Isiah Thomas disagrees with most of the world. He doesn’t believe Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time. Thomas doesn’t even think the Bulls legend is the best he’s ever played against.
After “The Last Dance” documentary reignited the decades-old feud between the former superstars — during which, Jordan called Thomas an a–hole — Thomas was asked by CBS Sports to rank the best players he ever faced. Jordan barely cracked the starting five.
The former Pistons point guard placed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar first, followed by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Jordan and Julius Erving.
Thomas, whose Pistons won back-to-back titles (1989-90) and knocked Jordan out of the playoffs for three straight years before the Bulls overcame Detroit in 1991, believes more people would have a similar assessment of Jordan’s legacy if his prime aligned with the Johnson-led Lakers, Bird-led Celtics and Erving-led 76ers.
“When you put Jordan and his basketball team in the ’80s, they weren’t a very successful team,” Thomas told CBS Sports. “They just weren’t. When you talk about Jordan and his team dominating, they dominated the ’90s. But when you put him with those Lakers teams and those Pistons teams and those Celtics teams, they all beat him. They just did. … What separated Jordan from all of us was he was the first one to three-peat. But he didn’t three-peat against Magic, Larry and Dr. J.”
Thomas, of course, leaves out that future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen and future All-Star Horace Grant were only rookies when the Bulls and Pistons met for the first time in the 1988 playoffs. But, of Jordan’s six title runs, only his first (1991) included wins over teams which had previously won championships, sweeping the Thomas-led Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals and then defeating the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Johnson retired that fall after contracting HIV. Bird left the league with a bad back one year later. Thomas stepped away after tearing his Achilles in 1994, achieving everything he ever wanted except an Olympic gold medal.
Partially due to Jordan’s refusal to join the 1992 Dream Team if Thomas was on the roster — their feud beginning with Thomas orchestrating a “freeze out” of Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game and culminating with the Pistons refusing to shake hands with the Bulls at the conclusion of their 1991 playoff series — Detroit’s former Finals MVP was denied an important place in history.
“Being left off the Dream Team, that personally hurt me,” Thomas said on ESPN. “When the Dream Team was selected and I wasn’t a part of it, there was a lot of controversy around it, and I still don’t know who did it or why they say I didn’t make it. I know the criteria for making the team, I fit all the criteria.
“That is the biggest hole in my resume. … In the sports arena, I’ve won at every level. I tried to do everything correctly, and I thought I should’ve made that Dream Team. And looking back, if I’m not a part of the Dream Team because a lapse in emotion in terms of not shaking someone’s hand, then I am more disappointed today than I was back then.”