Friday, August 13, 2010

Is Karl Malone the greatest power forward of all time?

I was watching the Twins game the other day and they were honoring Dan “The Dazzle Man” Gladden as one of their 50 greatest players. This seemed about right in my mind. I mean I remember him as someone on both championship teams and the image of him running in for the winning run in the 1991 World Series is a classic baseball image. However, I checked his stats and they were absolutely dreadful. From 1987 to 1991 he played for the Twins his OPS+ (a great stat partly because 100 = the average baseball player) in his 5 years in Minneapolis was 90 making him a below average player. On the 1991 World Series winning team he was ranked the following out of the 9 starters; 9th in OBP%, 8th in Slg%, 9th in OPS+ and 7th in hits.

Statistics are funny like that sometimes. Sometimes like in the above example they completely contradict what you had always thought. Dan Gladden had always been in my mind one of the Twins best players. He was a gritty, gutsy player who helped will the Twins to two World Series titles. In reality the Twins won those titles not because of Dan Gladden, but in spite of Dan Gladden.

Other times though statistics back up your gut feelings about a player. The case below is a perfect example.

Karl Malone is going to be elected to the Hall of Fame this weekend. That is no surprise considering his incredible accomplishments over a long NBA career almost exclusively with the Utah Jazz. He is one of the NBA’s best players of all time and when he retired it was common wisdom to tout him as the “best power forward of all time.” This title has since has been unofficially passed along to Tim Duncan. The collective wisdom is that Malone was one of those great regular season players, but Duncan was better in the playoffs and had the 4 championship rings as the ultimate trump card. Everyone seems to remember Malone as someone who would carry a team to the playoffs, but once there he was often disappointing. What Jazz fan can forget the two missed free throws in Game 1 of the 1997 Finals? Or of course the infamous turnover right before Jordan ’s game winning (offensive foul) shot in the 1998 Finals. This epitaph of playoff failure was assigned to his NBA career.

Now do the stats back it up?

We have had plenty of time since Malone retired to forget a lot of games and maybe our memory has failed in us in remembering Malone as someone who didn’t produce in the playoffs. Maybe we remember the bad (the end of Game 6 of the 1998 Finals) and forget the good (Game 5 of the 1998 Nba Finals)? Have we been unfair to Malone? Is he the best power forward of all time? Below is the case for and against:

Karl Malone is the best power forward of all time
When you 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.
  • 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.
Tim Duncan is 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 the points in Malone’s favor. 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.

Regardless I would like to congratulate Karl Malone for his induction into the Hall of Fame. You are the greatest power forward in this biased Jazz fan's mind.

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