Karl Malone was gracious and humble as he was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame this weekend. His incredible accomplishments over a long NBA career are well documented and as John Stockton mentioned, they seem even more incredible as the years pass by.
It seemed strange, then, to follow the jokes and put-downs that showed up during the ceremony on Twitter and in the comments sections of most of the stories. Clearly Malone’s past mistakes are not forgiven by many. On the basketball side, many people seem to remember Malone as someone who would carry a team to the playoffs, and then disappoint. Few took the time to give him credit for carrying assorted rosters of cast-offs and has-beens deep in the playoffs. Pau Gasol couldn’t even win a single playoff game when he was the alpha dog in Memphis. Unfortunately for Malone, his basketball epitaph for many will be the two missed free throws in Game 1 of the 1997 Finals and the infamous turnover right before Jordan’s game winning (offensive foul) shot in the 1998 Finals.
We have had plenty of time since Malone retired to forget a lot of games and maybe our memory has failed in us. Have we been unfair to Malone? Is he the best power forward of all time? Maybe we remember the bad. So let’s beat this dead horse: Here is the case for and against Karl Malone as the best power forward of all time:
The case for Karl Malone as the best power forward of all time:
When you look at Karl Malone’s stats compared to Tim Duncan it is hard to make the case that Duncan is a better player that Malone. Why? Because it is hard to make the case that many players are better than Karl Malone by looking at the stats. He is 2nd all time in career points and 3rd all time in win shares (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player) with more win shares than everyone but Kareem and Wilt. Tim Duncan would need 6 more years of his average production to equal Malone. As it currently stands he is still isn’t within shouting distance of the Mailman. However, any Duncan supporter might bring up the fact that of course Malone’s career numbers would be better because he played 19 seasons. If we take that away and just compare averages here are some points in favor of Malone:
Scoring: Malone averaged 25 points per game. Duncan 21.1.
Efficiency: Malone shot 51.6% from the floor and 74.2% from the line. Duncan’s respective numbers; 50.8% and 68.7%.
Reliability: Malone’s work ethic and incredible conditioning was legendary and that shows in the numbers. He played in 99.3% of the Jazz possible games during his 18 year career in Utah . Duncan so far with San Antonio has only played in 94.5% of the possible games. Over an 82 game NBA season that means that Malone would play in about 4 more games than Duncan.
Longevity: The same conditioning led him to be able to play for so long at such a high level. Not to say that Duncan can’t do that, but let’s see if he is still playing as effectively as Malone was when he was 39 and still contributed 11.1 wins (10th in the league) to the 2002-2003 Jazz team.
Front line help – Sure this is a little subjective, but I think that playing with the Greg Ostertags and Felton Spencers of the world didn’t help Malone quite as much as playing along side David Robinson helped Duncan.
The case for Tim Duncan as the best power forward of all time:
Even the most pro-Duncan fan has to respect and take note of points made above in terms of strong regular season production over a long period of time. However, those battles aren’t something that even really interest Duncan fans since they have the following points in their favor:
NBA Titles: 4 > 0. While basketball is a team game it is common practice to assign more credit to individual players who help the team win. Duncan ’s teams have won in the playoffs and he has received his share of praise for those accomplishments.
Playoff Stats: This is where Malone fans might wish the stats contradicted common viewpoints, but unfortunately they don’t. This is where the questions above about how maybe our memory has failed in us in remembering Malone’s playoff performance get answered. Unfortunately for Jazz fans the answers aren’t good and they are the main reason why I think someone can make the case for Tim Duncan being the best power forward of all time. Malone’s numbers dropped across the board from the regular season to the playoffs. He shot considerably worse (from 51% to 46%) in the playoffs and his WS/48 minutes dropped from 0.205 to 0.14. Compare this with Duncan who had almost identical shooting percentages and WS/48 numbers. One thing to consider is that Duncan has more Win Shares (28.6 compared to 23) in the playoffs despite playing in 23 fewer games. Those are just a few stats that I researched, but they all paint a very similar picture. Just like it is hard to make the case that Duncan was better than Malone in the regular season, it is also look like it is hard to make the case that Malone was better than Duncan in the playoffs.
Those are the arguments for both sides. As a Jazz fan I tend to side with Malone. While the playoff stats was something that was tough to digest (again since I had to live though it the first time) it still doesn’t completely overshadow Malone’s incredible career.
I would like to congratulate Karl Malone for his induction to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. You are the greatest power forward of all time in this biased Jazz fan’s mind.