Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
Paul’s prime may have began from the jump, when he finished one vote shy of unanimous Rookie of the Year honors, or the following season, when he missed a month with an ankle injury, but he really made the leap in 2007-08. His production soared, he led the New Orleans Hornets to their first-ever Western Conference semifinals appearance, and he finished second to Kobe Bryant in MVP voting.
Barring an unforeseen resurgence on the Oklahoma City Thunder, his prime ran for 10 seasons, through his entire Los Angeles Clippers tenure, until age and injuries put him in the backseat behind James Harden on the Houston Rockets. In that decade, Paul averaged 19.1 points (48 FG%, 37.8 3P%, 87.3 FT%), 10.2 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game, leading his team to the playoffs each year.
During his prime, Paul made nine All-Star Game appearances, finishing in the top seven among MVP vote-getters six times and topping out as the runner-up in 2008. He led the league in assists per game four times and steals per game five times.
Paul’s teams in New Orleans and L.A. both featured All-Star power forwards, All-Defensive-caliber centers and a host of talented role players. Among them, Blake Griffin is the closest to a Hall of Fame teammate (prior to the Harden partnership). Paul’s road to a title twice ended against a dynastic San Antonio Spurs team.
Thomas started for the Eastern Conference All-Stars as a rookie, but his true prime followed a similar pattern before his career — and the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons — entered into a steep decline, culminating in an Achilles injury just prior to his 1994 retirement. During a 10-season stretch from 1982-92, Thomas averaged 19.9 points (46 FG%, 28.4 3P%, 77 FT%), 9.5 assists, 3.7 rebounds and two steals per game.
Thomas made 12 All-Star appearances, including every year of his prime and two All-Star Game MVP honors. He finished top-10 in MVP voting four times, peaking with a fifth-place finish in 1983-84, behind Larry Bird, Bernard King, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He led the league in assists twice and steals twice. His 13.9 assists per game in 1984-85 are third only to a pair of John Stockton seasons.
The Pistons made the playoffs in the final nine years of Thomas’ prime, including three straight Finals appearances and back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. Those teams featured two other in-their-prime Hall of Famers — Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars — as well as four-time All-Star Bill Laimbeer, a post-prime Adrian Dantley and a host of talented role players. Thomas’ path to more championships ended against the dynastic Boston Celtics (twice), Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls.
Paul finished higher in MVP voting four times prior to his sixth-place finish in 2014-15, but from a holistic viewpoint, that season has marked his career apex. He played all 82 games, averaging 19.1 points (on nearly 40/50/90 splits) and an NBA-best 10.2 assists per game. He did not make First Team All-NBA for the first time in four years, finishing behind future MVPs Stephen Curry and Harden, but kept alive a string of First Team All-Defensive appearances that stretched to seven straight.
The Clippers won 56 games and entered the 2015 playoffs with serious title hopes, despite a No. 3 seed. Paul ousted the defending champion Spurs in the first round with a buzzer-beating, series-clinching shot. A hamstring injury cost him the first two games of a conference semifinals series against the Rockets that ended in a disastrous collapse, despite a pair of monster outings from Paul in Games 6 and 7.
Houston lost the conference finals in five games to the rising Warriors, who Paul’s Clippers had beaten the season prior in a first-round series. Th Lob City Clips never recovered from that loss, and Paul has not reached those individual heights again.
Like Paul, Thomas’ single-season apex is not so easy to pin down. Both were remarkably consistent. Statistically, 1984-85 was Thomas’ best. He averaged 21.2 points, 13.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game, sharing a First Team All-NBA backcourt with Magic Johnson for the middle of three straight seasons.
Still, if you want to draw a line in the sand for Thomas, it is harder to do better than 1989-90, when he took those consistent season-long averages (18.4 points and 9.4 assists per game that season) and supercharged them on an incredible playoff run, some three years after the last of his five consecutive All-NBA selections.
En route to the 1990 NBA championship, a 29-year-old Thomas averaged 20.5 points (46/47/79 splits), 8.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game in 19 playoff games, beating Michael Jordan’s Bulls before averaging 27.6 points on 54/69/74 splits to win Finals MVP honors in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
When you think of Thomas in the playoffs, you think of one of the most memorable postseason efforts in NBA history. Playing on a badly sprained right ankle, Thomas scored 25 third-quarter points in a potential close-out Game 6 in the 1988 Finals.
The last of his 43 points on the night gave the Pistons a 102-101 lead against the Showtime Lakers and probably should have delivered the first of three straight championships, if not for Laimbeer’s infamous phantom foul against Abdul-Jabbar.
As it were, Thomas delivered the next two NBA titles, solidifying his status as an all-time great who elevated his game in the postseason. During a five-year stretch in which the Pistons made the conference finals each season — including 10 series against Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics and Jordan’s Bulls — Thomas averaged 20 points (43.7 FG%, 35 3P%, 77.7 FT%), 8.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals in 37.5 minutes per game. And he was even better in his three Finals appearances.
Paul’s first-round series-winner against the Spurs in 2015 is maybe his most satisfying playoff moment, but the memory that endures are his two turnovers in the last 17 seconds of a pivotal Game 5 loss to OKC in the 2014 conference semifinals.
That too was marred by missed calls, but Paul’s playoff career is littered with missed opportunities. There was also his team’s Game 6 collapse against Houston in the 2015 conference semifinals, and a slew of untimely injuries that limited his chances for postseason heroics — namely the hamstring strain with Houston that cost him the final two games of the 2018 conference finals against Golden State.
Paul bears too much of the responsibility for his team’s playoff failures. Take that Game 6 against the Rockets, for example. He finished with 31 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, while everyone else but Griffin on that team combined to shoot 30.8 percent on 52 field-goal attempts. He was also on the floor for 12 of the final 14 minutes in which the Clips blew a 19-point lead to Harden-less Houston.
Paul responded with a 26-5-10 with four steals in a series-ending defeat that saw more paltry shooting from his team’s role players. His career is filled with impressive Game 7 performances, all while averaging 20.6 points (47.8 FG%, 39.4 3P%, 87.7 FT%), 8.5 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 steals over a five-year stretch in which the Clip were a serious title contender. They also never got out of the second round.
So, how much of their legacies simply belongs to narrative — Thomas the hero, Paul the goat, both of which could have been swung if their teammates had risen or fallen a bit more in the moment? Quite a bit, probably, but the fact remains that one delivered two Larry O’Brien trophies, while the other is still searching for his first.
• Paul: Nine-time All-Star (2013 All-Star Game MVP); eight-time All-NBA selection (4x First Team, 3x Second Team, 1x Third Team); nine-time All-Defense (7x First Team, 2x Second Team); four-time assists leader; six-time steals leader; 2006 Rookie of the Year; 2004 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year; two-time Olympic gold medalist
• Thomas: Two-time champion (1990 Finals MVP); 12-time All-Star (two-time All-Star Game MVP); five-time All-NBA selection (3x First Team, 2x Second Team); 1985 assists leader; 1982 NBA All-Rookie First Team; 1981 NCAA champion (NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player); 1980 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year
Let’s get this out of the way: The league did not introduce a Third Team All-NBA until the 1988-89 season, so that may have cost Thomas another selection or two. (How he was not among six guards chosen in 1989 is kind of mind-boggling, too.) Let’s agree to call the differences in their All-Star and All-NBA selections a wash.
The league leads in assists and steals aren’t exactly a dividing line, either. Paul is averaging 9.7 assists and 2.2 steals per game to Thomas’ 9.3 and 1.9. Thomas is not to blame for playing at the same time as Magic Johnson and John Stockton.
The All-Defense selections are the most important point in Paul’s favor. (Shooting efficiency is another, even if their respective eras mitigate that argument a bit.) Paul was the NBA’s best defensive point guard for close to a decade. Thomas never laid claim to that title for a single season. He also never needed to, a luxury provided by playing alongside Rodman, Dumars and Laimbeer on consistent top-five defenses.
The question is whether you would rather have a handful of tertiary awards or two of the ultimate prize. The answer should be obvious, and that Finals MVP holds even more weight. Thomas was the best player on a team that won two titles overwhelmingly in an era when three of the league’s greatest dynasties reigned.
For the culture
Another caveat: We are looking solely at NBA playing careers here. Thomas’ later failures as a coach and executive, including a 2007 sexual harassment lawsuit, are weighty, but they hold no water for the sake of this argument. In the absences of any concerning post-playing experiences, Paul is a clear-cut winner in that regard.
As players, Thomas and Paul rate similarly off the court. Paul is recognizable beyond traditional basketball fandom as the face of a State Farm marketing campaign and a member of the Banana Boat crew, but Thomas enjoyed a similar status from the moment he won the 1981 NCAA championship, leading Indiana to a national title back when that really mattered. Neither were exactly NBA darlings.
Thomas pushed the Pistons to trade Adrian Dantley for his friend Mark Aguirre in 1989, which resulted in Dantley calling him a “con man” years later, but Thomas’ highest-profile conflicts were with his greatest rivals — Johnson, Bird, Jordan — which led Magic to say in “When the Game Was Ours” that nobody on the Dream Team wanted to play with him, leading to his blackballing from the 1992 Olympics.
Thomas infamously said Bird “would be just another good guy” if he were black. An on-court altercation in the 1988 Finals became a decades-long feud between two ex-best friends when Thomas allegedly questioned Johnson’s sexuality following Magic’s 1991 HIV diagnosis. Convinced Thomas led the charge to freeze him out of the 1985 All-Star Game, Jordan again felt disrespected when Thomas and the Pistons left the court with eight seconds left in a four-game conference finals sweep at the hands of his Bulls, which ultimately resulted in Jordan allegedly telling USA Basketball that he would not play for the Dream Team if Thomas were selected.
Save for a career-long feud with Rajon Rondo that resulted in a punch to the face this past season, most of Paul’s conflicts have been with his own teammates. He still counts LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade among his closest friends. It is Griffin and Harden with whom Paul has had his highest-profile beefs, both of which led to the dismantling of a pair of championship-contending rosters.
And that is the difference between Thomas and Paul. As one colleague from Detroit put it, the bond Thomas shares with Detroit is akin to the one Allen Iverson shares with Philadelphia. Paul has never had that. He was booed in his return to New Orleans and booed at a Dodgers game upon his arrival in Los Angeles, if only because the NBA vetoed his trade to the Lakers. After a 2014 L.A. homecoming ended in an altercation between his Rockets and the Clips, the local newspaper headline read, “Chris Paul will probably never be cheered at Staples Center again.”
In a discussion of your impact on the game as a player, would you rather be beloved in a city you spent your entire career or leave behind a trail of bitter ends?
THE DAGGER: Isiah Thomas is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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