Isiah Thomas and Notable Snubs from 1992 USA Olympic Dream Team

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2020

Isiah Thomas speaks at the NBA Awards on Monday, June 24, 2019, at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

Let's start with an acknowledgment: "Snub" is the most overused word in sports.

The difference between the 14th-best player in the Eastern Conference and the 12th isn't so great that we need to get up in arms every time a semi-deserving player gets left off an All-Star team.

However, there are rare cases where "worst snub" is wholly appropriate.

Case in point: Isiah Thomas on the 1992 Dream Team. Thomas should have been one of the first three or four calls USA Basketball made, based on his resume alone. But he wasn't for reasons that apparently have absolutely nothing to do with basketball.

In conjunction with Sunday's The Last Dance episodes, here's a look at two players who were actually snubbed, along with some who you may think were but weren't.

But first, some rules!

  • Snubs Mean You Take a Player Away: We're not just adding players here on a whim; that's not the way things work. We have to work under the same parameters USA Basketball used when selecting the team.
  • Who We're Not Getting Rid Of: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Sure, they were diminished versions of themselves. Doesn't matter. They were the captains of the team and are grandfathered in, regardless of whether they were among the 12 best American basketball players at that point.                       

The Replacements

Isiah Thomas Replaces John Stockton

There is a common assumption that Isiah Thomas was left off the Dream Team because Michael Jordan hated him. Past tense might not even be correct; there appear to be strong feelings of dislike remaining more than a quarter-century later.

"You can show me anything you want. There's no way you're not going to convince me he wasn't an assh--e," Jordan said in the doc.

Former league executive Rod Thorn told ESPN's Golic & Wingo that "Isiah's name never came up" during conversations with Jordan about playing on the team.

"That's a good question, because Isiah was a great player, a fantastic player," Thorn said. "There was some controversy with the Pistons regarding not shaking hands with the Bullsthere was some bad blood, obviously, there. ... But when we ended up going with the first 10 guys, he did not end up making the team."

By 1992, Thomas had two championships, a Finals MVP, 11 All-Star selections and five All-NBA honors. In terms of career accomplishments, perhaps only Jordan, Bird and Magic had a better claim to receive a call from Team USA. It wasn't as if Thomas were old and washed up by 1992, either; he was 31 and just two years removed from winning Finals MVP.

The common denominator here: Jordan.

Thomas' rivalry with Jordan dates back to the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, when the Pistons guard allegedly led a freezeout of MJ, then a rising rookie. The beef intensified as the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons battled for Eastern Conference supremacy from 1988 to '91, with Detroit winning the first three series before being swept in the 1991 conference finals.

That is where Thomas—and his Pistons teammates—made a decision that still haunts him. Thomas and Bill Laimbeer led their Pistons teammates off the floor without shaking the Bulls' hands, an act of disrespect that pushed Jordan over the edge and even led to bad blood in the NBA league office.

"That was one of the stipulations put to me that Isiah wasn't part of the team," Jordan said in the 2012 documentary The Dream Team. "I was getting strong innuendos it wasn't just...it was coming from a higher place who didn't want Isiah on the team."

Former NBA Commissioner Russ Granik put the league's thoughts into context.

"We were picking a group just after the Pistons had been eliminated by the Bulls," Granik said in The Dream Team. "It was very bad timing for Isiah. Everyone had that impression in their mind, the picture of Isiah walking off the court."

Thomas said Monday on ESPN's Get Up! that being left out in the cold is the biggest missing piece of his career legacy:

"Being left off the Dream Team, that personally hurt me. In 1980, I was on the Olympic team. As a matter of fact, I was voted the Male Athlete of the Year in 1980 for the USA Olympic Team. And, you know, the only thing missing from my resume is not being on the Dream Team. Now, when the Dream Team was selected and I wasn't a part of it, there was a lot of controversy around it. And I still don't know who did it or why they say I didn't make it. I know the criteria for selection of making the team, I had fit all the criteria. And that's a big hole in my resume, that's the biggest hole in my resume. That is the only place, and that's the only thing in my resume that I did not succeed at.

"... I tried to do everything correctly, and I thought I should've made the Dream Team. However, I wasn't a part of it. That hurt me. And looking back, if I'm not a part of the Dream Team because, you know, a lapse in emotion in terms of not shaking someone's hand, if that's the reason why I didn't make the Dream Team, then I am more disappointed today than I was back then when I wasn't selected."


Why Remove Stockton?

If we were selecting this team with the knowledge we have in 2020, Stockton would clearly be safe. The former Utah Jazz star finished his career as one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, pushing his prime deep into his 30s and blowing away the league's career assist total. His career resume stacks up against anyone on the team.

But we're using 1992 rules. It took Stockton a handful of years to round into an NBA superstar, and by 1992, he had only appeared in four All-Star Games at age 29.

There was also a clear lack of trust between Stockton and coach Chuck Daly. Despite Stockton being one of only two point guards on the roster (the other being a past-his-prime Magic), Daly only gave Stockton garbage-time minutes. He appeared in only four games, shooting a total of eight times.

Part of that had to do with Stockton nearly being replaced on the team by Joe Dumars because of a leg injury, but there was a legitimate fit question with Stockton being used to running pick-and-rolls on a team where that was borderline nonexistent.

We also can't discount the contributions of Chris Mullin, who most with hindsight would say lacks the resume of other Dream Teamers. Mullin was Team USA's long-range weapon off the bench, knocking down a team-high 14 threes and averaging 12.9 points and 3.6 assists per game.


Shaq Replaces Christian Laettner

A little backstory: USA Basketball chose one college player to the Dream Team as a show of respect, as this was the first time NBA players could compete. The player they chose was Laettner, understandable given his decorated college career that included two championships, a Final Four Most Outstanding Player Award and National College Player of the Year honors.

But come on. The only reason Shaquille O'Neal didn't have as many college accolades is because he went to LSU and not Duke. He was an absolute menace, impossible to handle in every respect and an unquestioned No. 1 overall pick in 1992.

Not a person in the world doubted who was the better basketball player.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of their 1990-92 stats just to highlight the dichotomy:

Shaq: 25.8 PPG, 14.3 RPG, 5.1 BPG, 1.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 62.2 FG%

Laettner: 20.6 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.0 APG, 2.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 57.5 FG%

In other words, Laettner was a great college player. Shaq was an all-time dominant, unguardable behemoth.

"I was pissed off. I was jealous. But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player, but Christian Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was," Shaq said on The Mike Wise Show in 2012 (h/t Slam). "Plus he stayed all four years and graduated. ... I just think it helped me grow as a player."

Growth or not, the Dream Team photo would look a whole lot more fitting with Shaq in Laettner's place. Team USA would have been even more unstoppable as well with Shaq's huge, agile body in the middle swatting shots and dunking over helpless defenders. While Shaq was part of the 1996 team that won a gold medal, his and Thomas' absences are the most glaring.


Why Remove Laettner?

He was the lone college player on the roster. Shaq was a better player.


You Might Think They're a Snub but They're Not

Dominique Wilkins

'Nique suffered a torn Achilles in 1992, ending all chances he had of making the roster. He would not have been medically able to compete even if selected.


Reggie Miller

Nope. Not even close. Miller didn't make his first All-NBA team until 1995. His resume paled in comparison to the guys selected.


Dennis Rodman

Daly was as close to a father figure as Rodman had in the NBA. If anyone would have considered Rodman, it would've been Daly, and he never got close to making the team. Defensive presence aside, Team USA had far superior interior bigs in David Robinson and Patrick Ewing.


James Worthy

Perhaps a worthy (heh) legacy selection, Worthy underwent knee surgery in 1992 that essentially took him out of the running. He also doesn't quite have the Magic/Larry cache of being able to get his way onto the team based on sheer reputation.