John Stockton is recognized as one of the game's greatest playmakers during his years with the Utah Jazz. Stockton was the best pure playmaker in the league for years, averaging 10.5 assists per game for his career. His pick and roll with power forward Karl Malone was one of the most unstoppable plays in NBA history. Of course, Stockton never missed the playoffs with the Jazz when he was the starting point guard.
On the other end, Isiah Thomas is recognized as one of the best leaders in NBA history. Thomas was a winner of the highest order by capturing 2 straight NBA titles with the Pistons in 1989 and 1990. Despite his miniature size, Thomas was also one of the toughest players in his generation and is widely respected among his peers and fans that had the privilege of watching him play.
It is clear both guys are of the upper echelon when it comes to point guard play, but who comes out on top in a player vs. player comparison? It is time to find out. By comparing the key attributes of the best players in the league from physical skills to mental, we can deduce which superstar point guard was the better player with the better career.
A mix of the eye test, statistical comparison, and career analysis will give us the final answer for an age-old question.
Scoring - Isiah Thomas
Many former NBA players swear by Stockton's ability to keep on the move whenever he did not have the ball and find himself wide open under the basket. With the ball, he was also great at dribble moves and penetrating to the basket. As a shooter, the Jazz legend was also prolific by averaging 51.5% from the field, 38.4% from three, and 82.6% from the free-throw line.
But other than shooting efficiency, Thomas was a better scorer. Thomas averaged a career 19.2 PPG compared to Stockton’s 13.1 PPG while averaging over 20 PPG for 5 seasons (to Stockton’s none). Stockton never had to score a ton of points thanks to Karl Malone, but he could not match up with Thomas in scoring the ball anyways.
Athleticism - Isiah Thomas
This one is a little bit difficult since Stockton was never a fantastic athlete. He wasn't particularly quick, strong, or tall. Standing at 6'1", he hardly made an impact physically although he was crafty at controlling his speed whenever he had the ball on the fast break. But as an athlete, Thomas was better.
Isiah is 6’1” and 180 lbs but was a quicker player at getting to the rim and was more explosive. While Thomas was still miniature and was normally at a disadvantage when he played, he had a slight edge in athleticism over John Stockton.
Defense - John Stockton
John Stockton was regarded as one of the best defensive point guards in his time because he averaged at least 3.0 SPG 3 separate times in his career. As a 2-time steals leader and 5-time All-NBA Defensive Team performer, Stockton is undoubtedly a solid perimeter defender. Of course, Stockton leads all players in total steals (ahead of Chris Paul and Michael Jordan).
Thomas was mainly known as a scoring guard, but he was a solid defensive player who averaged over 2 SPG 5 times in his career. Over his career, “Zeke” averaged 1.9 SPG which is a very solid number, but he does not have the accolades that Stockton has achieved.
Clutch - Isiah Thomas
The clutch gene was prevalent for both superstar point guards, and they had tremendous success over their careers. Stockton was confident in clutch situations because he played alongside Karl Malone, but also because he was a great shooter from the perimeter.
Meanwhile, Isiah was a dominant point guard who could turn it on offensively whenever it was necessary. Thomas famously dropped 22 points in the third quarter of Game 4 in the 1990 NBA Finals, leading his team to victory. Thomas did not have the statistics of some other great point guards, but he was one of the most clutch players ever.
Leadership - Even
Stockton was a tremendous leader because he could set up his teammates with ease. The Jazz legend leads all players in total assists, so he has to be one of the best leaders on the court. Stockton was competitive, talented, and made a Hall of Fame career out of being an all-time great floor general.
Isiah Thomas was not the playmaker that Stockton was, but provided leadership in the form of being a tough competitor on and off the court. The 2-time NBA champion was a fearless force against the toughest competition which also made him an all-time great leader.
Basketball I.Q. - John Stockton
John Stockton was a genius at playing basketball and challenged the likes of Magic Johnson and LeBron James as the best playmaker in NBA history. Stockton was extremely unselfish, never played out of character, and knew where his bread was buttered. Playing with a scorer like Karl Malone took sacrifice, a position Stockton thrived in.
Meanwhile, Isiah was as cut-throat as a point guard could get. Doing anything he could to win, Thomas sometimes had to have inefficient games to keep his team afloat. On the other end, Stockton was great at playing in the flow of the offense and reading situations as they came which made him a smarter player. In fact, very few players were as smart as Stockton in the game.
Impact - Even
Since both players have similar impacts and abilities on the floor, this one is very hard to gauge. Stockton impacted the game on both ends of the floor and did it for a very long time. Even when Stockton has a tough shooting night, he can manage to influence the game on the defensive end by grabbing steals and offensively by setting up teammates.
Thomas was a great scorer for his size and was the leader behind two championship teams with the Pistons. His toughness and on-court leadership were his greatest attributes, and he always performed in big games. While Thomas won 2 titles to Stockton's none, the Jazz point guard made 2 NBA Finals and probably would have championships if not for Michael Jordan. So in the end, their impact is even.
1 on 1 Game - Isiah Thomas
One on one, Thomas is a better scorer with a wider array of moves. He can create space with his dribbling and then find his shot in rhythm. Isiah was exceptional at stepping back for open jumpers, finishing around the basket under bigger defenders, and drawing fouls when defenders sneak a hand in. At 6'1", Thomas is an amazing scorer for his size.
Stockton was a good inside scorer, mainly thanks to his off-the-ball movement and rim runs. He was also an exceptional outside shooter because of his sharpshooting ability, but Thomas gets the edge in terms of pure one on one offense.
Career - Isiah Thomas
While John Stockton is one of the greatest point guards ever with incredible success over his career, Isiah Thomas has the edge in his career. Stockton leads all players in assists and steals while making 10 All-Star Teams and 11 All-NBA Teams. Impressively, Stockton has led the NBA in assists 9 times and steals twice. But championships are most important, something Thomas has achieved.
Isiah Thomas was the leader of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, a team that was greater than any team John Stockton played for. Thomas never had a superstar on the level of Karl Malone either, yet still made 12 All-Star Teams and won 2 titles. Thomas also won All-Star Game MVP twice and captured the Finals MVP in 1990. Based on team success, Thomas has the edge over Stockton.
Final Score: John Stockton vs. Isiah Thomas 2-5
John Stockton may hold the advantage in individual statistics such as being the all-time leader in assists and steals, Isiah Thomas managed to win 2 straight NBA championships as arguably the best player on his team. Stockton had the privilege of playing with Karl Malone yet could not capture a single championship.
A Finals MVP sums up a Hall of Fame career for Isiah Thomas who is a top-5 point guard who has played the game. As the leader of the "Bad Boy Pistons", one can imagine that Thomas would have an NBA title if he played with Karl Malone.