Karl Malone is the greatest power forward of all time. Not Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin McHale, James Worthy, or Moses Malone. All of those players deserve to be in the discussion, no doubt, but upon analyzing all of their career accomplishments and statistics, it seems pretty obvious to me at least, that Karl Malone is the greatest power forward to ever play the game of basketball.
He once averaged 31.0 points and 11.1 rebounds per game during just his 5th season in the NBA. He won two NBA MVP awards and went to the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons. He is a 14x NBA All-Star, 11x All-NBA First Team, 3x All-Defensive First Team, a member of the NBA's 50th Anniversary Top 50 Greatest Players of All-Time Team, the NBA's #2 all-time leading scorer, a member of the original 1992 Dream Team, and posted career averages of 25.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, and .8 blocks per game. Those are mighty impressive accomplishments. Accomplishments which I believe in totality make him the greatest power forward to every play the game of basketball.
However, not everybody is convinced that he is the greatest power forward of all-time. As a matter of fact, few people today call "The Mailman" the greatest power forward of all time and instead say it's Tim Duncan a.k.a. "Mr. Fundamental". The argument for Tim Duncan is a pretty straight forward argument: He is a 5x NBA Champion, 3x NBA Finals MVP, 2x NBA MVP, 10x NBA All-First Team, 8x All-Defensive First Team, and the 1998 NBA Rookie of the Year. What makes many put Duncan ahead of Malone is the fact that Duncan has won five NBA championships and Malone has won zero. As a matter of fact, that seems to be the only reason.
I don't think it's wrong to factor in team accomplishments into the equation of who is the better of two players, but I do think it's a mistake to make it the only criteria. If rings are the only criteria, then Bill Russell is hands down the greatest basketball player of all-time, and Dennis Rodman is a better power forward than Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. But clearly, it feels wrong to make these statements, since obviously, we all know there is more to comparing players than just rings. It's one area to take into consideration, but not the only area.
In addition to rings, here are some other areas to take into consideration when comparing players: Who has the better statistics both in career average and in their best seasons? Who did the player compete against? Who did the player have on his teams? How long was the player successful for (i.e. longevity)? Who would you rather start with to build a team around?
Upon looking at these other factors, Karl Malone I think takes the cake over Duncan and over everybody else I mentioned above. However, for the sake of time, I will just compare Karl Malone to Tim Duncan, though I may reference another one of those players as I see fit. The reason I am choosing Duncan is because he is considered the greatest power forward of all-time by most basketball experts and so if I can convince you that Karl Malone is greater than Tim Duncan, I thus have a strong case for why he is the greatest power forward ever.
Let me start off by addressing each additional category that I've asked us to consider. But before I do, let me re-establish that Tim Duncan does have Karl Malone beaten in the championships department and that I think it is one of the categories or areas that we have to look into when determining who the greatest power forward is.
The first area to look at is who had the better statistics both in career average and in their best seasons? During the entire course of his career, Karl Malone averaged 25.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, and .8 blocks per game. As for Tim Duncan, he has averaged 19.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, .7 steals, and 2.2 blocks per game. I think upon analyzing both of their career stats, Karl Malone is the better overall player, though Tim Duncan is the better post defender given the advantage in shot-blocking.
As for best individual season, Karl Malone averaged 31.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and .6 blocks per game in the 1989-90 season, his fifth season in the NBA. Tim Duncan's best season came in the 2001-02 season in which he averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.7 steals, and 2.5 blocks per game. He won MVP that season.
Once again, I think that Karl Malone's best individual season is better, given the amount of points he scored, though I give Tim Duncan the edge in defense due to the blocks. However, it should be noted that Karl Malone got twice as many steals as Tim Duncan, which may also point to how both players played defense differently. Duncan I grant was the better defender, but Karl Malone was a great defender in his own right, too.
The next area of consideration is who did these guys play against? For Karl Malone it would be Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. As for Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant both would be considered the best players he ever faced, along with LeBron James. In this department, I think Karl Malone had a tougher hill to climb than Tim Duncan because Hakeem Olajuwon is arguably the greatest center to ever play the game of basketball and Michael Jordan is hands down the greatest player of all time.
However, what people want to quickly point out is that Malone still ended up ringless and Duncan walked away with five rings (and counting). The issue I take with this, is that Tim Duncan never actually defeated Shaquille O'Neal in his prime. That's right. Shaquille O'Neal won three straight championships as the leader of the Lakers in 2000, 2001, and 2002 and Duncan didn't stop him. Duncan did get the better of Shaq and the Lakers in 2003, but one could argue that Shaq and the Lakers were no longer in their prime at that point.
As for who they faced in the NBA Finals, Karl Malone easily had the hardest task in taking down the great Chicago Bulls teams of the 90s lead by Michael Jordan. I don't think anybody would say that Tim Duncan had a task so hard as that. Duncan didn't have a cake walk in all of his trips to the NBA Finals, but he never faced a team as good as either of those Chicago Bulls teams.
Luckily for Tim Duncan, he never had to deal with Michael Jordan as a threat to a championship. Instead, he had to face an 8th seeded New York Knicks team in 1999, a solid, but not intimidating New Jersey Nets team in 2003, a very sound and complete Detroit Pistons team in 2005, a Cleveland Cavaliers team that had LeBron James and a bunch of scrubs in 2007, and a Miami Heat team led by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in 2013 and 2014, losing only to the Heat in 2013.
I would argue the toughest team that Duncan faced was that Pistons team in 2005. That team won the championship the year before in 2004 and was one of the most complete teams we've ever seen, led by Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace. Those Pistons teams were great teams because they played together as a collective unit, something that the Spurs have mirrored over the course of their own championship runs.
However, as I said above, the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s would have beaten those Detroit Pistons, and likely would have beaten any Spurs team that Tim Duncan was on. It's no knock on the Spurs or Tim Duncan. It's just pointing out how dominate those Chicago Bulls teams were. Those Utah Jazz teams with Karl Malone and John Stockton probably would have won an NBA championship or two if it weren't' for those Chicago Bulls teams, who similarly ended the title hopes of other great players like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Reggie Miller.
The next area of consideration is who did each player have on their teams. In this area, I think Karl Malone may have had more help around him given the fact that John Stockton is arguably the greatest point guard of all time. Tim Duncan has played with some great players like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Bruce Bowen, but none of those players come close to being as great as John Stockton. John Stockton is a household name, which is why I think that Karl Malone probably had more help around him.
However, Tim Duncan may have had more complete teams around him and also wasn't asked to deliver the amount of production that Karl Malone was asked to do. The Spurs championship teams have been much more reliant on a community effort while the Jazz were essentially telling Karl Malone to get them 25-30 points every night while John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek took the pressure off by getting him the ball and knocking down open threes.
As for the area of longevity, Karl Malone blows Tim Duncan out of the water. Karl Malone's career averages are 25 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, and .8 blocks per game. Tim Duncan's best season is 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, .7 steals, and 2.5 blocks per game. In essence, over an 18 year career Karl Malone was able to average numbers close to Tim Duncan's best career season!
In addition, Karl Malone averaged 20.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in his last season with the Utah Jazz at the age of 39. Tim Duncan, who is 38 years old, hasn't averaged 20 points per game since he was 30 years old. Karl Malone arguably peaked when he was 33 and 34 during his two trips to the NBA Finals with the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998, whereas by that point of his life, Tim Duncan was on the decline, playing around 65 games per season. As for Karl Malone, he was still playing 80-82 games per season.
Lastly, the final question we need to ask ourselves is who would we rather have on our team? Or who would we rather have to build a championship team around if we could only have one of the two players? To make this question more simple, assume that you are starting a franchise from scratch and have to draft one of these two players as your franchise player. Who would you pick?
I would take Karl Malone over Tim Duncan. He produced more on average, he played more total games, got hurt less, and was more productive over the entire course of his career. He was "The Mailman". He delivered rain or shine every night. It's not to say that Tim Duncan didn't, but he wasn't the sturdy brick that Karl Malone was. As a matter of fact, nobody was the sturdy brick that Karl Malone was except for Michael Jordan, the very man who defeated Karl Malone in two straight NBA Finals.
In addition, the Utah Jazz wouldn't have won two championships if Tim Duncan replaced Karl Malone, especially considering how Tim Duncan was producing when he was 33 and 34 years old. On the contrary, if the San Antonio Spurs had drafted Karl Malone in 1997, I think odds are good that under the guidance of Gregg Popovich the Spurs would have won 5 championships.
In conclusion, my article isn't to undermine the great Tim Duncan or slurp Karl Malone. It's to analyze both players and compare them across multiple areas of consideration. I think very highly of both players and I have no problem with anybody saying that Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all time. He deserves to be mentioned in this discussion.
However, I personally think that Karl Malone is the greater player of the two and thus the greatest power forward of all-time with Tim Duncan as the #2 greatest power forward of all-time. Of course, some say that Tim Duncan is actually a center, but that is an interesting debate for another time.
---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord