Thanks to my friend Matt, I’ve actually read two *fun* books in the past couple of weeks – Pearlman’s Showtime and Jack McCallum’s Dream Team. A lot cheerier than Taibbi’s The Divide, which I referenced recently, and which makes me want to blow my brains out. (not because the book is bad; but because the content is so depressing).
There are lots of interesting nuggets in Dream Team. It really is fascinating to think about the extraordinary moment in time that saw such an extraordinary collection of players mostly in their prime (Magic and Bird being two exceptions): Stockton, Malone, Jordan, Ewing, Pippen, Robinson, Barkley, Drexler and Mullin.
McCallum spends a lot of time in the snubbing of Isiah who, it seems, had managed to antagonize almost everyone. It was Jordan, McCallum says, who ultimately put his foot down and refused to play with Isiah, paving the way for Stockton to be added to the team. But not even Isiah’s own long-time coach, Chuck Daly, who helmed the Dream Team, was interested in going to bat for him. In fact, when Stockton suffered a serious injury during Olympic qualifying that year, and it looked like he’d need to be replaced on the squad, Daly was seriously considering Thomas’ backcourt mate, Joe Dumars. And, at least according to McCallum, one reason Daly left Stockton on the roster and didn’t make the change was because tapping Dumars over Isiah would be more than Isiah could bear.
Anyway, Isiah was a spectacular player, frequently capable of making highlight-reel plays. But in spite of all the hand-wringing about snubbing him because of his personality, he simply wasn’t as productive a player as Stockton, who may be one of the most underrated in NBA history.
According to wins produced, Thomas had two seasons in his career in which he had a wins produced figure per 48 minutes of better than .200, the level consistent with all-star caliber play (.100 is average. It’s not nearly as esoteric as it sounds. There is one win to be had in each game, of course, and each team fields five players per game, which means the two teams combined have ten players on the floor for the duration of the game. 10 times .1 equals one). In the majority of Thomas’ seasons, he was below .100. I know many are going to howl in protest because anyone who knows anything about basketball, the eye test, etc., just knows Isiah was a great player. I myself loved watching the guy play. We’ll come back to why he wasn’t nearly as productive as he was exciting.
Stockton, after his rookie season, in which he was above average, never had a season in his career in which he had a WP48 below. 200. He had several over .300, an MVP caliber season. And one ridiculous season in which he had a WP48 over .4 – an historically good season. WP often comes for criticism because it supposedly overvalues rebounding. Stockton was not a good rebounder at all. He just did everything else really well. So, why does he rate as so much more productive than Thomas? Let’s compare their 91-92 seasons, the year prior to the Dream Team’s rampage through Barcelona.
Thomas outscored Stockton 18.5-15.6. They played about the same number of minutes per game and had very similar rebounding totals (as they did throughout their careers). Isiah, by the way, is one year older than Stockton, but he’d been in the NBA three years longer. Isiah shot a pedestrian 44.6% from the floor that year, including 29% from 3. Stockton shot 48% (one of his worst shooting years, but better than all but one year in Isiah’s career). Stockton averaged a ridiculous 13.7 assists per game, and had an assist to turnover ratio better than 4.5-1. Isiah averaged just over 7 assists per game that season and his assist-turnover ratio was 2.3-1. Isiah had some tremendous assist totals earlier in his career, including an extraordinary 13.9 per game in the 84-85 season. For their careers, though, Isiah averaged about 2.4 assists for every turnover. Stockton averaged about 3.8 dimes for each miscue. Stockton led the league with three steals per game in 91-92; Thomas had 1.5. The two men were attempting about the same number of free throws. Stockton was a better free throw shooter, just as he was a better 3-point shooter (by a long shot) and 2-point shooter.
By the 1991-92 season, Thomas was well past his prime (he peaked early in his career). Stockton was in the midst of his. The only thing Thomas did more of than Stockton was take more shots. To score those 18.5 points per game in 91-92, Isiah attempted 16 shots. To get his 15.6 points, Stockton took 11.5 shots per game. So, those extra four and a half shots per game garnered Isiah three extra points. Yes, I know how the argument goes – Isiah drew lots of attention to himself, thereby making life easier for his teammates. Except there’s really no evidence for that. It’s an assertion based on a belief – that Isiah must have been better than the stats show. But the truth is that throughout his career, and certainly at the time USA basketball was selecting its roster for Barcelona, Stockton was the far superior player.
Isiah isn’t giving up his two rings, and I know Pistons fans are happy they had him, so just take this comparison for what it’s worth. It’s certainly not as if Isiah’s presence on the Dream Team would have changed the outcome at all, even if Zeke and MJ had killed each other in the process.
(Postscript: doing more than taking a bunch of shots is why I’m not mourning Melo’s decision to opt out of his contract with the Knicks. Though I will be unhappy if they sign him to the 5-year/$129 million max deal he’s eligible to receive).
(second postscript: I am not a soccer guy, but I watched yesterday’s USA-Portgual match with a bunch of friends and was really into it and really deflated when Portugal scored the equalizer in the final seconds of extra time. At the end of his book, McCallum talks about the global impact of the Dream Team on basketball. He notes that a bunch of future NBA stars, including Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol were youngsters totally riveted by that team. The NBA interviews foreign players to ask them how they became interested in basketball and their information suggests that the Dream Team drew some of these top athletes from other sports toward basketball. Nowitzki, for example, was 14 at the time, and very good at team handball, a popular sport in Europe. But Magic, Bird, MJ, Barkley et al., helped set him on his current life trajectory, which has worked pretty well for him.
The question this raises – what will prompt a critical mass of America’s top athletes to play soccer, as opposed to football, basketball or baseball? The answer may be “nothing.” I don’t know.)