Backpicks GOAT: #13 Karl Malone

Key Stats and Trend

  • All-time level scoring and efficiency seasons
  • Efficacy declines in postseason due to finishing limitations
  • Underrated passing helped anchor excellent team offenses for nearly a decade

Scouting Report

Karl Malone was built like He-Man, bullish but agile. His combination of quickness and strength generated an abundance of easy scores and free throws in his early years, powering through defenders in the lane with regularity or flipping his body into them for whistles:

By the early ’90s, Utah’s half court offense orbited around Malone’s deep post catches. His speed also made him a wrecking ball in transition, often outrunning the opposition for easy scores. He took four-and-a-half seconds to go from zero-to-dunk:

With a head of steam, Malone was like a Mack truck barreling toward the hoop, but was also limber enough to finish. This happened a lot back then:

He was also a prolific mid-post shooter, showing range and touch early in his career:

He converted that shot off the dribble, after a jab step or with a quick turn over either shoulder, a remarkable development after shooting 48 percent from the line as a rookie. (He hit 70 percent by 1988 and continued to improve.)

In his first few years, Malone’s actions were nearly instantaneous, immediately launching most of his attempts right after the catch. Around 1990, he slowed down to survey more, a change that led to more measured shots and significant growth as an impact passer.1

He called on the midrange shot less frequently in his first few years, instead pounding people down low and outracing them in transition. In tracking Malone, about two thirds of his offense in his early years germinated from the low post and about 10 percent from the fast break. But from 1994-98, Malone inverted his play, generating about two thirds of his offense from the midrange (or high post) and only 3 percent from transition.2 This shift coincided with his improved passing game, allowing Utah to find easy baskets for cutters.

By the early ’90s, Malone could distribute well, especially against single-coverage in the post, where he had time to spot cutters like this:

He occasionally missed some passes too, especially outside the confines of the post. In the clip below, an extra pass would have netted teammate Thurl Bailey a layup:

These blindspots were more prevalent in the early years, when Malone was by no means a great passer. But in time, he blossomed into a top-shelf distributor, nearly doubling his rate of “good” or “elite” passes after 1994 in my sampling; Malone jumped from about 2 “good” passes per 100 to an outstanding 4 per 100, on par with the frequency of quality passes slung by Stockton. This coincided with increased creation rates — as his game moved away from the basket, Malone morphed from a reactive finisher to a patient creator, upping his creation to about 4 per 100 in the games I sampled, inline with his estimated Box Creation.

Here, Malone finds the elite pass in a tight window, a completion that few players can hit:

Malone still missed some tight passes, but many of his dishes over the last 10 years of his career bordered on spectacular. While his assist and creation rates don’t jump off the page, they were often high-leverage passes like the ones above.

However, Karl was saddled with a major offensive weakness: a low release point. Despite scoring on a smorgasbord of difficult outside shots, he struggled finishing around the rim against other bigs. To overcome his low release points and lack of verticality, he would create space with his left shoulder/hip in order to flip an attempt up with his right hand. The result looked something like this:

He made some of these shot-puts and was fouled on others, but this shortcoming limited his otherwise devastating interior presence. What Shaq would thunderously dunk, Malone would flip toward the hoop and hope to find a friendly roll.

This meant that, despite his reputation, Karl wasn’t an elite roll man in the pick-and-roll. If he had enough space and momentum, he could power his way to the line or in for a dunk, but on many occasions he was limited by T-Rexing shots in traffic. (He was a better pick-and-pop player.) Ironically, this also meant that his shift to an outside-based game didn’t erode his efficiency.3 And contrary to belief, Malone didn’t have many baskets created for him either. Mostly, he scored a lot out of good-ol’ isolation.

Defensively, he leveraged his athleticism when younger, although he wasn’t particularly bothersome as a man defender in his first few years. He was not much of a shot-blocker, so he used his size and speed to scoop up rebounds at an elite rate.4 His help positioning was often sound, such as here, where he leaks across the lane from the weak-side to bother the roller:

He was a relatively error-free defender, growing smarter about his rotations as the ’90s wore on. While he rarely made overt mistakes, he sometimes clung to his mark off the ball, leaving him a step or two from optimal help position:

While Malone was often a solid team defender, his breakdowns came from worrying about his man like this, leading to rotational blindspots. Here, he fails to diagnosis a problem and watches idly as Chicago scores in transition:

As he aged, his man defense grew stronger. He leveraged his excellent foot speed to take more charges — both on the ball and in help — during the back nine of his career:

Of course, he also used his powerful hands to strip opponents on his patented slap down, a practice he developed in his early years. Oh, and he loved to pull the chair:

Malone aged incredibly well, maintaining most of his offensive game until about 2001 before he finally started trailing off. His athleticism began to dip slightly in the mid-’90s, and then slowly again over the next few years, but he maintained fantastic conditioning for nearly his entire career, using his body and guile to remain effective into the 2000s.

Impact Evaluation

Malone is a complex player to evaluate. He played most of his career for the same coach with a similar team architecture. He posted some of the most extreme box score numbers in NBA history in the regular season, and then suffered a precipitous drop in efficacy in the postseason. His team’s results correlated with his own ebbs and flows, and available impact-metrics paint him as a star, but not quite a superstar.

As a rookie, he joined Frank Layden’s Jazz in 1986 and played 31 minutes a night, but Utah hovered around .500 in those first two years before Karl hit his prime. In 1988, the Jazz broke through to a 50-win pace (3.0 SRS) with an offense that improved 3 points relative to the league (rORtg), climbing from 4 points below average to just 1 below. This improvement coincided with Malone’s ascension to the NBA elite and John Stockton’s breakout season. However while Stockton flatlined, Malone would continue to improve.

Over the next 13 seasons, the Jazz produced only a single year below a 53-win pace. Despite showing flashes of his prime game, Malone took until Year Three to become the scoring dynamo that would largely define him as an offensive centerpiece. He hit his stride in his fourth year and delivered an historic season in his fifth (1990):

Malone is one of 14 players in history to post a scoring rate above 30 points per 75 possessions and one of five players to do it twice.5 Of such seasons, only Kevin Durant (2014) and Stephen Curry (2016) posted a higher relative true shooting percentage (rTS) than Malone’s +8.9 percent in 1990. Of the top 50 scoring rates in history, Malone owns three, bested only Jordan (10), Shaq (four) and LeBron (four). And of those top-50 seasons, Karl’s three are among the 13 most efficient, so his wrecking-ball approach in 1990 and his perimeter-oriented style in ’97 and ’98 produced historically good scoring.

But his team results in ’90 and ’97-98 were quite different. Malone’s early Utah teams were defensive juggernauts, anchored by the incomparable 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton. Eaton holds four of the top 20 block percentages ever and his presence in the paint propelled the Jazz to a five-year defensive peak that was 4.6 points better than league average (from 1985-89). For comparison, only one team from 1977 to 1995 had a better half-decade run on defense, the 1991-95 Knicks. As Eaton regressed, so did the Jazz defensive advantage, and by 1993 they were an average defense for the first time in nine years.

Malone and Stockton were often flanked by a defensive big like Eaton, a competent wing scorer and some journeymen. In 1990, Blue Edwards and Bob Hansen split the vagabond role as Jerry Sloan took over as coach. Behind Karl’s historically good scoring season, the ’90 Jazz improved 3.4 points on offense, finishing with a +2.2 rORtg. Despite Malone’s huge stats, Utah’s offense wouldn’t take off until their all-important supporting cast was solidified in the coming years.

In 1991, Jeff Malone arrived to play the secondary scorer role (previously held by Thurl Bailey). Jeff had his two most efficient seasons as a scorer in Utah, but his lack of 3-point shooting and passing limited the Jazz’s offensive growth. After flirting with elite offense in ’92, Utah finally added Jeff Hornacek to the mix as a second scorer and creator in ’94. Hornacek’s outside shooting and above-average passing allowed Utah to space the floor — in conjunction with Malone’s graduation toward the high post — and triggered a half-decade of offensive excellence.6

While Malone boasted some of the best scoring marks in history, those numbers fell off considerably in the postseason; no A-lister since the merger suffered a bigger playoff decline in efficiency than Karl. His easy rim attacks and transition sprints were layups against undisciplined defenses, but versus superior playoff competition, Malone was resigned to more low-release flip shots against well-positioned rim protectors.7 Utah’s offenses were (by design) predictable, and game-planning for them required discipline against cross screens and old-school cuts. Eliminating those would force more isolation offense from Malone, which seems to be what happened.

Here’s how Karl compares in the Big 3 offensive dimensions of scoring, efficiency and creation in the regular season at his peak (1991-93) to other great big men:8

And here are the playoff numbers over the same period:

While Karl largely held his shape in the playoffs in those early-prime years, the drop-off was more severe in his jump shooting seasons. His postseason rTS was about +4 percent from 1992-94, but 2 to 3 percent below average from 1996-98.

Interpreting these numbers isn’t straightforward either — while his efficiency dipped further, Malone’s scoring rate actually increased in the late-’90s playoffs (in conjunction with the pace of the game grinding to a halt). Concurrently, the players around Malone did less (particularly Stockton), as Karl was the only starter who could readily generate his own offense. All told, his scoring profile looks more like Hakeem Olajuwon’s — a high volume, middling efficiency heavy lifter — with arguably better results than the Dream.9

We typically think of a marginally efficient, high-volume scorer as incapable of leading great offenses, but in Malone’s case the Jazz attacks bordered on elite. Unlike the great offenses that outperformed Utah in the team chart above, the Jazz lacked a strong secondary scorer to alleviate pressure. Additionally, Karl’s turnovers declined in the playoffs despite shouldering a slightly larger load. All of these areas offset some of his scoring troubles.

Stockton himself was incapable of ramping up his offensive attack and his scoring and efficiency both plummeted in the playoffs. Per the scouting report (and contrary to popular opinion), Malone’s play was only marginally synergistic with Stockton. There were small stretches that supported what’s visible on tape: Without Stockton, Malone played 18 games to start the ’98 season, averaging 27.3 points per 75 on +5.8 percent rTS. He also played four games in 1990 without Stockton, averaging 26.3 points per game at +9.9 rTS, and, in a 1992 playoff game against Portland, Stockton left the game early and Malone marched to 38 points on 58 percent efficiency.10

While we have almost no WOWY information on Malone, we have plus-minus data for the entire backside of his career. From 1994-98, his scaled numbers fall in the 96th-97th percentile historically (around +5), followed by two seasons in the 94th and 95th percentile. Given Malone’s efficiency decline in the playoffs, some might want to curve these numbers down a bit, but there’s an argument that Utah relied on him even more in the postseason, and that his statistical drop-off was caused by an overloaded burden; he couldn’t sustain lone-star scoring heights with the best of them, but there’s only so much value in a role like that anyway.

In an exercise like this, where total mileage is the ultimate goal, Malone’s incredible gas tank is his greatest weapon. By my estimations, he churned out 15 All-Star quality seasons, 12 All-NBA seasons and nine “weak” MVP years. His passing and outside shooting make him a decent fit on better offenses, although he lacks the high-end defensive skills for his peak to stand among the greats.11

Given how relatively stable Malone’s environment was throughout his career, I can buy an argument for him being slightly higher at his peak — which would have compounding effects that move him ahead of two or three players — and part of me can see an argument for reducing his offensive valuation, dropping him as low as 16th. Gun to my head, he has a top-20 offensive peak and enough longevity to sneak by higher peak players and grab the No. 13 spot.

  1. These adjustments coincided with a huge spike in his offensive efficacy.
  2. These estimations come from about 600 possessions of game tracking. Shot locations, available since 1997, also suggest a similar pattern later in Karl’s career.
  3. In my sample, he actually shot better from the midrange than on deep post ups! This is likely a sample-size issue, but when his drives, transition scores and put-backs are excluded, his low-post game was less effective than the numbers suggest.
  4. In every season in the ’90s Malone finished in the 85th percentile or better in defensive rebounding rate, peaking in the 97th percentile in 1995.
  5. The others are Shaq, Jordan, Westbrook, and LeBron.
  6. Utah also made important upgrades on the periphery: They added veterans like Tom Chambers in 1994, nabbed Antoine Carr in 1995 to provide isolation offense off the bench, drafted a suitable backup for Stockton in Howard Eisley and developed stretch bigs like Adam Keefe and Greg Foster.
  7. From 1988-98, Malone played 7 percent of his regular season games against defenses with a 103 rating or lower and 60 percent against defenses with a 107 rating or higher. However, in the postseason, only 25 percent of his games were against 107 defenses and 28 percent against sub-103 defenses.
  8. This chart uses the non-3 based estimation of Box Creation, which slightly overestimates some of these big men, including Malone, based on my tracking sample.
  9. Despite being a mediocre passer, Hakeem created more open shots for teammates in Houston’s 1-in-4 out offenses. However, Malone bridged this gap with his high-leverage passes, and Utah’s best playoff offenses were about a point better than Houston’s.
  10. Additionally, in tracking nearly 400 possessions from 1991-98, Malone had a teammate create a score for him at a rate of 0.5 per 100 possessions. For comparison, in 1,100 possessions during the 2010 playoffs, Amare Stoudemire’s rate of “helped” offense like this was 3.4 per 100, nearly seven times higher. Malone’s rate was closer to hubs like LeBron (0.3 per 100 in the ’10 playoffs) and Kobe (0.4 per 100 in the ’10 playoffs).
  11. For much of the ’90s, I value his defense as a moderate positive, on par with Stockton’s peak defensive value.