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Posts Tagged ‘Karl Malone’

Unfortunately, Basketball-Reference doesn’t have a pace-adjusted scoring metric. I normalize most of my stats to an estimated 75 possessions played, which for points produces a “scoring rate,” per se. For instance, Wilt Chamberlain averaged over 50 points per game in 1962. But he played more than 130 possessions a game using the simple method of pace estimation. That comes out to about 28.1 pts/75, not enough to make the cut here.

Up to that point in NBA history, Chamberlain’s number was the highest scoring rate. Individual players just didn’t score as much — teams were more balanced before expansion and the advent of the 3-point line. So Wilt’s season did stand out in its time. For comparison, some other notable pre-1980 players and their highest career mark:

  • Bob McAdoo 26.7 in 1975.
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 25.4 in 1972.
  • Rick Barry 25.3 in 1975.
  • Tiny Archibald 25.0 in 1973.
  • Elgin Baylor, 24.7 in 1962.
  • Jerry West 23.4 in 1965.
  • Oscar Robertson 21.5 in 1968.

Listed below are the top scoring rate seasons in NBA history, measured in points scored per 75 possessions. “Rel TS%” is True Shooting% (TS%) relative to the league average. For example, if league average is 50% TS, and a player boasted a TS% of 53%, he would have a Rel TS% of 3%.

Regular Season

Yes, Michael Jordan owns seven of the eight best normalized scoring seasons ever. Not too shabby. Two other names that might surprise people are LeBron James and Karl Malone. Malone has three top-30 seasons, all at ridiculous shooting efficiency. James was a scoring machine before winning his first MVP, and holds four top-30 seasons.

What about playoff rates? Let’s only consider players who have played in at least two postseason series in a given playoff. If we do that, we get the following select club over 30 pts/75:

Playoffs (minimum 2 series played)

Again, MJ occupies more than half of the list, with LeBron’s 2009 epic playoff run topping the list. Some notable single-series performances that did not qualify: Jordan vs. Boston in 1986 (35.7 pts/75), Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Dallas in 1988 (34.9) and Dwyane Wade in 2009 (vs. Atlanta) and 2010 (vs. Boston) posted 31.2 pts/75 in both series.

The big Chicken and Egg question here: Are top-end scorers better than they were in the past, or have changes in the game simply facilitated more individual dominance?

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After the previous post examining Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant’s statistics in elimination games, I thought it might be worth it to run the same analysis on Malone’s sidekick, John Stockton. Bryant’s won five championships next to Shaq and Gasol. Malone ran up against Jordan and Olajuwon (four times in five years) and he certainly never had a running mate like The Diesel or the Spaniard.

Malone’s No. 2 was John Stockton, and the more I place his career under a microscope, the more I think that Stock might be one of the most overrated players of my lifetime. First, it was the Jazz assist-inflation issue. Second, Stockton’s inability or unwillingness to take over games by using his scoring. And now, the revelation that, *gulp* John Stockton’s performance plummeted when the Jazz faced elimination.

Is it possible that Stockton’s failures created the perception that Karl Malone was a choker? Look at Stockton’s performance in 16 elimination games from 1991 to 1998, with the same criteria that was used in the last post:

Now that is a precipitous drop off. We’re talking Jean Van de Velde levels of misfiring. Stock boosts his rebounding, but otherwise he was dreadful in those 16 games. He’s known for his steals, assists and efficiency…and that’s exactly what disappears in this sample.

His best game of the lot is a 21 point 11 assist performance (7-11 shooting) against Portland in 1992. Fittingly, Utah won that game. In the eight losses, Stockton averaged 15.5 points and 8.4 assists with 2.7 turnovers (all per 75 possessions) while posting a 51.9 TS%.

And yet, somehow, this is hardly ever mentioned with Stockton and beaten to death with Malone. In his recent “Book of Basketball,” ESPN’s Bill Simmons ranked Malone 18th and Stockton 25th, all-time. He wrote:

Fatal flaw: The deer-in-the-headlights routine in big games. Time and time again, he came up short when it mattered.

Only he wrote it about Karl Malone. Maybe it’s not Malone whom history should chastise for failing to produce in big games. Maybe it’s John Stockton.

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Winning can do wonders for an individual’s reputation in a team sport. I have long contested, with great resistance, that the conflation between individual results and team results plays tricks on even the most objective minds. Kobe Bryant has a history of falling short the bigger the situation (playoffs, Finals, game 7’s, GW shot attempts), yet has garnered a reputation as one of the best clutch players ever. Conversely, Karl Malone is seen by many as not just a failure, but a true choker. People often describe their perceptions of facial expressions in these situations:

Kobe looks like he wants it. Look at his face!

Malone looks scared. Look at his face!

It’s not exactly a scientific approach. And it’s one that preys on our cognitive biases. Bryant won early in his career with a great overtime performance, in a game everyone was watching (game 4 of the 2000 Finals). Malone was labeled as a failure early on. We then sought out to affirm those opinions, and selectively remembered what supported them and ignored what didn’t. Winning creates the perception of “clutchness” and alleviates the appearance of choking, regardless of how the individual plays. Peyton Manning was labeled a choker, but then lost that moniker after winning a Super Bowl…in arguably his worst postseason performance.

But back to Malone. One thing that stood out to me when combing back through his career was just how many big games he had in the playoffs and just how little help he had. Indeed, he even tormented some teams in the West. Our lasting memory of him is disappearing in the final minutes of Game 6 in 1998 and MJ stripping him on the penultimate play. But no one remembers the absolute gem he had to force that game in the first place…

Curious, I thought it would be interesting to compare Malone’s performances in elimination games from his highest profile period to Bryant’s elimination game performances. After all, what game is bigger than the one you can’t lose?

Before I present all the data, let’s just look at the true shooting percentage numbers:

Reg Season TS% Elimination Game TS%
Player A 55.6% 50.5%
Player B 58.7% 55.3%

Stop and think about those numbers telescopically. Player A drops over 5% in TS% – a catastrophic dip – from above average to well below average. Player B drops 3.4%, but still maintains a figure comparable to Player A’s regular seasons figure, and is still well above average. Which of those players would you say is a choker? Which of those players would you say shoots poorly when his team is facing elimination?

Player A, of course, is Kobe Bryant. Player B, Malone. Below are their full statistics in elimination games, for Malone 91-98 (Basketball-Reference doesn’t have playoff logs before 91) and for Bryant 00-10 (essentially Bryant’s prime). Statistics are normalized per 75 possessions played. Regular season averages are weighted based on the percentage of elimination games from that season. (eg 4 of Malone’s 16 elimination games are from 1998, so 25% of his regular season averages come from 1998.)

Wow. Kobe’s scoring, shooting and assists drop heavily. He has a slight increase in rebounding. If that’s not surprising enough, Malone actually increases his scoring in elimination games while significantly reducing his turnovers. His rebounding goes up as well.

Bryant certainly faced tougher defenses, but the Jazz also met plenty of stingy defenses. For an idea of the difference between a 101.6 DRtg and a 103.6 DRtg, that’s about the disparity between this year’s 6th-ranked Bulls defense (101.8 DRtg) and this year’s 10th-ranked 76ers defense (104.0 DRtg). Those Bulls teams allow an opponent’s TS% of 52.0% while the Sixers is 52.4%. So the difference in defensive quality explains little of the difference in performance.

Of course, there’s also the fact that Malone was the primary focus of every defense he faced throughout those years while Bryant had Shaq by his side for six of 13 games and Pau Gasol in another five. Malone’s secondary option was feeble by comparison: John Stockton’s high-scoring playoff game from 1991-1998 was 28 points! (An interesting follow up might be Stockton’s performances in these 16 games.) Indeed only three times did a Jazz player other than the Mailman go over 30 in that 8-year playoff period: Hornacek twice in 1996 (30 each time) and Jeff Malone in 1992 (33).

Yet Malone is heavily docked in all-time comparisons because of some perceived inability to play well at big times. And Bryant seems to get a boost because of it. While statistics certainly do not tell the entire story – ironically, I’d say Malone’s defense was better than Bryant’s as well, but that’s not a statistical debate – they certainly do fly in the face of conventional wisdom in this case.

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Despite his prolonged success with so many different teammates, Steve Nash is still bombarded with criticisms of being some sort of “system” player. Some go as far as asserting that Nash’s teams are inherently flawed because of their offensive slant, and as a result they never win.

My hunch is, as is the case so often in sports analysis, that people are misattributing the concept “winners” vs “losers” and “winning systems” vs “losing systems.” Karl Malone is the ultimate example of this in the NBA.

Malone was, at times, dominant in his Western Conference playoff runs at the end of the 90s. How can someone be a “loser” or in a losing system if he continues to be the primary driver of winning teams, in both the regular season and the playoffs? Yes, people make a big deal about his statistical decline in the postseason, but Malone also had his fair share of excellent performances at big times. But because he lost to Chicago…it means he “couldn’t get over the hump.” He’s a “loser.”

As if asking John Wooden’s early 70s UCLA teams to play the NBA champion after winning the NCAA title game would somehow make them a loser.

“That Wooden,” they’d say, “his system doesn’t work…can’t win the big one.”
Peyton Manning was hamstrung with this ridiculous logic, in football, of all sports (21 other players with extremely complex, non-quantified interactions). Like Malone, did his performance decline at times in the postseason? Absolutely. Like Malone, was he probably wired slightly differently than Joe Cool or Michael Jordan? Armchair psychology says yes.

But sometimes there’s just a better team in the way.

And in Manning’s case, he was suddenly branded a “winner” after having arguably his worst overall postseason in 2006. He got “over the hump” because offensive linemen fell on fumbles at the right time, Reggie Wayne fumbled the ball into the air to himself, Troy Brown ran a wrong route, Jabbar Gaffney dropped a pass, Ellis Hobbs was flagged for a phantom pass interference penalty the NFL later apologized for and half the Patriots defense cramped up in the second half after flying across the country twice in a week. What do any of those events have to do with whether Peyton Manning inherently is a winner or loser, whether he plays in a winner or losing “system?”

Nothing.

So like Nash, unless we think that his mere presence on the court demands a style to be run through him which literally causes his team’s defense to struggle, I don’t understand how

(a) running into better teams (eg Duncan’s Spurs) or
(b) never being given adequate defensive pieces

is an indictment of Steve Nash’s offense.

Yes, the offensive/defensive rating stats are not perfect representations of what they attempt to represent (they are darn good though). And besides looking at Nash being on and “running’ the best offenses in NBA history (both in Dallas and Phoenix), we can also simply watch a basketball game and see whether such an assertion is plausible.

Maybe Nash’s great offenses are because he cherry picks and puts his team at a defensive disadvantage?

Maybe Nash’s great offenses are because he inherently requires offensive players who aren’t good at defense?

I’ve seen a lot of basketball — too much, according to many — and I see absolutely no indication of any of these negatives when I watch Steve Nash play. To address the big points often levied against him:

Nash suddenly (ie inexplicably) became a superstar when he went to Phoenix

Yes, Nash was helped by the rule changes that freed perimeter players. But you know what, so was Wade, Kobe, Pierce, Iverson, etc. You know what else helps Nash? The 3-point line. Rules are rules. But the notion that he went from nothing to something overnight is simply wrong.

Look at his shooting percentages from 97-99. He was a late bloomer. A learner. Constantly improving his shot and understanding of the game while attempting to find a rhythm as a small-college reserve. Anyone who has struggled through a lineup knows this can have a big impact on a young player. Yet in his second year he was a fantastic backup PG.

In 2000 his shooting clearly improves. In 2001 he is the full-time starter. In 2002 he is an all-nba player at 27…which happens to be his third year starting. 2003, all-nba again. They run more of the offense through Nash in 2004, but no one realizes the subtle role change and they only see diminished ppg and fewer wins (due to lack of defense). Never mind it was the best offense, by relative ORtg, in NBA history, despite Dallas only shooting 34.8% from 3.

By then he’s 29, Cuban makes a miscalculation about his age, despite so few miles on the odometer. He’s “old” and coming off a “down year.” Dallas has a PG in the wings in Harris and needs to focus on defense, so they don’t resign Nash. The Suns make him the center-piece, they run pick and roll to death, the league changes perimeter rules, and logically Nash’s impact jumps.

Yet everyone concludes it was the system. A miracle. An unjust MVP. He is NOT the first player in NBA history to take a late arc by age. It’s not like he was a Canadian kid from Santa Clara backing up Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd in his first two seasons. Oh wait, he was…and still impressed off the bench.

Why did the Mavericks reach the Finals after he left?

In 2004 Nash’s teammates were terrible defensively. Defense is critical in playoff settings. Antoine Walker, Antawn Jamison and no center aren’t exactly a recipe for good defense…how is that team supposed to win? Conversely, in 2006, simply plugging in a defensive part at center — Diop or Dampier — as well as defensive upgrades like Adrian Griffin, completely changed the tenor of the Mav’s playoffs chances. (I collected a nice sum of money in 2006 bc of it — nice foul Manu Ginobili!)

What does any of that have to do with Steve Nash’s offense…or his offense’s affect on defense?

Why didn’t Nash win a title in Phoenix?

In Phoenix, the Suns came together in 2005 and with an interior combination of Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion were absolutely no match for San Antonio with Tim Duncan and Nazr Mohammed roaming the paint. (They were, however, so offensively potent they had no problem running through Dirk’s Mavericks to the WCF.) Nash didn’t exactly disappoint in the series, either. Was Nash’s offense at fault for Duncan and Ginobili toying with the Suns defense?
In 2006 they were saddled with injuries…Nash again led them to the WCF with a bunch of small forwards…where they encountered the aforementioned and improved version of the Mavericks.

In 2007, they were, to me, the best team in the NBA. The defensive efforts were good enough to win (13th in DRtg). They sure looked like the better team in the San Antonio series, considering his G1 injury kept him out down the stretch due to bleeding, the controversial suspensions and officiating in G3 and G4, respectively and playing G5 with six players: Nash and Bell, Marion, Thomas, Barbosa, James Jones. They lost by 3 points to a fully loaded dynastic Spurs team. In G6 they were exhausted, clearly. Ginobili, again, crucified them in those 2 final games. Did he do so because of Nash?

Nash’s Pace/System is only successful at the expense of good defense

Finally, just watching the game, Nash doesn’t need one-dimensional offensive players or weak defenders to cheat and leak out on the break (Nelly-ball?), he is arguably at his best in the halfcourt and in the pick and roll. It’s probably the biggest single reason why Phoenix’s offensive numbers don’t plummet in the playoffs when the pace is slowed. If anything, that’s a boost for Nash’s value, is it not?

Time and time again, Nash’s play seemingly wills Phoenix to big wins. In 2005 v Dallas, in 2006 v LA, even just last year in the playoffs. That flawed “system” of his again had Phoenix neck and neck with a giant Laker team. His ridiculous 4th quarter against San Antonio with his eye swollen shut.

I don’t know how to view any of that as something inherently flawed. As a losing system or a losing player. And I do believe, with extreme conviction, that if Phoenix gets by San Antonio in 07 or LA last year, Nash would be viewed differently…because of factors that have nothing to do with Steve Nash.

Give him a defensive-molded center and another capable defender, a shooter or three (a dime a dozen, see: Jones, James) to go along with a No. 2-type player and that’s an NBA-championship level team every single year. Kind of like Phoenix in 2007. (And they had 34-year old Kurt Thomas playing that big-man role.)

Four or five years ago I was not sold on Nash. But I find it impossible to watch him or analyze him/his teams and think that he’s anything other than one of the best offensive players in NBA history. He’s certainly one of the best shooters and passers in NBA history, and he uses those weapons to run an unstoppable barrage of pick and roll sets.

And if mimicking his “system” were presumably so easy…why hasn’t anyone else done it?

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