Two Pistons make new list of NBA’s 50 Greatest Players

Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas both made the NBA's updated list of their 50 greatest players.

Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas both made the NBA’s updated list of their 50 greatest players in 2016.

Twenty years ago on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the National Basketball Association, that high-flying league commissioned a group of experts to select the fifty greatest players in league history. It was a genius move that led to tons of debate and publicity for the league.

When the original list was revealed it was still fairly early in the career of Shaquille O’Neal and before Kobe Bryant was busy trying to be like Mike. Dell Curry’s son was just a skinny kid hanging around the locker room. Much has changed since the mid-1990s. This year, with the NBA turning seventy, the list has been updated by Jack McCallum, senior basketball writer for Sports Illustrated and a member of the original committee.

With twenty more years to consider, McCallum had his work cut out for him, axing some players while adding others who’ve debuted since 1996. McCallum also did something they hadn’t done in ’96 — he ranked the fifty players from #50 to the ultimate NBA superstar at the #1 position. You can see the new list of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players at the Sports Illustrated website.

The new list contains two players who made their fame as Detroit Pistons, neither of whom should surprise you. But, as McCallum admitted over in the Sports Illustrated article, it pained him too keep one Detroit star off his original list. That player was Joe Dumars, the classy guard on the Pistons’ Bad Boys team that won two NBA titles, in 1989 and ’90. But choosing only fifty players from the entire history of the NBA is tough business. Dumars is a legend, but seeing that he misses the list (both in ’96 and again this time) is no slight. There really isn’t a guard on the new list that should be removed for Joe D.

Two Piston guards did make the new list: Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas. Both were also on the 50th anniversary list too. A shooting guard, Bing was silky smooth and a fearless shooter from nearly anywhere on the court. A perennial All-Star, Bing toiled for some mediocre Detroit teams in the late 1960s and 1970s, but lack of team success did not diminish his greatness. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990 and later he won another type of election: as mayor of Detroit. Bing was used to winning all sorts of honors, he was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1967, NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player in 1976, and had his number (#21) retired by the Pistons. The former Piston comes in at #36 on the new list of the 50 greatest NBA players, just ahead of Dirk Nowitzki, Bob Cousy, and Patrick Ewing. He rates just behind a shooting guard from the 1980s and 1990s: Clyde Drexler. Which seems about right.

While Bing was a constant scoring threat from the backcourt during his stellar career, Isiah Thomas morphed his game from that of a scorer to a facilitator. Selflessly, in mid-career Thomas surrendered some of his offensive game so he could make his teammates better. Of course, the strategy paid off: the Pistons made nine straight trips to the playoffs, including five straight appearances in the conference finals and back-to-back NBA titles. Thomas could take over a game when he needed to, as he did in Game Five of a playoff game against the Knicks in 1984 when he scored 16 points in 90 seconds, or in Game Six of the 1988 NBA Finals when he stunned everyone by scoring a record 25 points in the fourth quarter. But most of the time he was content to zip bounce passes to guys like Mark Aguirre and Dennis Rodman or zoom chest-high passes to Vinnie Johnson as he curled off a screen for a 16-foot jumper. Thomas was the ultimate team-first point guard, and for that reason McCallum ranks him 29th. There are eleven players on the new list who were purely point guards or played a significant portion of their career at that position. McCallum ranks Isiah fifth: Chris Paul (#47), Allen Iverson (#45), Jason Kidd (#44), Bob Cousy (#38), Stephen Curry (#31), John Stockton (#30), Isiah (#29), Walt Frazier (#21), Jerry West (#9), Oscar Robertson (#6), Magic Johnson (#4).

I have no problem with three of the guys ahead of Isiah, they were more offensively dominating and/or won a lot more titles. With the exception of Walt Frazier. Isiah’s offensive numbers are pretty close to those of Frazier, and that’s despite the fact that Zeke was a more team-oriented, pass-first point guard. Both won two titles. I don’t know that Frazier was that much better than Thomas.

Some would probably quibble with this comment from McCallum when discussing Curry, Stockton, and Isiah: “Interchange them if you want to because it’s a tossup.” How many people who were paying attention at all thought that John Stockton was anywhere near as good as Isiah Thomas? We can have the U.S. Olympic Dream Team debate again, but let;s not and just admit this: Isiah should have been on that team. Stockton was a great passer and an excellent player, but he was not in the same league with Isiah as an offensive player or leader. Not. Even. Close.

Another Piston who was probably considered, in addition to Dumars, was Bob Lanier, a versatile center who banged around a lot under the paint with the NBA’s top big men in the 1970s. Lanier is a Hall of Famer, but probably doesn’t have a case for cracking the top fifty list. As far as big men go, he rests just outside that upper echelon.

For those of you who didn’t click through to see the list, here are the top ten: Tim Duncan (#10), West (#9), Bill Russell (#8), Larry Bird (#7), Oscar Robertson (#6), Lebron James (#5), Magic Johnson (#4), Wilt Chamberlain (#3), Kareem Abdul Jabbar (#2), and Michael Jordan (#1).

Which Piston who didn’t make the list do you think should have made it? what do you think of the new list? Tell us in comments below.