Top 50 NBA players from last 50 years: Isiah Thomas ranks No. 15

Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, “What’s Wright with Nick Wright,” FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 15, Isiah Thomas.

Isiah Thomas’ career highlights:

  • 1990 Finals MVP
  • 12-time All-Star
  • Three-time first-team All-NBA, two-time second team
  • One-time assists champion
  • 1982 All-Rookie team

The rapper Nas once said of his feud with 2Pac that they had words because the best are supposed to clash at the top. Isiah Thomas could relate. The notorious Dream Team snub quarreled with some of the greatest players ever — notably, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan — perhaps because nobody clashed more with them in the playoffs.

More often than not, Thomas and the “Bad Boy” Pistons got the best of them, too. 

“The player who I believe to be disrespected by history and disrespected by modern analytics more than any other player,” Wright said.

Isiah Thomas is No. 15 on Nick Wright’s Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Isiah Thomas is No. 15 on Nick Wright's Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Despite standing at just 6-1, Isiah Thomas made a large impression on the NBA in the 1980s. He guided the Detroit Pistons to two NBA championships and became the greatest small guard in NBA history. Thomas is Detroit’s all-time leader in points and assists and was a 12-time All-Star.

Zeke’s numbers are fine. They just don’t quite match up with the other top point guards. Blame it on the combination of his diminutive size (6-foot-1, 180 pounds), the inefficiency of his era, and the Achilles tendon injury that ended his career at 32 years old. Thomas also fronted a defensive-minded Pistons team that required him to constantly wear different hats. 

His 9.3 career assists average is the fifth-best mark of all time. In 1984-85, Thomas set the league record with 13.9 assists per game (later broken by John Stockton). There have been just eight 13-assist campaigns in NBA history, and Thomas’ also came with 21.2 PPG scoring, about four more than the next-highest total among them. Only Oscar Robertson logged more 20-point, 10-assist seasons (5-4).

Despite the individual brilliance, Zeke finished top five in MVP voting just once. His standing as one of the all-time greats, of course, rests on what he did in the postseason. 

“Isiah Thomas’ regular-season résumé is not great,” Wright said. “He would sacrifice his own numbers, his own accomplishments, for the needs of his teammates. But when they needed it most, he would show up and have monster games. And when you break it down, it is inarguably true. As soon as his teams faced elimination, Isiah was unbelievable.”

In the first elimination game of his career, a 22-year-old Thomas tallied 35 points and 12 assists in a loss to Bernard King and the Knicks. A year later, he was arguably outplaying apex Bird in the East semifinals. Thomas averaged 26-6-11 in a six-game series loss to the Celtics, including 37-12-9 while facing elimination. In 1986, he dropped 30-10-12 in a series-clinching defeat to Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks.

Detroit made its first deep run (in 25 years) in 1987, with Thomas doing the heavy lifting on offense. He was spectacular through the first two rounds but struggled from the floor in the conference finals against Boston, a series best remembered for his late turnover in Game 5. The Pistons lost two of the final three games by a total of four points, despite Thomas averaging 23 and 9 over the seven meetings.

Fast-forward 12 months for Zeke’s revenge. He opened the ’88 East finals against Boston with 35 and 12 for a road win. With the series tied 2-2, he put up 35-8-5 with four steals to give the Pistons a 3-2 lead. They’d soon advance to their first Finals (and effectually end Boston’s dynasty) behind Thomas’ 23-5-8 in the series.

That begat a showdown with the “Showtime” Lakers, and the most memorable moment of Thomas’ career. He played well enough to lead Detroit to a 3-2 advantage in the series and was rolling in a tight Game 6 before suffering a severe ankle sprain. Zeke would soon return and score 11 more points in the third quarter while hobbling on one leg, giving him an NBA Finals-record 25 for the frame and the Pistons a small cushion. Detroit still led by a point in the closing seconds when Bill Laimbeer was called for a questionable foul on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who knocked down two free throws for the win. With Thomas still clearly ailing in Game 7 and the adrenaline long gone, the Lakers completed the repeat. 

“He was this close to having a playoff run where he goes through Jordan, then Bird and [Kevin] McHale, then Magic, Kareem and [James] Worthy,” Wright said.

Zeke & Co. pulled off the triple play in 1989 instead. This time, the Pistons swept the Celtics, knocked out the Bulls in six, with Thomas going for 33-5-4 with three steals in the closing game, and swept the Lakers. 

In 1990, Detroit eliminated Chicago for a third straight season and dispatched the emerging Trail Blazers in five games for a second straight title. Thomas averaged 28-5-7 to win Finals MVP. It was the most points he’d ever averaged in a playoff series, and Detroit needed all of them while winning three games by six points or less.

The Pistons beat the Celtics once more in the ’91 playoffs and made it back to the conference finals, only to be swept by Jordan and the Bulls. Thomas remained an elite playmaker, but his shooting had dramatically declined following a midseason wrist injury. He played in his final playoff game the next season, a loss to the Knicks in which he collected 31 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. 

Thomas retired with career averages of 20.4 points and 8.9 assists in the postseason. Robertson and Chris Paul are the only other players to top 20 points and eight assists per game (minimum 40 playoff games). From 1987-91, Zeke took the Pistons to five consecutive conference finals and three Finals, where they compiled a series record of 8-2 versus the Bulls, Celtics and Lakers, and won two championships.

It all makes him the most accomplished small guard the game has ever seen, and the only one to lead a franchise to multiple titles.

“Isiah did not have a superteam. Isiah had very good teams. But Isiah didn’t have a single teammate that was on the original 50 greatest players ever,” Wright said. “Quite simply, Isiah Thomas understood how to win basketball games as well as any player in NBA history.”

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