Comparing the Finals performances of Karl Malone and LeBron James (and some guy named Michael Jordan)

June 14th, 2013 | by Clint Johnson

LeBron James is having a rough go of the 2013 Finals thus far, game four withstanding—so much so that in post-game coverage, Magic Johnson said James “disappointed” him in his game three performance. It’s a sentiment Miami fans share, and it isn’t new to fans of James and the teams on which he plays.

To date, James is 8-13 in the NBA Finals, a .380 winning percentage. Not what one expects of a four-time League MVP; certainly not what one expects of a player who, at only 28 years old, increasingly gets mention in the possible greatest-player-of-all-time discussion.

Karl Malone would certainly love to be in James’s place, though. Two finals coming up short (and a third on the way, I suspect) must be easier to stomach with one ring already on the finger. That ring is the single biggest difference between the legacy of Malone and James, though Malone must also content himself with heading the best-at-his-position debate rather than the best-player-ever discussion.

James is a better player than Malone ever was. I think that point is unarguable. What may be much more debatable is that James has clearly proven himself better on the greatest of stages. But looking at their Finals numbers, that simply isn’t true.  (Statistics are accurate as of game 3 from this year’s series.)

  G MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT%
LeBron James 18 43:00 8.2 19.0 .430 1.1 4.3 .247 4.2 5.6 .743
Karl Malone 12 41:30 9.5 20.1 .443 0 2 .000 5.4 8 .677
Michael Jordan 35 43:00 12.5 26.0 .481 1.2 3.3 .368 7.4 9.1 .806
  ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS    
LeBron James 1.6 7.3 8.9 6.9 1.5 0.6 4.0 2.2 21.0
Karl Malone 3.3 7.1 10.4 3.4 2.2 0.8 3.1 2.8 24.4
Michael Jordan 1.6 4.4 6.0 6.0 1.8 0.7 2.4 2.9 33.6

In his two Finals appearances against the Bulls (arguably a better team than any James has ever faced), Malone averaged more points and rebounds per game on a superior field goal percentage than James. James has posted the better percentage from the line, but he compromises that efficiency by chucking more than four threes a game while making only one. Both have admirable assist totals for their positions, but Malone’s defensive stats are better across the board.

Which player would you rather lead you into the championship round, assuming they continued to produce exactly the above statistics?  It’s largely a wash. All things considered, the numbers probably show Malone in a slightly better light given the defensive statistics. Even his winning percentage of .333 projects as practically identical to LeBron’s .380: each suggest your guy will only get you two wins in the series before you watch the confetti fall on your opponent.

Contrast both players to Michael Jordan (the guy who really does deserve to head the list in that greatest-of-all-time discussion).  Ten points or more better than these alternatives on superior shooting from all areas of the floor while chipping in six rebounds and six assists a game as well. Yeah, I’ll take that guy.

It’s sad, but Karl Malone’s Finals legacy is one of disappointment, if only because of the supreme standard he set as to his own performance, throughout his career and those seasons in particular. He wasn’t as good as we thought he could be and needed to be to earn that ring.  But how much of that legacy is due to his playing slightly less than his best against arguably the greatest basketball team ever assembled? How different would that legacy be if, instead of Jordan’s Bulls, Malone put up 24, 10, and 3 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, an extremely young team that folded under the pressure of the championship round against Miami and who might have done the same against Utah?

What if Malone had that ring without playing any better than he did?

Who knows. What I do know is that LeBron James has not been a better player than Karl Malone in the NBA Finals. So perhaps we should revisit our perception of a few legacies here. Karl Malone may not have shrunk under championship strain as much as some believe, while LeBron James is showing himself far, far from nearing a coronation as Greatest Ever, not as judged by the crucible of the NBA Finals.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. In addition to his writing center work at Salt Lake Community College, he designed, coordinates, and teaches in an experimental author residency program for a West Valley City public charter school. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

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