Suffice it to say, there wasn’t much love lost between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas when the Bulls and Pistons were battling for Eastern Conference and NBA supremacy in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Thomas and his Detroit teammates infamously walked off the court without shaking hands after the Bulls beat them in the 1991 conference finals, which Jordan — who was physically mauled by the Pistons for years and remains a champion grudge holder — has never let go. It is widely believed Jordan kept Thomas off the 1992 Dream Team.
You might say Thomas is still taking jabs at Jordan, who is still, for most people’s money, the greatest player to ever live, and who is fully back in the NBA spotlight with the massive success of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary chronicling Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls as they chased, and eventually won, their sixth championship in eight years.
On Thursday, Thomas, who was speaking with Chris Broussard of Fox Sports, all but renounced Jordan of his GOAT status, making the case for today’s stars as vastly superior athletes to the ones Jordan and Thomas were playing against, effectively saying Jordan wouldn’t have stood out as much had he been forced to play against the likes of LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
“I think this generation [of players] is not getting enough credit for what they’re doing,” Thomas said. “Because the athletes that are in this generation are so far superior than what was in my generation. [When we were playing], Jordan was the best athlete that we had ever seen, [but] from an athletic standpoint, there are like 10 or 11 guys in the NBA right now with Jordan’s athleticism. We didn’t have that back then. With what [Kevin Durant] and LeBron are doing, if you put them back in the era of the ’80s, with their talent, their athleticism and their skill, who’s the GOAT?”
You can say this is Isiah still being salty with Jordan, but he’s surely not the only one who sees this debate through the lens of today’s superior athletes. It’s just a fact. Jordan was not playing against the same level of competition that exists today. Things evolve.
Jordan being defended by, say, Kawhi Leonard or prime LeBron James, in an era where defenses are far more sophisticated and thus difficult to crack because of the relaxed illegal defense rules, which in turn allow teams to effectively surround great players with multiple defenders, is a lot different than facing either straightforward one-on-one defense from largely inferior athletes, or obvious double teams that had to announce themselves to the world because, again, of the strict illegal defense rules.
What were the illegal defense rules back then? In essence, no zone. You had to be attached to a player at all times — either the man you’re guarding, or the man you’re double teaming. No in between. So, if you had a bad shooter on your team in the ’80s and ’90s, a defender couldn’t just leave that guy to come jam up the best scorer’s space the way they can now. Back then, if you left your guy and didn’t fully commit to the double team, which is to say you kind of hung out in space and waited to help, you were playing zone defense, and that was illegal.
That’s a very difficult thing about playing in today’s game as a great scorer. Not only are the defenders bigger and more athletic, but you never know where the help is coming from. Guys are dropping and hedging and switching all over the floor. In the ’80s and ’90s, there wasn’t all this switching and cross-matching defense. There were a lot of nights Jordan was going against guys who would have a hard time starting, if receiving much playing time at all, in today’s NBA.
Jordan was basically a great modern athlete before those types of athletes came along in bunches, a gigantic fish in a much smaller pond. Like Thomas said, there were only a few of those types of athletes back in the day. Jordan, Julius Erving, these guys were one of one when they were playing. Now they might be one of 15 or 20. Now great athletes, great shooters, great defenders, they’re everywhere. It’s not just the athleticism; the skill level has exploded. That will drive old-schoolers crazy, but it’s just the reality.
There is a flip side to that argument, of course. Defenders could hand check in Jordan’s era, and that is a BIG deal. You might’ve gotten to face more one-on-one defense back then, but it was with a guy’s hands all over you. There is just no way to overstate how much easier perimeter players have it these days in terms of freedom of movement and being able to get into their rhythm as ball handlers.
We’re talking about putting LeBron or Durant back in the ’80s and ’90s, but turn that around and put Jordan in this era. Put Jordan in the Rockets’ offense in James Harden’s role, with shooters all around him and the floor completely spaced, with centers not allowed to just stand back and protect the rim and/or maul him when he goes to the rim, with help defenders not allowed to leave bad shooters to cramp up driving lanes, with the way fouls are called these days.
The guy would live at the free throw line in this era. To say he might average 40 points is perhaps not a stretch, especially when you consider than he was a great mid-range shooter who would presumably be able to stretch to 3-point range in an era that puts much more emphasis on that shot. Run pick-and-roll with Jordan going downhill and a popping big man drawing the defense back, and say your prayers.
This is what makes this a fascinating debate. You’re talking about all-time great athletes and players with entirely different circumstances. There’s really no right or wrong answer, and if you think Jordan is still the greatest, you clearly have a case. But if you side with Isiah and believe the players of today are just physically better, you can make a pretty convincing case in your own right.