16 years ago, a regular sized man took the NBA by storm and became the shortest MVP in NBA history standing at just 6’0”. That who is now known throughout NBA circles as the crossover king (sorry Kyrie), thirty point scoring, practice ranting Allen Iverson. Nowadays, us NBA fans may have the modern version of this NBA everyman, with the 5’9” Isaiah Thomas, who is leading the Boston Celtics to a likely Eastern Conference two-seed, while putting up Iverson-like numbers in the process.
So because I enjoy getting verbally abused in Facebook comment sections, I have decided to compare the two pint-sized scoring guards, who both helped put historic NBA franchises back on the map by comparing their most impactful seasons, which would be AI’s 2000-2001 MVP season versus IT’s breakout season this year.
The categories in question will be:
- Team Value
- Team Success
- And Cultural Impact/Career Story
If you feel as if this is an unfair comparison, take it from AI and IT themselves, who are very big fans of each other, and when Thomas texted Iverson that he was just trying to emulate the former MVP, The Answer himself responded “say no more.” So this comparison seems quite valid.
Unfortunately, some of the advanced numbers used in my previous comparison article between Curry/Harden/Westbrook are unavailable for this post because they had not tracked those numbers in 2000-2001, Iverson’s year.
And just so we’re on the same page, these categories should not be treated as equal, so therefore, do not expect that the winner of more categories will automatically be the final verdict.
Category #1: Offense
Allen Iverson: 31.1 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.3 TOPG, 51.8% TS%, .118 OWS/48, 5 OBPM
Isaiah Thomas: 29.5 PPG, 6.2 APG, 2.7 TOPG, 62.2% TS%, .212 OWS/48, 9.1 OBPM
Even though Iverson and Thomas’s per game numbers may be very similar, the true difference between the two lies within their advanced numbers, as Thomas is more than ten percent ahead in true shooting percentage and far surpasses Iverson in offensive win shares per 48 and offensive box plus minus. To put it simply, Isaiah Thomas was much more efficient with the ball, opting to take smarter shots, and hitting them at a better percentage, while Iverson was less picky with his shot selection. For example, Allen Iverson took 24.8% of his shots from long two-point range and hit them at 42.3%. Meanwhile, Thomas takes a mere 6.5% of his shots from there and hits it at a higher 45.5%. In fact, Thomas has been a better shooter than Iverson from every distance except from within three feet.
And for the Iverson believers who are still reluctant into giving this category to Thomas, rather than to the 2000-2001 scoring champ by claiming that the game was a lot slower in the olden days, and therefore Iverson could have put up even better numbers in the modern NBA, just know that the average NBA game in 2000-2001 had just 5.2 possessions less than the average NBA game in 2016-2017, and if you look at their per 100 possessions numbers, Thomas would still beat Iverson’s stat line of 39.3 and 5.8, with his own 42.8 and 9. This Iversonite might also bring up the fact that shot selection was worse in general back in 2000-2001, therefore accounting for the significantly worse true shooting percentage, but still Iverson’s true shooting percentage when compared to the NBA in 2000-2001, was just league average, and Thomas’s is still seven percent higher than the current league average.
Verdict: Thomas > Iverson
Category #2: Defense
Allen Iverson: .073 DWS/48, -.1 DBPM, 2.5 SPG
Isaiah Thomas: .026 DWS/48, -3.6 DBPM, .9 SPG
As much as fanboys of these two might not want to admit it, if we’re being honest here, both Allen Iverson and Isaiah Thomas are not very good defenders. Whether it be because of their size (Only 42 out of 287 seasons of 6’0” or under players to play over 1640 minutes have had positive defensive box plus-minuses since the stat was calculated, compared to in 2015-2016 when 93 out of 172 players playing over 1640 minutes had positive defensive box plus-minuses) or their effort or defensive skill, both Iverson and Thomas are below average defenders. However, with that being said, Thomas’s numbers are significantly worse than Iverson’s specifically if you look at steals per game. This means that even though Iverson was a significantly undersized defender, he used his lack of physical size to steal the ball from offenders. For most guys, this can be risky, as it can often lead to players getting open lanes because you are concentrating more on the ball than the physical defender.
However, knowing that he could probably not be a lockdown defender, Iverson took a lot of chances, which led to a league leading 2.5 steals per game, while Thomas is taking less risks, which is actually hurting his defensive numbers. The willingness to steal the ball from offenders may be one of the factors leading to Iverson’s better defensive win shares per 48 and better defensive box plus minus.
Verdict: Iverson > Thomas
Category #3: Team Value
Allen Iverson: 42 MPG, 35.9% USG%, .19 WS/48, 4.8 BPM, 76ers were 6-5 without Iverson
Isaiah Thomas: 34.1 MPG, 34.2% USG%, .235 WS/48, 5.4 BPM, Celtics are 1-3 without Thomas
This is a pretty tough category to judge due to the fact that admittedly, both the 2000-2001 Philadelphia 76ers and the 2016-2017 Boston Celtics would not be very good if it weren’t for these two superstars, as they were both pretty much the sole playmakers on their respective teams, and with similar usage percentages and box plus-minuses, it is very hard to distinguish who was more important to their team. So, even though this might be a cop-out, I’m going to need to call this a draw.
Verdict: Iverson = Thomas
Category #4: Team Success
Allen Iverson: 56-26, 68.3% W%, lost in five games in NBA Finals
Isaiah Thomas: 41-25, 62.1% W%
In 2000-2001, the Iverson-led Philadelphia 76ers were the first seed in the East with the second-best record in the league only behind the San Antonio Spurs. And in the postseason, beat the Indiana Pacers 3-1 in the first round, the Toronto Raptors 4-3 in the second and the Milwaukee Bucks 4-3 in the conference finals to get to the NBA finals where they would ultimately lose in five to the Kobe-Shaq Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Despite not winning the NBA finals, throughout the season, the Philadelphia 76ers were always considered a title contender and were the best team in the East both in the regular season, where they were four games ahead of the two-seed Milwaukee Bucks and in the postseason.
This year’s Boston Celtics simply have not built up the same reputation in the league. They are the second best team in the East but are likely not on the same level as the title contending Cleveland Cavaliers, and with teams like the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors behind them, it is not necessarily set in stone that the Celtics are even the second best team in the East. Their record is worse than the 2000-2001 76ers, as well. So for this category, I will definitely need to go with Iverson’s 76ers over Thomas’s Celtics.
Verdict: Iverson > Thomas
Category #5: Cultural Impact/Career Story
Admittedly, this final category has very little to do with basketball. However, this category has a lot to do with the legacies and fame of these two stars.
From the moment Iverson came into the league as the first overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft out of Georgetown University, Iverson almost immediately became one of the league’s most popular players, averaging 23.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.1 steals per game. He wowed people on the court with his energy, athleticism and explosive crossover. But even more than that, it was his off-court persona that really got the fans noticing. In the late-1990s to mid-2000s, even if you weren’t an NBA fan, you not only knew who Allen Iverson was, but had a polarizing opinion of him. In fact, I remember once when I was little, I was with my parents wearing an Iverson jersey, and a random guy walked up to my mother and told him that Iverson was a bad influence on me. THAT IS A 100% TRUE STORY. And I bet you I wasn’t the only kid who that happened to, for everything between his drunken practice rants, his disagreements with coaches, his combo guard tweenerness, his countless violations of the NBA dress code, his tattoos or even something as minutely important as his hair was talked about. Once you saw Iverson on the Dr. J inspired Slam cover with a chain on his neck and more metal on his wrist than Iron Man, you knew who Iverson was. He was going to be in your face doing whatever he wants for a long time, both on and off the court, and there’s nothing that anyone could say to stop him.
Unlike the first pick Allen Iverson, Isaiah Thomas came into the NBA in a much different fashion. Drafted with the final and 60th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings, the Washington alum had a tough time finding his footing in the NBA. In his rookie year, Thomas played admirably in his rookie season putting up 11.5 points per game and 4.1 assists per game in 25.5 minutes per game with a true shooting percentage of 57.4%. But still, Thomas was played inconsistently, and had almost as many games with under 20 minutes of play, as he did with over 30 minutes of play. In his third season with the Kings, Thomas broke out for 20.3 points per game and 6.3 assists per game on a 57.4% true shooting, but even after this season, when Thomas entered restricted free agency, he struggled to find offers, eventually settling for a 28 million, four-year sign-and-trade deal to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Alex Oriakhi (you’re Googling him now, aren’t you?), where he would come off the bench behind Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. When that three point guard experiment inevitably failed for the one overachieving Phoenix Suns, they shipped Thomas to the rebuilding Boston Celtics for Marcus Thornton and a first-round pick.
Even when Thomas got to Boston and quickly became their best offensive option, he was still just the team’s sixth man, playing behind rookie Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, as Celtics’ head coach Brad Stevens thought that much like guys like Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams, Isaiah Thomas was just a jumpstarter off the bench. However, let’s just say that it was more than coincidental that the team went 14 and seven in Thomas’s 21 games with the 2014-2015 Celtics. In fact, they would even get to the playoffs that year. The next year, the Celtics finally gave Thomas starting reins and the team went 48-34, eight games improved over their previous season’s record, and Thomas was named an NBA All-Star, putting up 22.2 points per game and 6.2 assists per game on 56.2% true shooting. This year, the Celtics have improved even more (refer to team success) and a large part of that is Thomas’s career year.
However, despite Thomas’s roads to riches story, this category still easily goes to Iverson for his impact on NBA culture as a whole. In fact, if there was a statistic on the amount of cornrow haircuts pre and post-Iverson, that would be enough proof in and of itself.
Verdict: Iverson > Thomas
Final Ruling: Allen Iverson
Although Thomas may get the edge on offense, and both of these players were deemed equally important to their respective teams statistically, I would say that the separator between these two miniature basketball superstars is Iverson’s far superior defensive play and the simple fact that Iverson was able to come up with more team success and take his team to the finals in 2000-2001. Thomas, on the other hand, is likely not going to be able to that with the Boston Celtics, and so by a slight margin, I’m going to need to declare The Answer the answer to the question of who has had the better season.