Many basketball fans have an understanding that the game was, at least somewhat, more physical during the 90s than it is today. That physicality led to Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan receiving a fair share of hits throughout his career.
However, according to his longtime rival Isiah Thomas, any narrative that says Jordan received more punishment than other players from that era is false. That’s because Thomas once said he’s the one who defenders knocked around the most during those years.
Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan have a longtime rivalry
Many of you likely know all about the rivalry between Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan.
It all, of course, started with the iconic playoff matchups between them. Thomas and his Detroit Pistons went to the NBA Finals in three consecutive years from 1987-88 to 1989-90, and they beat Jordan’s Bulls in the postseason in each of those years.
In 1990-91, though, the Bulls swept the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, which sparked Chicago’s legendary run of six championships in eight years.
Thomas and Jordan’s rivalry, though, has gone beyond the court.
Many believe Jordan played a role in Thomas getting left off the 1992 Dream Team. And Thomas has taken subtle shots at MJ in the media over the years. But one comment made somewhat recently was when the Pistons legend said it was himself — not Jordan — who received the most punishment during that era.
Isiah said he got ‘punished more’ than any other player during that era
During those Bulls-Pistons battles, Detroit infamously had their own way of defending Jordan. They called their strategy the “Jordan Rules,” which essentially tried to keep MJ from getting to the hoop.
“If Jordan was at the top of the key, they pushed him left,” Brad Botkin wrote for CBS Sports, paraphrasing former Detroit assistant Brendan Malone’s explanation in The Last Dance. “If he was on the wing, they pushed him to the middle, where a gang of help was waiting, rather than letting him go baseline. If he got the ball in the post, they doubled from the top.”
If MJ got to the hoop, though, “[Bill] Laimbeer and [Rick] Mahorn would go up and knock him down to the ground,” Malone said, per CBS Sports.
But just because the Pistons, and likely other teams, had special sets of defensive schemes for Jordan doesn’t mean he received more hits than Isiah Thomas did during his career.
“This generation thinks that the only one who was getting hit back then was Jordan,” Thomas said in 2020 on ESPN’s Get Up. “… I can say on this television station here today: There is no player during that period of time that got hit and punished more than myself — and I have all the scars to prove it.”
So, among the various beefs Thomas and Jordan have with each other, their toughness appears to be one of them.
But was Isiah really hit more? The answer isn’t very clear-cut.
It’s hard to say if Isiah Thomas or Michael Jordan received more punishment
Given the fact that the NBA didn’t call as many fouls during the 80s and 90s, there’s no way to quantify who actually got hit more during those years.
Jordan attempted more free throws per game in his career (8.2 compared to 5.4 for Thomas), but he was more of a scorer while the Pistons star passed the ball more frequently. The Bulls legend only received more opportunities at the line because he simply attempted more shots (22.9 career field-goal attempts per game compared to 16.2).
But how many hand checks did Thomas get while trying to set up an offense or dishing the ball to guys like Joe Dumars? We can’t say.
What we do know is that Thomas and Jordan were two of the greatest players to ever play during their NBA careers and that their rivalry will likely live on forever. We may never see one quite like it again, as their feud has certainly been one-of-a-kind.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference