Before he generally managed several organizations into disarray, few men were as beloved as Isiah Thomas in the world of basketball. NBA fans voted Thomas a starter in 11 of his 12 All-Star games. His sheepish smile and relaxed demeanor off the court seduced the public. His electric passing and fiery play on the court enraptured them .
Thomas’ on-court play is still highly regarded and he has a strong case for the best little man of his generation. His 13.9 assists per game in the 1984-85 season not only led the league, but it was the highest amount recorded in NBA history up to that point. Since then only John Stockton (on two occasions) has been able to top it. Zeke’s passes were crisp, on the money, and often came after a spectacular dribbling exhibition to beguile defenders distracting them from Thomas’ open teammates.
What also made his passing so much of a threat was that his scoring was so much of a threat. You had to play Thomas for the pass and the shot. His three most famous scoring explosions are all the stuff of legend. In December 1983, his Detroit Pistons tangled with the Denver Nuggets in the highest scoring game in NBA history. Thomas finished with 47 points and 17 assists. In April of 1984, Thomas and Bernard King dueled in an overtime thriller to close out their first round playoff series. The Knicks won and King finished with a sturdy 44 points, while Thomas had 35 including 16 points in the final 94 seconds of regulation. Finally, in June of 1988, Thomas exploded for 25 points in the third quarter on a severely sprained ankle against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The Herculean effort, the most points ever in a single Finals quarter, left Thomas with a total of 43 points, but Detroit lost the game by a point.
Detroit would also lose that series in the seventh game, but Motown struck back in 1989 sweeping the Lakers for the title. In 1990, the Pistons repeated as champions dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers in 5 games. These were the crowning years of Thomas’ Pistons. Through the 1980s, he had steadily pushed the traditionally woeful franchise to new heights with Bill Laimbeer, Chuck Daly, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, and other allies. The rival Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Boston Celtics created classic series that remain some of the most exhilarating basketball ever played.
Today Thomas is quietly slipping through the cracks when the great players of his era are discussed. The Bad Boy Pistons as a unit receive a curious blend of praise and scorn. Their physicality is simultaneously lauded for its toughness, but chided for introducing a brand of basketball that slowly strangled the offensive excitement of pro ball in the 1990s and early 2000s. That identity, along with Thomas’ post-playing career, is perhaps what’s strangling the widespread recognition of Thomas as player whose career was on par with the best of the best in NBA history.
Seasons Played: 1982 – 1994
2x Champion (1989-’90)
Finals MVP (1990)
3x All-NBA 1st Team (1984-’86)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1983, 1987)
12x All-Star (1982-’93)
2x All-Star Game MVP (1984, 1986)
NBA - 979 Games
19.2 PPG, 9.3 APG, 3.6 APG, 1.9 SPG, 45.2% FG, 75.9% FT
APG Leader (1985)
7th All-Time Assists, 14th All-Time Steals
5th All-Time APG, 16th All-Time SPG