The Battle Commences....

NBA Great Debates: Greatest Power Forward of All-Time, Tim Duncan or Karl Malone?

This debate I am willing to wager we hear more and more of as Duncan approaches his immanent retirement.

While still an effective banger, Duncan is no longer the 20-10 stalwart he was during his prime.  He is still an above average player, and fell off almost imperceptably, if stats were ignored.

Duncan still got up and down the court, he still played with passion, he still played well; but he did not play at the level to which we have become accustomed to seeing from him.

Karl Malone fell off a little towards the very end, too.  In his farewell tour with the Lakers, he had become a role player, playing only 42 games in the regular season and putting up a pedestrian 13 ppg and 8 rpg.  He was not the dominant monster who averaged 31 a game (as he did in the 89-90 campaign, the first year in which I personally followed NBA basketball).  Hakeem did the same thing, when he faded into oblivion with the Raptors.  Ewing did it with the Magic.  Stars just don’t seem to understand when their time is up and they always perpetuate their career a bit longer than it should be, usually on the basis that they are big powerful players who still pose a physical challenge, even to younger players.

There have never been more important pieces of jewelry in the history of the free world!

This really should not be about who fell off worse, or earlier, or at all.  It is always best to me to consider which player is best at their very peak, a conversation I have been tossing around with Oncourt Onslaught podcast co-host Brandon LaChance.  I value a players’ peak performance more than he does, and probably more than Bill Simmons does in his list in his Big Book of Basketball.  I think there is something to be said about all of us at our most brilliant points, and a really solid stretch of  3 or 4 seasons counts for a lot with me.

Karl Malone put up superior numbers.  Duncan won more championships.  Duncan played with a Hall of Famer in David Robinson and two future HOFers in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.  Malone played with fellow hall of famer John Stockton, but other than that no one but Jeff Hornacek and the likes of Greg Ostertag.  So Malone was at a serious handicap, with regard to the talent around him.

Both Malone and Duncan were coached by total masters.  Jerry Sloan made Utah relevant long past the days when their talent dictated they should have been.  Stockton played into what I will call the “Early Kirilenko era” and the post-Mailman teams of AK-47 and Carlos Arroyo were exciting in some macabre way.  I don’t think it was high scoring basketball, but watching Kirilenko frustrate the hell out of offenses was a delight to see, and at that time he wasn’t a bad scorer either.  The fact that he and Arroyo could win 40+ games only showed the brilliance of Sloan.

Jun 2, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks to his team during a timeout from the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder for game four of the Western Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder beat the Spurs 109-103. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Gregg Popovich has never coached a losing team.  He has taken the Spurs to more championships in the last 15 years than any other team in the NBA, and he is going to go down as a complete legend.  It’s hard to say either is better than the other, but Sloan and Pop offer very different approaches, both stressing defense, while textbooking tight offensive plays, refined, but not unique.

All in all:  I have to say Karl Malone is the better power forward.  There is a reason he is #2 on the all time scoring list, and Duncan could never average 31 ppg and 11 rpg.  He was a solid 20-10 type of guy, but Malone’s peak was far more impressive and had Malone played with the cast Duncan played with, he would have won just as many championships.

Duncan does not possess some mystic quality that Malone doesn’t have just because he has won some championships.  A player’s legacy is to always some degree left up to the players he plays with.  It’s unfortunate, but you have players who just never fall into the right position, and when the Jazz were at their very best, the Bulls were as well.  And while Stockton and Malone is about as good as a duo can get, they were nothing compared to the duo of Pippen and His Airness.  They played against some Bulls teams that are considered to be among the greatest ever and they didn’t look like total pushovers.  No one ever bet that the Jazz would win, but a very speculative bettor may have dropped an odd bet here and there.

Malone is probably one of my favorites because he signed a personalized autograph for me.  Sometimes I hate to admit the sentimental truth.  I sent him a 1989 NBA Hoops card and he personalized it with my Name, “To Brett:  KARL MALONE #32″  In other news, I have two autographs with scriptures under them authored by David Robinson, as well.

Some heroes of my childhood realize their importance to us in our formative years.  Robinson is a model human being, never mind his athletic prowess.  I can see Duncan being just as accommodating to such requests, so that will bode well for him in his retirement years.

Former NBA legends are oft-loved by the public and I could see Duncan appearing in television shows from time to time, not withstanding his shyness.  If Bill Walton can do it, so can a wild chimpanzee, thus proving the job is not an exclusive one.

I think this argument is just beginning and we are waiting for Duncan to hang his sneakers up for it to commence in mass.  There will be camps standing behind Duncan and his rings.  Others, like myself, will stand behind the more impressive player , aware that this argument is a lot like the one regarding Wilt Chamberlain vs Bill Russell.

Russell had the rings; Wilt had the stats.

This is what Players Play For

Duncan has the rings; Malone has the stats.

It’s always hard to call it in situations like these, and I take Russell in the olden days debate and Malone in the modern, rewarding neither measurement as absolute, but preferring an amalgam of the two as a standard for measurement.  It’s not like Malone wasn’t knocking on the door the entire time.   He was.

But who could contest Jordan?

He had another chance when Jordan went off to pursue his dreams on the diamond, but Hakeem stood in way for those two seasons, bringing Houston a couple titles that they missed out on early in his career when he was paired with the 7’4 Ralph Sampson, who will be discussed later in my list of the Top 200 Players of All Time.

Some players just never get their chances to “put a ring on it.”  A lot of great players’ peaks coincide with even better players, and there can only be one Larry O’Brien trophy winner each season.

Only one team uncorks champaigne bottles on the last night of the season.  The rest “go fishing,” as TNT loves to depict in their rather hilarious photo shops, crudely but appropriately done by the graphically challenged artists at TNT.  Duncan has some jewelry, but Malone wins.

Tags: Karl Malone San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Utah Jazz

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