Isiah Thomas Never Gets the Love, but He Took Down Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan in Their Primes

Isiah Thomas has a complicated legacy. He was the face of the 1980s Detroit Pistons, the Bad Boys. While the team won two championships, its reputation is more for walking off the court when the dynasty fell to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The frosty relationship between Thomas and Jordan and a feud with longtime friend Magic Johnson define Thomas’s legacy.

On top of that, Thomas has bullet points on his post-playing resume that don’t exactly scream, “Hire me!” His accomplishments as a player are outstanding, but his demeanor runs to the caustic side. Sorting out the reality from the legend, the legitimate from the misunderstood is a Herculean task.

Isiah Thomas, the Hall of Fame player, didn’t translate to coaching or the front office

After a star-studded 13-year career, Isiah Thomas retired after a 1994 Achilles’ tendon injury. He spent his whole career with the Detroit Pistons. Besides his two championship rings, Thomas added a Finals MVP award, five All-NBA berths, and 12 All-Star nods. He also was a two-time All-Star Game MVP and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

However, with that came the allegations Thomas organized a freeze-out of Jordan at the 1985 All-Star Game. Jordan was a rookie, never forgot the slight, and it ignited one of the most bitter rivalries in NBA annals. There are rivalries, like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Then there’s the Isiah-MJ type, where there were no bones about it; they did not — and do not — like each other.

After he retired, Thomas’ first gig was as general manager of the expansion Toronto Raptors. He made some good moves, such as drafting Damon Stoudamire and Tracy McGrady. But he undermined himself by hiring Bad Boy buddy Brendan Malone as the franchise’s first coach. Malone was a great assistant who didn’t translate to the lead chair.

Afterward, Thomas demolished the Continental Basketball Association, coached the Indiana Pacers from the NBA Finals directly to a .500 record. He also added three first-round playoff exits in three seasons. Then there are the blast craters that remain visible from running the New York Knicks into the ground (or perhaps the Earth’s core).

There is one accomplishment no one can take away from Thomas, though, as much as it probably annoys Jordan.

Thomas holds impressive bragging rights over the 3 icons of the ‘80s

Isiah Thomas was the face of the Bad Boys era for the Detroit Pistons, but his record against the legends is solid
Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas posted series wins over Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson when those three legends were in their primes. | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

When The Undefeated dropped a tweet about Isiah Thomas’ playoff record against Jordan, Johnson, and Larry Bird, the Hall of Fame point guard couldn’t help a self-congratulatory retweet.

The numbers don’t lie. Head-to-head against Jordan’s Bulls, Thomas’ Detroit Pistons were 12–10. The tweet even had a typo which didn’t give Isiah enough credit. Detroit was 7–4 against Magic and the Lakers, not 6–4. And against Bird’s Celtics, it was a flat-footed tie, 11–11.

Thomas beat prime Jordan three times in four series. He split two meetings with Johnson. And Detroit was 2–2 against Larry Legend’s Celtics. (Thomas won three series against Boston, but Bird was out for the 1989 first-round sweep.)

In nine playoff runs, the Pistons played in 23 series and won 16 during the Isiah era. Chuck Daly had the right formula as coach in Detroit, and his tenure coincided with Thomas’ prime. Sometimes, though, he can’t stay out of his own way.

As when he was with the Detroit Pistons, sometimes Isiah Thomas can’t stop himself

Isiah Thomas often rubbed opponents the wrong way while starring for the Detroit Pistons. It’s a trait that didn’t disappear when he hung up the jersey for the last time.

A recent Netflix documentary, Untold: The Malice at the Palace, brought the infamous November 2004 brawl between players and fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills back into the spotlight. As a Pistons legend and a former Pacers coach, Thomas didn’t hold back during a recent television appearance.

Thomas called Indiana’s final game in the recently completed Las Vegas Summer League. He claimed during the broadcast that had he remained the Indiana coach; the Pacers would have won a title.

Oh, and that whole brawl thing? It would never have happened. Why? Because if he had been on the Indiana bench, those fans never would have responded as they did.

Think of all the good Isiah Thomas could do with that superpower. The ability to prevent intoxicated individuals from making galactically bad decisions? He’d make the Avengers look like amateurs.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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