Isiah Thomas Egotistically Claimed That He Could Have Coached the Indiana Pacers to an NBA Championship and Prevented the Malice at the Palace

During his time on the hardwood, Isiah Thomas established himself as one of the greatest NBA players ever to lace up a pair of sneakers. The former Detroit Piston’s confidence in his own abilities, however, isn’t limited to his glory days with the Bad Boys.

During an NBA Summer League Game, the legendary guard took a rather lofty view of his post-playing career. In Thomas’ mind, he not only could have coached the Indiana Pacers to an NBA championship, but his mere presence on the sidelines could have helped avert the infamous Malice at the Palace.

Isiah Thomas had a legendary playing career before hitting some bumps in the road

Although he was eventually overshadowed by Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas has rightfully earned a place in the NBA history books. During his playing career, the Pistons guard proved to be one of the top talents in the entire Association.

Despite that eventual success Isiah’s basketball career didn’t get off to the greatest start. At Indiana University, the future star initially clashed with Bob Knight. Eventually, the guard’s talent shone through, and Thomas became a fixture in the Hoosiers’ lineup. He spent two seasons on the varsity squad, averaging 15.4 points and 5.7 assists per outing and winning the 1981 NCAA title. On the back of that success, he entered into the NBA draft.

Thomas promptly joined the Pistons as the second overall pick and resumed exactly where he had left off. Despite his diminutive stature, the guard could do it all; he averaged 19.2 points and 9.6 assists across 13 professional seasons and retired as Detroit’s all-time leader in points, assists, steals, and games played. He also helped the club claim back-to-back championships during the 1989 and 1990 playoffs.

Despite that legendary on-court career, Thomas hasn’t exactly found the same success in retirement. The former guard didn’t set the league on fire during either of his two coaching stints. He also had a rocky tenure as the New York Knicks President of Basketball Operations; beyond his sporting missteps — he mismanaged the organization’s salary cap and draft capital — he was also accused of sexually harassing a team executive. As documented by the New York Times, a jury eventually ruled that the former guard had sexually harassed Anucha Browne Sanders and created a hostile work environment.

Making some bold claims during an NBA Summer League game

NBA legend Isiah Thomas draws up a play as the Indiana Pacers head coach.
Isiah Thomas draws up a play during his time as the Indiana Pacers head coach. | Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Like many former players, Thomas has since found a home in the media, relying on his years of playing experience to provide insight into the modern game. During a recent NBA Summer League contest, however, the Pistons legend made some rather bold claims.

According to Nat Newell of the Indianapolis Star, Thomas was on the mic for the Pacers’ final summer league contest when he flashed back to his own time with the franchise. For the record, the guard coached Indiana for three seasons during the early 2000s.

“I was the coach that [Rick] Carlisle replaced,” Thomas said, according to Newell’s write-up. “Had I not got fired, I believe I’d have won a championship with that team.”

The Pistons legend also said that, had he been coaching the Pacers in November 2004, the infamous Malice at the Palace brawl wouldn’t have taken place.

“I don’t believe there would’ve been a Malice at the Palace, because I don’t believe the Pistons fans would’ve acted that way with me coaching that team,” Thomas explained.

With all due respect to Isiah Thomas, he’s probably thinking a bit too highly of himself

As noted above, Isiah Thomas is rightfully considered an NBA legend thanks to his incredible skills on the court. With that being said, though, he’s probably still thinking a bit too highly of himself.

In regard to his championship claim, Thomas took over a Pacers team that had reached the 2000 NBA finals. Faced with a roster in transition, though, the coach struggled to find any great success. Indiana did make the playoffs during all three of Isiah’s seasons in charge but failed to make it past the first round. By contrast, Rick Carlisle guided the club to the Eastern Conference Finals in the first season after he replacing Thomas.

While there are some caveats — you could argue that Thomas had been establishing a foundation and would have found similar success if he didn’t get the chop — the rest of his coaching career suggests that wouldn’t have been the case. The Pistons legend struggled during his stints with both the Knicks and Florida International University, which doesn’t exactly indicate championship-caliber coaching abilities. It’s also worth noting that the Pacers still haven’t won a championship, even with the likes of Carlisle and Frank Vogel at the helm.

As for his assertion about the Malice at the Palace, it’s a bit tougher to draw a clear conclusion. While Thomas does have a point — he’s still revered in Detroit to this day — you could also argue that his presence would have been irrelevant. If spectators were willing to set aside all sorts of norms and decorum to actively fight the Pacers players, it doesn’t seem like Isiah asking them to behave themselves would have made much of a difference. If nothing else, though, it does feel a little egotistical for the former guard to assert that his mere presence could have averted one of the worst moments in NBA history.

Without delving into hypotheticals, though, one thing seems abundantly clear: Even in 2021, Isiah Thomas is still pretty confident in his abilities.

Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference and Basketball-Reference

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