Chris Paul overtaking Isiah Thomas

Two years ago, I wrote Isiah Thomas’ body of work was more impressive than Chris Paul’s, and I still believe that’s the case, though the gap is shrinking. But then and since, I’ve predicted Paul will retire as the best point guard since Magic Johnson.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN picked up where my argument left off and wrote an interesting piece comparing the two point guards:

It’s hard to find anything, anything at all, that Thomas did better than Paul on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t a matter of advanced stats preferring Paul, it’s a matter of nearly every statistic preferring Paul.

Isiah’s game had flaws, and we tend to forget them because he tended to forget them on the biggest of stages. When you deliver a 25-point NBA Finals quarter on a pretzel of an ankle, you blot out memories of a turnover-prone high dribble, and rim-prone floater. When your team takes out Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson in their prime years, you earn a lot of respect.

Those sepia-glitter Isiah Thomas memories matter, and nothing will take them away. If he’s overrated, then it’s for the best of reasons: The guy performed when the eyes of the world were upon him.

Thomas also benefitted historically from something that was less within his control, even if he contributed to it: He played with an elite defense. His Pistons teams were top-three in the league in each year of that three-season NBA Finals span. But few would say that he was a better defender than CP3.

I don’t wish to trash Isiah’s legacy, or insinuate that he was unimportant to that championship success. He was crucial. I merely wish to point out that a good player can receive a lot of extra praise for having played on a great team, especially if the team excels at defense, an aspect of the game that fewer focus on. If you’re a scorer on a great defense, chances are that a disproportionate amount of credit will bounce your way.

Strauss’ evaluation of Thomas is fair (unlike the time he wrote that Kevin Johnson was better than Isiah). It’s no insult to Thomas to claim Paul is better per-season, per-minute or any other metric that doesn’t sum career accomplishments. Paul is just that good.

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