Isiah Thomas wasn’t the obvious Dream Team choice Pistons fans consider him

I grew up with and firmly believed the story passed down from Pistons fan to Pistons fan:

Isiah Thomas was left off the Dream Team solely because Michael Jordan schemed to leave him off the squad. If not for Jordan’s unfair hatred of Thomas, the Detroit point guard would have been a shoe-in for the 1992 Olympics.

It isn’t true.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s a solid summary. I don’t doubt that Jordan and friends insisted that Thomas not make the team – and tonight’s Dream Team documentary on NBA TV at 9 p.m. will provided the ugly details on the incident – but I no longer believe Jordan and the NBA’s other stars alone kept Thomas off the team.

Thomas’ decline due to age gave the selection committee the latitude to appease Jordan. If Thomas were a slam-dunk inclusion based on basketball, who knows what would have happened? But he wasn’t, so at that point, the committee could easily grant Jordan his wish.

There was clearly some sort of sliding scale for Dream Team inclusion.

If selection were based purely on career accomplishments, Moses Malone would’ve been an easy choice. Malone, who unlike Magic Johnson, hadn’t yet retired, ranks higher than Thomas on the all-time list.

If the selection were based purely on current ability, 35-year-old Larry Bird never would’ve never made the team. Someone like Larry Johnson would have been a better choice.

No, obviously both career accomplishments and current ability played a part, and it’s not difficult to make a case that Thomas fell short in both categories – or at least didn’t pass both tests with flying colors.

Keith Langlois of Pistons.com provided a very insightful take on how Thomas’ legacy was viewed:

Isiah Thomas arrived in the NBA with a competitive fire that burned hotter than most, but it was further fueled by the criticism he took both going up the ladder and coming down it. He was held to one impossible set of standards – winning above all else – and then when he mastered the art, they changed the rules on him.

Prove you’re a winner, they told him. He proved it. Then they took issue with his methods. Magic and Bird were admired for their cold-blooded ruthlessness. Jordan would soon be exalted as no one before or since for the same qualities. Isiah? His ruthlessness got him exiled.

Maybe it appeared the rules changed on Thomas, but I just think they were never articulated properly when critics bashed Thomas for his lack of winning in the mid 80s. It was simple to say, ‘Win a championship, and we’ll respect you,’ but that was never what the critics fully meant.

Elite play isn’t enough to be an all-time great. Winning a championship isn’t enough to be an all-time great. Elite play while winning a championship is the test.

Isiah Thomas was great when the Pistons weren’t winning championships. Then Thomas was extremely good when the Pistons were winning championships. But he wasn’t great while winning a championship.

Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan meet that scrutiny, and given that they were all still good in 1992, they were the easiest picks for the Dream Team. After them, it was a matter of filling in the squad with the top Americans of the time.

In the four seasons before the Dream Team was announced in September, 1991, Thomas – at least judging by All-NBA teams – didn’t stack up with the chosen players (hat tip: Dave Hogg of the Associated Press). Let’s assign three points to a first-team player, two points to a second-team player and one points to a third-team player.

Sheet 1

Isiah could have received another first-team selection, even one at the expense of a Dream team guard, and still not moved up the chart.

I can’t claim to know the selectors’ rationale, but if they believed Thomas – an undersized guard who spent his career crashing into bigger players and would be 31 by the Olympics – was headed for a decline in the year between the team being announced and Barcelona, they would have been correct. The younger Scottie Pippen, on the other hand, made the 1991-92 All-NBA second team and was clearly on an upward trajectory.

And it’s not like the Dream Team and All-NBA selectors were alone. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated chose his ideal Olympic team, and Thomas didn’t make the cut.

Someone had to be the best player left off the Dream Team. Unfortunately, it was Thomas, who’s certainly an all-time great. But his “snub” at the expense of first John Stockton and then Clyde Drexler was defensible in basketball terms.

Thomas at his peak vs. Stockton at his peak? Thomas.

Thomas’ career vs. Drexler’s career? Thomas.

Thomas in 1992 vs. Stockton in 1992? Tossup. Thomas in 1992 vs. Drexler in 1992? Tossup. And that’s why the selection committee had such an easy choice to acquiesce Jordan and his followers.

Purely from a basketball standpoint, Isiah Thomas was not a Dream Team lock, and that allowed politics to become the deciding factor. It’s unfortunate that the pettiness of the NBA’s elite played such a large role in Isiah being left off the Dream Team.

But politics were far from the only factor.

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