NBA

Patrick Ewing > Karl Malone and why it matters

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In the middle of my late night Twitter scrolling and watching Castlevania for the millionth time, I was struggling to think of anything Knicks-related to write about. It wasn’t so much a creative block as an inability to concentrate long enough to do so. My mind felt like one of those people who compete by running on logs through water, always spinning or falling underwater. I literally wanted to ask the universe for help. The universe did.

These are the birds of the air: for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you much better than them?

Openly soliciting opinions on Karl Malone in 2022 – on Twitter – is not even a low hanging fruit; it is a suspended slider, at waist height, snapping towards the middle of the plate. I’ve written about Malone’s past before, but out of respect for people who aren’t Malone and who may not want their past to become too public, I’m not going to continue to make it public. Long story short: this is strictly a basketball argument. Two arguments, really. One is which player was the best. The other is why it matters, decades after they retire.

The second part of Lambre’s question is the easy part: if Patrick Ewing had played with John Stockton, he would have won multiple titles. Without question. Stockton’s numbers alone are staggering, but if you’re a primary source, take him a bit from his peers: it was he and not Malone’s opponents who feared the most.

In 19 seasons, Stockton played every game 17 times: seasons 1-5, 7-13 and 15-19. For 15 years, he and Malone were the heart and brains of the Jazz. In contrast, here’s who has logged the most minutes on the Knicks Ewing’s 15-year-old in New York; for years Ewing was first, I noted who came second: Rory Sparrow; Gerald Wilkins; Mark Jackson; Charles Oakley (2nd); Wilkins (2nd); Oakley (2nd); Jackson (2nd); Anthony Mason (2nd); Oakley (2nd); John Starks (2nd); Mason; Oakley (2nd); Allan Houston; Houston; Latrell Sprewell.

It’s no surprise, then, that Malone had so much more success in the regular season: his Utah teams won more than 50 games or won at that rate 11 times. Ewing carried the Knicks to six of those seasons. Malone’s second banana was good enough to be first and is one of the best players of all time at his position. Ewing’s co-pilot was the elitist of flagrant faults. Pair Ewing with Stockton while letting Malone start alongside Doc Rivers or late-stage Charlie Ward and I bet those winning numbers reverse.

There are those who point out that Malone has scored far more points than Ewing, played almost 40% more minutes in his career despite just two more years, and was even All-Defense four times against the three from Big Fella. But you only have to dig a little to see that the numbers don’t prove what they claim. Let’s start by marking.

Malone is third all-time in points, while Ewing is 29th, soon passed by James Harden and Russell Westbrook. But take a closer look: In the past eight years of his career for which data was available, Malone’s two-point field goals were assisted just under 80% of the time. In Ewing’s last six seasons, the only ones for which there is data, just over 60% of his 2 have been. Ewing averaged 8.9 baskets per game during his Knick career; Malone in Utah was 9.3. Each game on average, therefore, Ewing had to create three or four buckets unassisted to reach 9. Malone was averaging one to two per game. Multiply that workload over 1,000 games and the extra degree of difficulty Ewing faced, without closing the gap between him and Malone, narrows it somewhat.

There are those who note Malone’s superior number of All-Defense teams than Ewing. Bullshit. Bullshit I say. All-Defense honorifics are important, yes, but they are hardly scientifically valid. They are voted on by the media. Think media votes today can be crazy? 25-30 years ago, there was no League Pass; there weren’t as many games on cable as there are now. How diligent could even the best-meaning voters have been? The first time Malone was named All-Defense, he beat Mason and PJ Brown. The second time was Oakley and Tim Duncan. The third time, Brown and Theo Ratliff. Give these names to people who watched the NBA back then. Ask them how highly they rate Malone. He wouldn’t do better than fourth.

Ewing was named to All-Defense teams three of his first five healthy seasons. In his unsuccessful years, he was beaten by generation greats Hakeem Olajuwon (then “Akeem”) and David Robinson. Still, Ewing led the league in defensive victory shares in 1993, 1994 and 1997. There’s more than one way to measure greatness. Don’t over complicate this one. Malone was a very good defensive forward. Ewing was an all-time defender at center.

Both players were tough and durable, although here Malone outplays just about everyone but Stockton. After Ewing’s first two seasons plagued by injuries, he would only miss 20 games in total over his next 10 years. Then came the broken wrist that night in Milwaukee. In Ewing’s last three seasons in New York, he’s missed nearly half the games. Malone’s ironman quality was unconditional. He missed 10 games in his first 18 seasons, never more than two per season.

Ewing’s numbers rarely top Malone’s, but in almost any comparison the larger context reveals that Patrick’s output was greater than most players of his caliber. It’s important to share what you remember of times that others didn’t. I’m amazed at how thin a memory of porridge can be when contrasted with the rich flavor of the real, original experience.

Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Shaquille O’Neal. They are already underestimated. No one mentions Magic or Bird in GOAT debates anymore. Shaq was the most dominant player I’ve ever seen professionally, but despite his size and the scale of his success, he’s kind of an afterthought. The present and the future deserve the best of what we can share from the past. Bill Bradley. Walt Bellamy. Richie Guerin. Don’t let them be forgotten. Patrick Ewing too. If we don’t care about maintaining the museum of the mind, who will?

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