Michael Jordan and Karl Malone avoid eye contact in the 1998 NBA Finals (Andrew D. Bernstein/ Getty).
Many media members enjoy asking NBA legends for their takes on the greatest players in NBA history (see Phil Jackson on the player he'd pick to start his team or his take on Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant). The idea is that these figures' demonstrable mastery of the highest level of basketball qualifies them to weigh in on these debates. It makes sense, because they obviously know a lot about the sport.
The problem is that their personal experiences can often get in the way of accurate analysis. On Monday, Utah Jazz Hall of Famer (and recently announced part-time coach) Karl Malone appeared on The Dan Patrick Show to discuss various hoops-oriented topics. Patrick asked for his all-time starting five, and Malone neglected to mention one fairly obvious choice who just happens to have been one of his biggest rivals. From Larry Brown Sports:
During an interview with “The Dan Patrick Show” on Monday, Malone spoke about LeBron James and some of the greatest players who have ever played the game. When asked to name his all-time starting five, Malone took John Stockton and Oscar Robertson as his guards, Wilt Chamberlain at center, LeBron at power forward and Scottie Pippen at small forward. Pippen and no Jordan — really?
“Scottie Pippen led the team in every statistical category while he was there without Michael Jordan,” Malone explained. “That’s why I have to put him there. So now you know.” [...]
Malone’s answer would be surprising if he didn’t say the exact same thing in an interview last year. For whatever reason, he loves Pippen and refuses to give Jordan the same amount of credit everyone else gives him. Toward the end of the interview, Malone also admitted that he has a “man crush” on LeBron James. If he has a crush on LeBron, he must be in love with Scottie.
All five of Malone's picks are great players, and quibbling with their selections is really just a matter of thinking one generationally amazing player is better than another. However, there's still something pretty bizarre about leaving Jordan off the list. Whenever these discussions occur, Jordan is the one player pretty much everyone agrees on, with Bill Russell as a close second. (That's the case because Malone's pick, Wilt Chamberlain, has a pretty decent argument as the greatest center ever, too, even if Russell's titles tend to give him the edge.) Yet Malone goes for The Big O instead, all while claiming that Pippen deserves inclusion because he managed to lead the Bulls in categories led by Jordan in the seasons he played. The logic is tortuous, to say the least: Pippen is on the list because he managed to match Jordan's stats without Jordan, despite the fact that Jordan put up those same stats with Pippen in the lineup.
It doesn't take a giant imaginative leap to see the Mailman's picks as informed by his experience as an also-ran to Jordan. Throughout his career, Malone was seen as second-best to Jordan, the defining player of his era. While Malone faced off with Pippen, too, they weren't placed in direct comparison to each other.
All of which is to say that Malone adds to the oft corroborated theory that the best players in the history of the NBA are not always the best judges of that same history. For all their achievements on the court, they've been known to hold grudges, demean the achievements of players who come after them, and generally allow their personal experiences to inflect their considerations. Full objectivity is always impossible in these matters, but players like Malone are particularly compromised.
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- Sports & Recreation
- Karl Malone
- Scottie Pippen
- LeBron James
- Wilt Chamberlain