscar Robertson).
Old heads and modern basketball historians believe Isiah was the real deal. Modern metrics do not. He took too many bad shots. He gave away too many turnovers. He played in too fast an era. His teams excelled on the glass and on defense more than anything, and the credit for those areas goes to the big guys like Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, and John Salley.
A quick breakdown of Isiah’s game for the uninitiated: Thomas was an undersized, lightning quick guard with the best handles of his era, good elevation in traffic, and tremendous court vision. His offense was a lot of runners and quick pull-up jumpers. He was very good working the pick and roll or pick and pop, and he could break down almost anybody off the dribble one on one. Defensively he liked to press and really get underneath opposing point guards to hamper their progress up the court. He was both short and slight though and an easy target for post ups or for taller players to shoot over on the perimeter.
How did that playstyle translate statistically? It depends on your point of view. I created a big fat table from the Basketball-Reference.com statistical pages of all players since 1980 (3 point shot introduction) to today, ages 23-32 combined seasons, over 600 games played and I got the per game, per 36 minute, and per 75 possession stats along with the advanced metrics. Using a brutally simple production figure (points + assists + rebounds), among all point guards, Thomas ranks out as 3rd best per game, 2nd best per minute, and 3rd best per possession. He is dead last by Win Shares per 48 minutes. In fact, he is dead last among the 89 players on my list regardless of position.
So where’s the disconnect? Why do the the old man eye test and the basic box score stats tell us one story, and the advanced metrics tell such a different one?
There are two reasons that Isiah’s metrics don’t look so hot. He has a lousy effective field goal percentage, and his turnover rate is too high. Just looking at that in black and white makes him sound like a bad player. But when you consider how the Pistons built their team and what Isiah had to do to make the offense run properly, you see how his seemingly negative attributes were actually beneficial for the team.
Over the 10 year stretch that my statistics span for Thomas (1983-92), his Pistons were third in total wins behind LA and Boston. They had a 109.2 Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions) and a 105.9 Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), good for 6th best and 3rd best overall respectively. Offensive rating is largely based on Dean Oliver’s four factors, eFG%, TO%, ORB%, and FTrate. Basically what that means is that the four good things a team can do maximize its scoring efficiency are to shoot well, minimize turnovers, get offensive rebounds, and get to the foul line. Duh. The Pistons, who maintained one of the best offenses in the league, did so primarily by having very few turnovers and dominating the offensive glass. Their eFG% was a pedestrian .487, not even league average, and their FTrate was .492, just about dead-on average. But their turnover rate was 13.7, top 5 in the league, and their ORB% was 34.6, 3rd best.
So how does Thomas, the player least likely to get an offensive board and most likely to turn it over, factor into that offensive success? By doing the things that put his teammates in position to succeed. Isiah was a wizard at getting into the lane, but once he got there, he met a lot of resistance. Laimbeer and Dumars could stretch the floor a little, but the other players couldn’t. Rodman played a lot of small forward for this team, so when Zeke got into the paint, he’d find Dennis along with Mahorn or Salley or James Edwards and their defenders directly in his path. No problem! He just drew the defense and lofted the ball up on the backboard for his big guys to corral. On the stat sheet it looks like he made a terrible play. He missed a covered shot. In reality he created an opportunity for the team’s board-crashing specialists to excel. And the turnover story is even simpler. Since Isiah was virtually the only player trying to make plays for others, no one else had a high turnover percentage, and the team as a whole maintained possessions exceptionally well.
Teams aren’t really built that way anymore. Few teams play two traditional bigs and a non-shooting small forward all at the same time (Memphis maybe). To answer the question of whether or not Zeke was a real star player or just a puffed up top scorer on a team that made its bones at the defensive end, let’s imagine who he might play like in today’s game on a team with more spacing and less rebounding.
Only two players on my stat list have a usage rate over 25% and an assist rate over 35%, Isiah Thomas and Tony Parker. When I consider Parker’s game, the lack of three point shooting, the pick and roll wizardry, and the ball-control and quickness and ability to get in the paint, I think it’s a pretty good modern comparison. However, because of the difference in teammates and system, the stats are considerably different. I won’t weigh this post down with their individual numbers but suffice it to say that Parker was much more efficient as a shooter and turned it over a lot less while Thomas put up much better per game and per minute totals because he played more on a faster team.
What’s more interesting is to look at what the Spurs expect of Tony and how it translates to the team’s stats. Over the 9 year stretch that my stats give for Parker (2006-14) the Spurs are far and away the best in total team wins. They have a 109.3 offensive rating (3rd best overall) and a 102.5 defensive rating (best overall). Their eFG% is 2nd best to Phoenix, and their TOV% is top 6. However, the Spurs have had the worst offensive rebound rate of any team over those seasons and the second worst free throw rate (made free throw / field goal attempt). If we look at those numbers we can figure out what coach Gregg Popovich is trying to accomplish and how Parker’s particular skillset factors.
First and foremost, the Spurs have the best defense in the league, and Pop prioritizes transition defense over offensive rebounding always. The lack of free throws is the result of the team not having the most athletic squad at the wings and because they get a ton of open shots. The high effective field goal percentage is all about maximizing shot value. The basic breakdown of a Spurs possession is: Parker gets into a side pick and roll and tries to score. If the defense fails to react, it’s a layup. If the two defenders converge on Parker, it’s an open shot for the screener, usually Tim Duncan. If the two defenders switch, it’s two mismatches that will result in a good though covered shot. If an extra defender leaves his man to come help on the Parker / Duncan screen and roll, then another Spur is open, usually for a corner three once the ball swings properly. If the play gets blown up, Parker will simply go into a second pick and roll and sometimes a third until the defense is compromised.
The reason this strategy works is because the Spurs have excellent shooters on the wing and capable passers and shooters up front. They are able to clear the defense out of the way to run the pick and roll and capitalize on Parker’s aggressiveness. Toss in the rules regarding perimeter hand-checking and defensive 3 second violations (this is a golden era for a super-quick point guard with the ability to finish and good vision), and you see why Tony Parker is so damn effective.
None of this is meant to undermine Parker or to say that in today’s environment on a team constructed like San Antonio, Isiah would be a match for Tony at finishing around the rim. That’s a tall order! But, I do think it’s fair to posit that Thomas would be a significantly more efficient shooter and passer in a system that called for less individual creation of shots against set defense and more execution of offense to get optimized shots for others. And if Isiah made one more shot per game, his eFG% would leap from .465 to .553, right in line with Steve Nash and significantly higher than Parker. If he only made ½ a shot more per game, his eFG% would come up to .522, almost exactly the same as Parker. It’s not a big stretch to think the Isiah would look like a star, if not a superstar, today (or for that matter that Tony Parker might have been a star in the olden days).
This is a huge post, so I’ll wrap up now, but I also want to point out that there is probably an efficiency correction to be made based on total possessions played. It’s true that in today’s environment where the best teams are committed to full effort and execution on defense all game long, the per possession impact on each player is probably higher, but in a faster era where players actually had to run up and down the 90 foot court as many as 20 more times, that’s probably a more detrimental energy sapper. Just another piece of context to consider when we try to evaluate a retired player against a modern basketball framework.