Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, “What’s Wright with Nick Wright,” FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 17, Karl Malone.
Karl Malone’s career highlights:
- Two-time MVP
- 14-time All-Star
- 11-time first-team All-NBA, two-time second team, one-time third team
- Three-time All-Defensive first team, one-time second team
- 1986 All-Rookie team
- Third on all-time scoring list
They say the regular season and postseason are two different games in the NBA. For two full decades, Karl Malone played about the same in both settings.
That approach made him among the best of all time before the playoffs, and not good enough during them.
“The postseason résumé is not nearly what the regular-season résumé is,” Wright said.
Karl Malone is No. 17 on Nick Wright’s Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years
When it comes to accolades, it’s hard to top Utah Jazz legend Karl Malone. He was a two-time MVP who registered nine top-five MVP finishes, a 14-time All-NBA selection and the league’s third all-time leading scorer. Malone and John Stockton formed one of the league’s greatest duos, but ultimately fell just falling short of a championship against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
A two-time MVP, Malone finished top 10 in voting 14 years in a row and top five nine times. He earned 11 consecutive first-team All-NBA selections. Only LeBron James has more overall.
The Jazz legend is the lone player from the past 50 years to average 25 points and 10 rebounds for his career.
“It’s hard to make an argument that anyone other than LeBron and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) clearly have a better totality of regular-season worth,” Wright said.
Malone’s iconic nickname, the Mailman, couldn’t be more fitting. He played in an astonishing 1,434 out of a possible 1,444 games over 18 seasons in Utah, and he started in all but five of those. His 1,471 career starts are an NBA record.
But so are his 193 playoff games (and starts) without winning a title. The simple explanation for it is that Malone, unlike most of his elite peers, didn’t elevate his game as competition intensified. The brawny power forward reached the postseason in all 19 of his seasons and his 24.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game are right in line with his regular-season rates.
The only real difference was in his shooting, and it was notable. Malone connected on 51.6% in the regular season and 46.3% in the playoffs. The five percent difference in efficiency is equivalent to that of Stephen Curry and Allen Iverson.
Despite the consistent excellence between Malone and fellow Dream Team member John Stockton, Utah’s first deep playoff run didn’t come until their seventh season together in 1992. They nearly squandered a 2-0 lead to the Clippers in the first round, prevailing despite Malone going 5-for-17 in the deciding game. He posted 37 and 13 to put away the Supersonics in the next round and 38 and 14 with the conference finals tied at 2-all. The Trail Blazers won Game 5, however, and the next game even though Malone went for 23 and 19.
The Jazz made it back to the conference finals two years later, but fell to the Rockets in five games, as Malone was thoroughly outplayed by Hakeem Olajuwon.
In 1995, Utah was eliminated in the opening round for the sixth time in the Malone-Stockton era (there would be three more occurrences to close out their tenure in Utah.) In Game 7 of the ’96 conference finals against the Sonics, Malone shot 8-for-22, grabbed just five rebounds and committed four turnovers in a four-point loss.
“He doesn’t have a lot of singularly great postseason moments,” Wright said.
Utah finally got over the Western Conference hump in 1997. Malone was again more good than great, and again humbled by Olajuwon in the conference finals, but a big series from Stockton lifted the Jazz to their first Finals. They had a golden opportunity to steal Game 1 in Chicago when Malone, after Scottie Pippen coolly reminded that the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays, missed two free throws in the closing seconds of a tie game. Michael Jordan followed with a buzzer-beater.
Malone erupted for 37 and 10 with four steals in Game 3 and led all scorers in Game 4 to even up the series. But with the Bulls on the ropes at Utah, in what would become known as the “Flu Game,” Malone had an off shooting night and played less than 34 minutes because of foul trouble. The Jazz lost by two. They lost Game 6 by four after Malone missed eight free throws.
In the Finals rematch one year later, Malone struggled in the first four games as Utah fell behind 3-1 in the series. He had a monster Game 5 (39-9) and was excellent at home in Game 6 … until the final 40 seconds. The game was tied when Malone adeptly flung the ball across the court to an open Stockton for a 3-pointer. The Jazz’ defense then fell asleep as Jordan scored a quick layup to cut the Bulls’ deficit to one. Malone received an entry pass on the following possession, when Jordan snuck up from behind and stripped him. Jordan gave Chicago the lead a moment later with perhaps the most celebrated shot in basketball history.
Utah did have one more possession, but it was Stockton who took the inbounds before missing a 3 while coming off a Malone screen. Malone’s output and the game’s outcome served as a microcosm for his career.
“The box score looks good — 31 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists — but we all know the story there,” Wright said.
Malone aged extremely well, becoming the oldest player to ever win MVP (in his age-35 season) and leading the franchise to the second-most wins in the 90s. They wouldn’t advance past the second round again, however, and a 40-year-old Malone signed with the rivals Lakers in 2003 upon Stockton retiring. He played a key role in the star-crossed squad’s 18-3 start to the season, only to suffer the first significant injury of his career. The aging star recovered enough to help L.A. make it out of the West but sprained his knee midway through its Finals loss to the Pistons.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Malone retired, and he still ranks third all time in scoring and seventh in rebounding. Among players 30 and older, he’s first in points, third in rebounds and 12th in assists. Malone averaged 20-plus points for 17 years straight.
“There’s some compiling there,” Wright said. “No one’s going to argue he was a great playoff performer. He got a little worse come the postseason. But in the regular season, the résumé is unimpeachable.”
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