Isiah Thomas: Michael Jordan, Bulls weren’t ‘really my competition’ in 1980s


“The Last Dance” may be over, but the Michael Jordan-Isiah Thomas feud marches on.


Thomas, at least, is doing everything he can to perpetuate it.

Asked on FS1’s “Speak For Yourself” if the two’s barb-trading can be boiled down to purely a competitive issue, Thomas had this to say:

“It could be from his point of view.”



Thomas elaborated: “In ’91 I had what they would call career-ending wrist surgery. But when we were all young and healthy, the numbers speak for themselves. He wasn’t really my competition, my competition was Bird and Magic. Trying to catch the Celtics, trying to catch the Lakers. Chicago at that time, and Jordan at that time, from ’84-90, before my wrist surgery, that wasn’t my competition.”


There, he actually has multiple points. From Jordan’s rookie year through the 1989-90 season, Jordan’s Bulls logged just a 10-20 regular season record and 6-12 postseason record against Thomas’ Pistons — good for 16-32 overall. And that wrist surgery Thomas alluded occurred in January 1991, just four months before the Bulls’ seminal 1991 Eastern Conference finals sweep of the Bad Boys.

Thomas missed 32 regular season games as a result of the operation, and averaged just 13.5 points (40.3/27.3/72.5 shooting splits), 8.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and one steal in those playoffs — a steep drop-off from past postseason production. The Pistons’ run of excellence promptly flamed out, and Thomas retired three years later, only 32. 

Jordan went 9-4 against Thomas in the regular season and 4-0 in the playoffs after the 1989-90 season — 13-4, overall. 

The Bulls took the league by the horns in the 1990s, a development Thomas called a natural progression. Indeed, the dynasties of 1980s — chiefly, the Los Angeles Lakers (Jordan was 5-5 against Magic Johnson head-to-head from 1984-1990) and Boston Celtics (Jordan was 6-21 against Larry Bird in that same timespan) — were mostly kaput by the time Jordan had fully come into his own. 

So is the passage of time. During Thomas’ prime, those Lakers and Celtics teams ruled the NBA, while Jordan and the Bulls steadily ascended in the background. And the Bulls didn’t take an unnatural amount of time to reach the pinnacle. The Pistons won their first NBA championship in Thomas’ eighth season. The Bulls claimed theirs in Jordan’s seventh. Thomas was drafted three years ahead of Jordan. Thomas won his first title two years ahead of Jordan. Natural progression.

Still, currents of resentment underscore Thomas and Jordan’s comments on their rivalry. Thomas feels the Bulls didn’t pay enough reverence to the Pistons, as mentors (a term he used to describe his relationship with the ’80s Celtics) in how to win at the highest level. Jordan viewed the 1991 walk-off as the ultimate show of disrespect by Thomas and co. when it came time to pass the torch. 

All these years later, these points are now being relitigated. Thank you, “The Last Dance.”

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