Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas will forever be linked.
Never mind that they were both contemporaries in their playing days. Never mind that they both took once-dormant franchises to multiple NBA championships. Never mind that they were both considered to be the best players at their position during the prime of their respective careers.
Thomas and his "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons were the main obstacle that pushed Jordan to become what he was destined to be: The best player on the planet.
From 1988 to 1990, the Pistons pushed, shoved, and abused the Chicago Bulls—and Jordan in particular—during each of three physical playoff meetings, each ending with a Pistons victory.
And for the summer following each one of those bitter defeats, the former North Carolina Tar Heel would go into the offseason with those memories to chew on as motivation to push himself to another level.
When Jordan finally got to that point in 1991, the Bulls finally put the Pistons away with a sweep. And in one of the most embarrassing contradictions of sportsmanship, humility, and competition, Thomas led his Pistons off the floor with seven seconds left without shaking Jordan's hand and acknowledging the changing of the guard.
That's not all when it comes to these two.
Thomas had been accused of refusing to pass the ball to Jordan in the latter's first All-Star Game in 1985. Jordan responded to the accumulation of Thomas' tactics by allegedly seeing to it that Thomas was left off the '92 "Dream Team" in Barcelona—the greatest basketball team put together.
But since that first Bulls championship in '91 and the memorable Olympic run in '92, Jordan has always been a step—or four—ahead of Thomas. On the court. Championships. Endorsements. Jersey sales. Sneaker sales. Legacy. International appeal.
You name it, and chances are that Michael Jordan is better at it than Isiah Thomas.
And since the two decided to enter the front office of NBA teams, Jordan has officially made the push to out-do Thomas in atrocity as an NBA General Manager, as well.
When Thomas was appointed as President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks in the middle of the 2003-04 season, he was inheriting a mess. He couldn't possibly make the situation any worse than it was, but Thomas found a way to do it.
Thomas was relieved of his duties this past summer and left behind a circus in the heart of Manhattan, encapsulated by embarrassment both on and off the court. After making the playoffs during the half season that Thomas was there, the Knicks never sniffed the postseason again and finished each of Thomas' four full seasons as President with an average of 54 losses.
The once-proud franchise also became a lightning rod for tabloid controversy, with both Thomas and point guard Stephon Marbury being the center of embarrassing sex scandals more humiliating than the product Thomas was putting out on the court.
One of Thomas' few allies in the league during his tenure in New York was Larry Brown. Unlike Thomas, Brown was known for having the figurative "Midas Touch" in that every team he "touched" became a championship contender almost overnight.
But Thomas' ability to do just the opposite outweighed Brown's credentials, and after one tumultuous season in Madison Square Garden that concluded with a 23-59 finish, Thomas ended both Brown's tenure and his friendship with the legendary coach by pulling the plug on the whole experiment.
Jordan, who had already immortalized his front office incompetency in Washington by taking Kwame Brown first overall in the 2001 draft, took over the Charlotte Bobcats in June of 2006 as part-owner and "Managing Member of Basketball Operations." And if trumping Thomas' front office ineptitude was his goal, then Jordan hit the ground running.
In his first draft that very month, Jordan used Charlotte's third pick to select Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison. On the board at the time were Brandon Roy (who has gone on to become a two-time NBA All-Star for Portland), Rudy Gay (who averaged 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds in his second year with Memphis), Rajon Rondo (who started at point guard for the world champion Celtics last year), and a slew of other serviceable NBA players.
On Saturday, Jordan may have conceded his mistake in that draft, dealing Morrison and former Cleveland Cavaliers bust Shannon Brown to the Los Angeles Lakers for forward Vladimir Radmanovic. Although Radmanovic is serviceable, the Bobcats essentially exchanged the opportunity to get a franchise player in '06 for a journeyman reserve playing for his fourth team in four years in '09.
That's certainly not all. Oh, far from it.
Jordan used his first-rounder the next year—2007—to select North Carolina freshman Brandan Wright. He immediately dealt Wright to Golden State for star guard Jason Richardson, who stuffed the stat sheet for Charlotte during a 32-50 season.
Richardson ended up being shipped to Phoenix earlier this season for Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, and rookie point guard Sean Singletary.
Again, the opportunity to add a solid young piece to his roster—somebody like Thaddeus Young, who went four picks later, or Al Thornton, who went six picks later—was wasted away for veteran role players on a team looking for an identity.
Say what you want about Thomas' abilities in the front office, but the man clearly was a draft wizard. During his four drafts with New York from 2004 to 2007, Thomas selected Trevor Ariza with the 43rd pick in '04, David Lee with the 30th pick in '05, Renaldo Balkman with the 20th pick in '06, and Wilson Chandler with the 23rd pick in '07.
Chandler and Lee are core parts of the Knicks' revival under Thomas' successors, Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni, and Ariza is a key catalyst for a Lakers team that prides itself on having superb depth.
Yes, Thomas made questionable moves in every other facet of team management, but actually using draft picks to acquire talent is an overwhelming strength of his—one more strength than his rival Jordan has demonstrated in the front offices of Washington and Charlotte.
Jordan, meanwhile, has nothing to fall back on. Absolutely none of the talent in Charlotte was brought in due to him. Emeka Okafor, Gerald Wallace, and Raymond Felton were brought in before Jordan came along.
D.J. Augustin may look like a nice pickup with the ninth pick last June, but the 6-foot point guard contradicts the presence of the 6'1" Felton, and Charlotte may be forced to shop one or the other if the team keeps treading water like it is.
Jordan has even tried to take a page out of Thomas' book by showing that not even Larry Brown on the sidelines is immune to the train wreck assembled on the court. He hired Brown as the Bobcats' head coach this past offseason, and through Saturday, Charlotte is 19-30, 18 games out of first place, and four games out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Thomas will forever be looked at as the man who tried to slowly euthanize the league's most valuable franchise in its largest media market.
And Jordan will always take a backseat to him in the department of "Worst General Managers." Just like he did as a player in his first couple of years in the league. Just as he did, at one point, in legacy. And championships. And everything else pertinent to basketball.
Because Michael Jordan is doing absolutely everything in his power to trump Isiah Thomas in that argument, as well.
And just as he did everywhere else in his career, Jordan will certainly get there sooner than you think.
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