Welcome Coach Karl! Or maybe it’s Periodic Expat Demi-coach of a Largely Undesignated Nature and Frequency Charged with Development of Players 6’8” and Taller (preferably far, far away from the press) Karl, but hey, potato, potahto, our boy’s come home!
Whatever else comes of this adventure, it is good to know Greg Miller and Karl Malone have gotten past the difficulties of the last few years. The Mailman’s estrangement from the Miller family, and consequently the much wider Jazz family, could never be acceptable to any party. He is too much a part of our team, and that team will always be a significant part of who Karl is as well. That he’s back “on the team” is good news.
The implications for the development of Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and possibly other Jazz players are far less simple to sum up. I love Karl Malone and always have, though that love has sometimes carried a legitimate component of frustration, resentment, and bitterness. In this, I think my feelings about Malone are shared by a large number of Jazz fans, and for good reason.
Karl Malone was a great, great player, one of the best ever. He was also sometimes erratic in attitude and speech, confrontational (including with people within his own organization), and, at times, selfish. I think Malone would readily admit to these negative marks in his past. While his glorious playing days are past, there is real question whether the same can be said of the distracting idiosyncrasies and vagaries of his personality. In turn, that forces one to wonder just what caliber of coach he can be.
I don’t think anyone can confidently answer that question—not the team CEO and Owner Greg Miller; not Jazz Head Coach, and former teammate of Malone, Tyrone Corbin (who apparently played a role in instigating the current arrangement); perhaps not even the Mailman himself. The demands on a coach are very different from those of an elite player, including in comportment and ability to communicate. How Karl Malone the player will transition to Karl Malone the coach/consultant is something I expect all Jazz fans will monitor with interest.
But with some questioning what virtues the Mailman brings to the table as a coach and already predicting a scandalous end to this experiment, I decided to share a few areas where I feel Malone really may produce tangible results in his work with the team’s young bigs.
1. Fitness and Conditioning
Malone changed the way NBA players approach fitness and conditioning, perhaps more than any other single player. He logged 53,479 minutes of regular season game play, or 891.3 hours, or 37.1 days, or roughly a month and one week straight of full court basketball against the greatest athletes in the world, full out, at all times. People still marvel at what his body was capable of enduring. That body was a product of work, and his game a product of that body. Thus, for Malone there was no separating in-game performance from training, both in-season and off-season.
In an interview with Muscle and Fitness, Malone said, “I will tell… anyone who cares to know that my conditioning in the off-season was what allowed me to play so many games, because I didn’t let my body get out of shape. It was harder than my in-season training. I knew once the season started, all I had to do was maintain. If I didn’t lift weights, I don’t think I would’ve had the career I had. Matter of fact, I know it.” But it wasn’t just about the weights. Add in running up hills with a parachute attached to your back and the other insane exercises in Malone’s repertoire, and the result is a program of self-inflicted agony greater than any basketball game could possibly match.
In his work with players, on court exercises and drills will rarely, if ever, be completely separate from fitness level. Malone will push for greater strength and speed and balance constantly, because that is the only way he knows how to approach the game. Stephen Jackson, who went on a New York hip-hop station and declared he never worked out in the off-season his whole career, would be killed by Coach Malone. Really, dead.
Assuming Favors and Kanter want to remain alive, working with Malone will provide them a constant, blunt, loud reminder that everything they do is dependent upon their bodies. Both young players have elite physical attributes, and may well be tempted to coast on those natural gifts. Not when they work with the Mailman. Physically, both Favors and Kanter are more likely to squeeze every ounce of superiority they have out of their bodies with Malone there periodically demanding that of them.
2. Playing Hurt
In his 18 seasons with the Jazz, Malone missed only 5 games for health reasons. To do that, you live the old adage “you can play hurt but you can’t play injured”—except you find ways to play injured as well.
Professional athletes are neurotically competitive, as often as not, and any slight to one’s manliness or toughness simply will not stand. Being around Malone is as likely to encourage rugged, play-no-matter-what mentality in young players as anything—especially because he is unlikely to appeal to his status as an “authorized consultant” or whatever to motivate hurting players. He’ll just call them sissies to their faces (or likely terms less suitable for family sites such as this one).
Malone will be the crazy older brother, and that guy can get away with insulting your manhood where the authority figure that is the head coach can’t. Being around Malone will toughen up players in a roughhouse, fraternal way likely to work well for men as young as Favors and Kanter.
3. Running the Floor
In the announcement on 1280 The Zone that broke the news about Malone’s hiring as an official consultant, Greg Miller shared a story about the Mailman’s first session with Derrick Favors. Miller relayed that Malone told Favors his goal was to grab a defensive rebound and get to it John Stockton, then to beat Stockton up the floor to the hoop on the offensive end.
The story reminded me of a similar sentiment shared by Chuck Daly after he coached the Dream Team. Daly commented that Malone and David Robinson amazed him because they might have been the fastest guys on the team as they got up and down the length of the court, just as fast or faster than the guards.
Whether beating every other player up the court or filling the lane as the trailer on break, Malone always ran hard trying to establish an advantage. It’s certain he will expect the same from the players he works with. This expectation, combined with the fitness level Malone will demand, could result in Favors and Kanter transitioning from the defensive to offensive ends of the court as quickly as any big tandem in the game.
4. Setting Screens and Running the Pick and Roll
Honestly, the best potential teacher of how to set screens would be John Stockton. He had the tenacity of a congenital disease when picking off a man. But as second options go, Malone is a fantastic one. How many times did Malone anticipate Stockton’s motion, set himself in just the right spot at just the right angle, anchor and let Stockton run the defender into him, and stop any player in the league as if netted, trapped between those massive shoulders?
Malone knows both the technique of setting a quality pick and, perhaps even more important, the essential nature of the pick in basketball. He’s more likely to have Favors and Kanter setting hundreds of screens than taking hundreds of jump shots, which will only set them apart as players more in this era of finesse, stretch bigs. Nerlens Noel won’t be much of a defensive stopper when Kanter hits him with a Malone-grade screen.
Additionally, Malone is half of the pair universally acknowledged as the Masters of the Pick and Roll. He knows both the theory and technique behind just about every option available to the screen setter in the pick and roll: slipping the screen in a dive to the basket; when and how to roll to the hoop after the pick; leaking out for a prime jump shot; resetting for a second pick in a different direction or with a change of angle; spacing the floor to help a player with a scoring advantage as a defense shifts in anticipation of the pick and roll.
If you wanted to give an NBA big man a PhD advisor on the pick and roll, it would be Karl Malone.
5. Offensive Post Positioning
Fans hoping Malone will help Derrick Favors develop a lethal go-to post move will be disappointed; the NBA’s second all-time leading scorer didn’t really have one himself. What he did have was the ability to get and hold post position superior to just about anyone who ever played the game. You don’t need the sky hook when you have your defender so out of position that his only choices are give up on the play or foul you.
Defenders in such positions ended up fouling the Mailman. A lot. 7 times Malone led the league in free throws attempted; 8 times he did the same in free throws made. He is the NBA career leader in both categories. His 9,787 free throws made are 700 more than second place, Moses Malone, and nearly 2,000 more than third, Kobe Bryant. His career 13,188 free throw attempts are 1,300 more than his nearest competitors, Moses Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, and Shaquille O’Neal, all in the 11,000s.
If Favors with his length and athleticism, and Kanter with his power and broad shoulders (very much like Malone), learn to apply anything of the advantage Malone created by grabbing and holding prime scoring position, their offensive games will benefit immensely. Plus, there is a good chance some of Malone’s speed getting up shots in the deep post will rub off as well. I don’t think it is unrealistic to believe that, if both young bigs learn well from the Mailman’s tutelage, they might average a combined 16-20 trips to the free throw line per game, should they stay together.
To put that in perspective, in the Lakers’s 2001-2002 championship year, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant combined for 18.1 free throw attempts (and 12 makes) per game. If Favors and Kanter learn to establish and use post position at all like Malone, I think they might do as well or better, and it looks like neither of the two will be the substantial liability at the line that O’Neal was. Imagine the Jazz getting between 12 and 14 points on average from the free throw line from these two players every game, because it’s plausible.
6. Defensive Positioning, Rebounding, and Anticipation
Malone made the All-Defensive 1st Team three times in three consecutive years (1996 – 1999), as well as the 2nd team once. It’s revealing that his peak defensive years came at age 32-34, in which time he put up 1.4 steals and a mere 0.7 blocks. Clearly, his defensive prowess did not stem from his athletic ability to protect the rim, and while he always had fast hands, his steals per game over his three All-Defensive 1st Team years were lower than Paul Millsap’s these past three seasons.
So where was his elite defensive prowess? Defensive positioning ending with a defensive rebound.
Malone kept between his man and the basket whether the offensive player juked, used a burst of speed, or tried bullish power. He was particularly apt at maintaining defensive position in the post, holding his spot while being backed down while keeping balance enough to react to sudden movement or a shot.
Like Dennis Rodman, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year with lower career tallies of steals and blocks per game than Malone, the Mailman kept himself in just about every play defensively with a good base, solid technique, and defending through to the rebound. And the importance of his defensive rebounding can’t be overlooked: Malone posted a top ten defensive rebounding percentage in 7 seasons and established a strong career mark of 23.5%.
Finally, add anticipation to Malone’s defensive attributes. Innumerable times he anchored himself on his wide defensive stance, squared his arm against a player trying to back him down, and timed the offensive player just as he moved into his shot, swatting the ball away. His technique and position made this possible, but only because of his great ability to read a player’s action and anticipate, much the way great perimeter defenders watch the hips and core rather than feet or shoulders and so avoid getting juked out.
If Favors and Kanter add some of Malone’s solid positioning and anticipation to their natural skills, and if they defend to the rebound as he did, they should make a frightening defensive combo.
7. Post Passing
Malone was always a solid passer, but by the second half of his career he’d become elite at his position. In 7 years he dished out 4 or more assists a game, and 11 seasons he averaged 3.5 or better. The only NBA forwards since 1980 with more seasons at that rate are Larry Bird (13) and Charles Barkley (12).
To put in perspective just how fine a passer Malone was, he had 8 seasons with an Assist Percentage higher than 20%, which is well above Gordon Hayward’s best season. The guy could pass, particularly to cutters darting to the basket. He knows where and when players make themselves available to a pass from the post, particularly in a system derived largely from that of Jerry Sloan.
Don’t be surprised if the coming years find Favors and Kanter rocking their shoulders in a face up and then hurling periodic darts to cutting teammates, a la the Mailman.
Whatever one calls it, will Malone’s “consulting” be the difference maker in Favors and Kanter reaching All-Star status? Almost certainly not. Will the young players pick up technique, values, and tricks in all of the above areas where Malone so excelled? Probably not. They are their own people and their own players, and very young in addition. There will be a lot said and demonstrated that doesn’t stick—and, as has always been true of the Mailman, fiasco is always possible.
But some things probably will transfer, and those things will make Favors and Kanter better players. Maybe Favors will learn to keep better defensive position and anticipate a defender, enhancing his ability to block shots without fouling, and pair that with uncommonly crisp passing on the offensive end. Maybe Kanter will learn to sprint the floor like a madman, anchor a foot in front of the hoop, and not move until the ball or the defender is in the hoop. Maybe they both earn reputations throughout the league for screening hard and often and on the border of legality; maybe they’ll even rack up some seasons of 82 games started.
Whatever they pick up, it will mostly be good, because Karl Malone still has the knowledge and passion of a truly legendary NBA star, and he’s one of the few that, without question, loves the Jazz and this state. If his young students adopt some characteristics of the Mailman, it will be excellent news for every Jazz fan.
*Correction has been made to Karl Malone’s minutes played.