The 4th episode of ESPN's The Last Dance documentary reminds us of the great rivalry between the Bulls and the Bad Boy Pistons. The rivalry that finally ended after the Bulls beat the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals after losing to them for three straight years. That series ended with a classless act of Pistons' players not shaking hands with the Bulls after the loss. The lack of sportsmanship shown by Isiah and his teammates bothered Michael so much that he kept Thomas off the 1992 Dream Team. A move that some say is the reason why Isiah is still taking subtle shots at MJ, while the animosity between the two continues.
Jordan is widely considered to be the greatest ever to play the game. However, it seems that his rival is considering others when talking about the GOAT title. Thomas joined Chris Broussard of Fox Sports and talked about how today's players don't get enough credit, being superior athletes to the ones he and MJ had to face. Isiah explained how Jordan's athleticism being anomaly back in the day is much more common in the league today.
“I think this generation of players is not getting enough credit for what they're doing. Because the athletes that are in this generation are so far superior to what was in my generation. When we were playing, Jordan was the best athlete that we had ever seen, but from an athletic standpoint, there are like 10 or 11 guys in the NBA right now with Jordan's athleticism. We didn't have that back then. With what Kevin Durant and LeBron are doing, if you put them back in the era of the '80s, with their talent, their athleticism, and their skill, who's the GOAT?”
Isiah Thomas, The Association
Being salty or not, Isiah does have a valid point. Basketball has evolved, and players have evolved. They are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever. The overall skill level of players is higher it's ever been. You've got seven-footers shooting threes off the dribble and being the playmaker for their teams. Players are doing it all on the floor, and it's hard to categorize them by positions. The NBA has become a shooter's league, and players without the ability to shoot will hardly earn a roster spot. There are no more 7-foot giants who are here just to be a physical presence for a couple of minutes. All the players are skilled in some areas which have risen the overall quality of the league to another level.
Because Isaiah said this, we can only assume he is taking jabs at MJ's GOAT status. To counter the argument, we can ask what would Michael be doing if he was playing in the league today where the floor is completely spaced with shooters on the perimeter, with centers not allowed to just sit in the paint and wait for you to drive the ball, with how less physical the game is today, with the way they are calling fouls these days, and with hand checking not allowed.
One thing is for sure, Jordan had earned the GOAT title by dominating his era, and a player can only be judged in the era they play. MJ's skill set is transferable to almost any era the NBA has seen because he was the perfect combination of the old-school and a modern basketball player. Was this just another Isiah's shot at Jordan we don't know. It will only initiate a debate we will never know the answer to. A discussion that is fun to engage with, but one that will always be nothing more than speculation.