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Old School vs New: Isiah vs Paul

Yesterday we saw that despite Shaquille O'Neal's dominance, he may come up a bit short in a comparison with yester-year great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Now let's look at the opposite extreme, from the biggest men on the court to the smallest.

Last season Chris "The Maestro" Paul burst onto the scene as one of the best players in the NBA and the leading candidate for best point guard of this generation. But about 25 years ago there was another 6-1 point guard whose game electrified the NBA, and though his GM and coaching skills have come under fire nobody can say that Isiah "The Smiling Assassin" Thomas was not one of the greatest point guards of all-time. Both Thomas and Paul are master distributors, outstandingly quick off the dribble, and aggressive scorers that can finish at the rim or fire it up from the mid-range (neither shot a lot of treys). So let's take a look at how CP3's young career compares with the first four years of Zeke's reign in Detroit.

Raw Box Scores:

Thomas: 316 games, 36.9 min, 20.7 points, 10.2 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 3.9 TOs, 45.6% FG, 74.0% FT

Paul: 276 games, 36.8 min, 18.9 points, 9.8 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 2.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 2.5 TOs, 46.5% FG, 84.2% FT

On the surface, their box score averages look very similar. Isiah has played more games, but Paul still has more games left this season. Paul's big advantage in turnovers stands out to me, so let's see if that comes into play in the advanced stats.

PER: Thomas 19.4, Paul 25.4

The raw box score stats were very similar, but here we see a huge gap. Three factors likely contribute here: pace, efficiency, and competition level. Basketball in the 1980s was much faster pace, which means more possessions. So if Paul has similar counting stats in fewer possessions, it indicates that his production was more efficient. Similarly, Paul's lower turnover numbers and better shooting percentages indicate that how he achieved his production was also more efficient. Finally, since PER is normalized to the average player in the league, it is possible that the average player in the 80s may have higher production than the average player these days (more expansion, high school/international learning curve, etc) which would make Paul better with respect to his competition than Isiah was with respect to his.

Ratings and Win Shares

Offensive Rating and Offensive Win Shares: Thomas 108 ORTG/ 18 OWS, Paul 120 ORTG/ 34 OWS
Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares: Thomas 106 DRTG/ 12.8 DWS Paul 104 DRTG/ 13.8 DWS
Net Rating and Total Win Shares: Thomas +2 net rating/ 30.8 WS, Paul +12 net rating/ 47.8 WS

Once again, these numbers indicate that Paul's efficiency and production rate dwarf Isiah's. The net rating is the closest thing I have in this comp to a +/- stat (different, but some similar principals), so we can estimate that Paul's production had a more positive impact than Isiah's. And the fact that Paul has 17 more win shares despite playing 40 fewer games clearly indicates that, according to this stat, Paul has been far more effective.

Wins Produced: Thomas year 4 (18.6 wins, .289 WP48), Paul year 3 (25.4 wins, .406 WP48)

I don't have access to Thomas' wins produced for each of his first four seasons, but Dr. Dave Berri stated that the best season of Thomas' career by this measure was his fourth year and Paul demolished those numbers in just his third year. In the same story we've seen in every stat so far, this measure also indicates that Paul has a much higher efficiency and production rate on both offense and defense than Zeke did.

Conclusion: According to these stats, this wasn?t as much of a competition as one would think. Paul pretty much smoked him across the board, yielding similar positive numbers on much fewer possessions while also having fewer negatives. So unlike Shaq and Kareem, this time the young buck (Paul) has a strong case for bragging rights over his elder predecessor (Zeke).

See Also: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs Shaquille O'Neal

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Basketball Reference, the Basketball Database, and Wages of Wins for the stats cited here.

Disclaimer: This is not (nor is it meant to be) a definitive argument for one player being better on the court than another, as it is impossible to truly compare across era...we're just comparing some stats.  Also, because +/- stats are a new invention, we don't have any of that data from before the new millennium and even the stats we do have only go back to 1977 (apologies to the old school greats).  That said, comparing all-time greats is always fun and stats can add a new layer or two to water cooler debates. 

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