Examining Karl Malone’s all-time NBA starting five

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Karl Malone named his all-time NBA team on the Dan Patrick Show yesterday:

C: Wilt Chamberlain
PF: LeBron James
SF: Scottie Pippen
SG: Oscar Robertson
PG: John Stockton 

No Magic Johnson? No Michael Jordan? No Larry Bird? No Tim Duncan? No Bill Russell? Malone somehow managed to miss off arguably the best player at every single position, and simultaneously include two players (Stockton and Pippen) who failed to win a single MVP award. The five men have only two Finals MVP awards (Wilt ‘72 and LeBron ’12) between them.

Indeed, through years of hearing NBA observers rattle off their respective all-time starting fives, Malone’s is one combination I have never heard chosen. This perhaps serves as the latest example of why great players do not make great analysts or judges of talent (note the front office work of MJ, Isiah Thomas, and Elgin Baylor).

Malone is likely an under-qualified NBA historian (how many hours does he really spend poring over game tape and comparing players’ stats?), and a Jordan adversary still burned by two Finals defeats to the greatest player of all time.

His muddy reasoning for including Scottie over Michael: “Scottie Pippen led the team in every statistical category when he was there without Michael Jordan.” 

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Let us, however, give the Mailman a gigantic pass and benefit of the doubt, and let us see the good in his selections. Let us consider how this team would fare in actual games against a more conventional all-time five.

We can forgive the inclusion of Stockton. Whilst Malone himself (two MVPs, second all-time in points scored) likely has a better claim to make the team, we have to cut him some slack for showing loyalty to his former teammate and pick-and-roll partner. Stockton was a tough-as-nails (read: dirty) competitor who made five All-NBA Defensive second teams and is the all-time leader in assists. He was a notably clutch shooter (see here, here, and here) who shot 39% on 3-pointers during his prime (’88 to ’98)—a valuable asset on a team where teammates are likely to be double teamed late in games.

We can also understand the inclusion of Wilt. Even though Russell has 11 rings and Phil Jackson states that Russell would be his No. 1 pick in an all-time NBA draft, the Wilt/Russell debate is one that will never be truly settled thanks to Wilt’s absurd athletic gifts and unfathomable numbers (50.4 PPG and 25.7 RPG in 1961/62—not a typo). Surrounded by better, more success-driven, defense-oriented teammates, Wilt would in theory be inspired to put his physical advantages to their best use.

The LeBron/Scottie/Oscar trio is where it really gets interesting—and less easy to defend with conventional arguments. LeBron is thus far 1-for-3 in the NBA Finals, and neither Scottie nor Oscar ever won a title as the lead guy. Let us ignore that. Let us imagine that Malone is mapping out a forward-thinking blueprint of long-armed, athletic, multi-positional perimeter defense and unselfish wing play. The other team can have MJ; he’ll struggle to score efficiently against this trio and likely won’t involve his teammates nearly as well either. How will a small forward/power forward combo of Bird and Duncan deal defensively with Pippen and James? More generally, has a more athletic frontcourt than Scottie/LeBron/Wilt ever been put together on a basketball court?

Alas, no team is perfect, and there are a series of potential pitfalls for Team Malone. What if one ball is not enough for four primary ballhandlers? What if LeBron finds that Tim Duncan is even tougher to guard down low than David West?  What if Scottie’s migraines resurface? What if Wilt spends more time worrying about his stats than worrying about winning? What if LeBron pisses off Oscar by suggesting he partake in a moronic Harlem Shake video? What if Oscar pisses off his teammates with his generally moody behavior? What if John Stockton is eight inches shorter than the opposing point guard? What if the other team plays Hack-a-Wilt? What if a team with 41 career All-NBA First Team selections (Magic/Jordan/Bird/Duncan/Russell) is simply better than a team with 28 of them (Stockton/Robertson/Pippen/James/Chamberlain)?

The beauty of the debate is that we will never know.

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2 thoughts on “Examining Karl Malone’s all-time NBA starting five

  1. Anyone who misses off even ONE of the Magic & Jordan & Bird trio is misinformed. Missing off all 3 is idiotic. Magic – Jordan – Bird – Duncan – Wilt. Enjoy trying to win a quarter (let alone a game!!!) in a 7 game series against that team.

  2. Pingback: NBA greats’ questionable knowledge of NBA greats | NBA Observer

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