It’s not a secret that Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan don’t like each other. When each player was pinned against the other, it developed a rivalry between the Pistons and Bulls. Even though it’s been well over 25 years since the two players have suited up against each other, Thomas is still taking swipes at the former great.
Thomas made news by saying that Jordan didn’t beat anyone during the 80s. Jordan was drafted in 1984 and eventually rose to fame in the later 80s. With that said, that decade belonged to Thomas, who was a two-time NBA champion in 1989 and 1990, beating the Bulls on their way to get there.
It begs the question of who Thomas has beaten in his career. When looking at the stats, Thomas can back up the talk. He did win against the greats. Take a look at his record against some of the best players in the NBA.
Larry Bird - 63 Games, 23-40 (36.5%)
Regular Season: 22.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 9.3 APG, 48.6 FG%, 28.6 3-PT% (12-29)
Playoffs: 21.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 8.9 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 44.3 FG%, 29.5 3-PT% (11-11)
One of the players that Thomas said Jordan never beat was Bird. Fun fact, Thomas didn’t beat him either. In 63 appearances against each other, Bird stuck it to Thomas over nearly two out of three times. In the regular season, Thomas displayed nearly a double-double in stats, but Bird usually came away victorious.
As for the playoffs, that was different. The lights must have shined greater because Thomas was .500 against Bird. One of the best series came in 1988 when the Pistons made the NBA Finals by defeating the Celtics in seven games.
Julius Erving - 31 Games, 12-19 (38.7%)
Regular Season: 19.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 9.7 APG, 45.7 FG%, 26.9 3-PT% (12-19)
This record might have been worse had Erving ever played Thomas in the playoffs. For the most part, Erving controlled this rivalry. Thomas was held to a 12-19 overall record against Dr. J. His points per game are one of the lowest totals on the list, failing to eclipse 20 per game, while his assists were just 0.3 off from a double-double.
The 76ers were a strong franchise by the time Thomas first entered the league. When the team won the title in 1983, Thomas was only a sophomore. He still had plenty of growing up to do.
John Stockton - 19 Games, 8-11 (42.1%)
Regular Season: 22.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 7.8 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 50.0 FG%, 31.1 3-PT% (8-11)
It would have been a sight to see these players play in their respective primes. Stockton became the greatest passing guard ever, but much of his dominance was displayed in the 90s. By the early part of the 90s, Thomas was beginning to fade away from the league.
In their brief encounters, the Jazz came out on top 11 of the 19 meetings. Thomas’ 7.8 assists per game are considerably low compared to other players on the list. With that said, he nearly made half of his shots, so that makes up for it to a degree.
Magic Johnson - 28 Games, 12-16 (42.8%)
Regular Season: 21.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 11.4 APG, 44.9 FG%, 17.4 3-PT% (6-12)
Playoffs: 20.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 8.7 APG, 2.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 44.2 FG%, 31.8 3-PT% (6-4)
When Thomas said that Jordan didn’t beat Magic, that statement was technically flawed for multiple reasons. For starters, Thomas had a below .500 record against him in the regular season. It’s not just a losing record, it’s a type of record where he lost twice every three games.
Technically speaking, Jordan did beat the Magic in the NBA Finals in 1991. Thomas also beat Magic in the NBA Finals in 1988 to win his first championship. Both players share a common trait here even though nobody wants to admit it.
Kevin McHale - 82 Games, 36-46 (45%)
Regular Season: 22.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 9.3 APG, 44.2 FG%, 33.0 3-PT% (21-35)
Playoffs: 20.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 9.1 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 43.2 FG%, 26.5 3-PT% (15-11)
McHale and the Celtics were frequent opponents given that both players spent their entire careers with their respective ball clubs. Against McHale, Thomas saw his regular-season record dip as the combination of Larry Bird and McHale tore through the Eastern Conference in the 80s. The Celtics were a powerhouse that met the Lakers in the NBA Finals on multiple occasions.
As for the playoffs, the Celtics eliminated the Pistons in 1985 and 1987, but the Pistons beat the Celtics in 1988 on their way to the NBA Finals. 82 games is a long time against anyone. There is surely mutual respect.
James Worthy - 32 Games, 15-17 (46.8%)
Regular Season: 21.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 10.8 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 45.1 FG%, 22.6 3-PT% (8-13)
Playoffs: Playoffs: 20.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 8.7 APG, 2.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 44.8 FG%, 30.4 3-PT% (7-4)
Beating the Lakers was hard in the 80s. You had Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar headlining that big three. The two times that Thomas saw Worthy in the playoffs were in the NBA Finals in 1988 and 1989, splitting those championships. As for the regular season, it was just as close as a battle.
Thomas was nearly consistent with both of his averages across the board, while his playoff defense took a turn for the better. Not to mention, the back-to-back NBA Finals appearances were one of the few times that Thomas shot 30% from the field from three-point range.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - 27 Games, 13-14 (48.1%)
Regular Season: 23.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 11.5 APG, 46.8 FG%, 20.0 3-PT% (6-10)
Playoffs: 20.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 8.7 APG, 2.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 44.8 FG%, 30.4 3-PT% (7-4)
A matchup of Thomas and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was not something coaches probably wanted, but it happened frequently with Thomas taking the ball to the hole. Thomas was not a great outside shooter, so he was going to find a way to get points around the basket. When playing the Lakers, he nearly shot 47% from the field.
What also sticks out about Thomas was his ability to facilitate. He knew that he was going to see the defense collapse, so he could kick it out. There is a reason that his assists are among the highest against all the players on the list.
Hakeem Olajuwon - 18 Games, 9-9 (50%)
Regular Season: 19.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 9.0 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 43.1 FG%, 30.3 3-PT% (9-9)
Some players would love to go .500 against Hakeem Olajuwon. The former Finals MVP for the Rockets was one of the best two-way players to play the game. Thomas saw a slight decrease in his points and assists, but the Pistons still found a way to split those games played.
The two teams never met in the playoffs. Olajuwon spent his entire career with the Rockets in the Western Conference. The Rockets didn’t make the NBA Finals until 1994 and Thomas was playing through the final year of his career.
Karl Malone - 17 Games, 9-8 (52.9%)
Regular Season: 22.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 7.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 51.5 FG%, 34.1 3-PT% (9-8)
Thomas shot one of his best shooting averages when playing Karl Malone. Maybe it was because Malone was such a proficient scorer himself, but he didn’t develop into a true MVP contender until the 90s. Thomas scored more and passed less when playing the Jazz.
The game plan worked to win the majority of their two contests. With that said, imagine a world where Thomas played with Malone. Would the Jazz have had the same success? Given his numbers against the big man, it is an interesting question to think about.
Scottie Pippen - 54 Games, 29-25 (53.7%)
Regular Season: 19.1 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 8.3 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 44.2 FG%, 40.0 3-PT% (17-15)
Playoffs: 18.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 8.3 APG, 2.2 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 39.7 FG%, 26.1 3-PT% (12-10)
In the regular season, Thomas shot his best three-point shooting percentage. Maybe it was because it was the Chicago Bulls, and he had a special kind of fire against them. This record is indicative of what the Bulls-Pistons rivalry was like. Because of his early success, he held the edge, but the Bulls were coming for him.
You could make an argument that without Thomas, the Bulls never win a championship. Thomas was the perfect heel to the hero. He inspired the Bulls to outwork them in the offseason because of what Thomas did each year. It might have felt like hate, but there had to be some type of respect factor intertwined with this.
Sidney Moncrief - 47 Games, 25-23 (53.9%)
Regular Season: 17.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 9.3 APG, 2.6 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 43.9 FG%, 22.7 3-PT% (18-20)
Playoffs: 15.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 10.6 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 43.0 FG%, 36.8 3-PT% (7-2)
Sidney Moncrief is an unlikely player to be on this list, but he was a tough player to beat. Technically speaking, Moncrief got the best of Thomas in the regular season. Thomas owns one of his worst points per game totals when he played the Bucks. He also shot poorly from all facets of the floor.
As for the playoffs, his points per game got worse, but the Pistons eliminated the Bucks in 1989 in six games. There was another time in 1991 when Moncrief played for the Hawks and Detroit came out on top there too.
Moses Malone - 68 Games, 37-31 (54.5%)
Regular Season: 18.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 8.7 APG, 0.2 BPG, 43.7 FG, 26.6 3-PT% (28-27)
Playoffs: 20.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 9.3 APG, 2.8 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 46.9 FG%, 37.5 3-PT%, (9-4)
While Thomas did not have as much success against Julius Erving, he had better success against Moses Malone. The regular season record proved that these were both talented and competitive players. Thomas was one game away from losing this all-time matchup to Malone in the regular season, but he remains supreme.
In the playoffs, Malone was a solid defender. His rebounds were one of his highest, while his steals nearly broke three per game. While his 20 points seem to be a staple against anyone, his defensive efforts to make up for the team’s lack of size is a true pro move.
Patrick Ewing - 42 Games, 23-19 (54.7%)
Regular Season: 15.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 7.8 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.0 BPG, 41.1 FG%, 18.0 3-PT% (17-15)
Playoffs: 16.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 7.9 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.0 BPG, 39.3 FG%, 38.2 3-PT% (6-4)
The New York Knicks seemed to always be just short. In 1994 and 1999, the team came up just short in the NBA Finals. Patrick Ewing, the star of the Knicks in the 90s, can prove that. The Knicks were so close to owning a winning record with Ewing on the floor, but they came up short.
Understandably, Thomas was going to average fewer points here. Ewing was a force to stop. However, his dismal three-point shooting is embarrassing. This was never truly a rivalry, but it nearly ended like it.
Charles Barkley - 38 Games, 21-17 (55.2%)
Regular Season: 20.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 9.6 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 46.3 FG%, 32.0 3-PT% (21-17)
It’s too bad that the two players never met in the playoffs. Both players were scared of nobody and always had something on their minds. If a game got chippy, you would think that Barkley and Thomas would be in the middle of it. Instead, Thomas is left wondering what could have happened.
The two also never played in the playoffs. Barkley’s 76ers never saw the Pistons. Then, when Barkley moved to the Suns, the two teams never met in the NBA Finals. Instead, the team did that the year right after Thomas retired from the league.
Michael Jordan - 65 Games, 36-29 (55.3%)
Regular Season: 21.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 9.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 44.4 FG%, 40.9 4-PT% (24-19)
Playoffs: 18.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 8.3 APG, 2.2 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 39.7 FG%, 26.1 3-PT% (12-10)
The man of the hour is farther down the list. Michael Jordan fell victim to Thomas than the other way around. There is something to be said about that. Jordan had a tough time beating the Pistons in the 80s. The Bulls were not considered a true contender until the early 90s.
By this time, Thomas was not the same player, and Jordan was the greatest of all time. Regardless, Thomas can always say that he owns a winning record against the greatest basketball player ever.
Dominique Wilkins - 69 Games, 41-28 (59.4%)
Regular Season: 19.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 9.8 APG, 0.3 BPG, 45.0 FG%, 32.0 3-PT% (33-22)
Playoffs: 22.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 10.4 APG, 2.3 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 44.5 FG%, 22.3 3-T% (8-6)
The Hawks and Pistons were a sneaky strong series to watch. The Hawks were eliminated by the Pistons in two playoff series. In the regular season, Thomas got the better of Wilkins. Thomas was vastly conscious between the regular season and playoffs.
What stands out here is that Thomas nearly averaged the same numbers in the regular season and playoffs. The Hawks were one game away from making the Conference Finals in 1987. Instead, the Pistons relied on their GOAT to save them once again.
Bernard King - 45 Games, 28-17 (62.2%)
Regular Season: 20.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 8.7 APG, 44.3 FG% (23-12)
Playoffs: 23.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 9.1 APG, 3.3 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 46.5 FG%, 40.0 3-PT% (5-5)
Out of all the players listed, the one superstar that had the most difficult beating Thomas was Bernard King. What should stand out is that King was able to pull off a 40% shooting clip from three-point range when playing each other in the playoffs.
In those playoffs, King eliminated Thomas from the playoffs in the first round in 1984. With that said, Thomas got his revenge by leading the team past the Knicks in seven games in 1990, which was the same season they won their second straight title. Altogether, these superstars were not easy to beat. Given that the highest percentage is 62.6%, each night was truly a battle for Thomas to come out with a win.