I'm doing something I promised I would never do. I'm taking the bait. I'm talking about ESPN's asinine #NBARank project.
In its normal iteration, #NBARank essentially crowd sources conventional wisdom with a complete lack of significant insight. It is a ploy for tweets, clicks, engagement and First Take-style arguing about pointless things.
But then they said Steph Curry was a better point guard than Isiah Thomas, and I was like, oh, hell no.
Early career success
Thomas was one of the premier point guards of his generation, a two-time NBA champion, a player who gave the Michael Jordan Bulls and Larry Bird Celtics all they could handle. He was also the heart and soul of the Bad Boys. He played electric offense, stifling defense and was a wonderful facilitator.
Steph Curry might be all of those things someday, but as of now he's a player who is in his seventh year and working on his third season of transcendent play. He's the best shooter alive, but might not even be the best passer on his team and is the worst defender in his team's starting lineup.
It's unfair to judge Thomas by an entire career's body of work and judge Curry mostly by the otherworldly play of his past season-and-a-half. The Curry of today is not the Curry of two seasons ago, and might not even be the Curry of two seasons from now.
If you focus on the first six season of their respective careers, Thomas is the easy winner. Curry made his first All-Star team at 25. When Thomas was 25 he was playing in his sixth. Also, by that time Thomas had already been named to five All-NBA teams.
As for stats, this comes courtesy of Instagram user thedetroitbadboys (no relation to this site).
Comparing eras is stupid and nearly impossible
Not only was Thomas great, but the teams he played against were much better than today. The NBA is certainly not devoid of talent today, but the upper echelon is not quite as good and the middle-tier and bad teams are worse than the ones the Bad Boys faced in the 80s.
There is also the matter of skill and efficiency. Obviously, Thomas can't hold a candle to Curry from an efficiency standpoint. But I firmly believe that Thomas could literally do just about anything on the court. Organizations and coaches didn't prize and value efficiency as much back then, and Thomas essentially did what he was told: Put pressure on the defense, constantly attack, get teammates involved.
If the Pistons and Chuck Daly had the wealth of information teams do now, they could have built a Warriors-level offense and defense. They certainly had the shooters and versatile defenders. Not only that, if Detroit was playing in today's NBA, there supremely talented players would have played differently, worked on different skills and had different complementary parts. Daly, Thomas, Dumars, Rodman, Laimbeer. Don't for a second try and tell me they couldn't have succeeded together in today's NBA. If you believe that, you're nuts.
Also, nobody is going to approach Curry's shooting ability, but Thomas was not as poor a shooter as he looks when you look simply at the stats. Thomas never developed a 3-point shot, but he could shoot. And if he played in today's era, he'd be jacking up thousands of 3s in practice, and he'd be sinking plenty of them during games.
The 3-point shot just wasn't really a part of the NBA, and I find it troubling that analysts would dismiss the accomplishments of old players and teams simply because nobody really understood the value of the 3 at the time. Hell, Curry has attempted 401 3s in 38 games this season. That is more attempts than all but three TEAMS in all of 1985-86. Detroit attempted just 182 all year. Curry had that number beat by the 17th game of the season.
Curry is no defensive slouch, but he also doesn't hold a candle to Thomas' defensive prowess. Thomas was superglue, he was an agitator and he was a forearm thrower. He has more in common with the Warriors' Draymond Green on the defense end than he does with Curry.
However, even more important than individual defense is the defense played by their opponents. Simply put, the NBA has shepherded along rule changes to allow for a player like Curry's game to shine. The NBA of the 80s was a nightly mauling, best exemplified by the Bad Boys. Wide open looks were few and far between, screens were more punishing and forays into the lane were at your own risk. After Detroit and others ratcheted defense to a new, stifling level in 2004 (bringing Detroit another championship), the NBA changed the rules. The hand-checking was gone, bodying up the offense player was verboten. The NBA wanted more movement, more spacing and more scoring. And they got what they wanted, and nobody exemplifies that than Steph Curry.
Thomas' career was cut short
Thomas was a transcendent player, but the sacrifices he made in order to bring his team three championships took their toll. He retired at the age of 32 (40-year-old Kobe Bryant says hello), and his final four seasons found him being more serviceable than great. These injury troubles are certainly a knock against Thomas, which is why I don't have a huge problem with John Stockton, who played great ball for all 18 years of his career.
However, it wouldn't be fair to hold Thomas' decline against him and project Curry to continue the torrid career he's had for himself. He might play until he's 40 and age gracefully with his picture-perfect shot, or he could be plagued by ankle and leg injuries and limp to the finish line just as Thomas did.
Curry is on track to be one of the best ever, but he doesn't deserve to be anointed just yet. He's played 454 games of great basketball, 150 of those as the best point guard on the planet. He's a great player, maybe he'll be the best point guard ever. But as of right now he hasn't proved he's better than Isiah Thomas. Far from it.