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Isiah Thomas’ Dream Team exclusion due to Michael Jordan, timing

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

Why didn’t Isiah Thomas make the Dream Team? Jack McCallum and Bill Laimbeer, relayed by McCallum, had two different answers.

“It would have been very interesting to see if this happened the way it went if the team was picked back in 1989 or 1990, when the Pistons were the king of the league and Isiah was the king of the backcourt,” McCallum recalled Laimbeer saying. “OK, what we would we have done then? How much would the committee have been able to not select Isiah?”

“To me, it’s the most complicated thing in the world, although it’s the most simple,” McCallum said. “And that was, in my opinion, Michael Jordan did not want to play with Isiah Thomas. He let that be known obliquely, implicitly or just said it.”

I think they’re both right.

Personally, I thought John Stockton deserved to make the team over Isiah, though admittedly, it’s debatable. But that’s the point. If Isiah were a lock based on ability in 1991, maybe Jordan couldn’t have kept him off the team. But because Thomas and Stockton were at least close to a tossup, Jordan could exert his influence and wedge Thomas out.

If the team were selected in 1990 for the FIBA World Championship in Argentina, as Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus imagined, Isiah might have made it. At that point, Isiah was clearly better than Stockton. Jordan broke a near tie in 1992. That doesn’t mean he could have kept a clearly better off the team in 1990.

Of course, many don’t see Stockton and Thomas as near equals at the time of selection.

“I thought Isiah Thomas deserved to be on the team,” McCallum said.

And he sort of wrote that in 1991:

Stockton, who has led the NBA four straight years in assists, is a brilliant quarterback, but he simply does not belong on the Olympic team ahead of Thomas.

But McCallum, when picking his Dream Team before the actual squad was selected, chose neither Thomas nor Stockton. McCallum actually chose Joe Dumars for his team. Where was the outrage on behalf of Dumars?

But the decision was perceived to come down to Stockton and Thomas, and in the absence of consensus about those two’s on-court level in 1991/1992, Michael Jordan got to cast the deciding vote.

“That is politics. There’s no question about it,” McCallum said. “But it’s the kind of pragmatic decision and politics that is made all the time.”

15 Comments

  • Aug 11, 20122:27 pm
    by Fennis

    Reply

    Again? Really?

    • Aug 11, 20123:26 pm
      by MNM

      Reply

      Agreed.  Let’s try and let it go guys..  It’s times like this that we would really welcome a “player movement” of some kind..

      • Aug 11, 20126:01 pm
        by Desolation Row

        Reply

        This happened when I was 3. A few posts are cool, but might be about time to turn the page and move on from this “drama”…

  • Aug 11, 20124:55 pm
    by Max

    Reply

    Absolutely maddening to me that anyone, especially a so-called Pistons fan, could possibly think Stockton was better than Isiah in 92.  It’s staggeringly ludicrous.  They weren’t even on the same tier and the evidence couldn’t be more clear.
    What happened right after they chose Stockton over Isiah?  Isiah outplayed Stockton about as badly as an upper tier hall of famer can outplay an untried mediocre rookie and Malone broke Isiah’s head open for it.
    It’s so silly to me how so many of you get caught up in stats and even advanced stats when a lot of the players can double their numbers anytime they decide to.   When Kobe Bryant tells his teammates he is going for 50 on a given night because he didn’t like how his matchup for the night played decently the last time he faced the player it shows how these stats as a gauge only go so far because we all know the Kevin Martins of the world can’t just decide to throw up 50 on a given night.
    Any game Isiah chose, he could have bested Stockton’s numbers but the game is about team and during the four years previous to selection that Stockton was averaging more assists, Isiah was allowing his stats to slide to achieve a lot more wins than Stockton.   That’s what should count.   To me the comparison is as crazy as if people were ranking Zach Randolph or someone ahead of Dirk Nowitski after the year the Mavs won the title based on some argument about Randolph’s great individual numbers in the earlier rounds.  It’s just crazy but I guess no crazier than those who argue Bryant will have a valid case against Jordan if he gets a sixth title or even that he will then pass Magic as the best Laker.
    I guess everything gets hazy as the decades go by because the opinion on the ground did not favor Stockton in 92, whatever the writers, who hated and underrated Isiah for living and still do, say.  I’d even go as far as to say that Stockton had done nothing to put himself ahead of KJ or Price in 92 either and the all team selections in the few years previous bear it out.   Isiah was getting major snubs those years in those awards, both because he’d allowed his numbers to drop and because the writers hated him.   If they had not hated him, he would have continued to rack up the all-team awards anyway because the writers would have treated him like they did Tim Duncan for many years when they continued to put him in after his numbers had declined.   The truth is that Duncan deserved those awards because everyone knew he could amp it up in the playoffs and was just better than any of the players who were putting up slightly better numbers during the regular season.
    As right as the voters were about Duncan though, that’s how wrong they were about Isiah.   It’s really funny and almost an indictment against the voting body that from the moment Isiah made the finals, they never gave him another individual award.   Some players get awarded with a makeup MVP after winning a title but Isiah heroically won two titles in a row without even getting a makeup all NBA third team.  Clearly, the voters were prejudiced.  Ask any NBA fan in 89 if Dale Ellis or Mark Price were better than Isiah and I doubt you’d get much of anything but laughter.  Well, Stockton being better is nearly as worthy of as many guffaws.

    • Aug 11, 20126:20 pm
      by Patrick Hayes

      Reply

      @Max:

      I can take an argument for Isiah over Stockton seriously. Personally, in fact, I think Isiah was better, although it was pretty close.

      But what kills your argument is when you say insane things like this: “the writers, who hated and underrated Isiah for living and still do, say.”

      Sure, writers have biases. But to act like there wasn’t support for and against Isiah’s inclusion in ’92 is ridiculous. I highly suggest you read McCallum’s book. There is a lot of interesting nuance in there, particularly about Daly’s and McCloskey’s unwillingness to fight for Isiah behind closed doors. It wasn’t the media that kept Isiah off the Dream Team. It was a combination of the fact that Stockton had closed the gap enough between the two around the time of the selection to make picking him over Isiah less egregious than it would’ve been a couple seasons prior and, more importantly, Isiah had zero allies, not even his own coach or GM, at the time. To blame the media is absurd.

      • Aug 11, 20127:16 pm
        by Max

        Reply

        I don’t blame the media for his non-inclusion particularly.  I believe Jordan was the #1 factor by a mile and that Isiah didn’t have any allies for a host of reasons.   However, the media didn’t fully turn on him until Rodman’s Bird comment and it has been one long free fall after that.   In 1988, Isiah was pushing for his name to be included in the top five and Stockton was just one of the young guard.   By 92, Isiah had proven himself on the court beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Isiah should have been the 4th player on the team overall and wasn’t for politics.   Stockton had no better claim than KJ even other than Malone being an earlier invite.

      • Aug 11, 20127:27 pm
        by Max

        Reply

        @Patrick—I read my comments and it is clear that I was blaming the writers for not giving Isiah all team awards.   However, Isiah not getting those awards is just about the only valid argument I can see for even having the thought that Isiah maybe shouldn’t have made the team but what kills that argument is that Bird and Johnson did make the team.   If accomplishment was a basis, Isiah deserved inclusion doubly.

  • Aug 11, 20125:04 pm
    by Max

    Reply

    Also. I don’t think Isiah would have made the Dream Team during the 88-91 era either because the media and players had already turned Isiah into the NBA’s top villain and never treated him with any decency or fairness from the moment he backed up Rodman’s comments about Larry Bird being overrated because he was white.   In my judgement, Isiah’s snubs for the all team awards were about 90 percent due to that incident and I even think the controversy was the 2nd most important reason he was left off the Dream Team.

  • Aug 12, 20124:59 am
    by Max

    Reply

    John Stockton played from the age of 22 to 40 and wound up playing in 10 all star games, starting four of them and played a total of 197 minutes when all of the best players were on the court. 
    Isiah Thomas played from the age of 20 to 32 and played in 11 all star games, starting 10 of them and played a total of 318 minutes.   This means Isiah practically averaged starters minutes throughout his entire career in all star games.   What does that tell you? 
    There is no comparison regarding who was the bigger star.   As for better player?
    Even though Stockton played many more years, enjoyed a longer prime and played next to a much better player for his entire career than Isiah ever got to play with for a single season, Isiah won two more rings than zero, got to more finals, more conference finals and quite obviously posted many more legendary individual games in the playoffs.   
    Tarsier I think said something in an earlier thread about other players not having the stage Isiah had as a defense of their not having big clutch resumes in the playoffs to compare with Isiah’s.  The argument goes that without a great supporting cast, a player doesn’t have a chance.   Well, Isiah was posting legendary all time playoff moments long before the Bad Boys.  In Stockton’s endless career of consistent elite play, did he ever score 15 points in 90 seconds to tie a game in the playoffs and send it to overtime like Isiah did in 85?   Of course not.   He never even scored 35 points during an entire game.   Isiah could have scored 35 practically any night he wanted but for Stockton it was something of an impossibility–although I think it was a mental block.  In any case, what does that tell you?

  • Aug 12, 201212:12 pm
    by DamPenguin

    Reply

    From a lifelong Pistons fan… Isiah was snubbed, no knock on Stockton (Hall of Famer, All-Time Assists leader) it just shows how good Zeke was.  But that wasn’t the biggest snub on the Dream Team… the biggest snub was Christian Laettner over Shaq.  If Shaq was on that team there just
    wouldn’t be any more comparisons of who had the better team. 

    • Aug 12, 20125:00 pm
      by Chris H

      Reply

      I didn’t really watch college basketball at the time, but being from Michigan and watching the UofM final fours during the fab five timeframe I was familiar with Laettner, but that was because I had no idea who Shaq was.  After watching him during his rookie season I can’t believe Shaq got left off of that team.  Yeah he never could shoot a jumper or a free throw, but he gave the dream team centers a rough time during his rookie year. 

    • Aug 12, 20129:51 pm
      by Patrick Hayes

      Reply

      Laettner was picked because he was clearly the best player in college basketball at the time. Shaq was the best NBA prospect in college basketball at the time. That’s a huge, huge difference. The criteria for the college player they picked was simply ‘best player in college basketball.’ I don’t know if there’s a player in my life I’ve disliked more than Laettner, but the dude was one of the all-time great college players. He deserved to be there.

      Well, he didn’t ‘deserve’ to be there. I think they should’ve just picked 12 NBA guys. But if the idea was to pick 11 NBA guys and 1 college guy, then Laettner was unquestionably the college guy at the time.

  • Apr 21, 20136:50 pm
    by Rashod Welch

    Reply

    The topic of this discussion is exactly why people fight so hard to make sure history, in all areas, is kept OUT of the hands of the revisionists.

    Powers that be in the Sports Media have attempted to perpetrate a fraud over the past 20 to 25 years and revise NBA history.  They have tried to sell the unwitting public on the following 3 lies:
     
    LIE #1) BASKETBALL IN THE 80s AND EARLY 90s WAS MAGIC-BIRD-JORDAN.  

    It wasn’t.

    Anytime you hear someone refer to that era as the “Magic Bird Jordan” era, you should correct them.  It was actually the “Magic-Bird-Isiah” era.  The truth is, Michael was just coming up and learning how to win while those three teams dominated (the Pistons in the later part of course).  When Michael started winning, it could easily be said that the Showtime era was over.  Jordan so dominated and changed the way the game was played that he really does deserve his own era.

    *Consider this:  Isiah and HIS Pistons were the ONLY team to beat Jordan’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics in their prime years.  

    Jordan’s Bulls really beat old-guard teams that were past their respective primes.  However, Jordan was so incredible individually, even while learning how to win as a team that his eventual surpassing of those teams was accepted as inevitable.

    LIE #2: ISIAH AND JOE DUMARS WERE PEERS ON THE COURT AND THE CORE OF THE PISTONS.

    They were not.

    Dumars, who I LOVE as a player and with whom I actually share a birthday, has benefited greatly from the media’s disdain of Isiah Thomas.  He’s one of the saints turned deity by history, lol.

    Joe Dumars was Isiah’s Pippen/Worthy/McHale.  He was the clear #2 and EVERYONE who watched knew it. INCLUDING HIM.

    LIE #3: ISIAH AND JOHN STOCKTON WERE NEAR EQUALS ON THE COURT AND THE CORE OF THE PISTONS.

    …Please.

    This issue boils down to one very simple point, yet basketball revisionists choose to obscure it. If Stockton was so close to Isiah’s equal or slightly his better, then why over 20 years later is the “snub” still considered an outrage?

    No one is crying foul over Kevin Johnson not being on the team, right?

    Look, if you were someone who seriously followed the NBA closely during that era (as I did), the FACT is that Stockton was no where near Isiah’s caliber.  He just wasn’t. Anyone who tries to argue differently is trying to push an agenda.  Stockton led the league in assists because that was the way the Jazz were structured.  Stockton set em up, Malone knocked em down.  And it worked very well.  In fact, Jerry Sloan is probably, in some weird way, the grandfather of the current NBA offense which is pick-n-roll to the 10th power now!

    Now, you’ll get some people who didn’t really see these two play but will saber-metric the numbers and claim Stockton was better.  He wasn’t.  Isiah was FAR more to the Pistons than Stockton was to the Jazz.  Isiah could simply…take…over…a…game.  Stockton couldn’t.  Isiah could create not just for himself but for his teammates as well.

    I saw the two play…Isiah was the best small man to ever play until Allen Iverson showed up.

    “The Snub” is one of basketball’s “high crimes”.  It marked a moment where the integrity of the game was upended by petty personal rivalries and politics.  Jordan robbed a deserving player of a special honor that could not be replaced. 

    It’s also a shame that 20 plus years later, basketball still hasn’t admitted that. 

  • Jun 26, 20136:28 pm
    by Mike

    Reply

    It wasn’t only Jordan who hated Isiah. Barkley, Bird, and Magic hated him too. In fact, my understanding is that all four of rthese great stars were considering skipping the Olympics if Isiah was included. Yes, the media hated him because he said (or confirmed what Rodman said) that Bird was considered a superstar inly because he was white. And then there was the delightful incident where the punk Isaih led the Pistons off the court at the end of the ECF in 1991 after The Bulls ended the Piston’s reign. Joe Dumars and John Salley were the only Piston players profesional enough to remain and shake the hends of the victorious Bulls. So Isaih violated a league tradition. And then there was the 1985 ASG where Isaih conspired to keep the ball away from Jordan because he felt Michale was gettin too much attention. Isiah Thomas was the most hated player in the league. And John Stockton was a fine well respected PG.

    But Isiah’s coach, Chuck Daly, the coach of the Dream Team, could have exerted his influence to put Thomas on the time. No dice. Daly probably thought Thomas was a punk also.  And to cap it off as the games were approaching, Stockton had a minor injury which threatended his partcipation. As I heard it, Daly desgnated Joe Dumars as the backup to call, not Thomas, if Stockton could not go.

    I remember the 1980s NBA very well. In fact, I go back to the late 1950s. Iisah was nowhere near the status of Bird, Magic and Jordan. And Dumars won the finals MVP of the Pistons first title.

    What if Thomas was better than Stockton in 1992? Stockton had closed the gap. But whne you have four of your superstars on the team who hate Thomas’s guts and say they are considering not partcipating if Isiah is on the team, that says something. When he refused to stay on the court and shake hands wiht the Bulls players in 1991, that was egregious. Was it the right decision? Well, look at the record of Thomas since then. (Apologies for typos)     

  • Dec 24, 201311:36 pm
    by jaye

    Reply

    the lie that isiah was left off because of bad timing and his actions is a huge lie… if isiah was left off because of bad sportsmanship in the ecf’s and because he was perceived as a villain.. then what about barkley… who had spit on a little white child… kicked a cameraman in the nuts… and said something offensive every time he opened his mouth?… what about malone who everyone knew had almost grown children that he never even acknowledged… and had made statements about not wanting to play with that aids infected guy… what about magic who had hiv from sleeping with every woman in hollywood?… it was a ridiculous excuse…
    isiah was left off because jordan refused to play if isiah was on the team… period… and jordan was the marquee money player…

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