Isiah Thomas’ Dream Team exclusion due to Michael Jordan, timing

I’ll have a few posts up this weekend about “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever,” Jack McCallum’s new book. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for review.

Why didn’t Isiah Thomas make the Dream Team? Jack McCallum and Bill Laimbeer, relayed by McCallum, had two different answers.

“It would have been very interesting to see if this happened the way it went if the team was picked back in 1989 or 1990, when the Pistons were the king of the league and Isiah was the king of the backcourt,” McCallum recalled Laimbeer saying. “OK, what we would we have done then? How much would the committee have been able to not select Isiah?”

“To me, it’s the most complicated thing in the world, although it’s the most simple,” McCallum said. “And that was, in my opinion, Michael Jordan did not want to play with Isiah Thomas. He let that be known obliquely, implicitly or just said it.”

I think they’re both right.

Personally, I thought John Stockton deserved to make the team over Isiah, though admittedly, it’s debatable. But that’s the point. If Isiah were a lock based on ability in 1991, maybe Jordan couldn’t have kept him off the team. But because Thomas and Stockton were at least close to a tossup, Jordan could exert his influence and wedge Thomas out.

If the team were selected in 1990 for the FIBA World Championship in Argentina, as Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus imagined, Isiah might have made it. At that point, Isiah was clearly better than Stockton. Jordan broke a near tie in 1992. That doesn’t mean he could have kept a clearly better off the team in 1990.

Of course, many don’t see Stockton and Thomas as near equals at the time of selection.

“I thought Isiah Thomas deserved to be on the team,” McCallum said.

And he sort of wrote that in 1991:

Stockton, who has led the NBA four straight years in assists, is a brilliant quarterback, but he simply does not belong on the Olympic team ahead of Thomas.

But McCallum, when picking his Dream Team before the actual squad was selected, chose neither Thomas nor Stockton. McCallum actually chose Joe Dumars for his team. Where was the outrage on behalf of Dumars?

But the decision was perceived to come down to Stockton and Thomas, and in the absence of consensus about those two’s on-court level in 1991/1992, Michael Jordan got to cast the deciding vote.

“That is politics. There’s no question about it,” McCallum said. “But it’s the kind of pragmatic decision and politics that is made all the time.”

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