Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
We can debate the end of both their primes. Garnett suffered a season-ending knee injury that kept him from a 2009 title defense and never reached peak form again. Yet, he was still a productive All-Defensive big for a team that pushed LeBron James’ Miami Heat to seven games in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. Likewise, Malone’s days as a truly dominant center dwindled as he played for three teams in four seasons in the late 1980s, but he was still posting a nightly double-double for an average team in 1990.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the span between their first and final All-Star selections, which frame the most impactful years of both transformative preps-to-pros whose careers are criminally underrated.
From 1996-2013, Garnett averaged 19.7 points (54.9 true shooting percentage), 10.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.8 combined blocks and steals in 36.6 minutes per game. His teams made the playoffs in 14 of those 17 seasons, reaching four conference finals, two Finals and winning the 2008 title. His 11 prime years with the Minnesota Timberwolves coincided with the lone All-Star nods for Tom Gugliotta, Wally Szczerbiak and Sam Cassell. Not until joining Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the Boston Celtics did Garnett play with elite talent, and together they formed a contender for five of his last six prime seasons.
In a prime that coincided with fellow legendary bigs Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan, Garnett was both a First Team All-NBA and All-Defensive selection four times in a nine-year stretch, capturing MVP honors in 2004 and the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008. He finished top-10 in the MVP voting seven times, top-five on five occasions and runner-up twice (to O’Neal in 2000 and Duncan in 2003). Garnett also placed second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting three more times between 2001 and 2011.
From 1977-1989, Malone averaged 24.2 points (57.2 true shooting percentage), 13.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2.3 combined blocks and steals in 37.6 minutes per game. His teams made the playoffs in 10 of those 12 seasons, reaching three conference finals, two Finals and winning the 1983 title. Malone played with at least one other future Hall of Famer in 11 of those 12 seasons, two others in seven of them and three others in two of them, plus a couple more All-Stars who helped along the way.
Much of Malone’s prime coincided with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and yet he was a four-time First Team All-NBA selection. Only once was he also the First Team All-Defensive center — in his third and final MVP campaign over a dominant five-year stretch from 1979-83. Malone finished top-10 in MVP voting 10 times and top-five on five occasions. He received a single Defensive Player of the Year vote in his career.
Given the totality of Garnett’s contributions as an all-time great defender in addition to his superior playmaking and floor-spacing ability and his handful of extra seasons as an impact player on a playoff stalwart, it would be hard not to take his prime over Malone’s, despite the latter’s two extra MVP awards.
Take your pick between Garnett’s 2004 and 2008 campaigns as the height of his career.
Statistically speaking, 2004 was his apex. He averaged career highs of 24.2 points (54.7 true shooting percentage) and 13.9 rebounds, with five assists and 3.7 combined blocks and steals in 39.4 minutes per game. Garnett led the NBA in player efficiency rating (29.4), win shares (18.3), box plus-minus (10.2) and value over replacement player (10.0), receiving 120 of a possible 123 first-place votes for MVP.
Garnett led a Minnesota team that claimed Cassell and Latrell Sprewell as its second- and third-best players to 58 wins and the 2004 Western Conference finals, where they lost to O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and a Los Angeles Lakers dynasty on its last legs. (We should mention that officiating was called into question in a six-game set that saw the Lakers attempt 59 more free throws and Garnett twice foul out.)
In 2008, Garnett averaged 18.8 points (58.8 true shooting percentage), 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.7 combined blocks and steals in just 32.8 minutes per game, anchoring one of the best defenses in recent memory. Arriving the same summer as Allen, Garnett helped transform a 24-win Celtics team into a 66-win juggernaut that outscored opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions on its way to the title.
He averaged 20.4 points (54.2 true shooting percentag), 10.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.4 combined blocks and steals in 38.0 minutes per game in the playoffs. In the Finals, Garnett averaged an 18-13-3 with three blocks/steals while intimidating Bryant and Pau Gasol’s Lakers into submission defensively.
Malone reached greater statistical heights, but 1983 was his peak. He averaged 24.6 points (57.8 true shooting percentage), a league-leading 15.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 3.1 combined blocks and steals in 37.5 minutes per game. The First Team All-NBA and All-Defensive center, Malone led the NBA in player efficiency rating (25.1) and win shares (15.1), receiving 69 of 75 possible first-place MVP votes.
His arrival elevated a 58-win Sixers team that pushed Magic Johnson’s Lakers to six games in the 1982 Finals to 65 wins and a Finals sweep of those Lakers in 1983. Alongside Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones, Malone averaged 26.0 points (58.7 true shooting percentage), 15.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 3.4 steals/blocks in 40.3 minutes a night in the playoffs. In outplaying Abdul-Jabbar in the title series, Malone averaged a 26-18-2 with three blocks/steals and won Finals MVP.
In the early part of his career, Garnett earned a reputation for wilting in the playoffs. His Timberwolves lost seven straight first-round series, even if they were underdogs in all of them, and his seven-point outing in a win-or-go-home Game 5 against the Seattle SuperSonics in 1998 defined him for a time.
It was not until 2004 that Garnett overcame the stigma. His 32 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks, four steals and two assists in a Game 7 Western Conference semifinals victory against the Sacramento Kings was an all-time clutch performance, especially after detailing his preparedness for war going into it.
In all, Garnett played in seven win-or-go-home playoff games in his prime (one first-round Game 5 and six Game 7s), averaging 17 points (52.2 true shooting percentage), 10.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists. His teams finished 4-3 in those games, including a Finals Game 7 loss to the 2010 Lakers (17 points, three rebounds) and a conference finals Game 7 loss to the 2012 Miami Heat (14 points, seven rebounds).
Garnett’s prime playoff averages: 19.2 points (52.4 true shooting percentage), 11.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.7 combined blocks and steals in 38.4 minutes per game. He was 2-8 in 10 playoff series with the Timberwolves, including the seven first-round exits, and then 10-4 in 14 playoff series with the Celtics.
Malone’s prime playoff averages: 23.8 points (54.8 true shooting percentage), 13.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.6 blocks and steals in 41.5 minutes per game. He was 4-4 in eight playoff series with the Rockets, 6-2 with the Sixers and 0-3 in his remaining prime years with the Washington Bullets and Atlanta Hawks.
Malone’s teams fluctuated wildly despite his consistent production. In his final four seasons on the Houston Rockets, he led a 47-win team swept in the first round, a 41-win team swept in the second round, a 40-win Finals team and a 46-win team that lost in the first round. In four seasons on the Sixers, he won the title, lost in the first round, reached the conference finals and missed the playoffs with an orbital fracture. Malone played nine more seasons (three prime) and never escaped the first round.
He too played seven win-or-go-home games (three first-round Game 3s, three first-round Game 5s and one Game 7), finishing with a 3-4 record. He averaged 23.4 points (54.1 true shooting percentage) and 15.1 rebounds in those games. In his lone Game 7, Malone collected 21 points and 16 rebounds opposite an unimposing San Antonio Spurs front line in a Western Conference semifinals victory.
In his four conference finals appearances, Garnett averaged 19 points (51.8 true shooting percentage), 10.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists and two combined blocks and steals. Those numbers fell to 16.5 points (50.9 true shooting percentage), nine rebounds, three assists and 2.7 combined blocks/steals in two Finals.
Malone averaged 24.8 points (55.6 true shooting percentage), 13.1 rebounds and one assist per game in his three conference finals showings (blocks and steals are unavailable for the 1981 Western Conference finals). He was as good or better in two Finals, averaging 23.7 points (50.5 true shooting percentage), 16.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and three combined blocks/steals, winning Finals MVP honors in 1983.
Neither was considered exceptionally clutch, but you have to take the Finals MVP in a race this close.
• Garnett: 2008 NBA champion; 2004 Most Valuable Player; 2008 Defensive Player of the Year; nine-time All-NBA selection (4x First Team, 3x Second Team); 15-time All-Star (2003 All-Star Game MVP); 12-time All-Defensive selection (9x First Team); four-time rebounding champion; 2000 Olympic gold medalist
• Malone: 1983 NBA champion (Finals MVP); three-time Most Valuable Player (1979, 1982, 1983); eight-time All-NBA selection (4x First Team, 4x Second Team); 13-time All-Star (12x NBA, 1x ABA); two-time All-Defensive selection (1x First Team); six-time rebounding champion
Garnett made this a lot closer than originally anticipated against a guy with three MVPs to his name.
At first glance, you take the two extra regular-season MVPs and the Finals MVP trophy over Garnett’s Defensive Player of the Year honor. You cannot really knock Malone for failing to win an Olympic gold medal, given he missed the window for professionals to participate. He and Garnett are essentially equals in All-NBA selections, especially considering the league did not add a Third Team until 1989, but KG’s two additional All-Star invitations and seven more All-Defensive nods are not to be discounted.
Still, there are eight players with three or more MVP trophies: Abdul-Jabbar (6), Bill Russell (5), Michael Jordan (5), Wilt Chamberlain (4), LeBron James (4), Larry Bird (3), Magic Johnson (3) and Malone. To be able to show anyone you are in that company is to have a trophy case admired by all but the legends.
For the culture
Garnett was beloved by teammates and loathed by opponents, the true mark of a firebrand. His intensity on and off the court is legendary and borderline maniacal, to the point it almost seemed performative, but it was not. He did not suffer fools, forever testing players to see if they were cut out for the league, and his energy was contagious. Garnett set a culture of all-out effort for whatever team he commanded.
Often guarded, Garnett was a fascinating interview subject, losing himself to that same intensity in making wild analogies and boisterous statements in a genuinely pure way all his own. His oft-viewed interaction with legendary sideline reporter Craig Sager is all you need to know how commanding he is.
The Celtics have already announced their intention to retire Garnett’s No. 5, adopting him as their own, and the Timberwolves will surely follow suit with his No. 21. He is Minnesota professional basketball.
Garnett finished his career with 26,071 points and 14,662 rebounds, respectively ranking 18th and ninth in NBA history. He is the only player ever to amass 25,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists, 1,500 steals and 1,500 blocks, the perfect illustration of Garnett’s transformative skill set for a 7-footer.
He has remained in the pop culture consciousness since retiring in 2016. Garnett hosted an entertaining original segment on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” from 2016-19. He then legitimately starred alongside Adam Sandler as a fictional version of his 2012 self in the award-winning crime thriller “Uncut Gems,” which opened nationwide to rave reviews this past Christmas. It is an all-time athlete acting performance.
Malone was no media darling, mostly sticking to himself in locker-room settings, mumbling through his few interviews and famously referring to Houston beat reporters by their newspapers instead of their names during his first handful of seasons in the league. His most famous line was predicting the 1983 Sixers would go “fo, fo, fo” in the playoffs (4-0, 4-0, 4-0), abridged to “fo, fi, fo” when it took 13 games.
Malone’s decision to enter the ABA out of high school paved the way for future preps, including Garnett. He played for seven NBA teams, including four in his prime, and none for more than six seasons. His number is retired in both Philadelphia and Houston, and his statue stands outside the Sixers’ training facility, but Malone is hardly the first player who comes to mind at first mention of any NBA franchise.
He was unassuming as a subject, but a fierce competitor. His relentless attack of the glass earned him the nickname Chairman of the Boards and puts him in the conversation for greatest rebounder to ever live. Malone’s 27,409 career points and 16,212 career rebounds respectively rank him ninth and fifth in NBA history. Only all-timers Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain can match both of those numbers.
Away from the game, Malone was accused of physically and mentally abusing his ex-wife prior to their 1992 divorce, and later arrested for violating their peace bond and allegedly threatening to kill her. He died in 2015 of heart disease at age 60 in his native Virginia, where he was for a charity golf tournament.
THE DAGGER: Moses Malone had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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