Karl Malone: Best power forward of all time

August 11th, 2010 | by K.Malphurs

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.


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  1. Gui Cavalcanti says:

    Sure Malone was an offensive monster but his D was average while Duncan is one of the best defenders ever at the spot. He could single-handedly guard the pick and roll. He won quietly.

    The Duncan argument is surely shorter but more powerful. No one is going to name the GPFOAT based on reliability or longevity–thus the argument comes down to the best offensive PF vs the best all-around PF. When you factor in a boggling 4 championships, I think Duncan comes out ahead.

  2. Alabaster says:

    Karl Malone = best Pick & Roll/Scoring PF of all time. Duncan = best PF in terms of winning. And Kevin Garnett = best All Around PF. There is no definitive best, 2nd best, etc, its all a matter of what you want and what your team needs.

  3. luislandry says:

    I don’t place a tremendous amount of value on the number of championships, since Malone had to take on the GOAT. However, the tremendous defense Duncan played, plus his playoff numbers make me side with Duncan.

  4. Tim says:

    Great post on a great barroom conversation.

    Except for one thing.

    Tim Duncan is not a power forward.

    And, really, he never has been.

  5. Wesley W says:

    Labeling Duncan “one of the best defenders at the spot” – while true – is no less subjective than elevating Malone for his “reliability and longevity.” If you really want to comprehensively measure defense, just look at the win shares statistic. And as pointed out above, Malone absolutely dominates that stat category.

  6. PurplePhil says:

    Tim Duncan is the top power forward of all time! He easily eclipses malone due to winning multiple championships!!! End of discussion.

  7. Daniel says:

    Malone played 8 seasons with Mark Eaton, who has the highest career blocked shots average in NBA history. Not exactly a nobody.

    If Duncan wasn’t ever a PF, what position did David Robinson play? BTW, Duncan has played 7 of his 13 seasons after Robinson retired.

    Over the years, Duncan also played aside Will Perdue, Rasho Nesterovic, Nazr Mohammed, Felton Spencer, Sean Marks, Kevin Willis, Mengke Bateer, Fab Oberto, Francisco Elson, Melvin Ely, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff, and a few other really tall guys who you can’t call anything but a center with a straight face. Not exactly a murderer’s row of big men…

    They were all about 7′ tall and were pretty much defensive stopgaps in the middle– NOT power forwards. Last season was the first season Duncan played a significant number of minutes at center. With the addition of Tiago Splitter, he’ll probably go back to PF.

  8. MalonesThrone says:

    This is exactly what I’m talking about


  9. hedleylamarr says:

    Well thought out argument, but where is Horace Grant in the argument? Without him, the rec specs wouldn’t be the fashion statement sweeping the nation to this day.

  10. Omagus says:

    The argument between Malone and Duncan is essentially Chamberlain vs Russell 2.0. It basically comes down to whether you value stats or titles more. Since the ultimate goal is to win a title, I give the edge to Duncan.

    I am not a fan of either player but I have a tremendous amount of respect for the accomplishments of both. During most of his career, Malone was the epitome of what you wanted a PF to be. Two things about the way he played always stood out to me: 1) he was the ultimate pick and roll PF; 2) I’ve never seen another PF–before or since–who ran the court better or faster. And of course he was a legendary workout warrior who pretty much pioneered the weight training program that everyone in the NBA uses today. All of this is remarkable. But it doesn’t make him the best.

    Sure, Duncan’s scoring stats aren’t as impressive as Malone’s. But everything else is very comparable (Duncan’s averages nearly a full rebound more than Malone did at the same stage in his career; blocked shots aren’t even close). But it all comes down to winning. You want to discount the titles Duncan won with the Admiral? Ok (even though Duncan was the Finals MVP both times). Duncan still leads Malone 2-0 in that category. And here’s where it really gets interesting: Tim Duncan is the ONLY PF in the history of the NBA to be the centerpiece of even championship team, much less four. Power forward is the most difficult position to build a team around because they can’t dominate the post the same way centers do and they can’t create the same way guards and SFs can. Yet Duncan has been able to lead his team to multiple titles.

    Ultimately the key difference between Malone and Duncan is that the latter has ALWAYS stepped up his game in the most pressure filled moments. You cannot say the same about Malone. Just think about it: if your life depended on the outcome of a basketball game, which player would you *really* want occupying the 4 spot?

  11. jamie says:

    Yes, I don’t think you’re giving Duncan enough credit for his defense. Having watched both players, Duncan was a far better helper on defense, and repeatedly bailed out his teammates for their mistakes. Malone never protected the rim like Duncan did.
    Remember also that David Robinson was 33 years old when Duncan was a rookie-it’s not like Duncan got to play with Robinson in his prime.

  12. chris says:

    malone played with stockton for how long? of course he scored points. duncan has never, NEVER played with someone on that level. and when he has good sidekicks (see: david robinson or manu/t. parker) he wins titles

  13. Alex says:

    I think Tim Duncan is better. Your argument is predicated largely on scoring and longevity numbers. Basically, Mailman was a better scorer and played 19 great years. Everyone will agree on that. But there’s more to great basketball players than just scoring. And let’s disregard longevity numbers, because Duncan is still playing and we don’t know for how long, and look at this stat: Win Shares per 48 Minutes – Career – Duncan is at .2190 and Karl Malone is at .2053.


    Honestly, I don’t think the two are even close. It’s been proven that Duncan win a championship as the centerpiece of a team while Malone hasn’t. You may want to use Jordan as an excuse for why Malone never won a title, but Duncan’s teams also had to deal with Shaq and Kobe for a few years. If not for the Lakers, the Spurs probably win at least two more championships as well.

  14. Armand says:

    A couple points to think about:

    1) All your arguments are based on stats, but any real bball fan knows some attributes don’t show up in stats. For one, ‘getting it done when it matters’ can’t be measured in numbers. Robert Horry probably isn’t that good in any statistical measure, but for a few years he’s one of the most feared player in life-or-death situation.

    2) It’s an obvious point, so I think you are actually doing it on purpose – you conveniently ommitted any reference to their defensive ability. Defense is half of the game, and Duncan is a much better defensive player than Malone.

    3) Yes Ostertag and Spencer isn’t Robinson; but Tony Parker isn’t exactly John Stockon either. Would you imagine having Stockon throwing him passes would have helped Duncan’s shooting efficiency and might be scoring average a little bit?

    4) Don’t blame the absence of a ring solely on the Bulls – the Jazz made it to the Finals only twice. So their lack of playoff success has more to do with the inability to get pass the other western powers (Lakers, Blazers, Suns, Rockets, Sonics…etc etc) than to do with the GOAT. And as somebody mentioned before, Spurs had to deal with the Kobe-Shaq led Lakers as well. And when they made it out of the West, they eventually won (4 out of 4)

  15. Kenneth says:

    I think the stats are a little misleading. Although Malone has an incredible number of points scored that Duncan likely will not match, many of those points came off the seminal pick-and-roll with John Stockton, the league leader in assists. Similar to Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash, I don’t think Malone would have scored nearly as many points with a less heralded point guard. As luislandry pointed out, Duncan played excellent defense as well. Good (or bad) defense doesn’t show up on stat sheets. Playing good defense takes considerable energy, probably more than offense, and switching from defense to offense takes a little effort and time, which I think accounts for why Duncan doesn’t score as many points as Malone. Malone had incredible conditioning and durability, but I wonder if he would have been as durable if he played defense like Tim Duncan. In fact, the lack of general recognition for defense probably causes many NBA players to eschew defense and save their energies for offense. I hope player statistics are changed to include measures of defense as well as offense.

    For the simple reason Duncan is a more complete player than Malone, which may or may not be reflected in his 4 NBA titles compared to Malone tally of none, I choose Duncan as the better power forward and probably the best of all time.

  16. Dan says:

    There has only been ONE power forward in league history that a team has built around and won multiple championships. Tim Duncan is the best power forward of all time by some distance.

  17. Ryan says:

    Sure he had better longevity but I always felt that the Jazz were Stockton’s team and not Malone’s in the same way that the Bulls were Jordan’s team, and the Lakers were Magic’s team despite them having serious HoFers(Pippen, Worthy/Jabbar) on the roster beside them.

    Duncan was pretty clearly the feature piece in atleast three of his four titles(the Admiral’s last stand he was clearly the man and the Admiral the sidekick).

    I think when it’s all said and done Duncan is #1, KG is #2 and Malone is #3. Malone gets bonus points for the extra long career, but frankly he was never as imposing defensively as either of the other two.

  18. Steven says:

    I’ve never tried to put much credence into stats in these kind of debates, especially because both of these guys were around recently enough for most serious basketball fans to have watched a lot of both of them. But even then, its still difficult to compare them because of how different they are stylistically.

    You want to compare Jordan and Kobe? That’s easy. They play the game the same way, you can deduce that Jordan was a better finisher in traffic, and Kobe has the better perimeter game.

    Malone used the pick and roll like it was going out of style, and was an effective mid to high post player. Duncan has always been a very pure low post scorer. Sure he could shoot that little bank shot out to 15 or 16 feet, but he does most of his damage within 5 feet.

    So…I am left to go with who has had more playoff success….and that is Duncan, without question. He’ll never match Malone’s career totals, and is slowing down enough that I doubt his ability to play for nearly two decades the way Malone did, but he does have the jewelry.

  19. Patrick says:

    As a fan of the game, I admire Karl Malone greatly. But much like Russell vs. Chamberlain, when comparing Duncan and Malone there really is no debate. One guy won four titles (so far), the other guy won zip. One guy played first- or second-team caliber defense for the bulk of his career, the other guy played defense that was passable but not extraordinary. (Although Malone did have a great knack for stripping the ball down low in the post, not to be overlooked.) And one guy sustained or elevated his game in the playoffs. while the other guy often got “solved” by opposing teams when the stakes got high.

    Also please consider the fact that the Spurs are the only multiple-championship winning NBA franchise ever built around a power forward. Philly and Phoenix tried with Barkley and got no rings. Bob Pettit and Elvin Hayes each won a title, but you could argue that neither was truly the centerpiece of his respective team. And poor Elgin Baylor got shut out completely…just like Malone.

    A great player, but Tim Duncan stands alone as the single greatest PF in the history of the NBA.

  20. Milly says:

    Duncan would have zero championships if he played in Malone’s era. As for the “Duncan had to deal with Kobe/Shaq duo” argument, those are the same guys that got embarrassed by the Jazz (and Malone in particular) in the playoffs multiple years.

  21. Paul says:

    Before reading (some very meaningful and revealing) comments I wasnt sure.
    Now I’m pretty sure that it would have to be Duncan.

    My other question would be, is Barkley a tier below Duncan/Malone/KG?
    Then where to rank Shawn Kemp?

  22. merl says:

    I think that the regular season stats are a little misleading for Duncan. Popovich intentionally plays him fewer minutes precisely so that he’s not worn out for the playoffs.

    As awesome a coach as Jerry Sloan is, he tries to win every game. And sometimes it’s not as important to win every game as long as you win your last game.

    The shift from regular season to post-season stats is a big one for me. The greatest can continue to be the greatest against everybody, not simply putting up monster stats vs a non-playoff team your team should crush.

    I also think that Tim Duncan is really a center and not a power forward, but then if you were talking about best big men of all time neither player would be in the discussion :)

  23. Ronald says:

    re: Barkley:

    Barkley is under Tim Duncan definitely. And, not because of stats etc., but because he himself has said numerous times that Tim is the best PF ever. I personally think that Barkley is a bit higher on the best PF list of all times.

  24. Shaun says:

    Karl Malone was one of the best regular season offensive power forwards of all time. He’s not even close to the player that Tim Duncan was. This would not even be an argument anywhere outside of Utah (or maybe Louisiana).

  25. Alex says:

    @Milly, Regarding the fact that Duncan would have zero championships if he played in Malone’s era. 1)Yes he does because his first championship was in 1999 (the year after the Bulls last championship against the Jazz); and 2) Pretty irrelevant if you’re trying to make an argument for Malone, because we know for a fact Malone has zero championships in his era.

  26. jsalazar3 says:

    I think first we must discuss which is a better coach and franchise. That might give some insight on why the stats are different (ex: Pop is known to sit players, Buford did excellent scouting to surround TD with talented role players, etc). It’s not as black and white as it may seem.

  27. Ronald says:

    @Meri: Tim Duncan wouldn’t be in the top big men discussion? Seriously? Most people have him in their top 10-15 list easily.

  28. Asher says:

    These great scoring numbers that Malone put up came at a time when the league played at a faster pace than it did for the bulk of Duncan’s career, no? For instance, in 89-90, perhaps Malone’s best offensive year, when Malone averaged an absurd-for-a-power forward 31 ppg, the average team scored 107 a game. In Duncan’s best offensive season, the 01-02 season, when he scored 25.5 ppg, the average team scored 95 a game. Pace was drastically lower. Which is why their offensive ratings are a lot closer than the raw scoring numbers would suggest.

  29. Taylor says:

    I’m a Rockets fan, and so am hopefully unbiased, since both the Jazz and Spurs have owned my guys since 1995. I also don’t give a hoot about the playoff numbers, probably because I witnessed my favorite team go from “choke city” to “clutch city” over the course of a month. Based on that and a variety of advance analytics, I believe that playoff failures usually result from limited opportunity or increased level of competition rather than a player’s alleged moral failings. So 4>0 doesn’t really convince me. Malone can breathe easily on that one.

    Despite that, I think Duncan is the clear choice, mostly for reasons mentioned by prior commentators: defense, WS per 48, and controlling per game production for game pace. I would add that:

    * Duncan was a better rebounder than Malone as measured by rebound rate, which controls for available rebounds (and so, by extension, for game pace).

    * Duncan’s single best season WS soundly beats any single season that Malone achieved. There is substantial value in high peak seasons because they concentrate contributions in a short window of time and therefore almost always have a low opportunity cost.

    * Relatedly, and perhaps most significantly, per basketball-reference Duncan achieved all of this despite a lower career usage rate. This means that he accomplished what he did while consuming a lower proportion of team opportunities than did Mailman. Even if you think that Duncan and Malone are roughly equal as players – I don’t, but a reasonable person could think that – the lower rate of consuming possesions tips the scales toward Timmy.

  30. Travis says:

    It seriously isn’t even comparable anymore. Duncan is without a doubt by far the best PF to every play the game. Malone was a better offensive player… no doubt but Duncan is the ultimate big man and he has 4 rings to show for it while Malone has 0 and he even tried to coattail shaq and kobe for one.

    Duncan>>>>>Malone. Make all the excuses you want.

  31. Eric says:

    Malone has gaudy stats because of all the passes he got from Stockton, a HOF PG. The bottom line is that defense wins championships and Malone doesn’t play championship level defense. Yes Malone couldn’t beat Jordan, but Duncan had to beat Kobe/Shaq to end the Laker’s 3 year championship run. And Duncan beat Kobe again for a few years afterwards as the Spurs won their 4th championship. Remember that Jordan stripped Malone to set up Jordan’s championship winning shot. Duncan has never “failed” like that with so much on the line. Bottom line is that I’d take Duncan over Malone any day if I were building a championship team and not just a high-scoring team.

  32. Jerome says:

    Interesting discussion. I agree with Eric…I’d take Duncan over Malone if I were building a championship team because Duncan plays championship level defense. Why do you think Bill Russell is so revered? But heck, don’t listen to me (or the other casual fans on this post). Read what Jack Ramsey, Charles Barkley, Kevin McHale, Magic Johnson, Larry Brown and other great coaches/players have to say. They all point to Duncan as the top in the PF position.

  33. Thomas says:

    If Malone is better than Duncan, why is Kareem not the best player ever?

  34. Jimmy says:

    I don’t buy the argument that Duncan wouldn’t have won a championship if he played in Malone’s era. This is just pure speculation. It’s like saying the only reason Jordan won all the championships was because Bird and Magic got older and were on the down side of their prime years since they both beat Jordan when Jordan started out in the league for many years. You can’t argue what ifs like that. Bottom line is that Malone never led his team to the championship while playing with a fellow Hall of Famer, while Duncan did on 4 occasions (2 without David Robinson). Malone never stepped up during crunch time (the stats prove this) while Duncan excelled. History doesn’t lie.

  35. Manny Face says:

    FAIL. No disrespect to Malone he was an offensive machine. Malone got to play with one if not the best point guard to ever play the game in John Stockton. Wich coincidentally just happen to be one of the TOP assist men of all time. Duncan had Parker a shoot first point guard. Duncan has to work down low for most of his points. Malone easily got an extra 8 to 10 points alone playing with Stock.

    You say your not going to put rings into this debate. No no of course not. No one in your city wants those. Not having Championship banners hanging in your crib would only distract whitey from watching watching a Super hilarious Bear mascot.

    Here’s a freebie because you’re obviously going through a writers block period in your life to have to have thought of this before you wrote. How about “Los Angeles should give us Lakers team name because this Jazz crap isn’t cutting it in this town.”

    I will be awaiting your “Clyde Drexler was better than Jordan” Blog post.

  36. Child says:

    Ask Malone if he played for stats or rings! Duncan hands down is better he won rings period!

  37. Fred says:

    When talking about who is better, rings mean little. Pistol Pete Maravich was the greatest ball handler is the history of the game, but no rings. If Elgin Baylor’s and Michael Jordan’s careers were switched and Baylor played for the Bulls and Jordan played with West and the Lakers we would all be running around in Nike’s “Air Baylors”. Baylor was almost as athletic as Jordan, better at the low post, more variety of shots, much better rebounder, and a better passer. Someone asked Celtics broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn who the greatest forward in the history of the game was. Everyone was expecting Heinsohn (a Celtic loyalist if there ever was one) to give the obvious answer: Larry Bird. Instead, and without hesitation, Heinsohn said, “Elgin Baylor.” Elgin Baylor, one of the best ever and no rings. I could go on but you get the idea.

    In the playoffs, when a star does not have a great supporting cast the defense can device a plan to stop that star. This is one of the reasons Malone’s numbers when down in the playoffs.

    I’m not saying Malone is better than Duncan but I am shining a light on some of the “facts”.

    In this case it comes down to what is in the system that is being played and who are the teammates. The players need to compliment on another.

  38. rex says:

    pero que estas hablando este articulo habla de titulos ganados por equipo no por un jugador ¡¡

    si fuera por un jugador por que tim duncan nunca gano una medalla de oro por su pais ?? solo gano bronce
    donde esta el jugador que hablas en el articulo comparacion mas mala .

    tim dunca para que alcanse a malone va tener que jugar 2000 partidos eso es imposible sus puntos por partidos se irian a abajo , el jugador tim duncan no tiene eficiencia juego menos minutos y anota menos

    no pertenece a la generacion dorada de todos los tiempos
    nunca jugoo el mejor partido de todos los tiempos scrimminage dream team 92

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