Well, it’s official. As of yesterday, the second half of the John Stockton-Karl Malone duo has called it quits. Malone’s departure was not quite the natural process as he vacillated and left everyone guessing for a while. But now that both Stockton and Malone are gone, this is a good time to look back at their intertwined careers and see if a review teaches anything new or even reminds of some of the old stories we’ve forgotten.
What Was Life in Utah Like Before Stockton and Malone?
Not very good. The Jazz came over to Utah from New Orleans in 1979-80. The team that came was pretty crappy too. In its five years (1974-75 to 1978-79) in New Orleans, the Jazz never broke 40 wins. The New Orleans years featured only two good players, Pete Maravich and one and a half nice years from Truck Robinson. The highlights of those years included low attendance and the Jazz losing the draft pick the ended up being Magic Johnson for the honor of having Gail Goodrich’s golden years. With this level of futility on and off the court, the Jazz fled to Utah, hoping to find a hoops hotbed akin to Green Bay in the NFL.
Life in Utah pre-Stockton/Malone was little better. The Jazz’s first years in Utah (1979-80 to 1982-83), the Jazz couldn’t crack 30 wins. The Jazz had a few good young players (Darrell Griffith and Rickey Green) but the team was centered around a great scorer Adrian Dantley, who was perceived as a pain in the ass, and guys like Bernard King and John Drew who were struggling with off-the-court problems. Counterintuitively, the Jazz’s best record in the non-Stockton/Malone Era occurred in the year before Stockton was drafted (1983-84). Dantley was in the midst of his prime and scored 30.6 ppg to win the scoring title, while Griffith (20 ppg) and Green (13.2 ppg and 9.2 apg) continued to blossom as did Mark Eaton (351 blocks). The Jazz won 45 games and the Midwest Division before losing to Phoenix in the second round. Things looked decent and then the Jazz nabbed Stock and Malone in consecutive drafts. In fact, the Jazz drafted incredibly well in the 1980s. Here are the notable guys the Jazz nabbed:
1980 Darrell Griffith
1981 Danny Schayes
1982 Dominique Wilkins
1983 Thurl Bailey
1984 Karl Malone
1985 Dell Curry
A pretty nice haul. Not all of these guys stayed in Utah. Nique was famously dealt for Drew, a truly ugly deal. If the Jazz could have resisted their urge for aging veterans they could have theoretically had Stockton, Malone, Magic, and Nique. Of course in hindsight, it just seems like that could never have happened. But it only took a little common sense.
Drafting Stockton and Malone
In retrospect, everyone will tell you that they had Stockton or Malone targeted in the draft but they just missed it. This obviously wasn’t the case. Stockton was a the 16th overall pick, which was a late pick in what was a 24-team league. We all know that the Stockton draft was possibly the best draft of All-Time (Hakeem, Jordan, Barkley were also involved not to mention some other solid pros). Stockton was not a coveted pick. He was neatly sandwiched between to journeymen, Terence Stansbury (the 15th pick) and Jeff Turner (the 17th pick). Stockton’s college stats at Gonzaga did seem to hint at his future abilities as Stockton was a high percentage shooter and racked more assists than one would expect in the NCAA game:
Year PPG FG% APG RPG
1980-81 3.1 .578 1.4 0.4
1981-82 11.2 .576 5.0 2.5
1982-83 13.9 .518 6.8 3.2
1983-84 20.9 .577 7.2 2.4
Stockton steadily improved with a nice trend line. In contrast, Malone actually declined over his three years at Louisiana Tech:
Year PPG FG% APG RPG
1982-83 20.9 .582 0.4 10.3
1983-84 18.8 .576 1.3 8.8
1984-85 16.5 .541 2.3 9.0
This was a disturbing growth curve (though it looked worse because Malone’s minutes actually declined each year). Still, this stagnation had to contribute to Malone’s slippage in the 1985 Draft to the 13th pick. Forwards who were taken in front of Malone included Wayman Tisdale, Xavier McDaniel, Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley, Ed Pinckney, Keith Lee, and Kenny Green. The story goes that the Mavericks were hot to pick Malone but ultimately decided that Detelef Schrempf was a better option.
Stockton and Malone: The Early Years
Stockton and Malone didn’t instantly become stars. Both took a couple of development years. Stockton came off the bench for three years behind Rickey Green. In that time, Stockton didn’t even average over 23 minutes per game. By contrast, Malone instantly was a starter at power forward. His first year, however, Malone was a secondary scorer behind Dantley. Then in 1987-88, both Stockton and Malone broke out and become Stockton & Malone. Stockton put his 14.7 ppg and 13.8 apg while Malone was a monster 27.7 ppg and 12.0 rpg. This breakout coincided with a 47-win season, then the best record in Jazz history, that only ended after a tough seven-game series against the Showtime Lakers. The two then played at or around this level for 10-15 years and transformed the Jazz franchise.
The Jazz’s Ascension and Western Conference Shifts
The Jazz weren’t the only team to take the Lakers for a tough ride in the 1987-88 playoffs. The Mavericks also took the Lakers to the brink before losing. The 1987-88 playoff become sort of a turning point where the Western Conference no longer was the Lakers personal stomping ground. As much credit as the Lakers get for dominating the Western Conference in the 1980s, it bears mentioning that there were few obstacles in the Lakers path for much of the decade. From 1980-81 through 1988-89, only three non-Laker teams hit the 55-win mark (the 1980-81 Suns had 57 wins, the 1986-87 Mavs had 55 wins, and the 1988-89 Suns had 55 wins). Then in 1989-90, three Western Conference team pulled the trick in one year (the Blazers had 59 wins, the Spurs 56, and the Jazz 55).
The Jazz began to improve over this time but so did the rest of the west. For all of the 1990s, at least three Western Conference team won 55 games or more each year. This improved west gave the Jazz some problems. Over the next three years, the Jazz averaged 54 wins a season but only made it to the second round once. This particular team seemed to peak in 1991-92 when they won 55 games and went to the Western Conference Finals and lost to the Clyde Drexler-Blazers. When the Jazz were knocked out in the first round in 1992-93, it looked like the “window of opportunity” had closed. Darrell Griffith had retired, Eaton and Bailey had little if anything left and Malone and Stockton were entering their 30s.
The Jazz’s Late Renaissance
Despite the aging problems, somehow the Jazz still centered around Malone and Stockton would be at their best. As most of you know, the from 1993-94 through 1997-98, the Jazz made two Finals appearances and won 60+ games three times. How did this happen? Well, it’s tough to tell. To figure it out, let’s take a look at the 1996-97 Jazz versus the 1987-88 Jazz and see what, if anything, this yields:
1987-88 Jazz (108.5 ppg v. 104.8 oppg)
1996-97 Jazz (103.1 ppg v. 94.3 oppg)
Before making any snap judgments about these charts consider that in 1987-88 the average ppg for a team was 108.2 versus 96.9 in 1996-97. Thus, the Jazz of 1996-97 were much more efficient scoring team versus league average than the 1987-88 team. In this context, Stockton’s 1996-97 season seems at least as effective as the gaudy 1987-88 season while Malone is actually a much better player. Besides Malone, the other things that stick out as possible advantages is the very impressive team defense and the much better two guard. Hornacek was much better than Griffith of the late 1980s (not to mention Jeff Malone, the guy the Jazz traded to get him). So, the Jazz had a late surge with Stockton and Malone because the team aged remarkably well, because the team defense really tightened up (which is a credit to Jerry Sloan), and because the Jazz absolutely stole Hornacek from the Sixers.
I know the Jazz were a good team in the 1990s but I can’t help thinking they were not a real threat to win it all. Why do I feel that way?
You probably think that way because the Stockton-Malone Jazz were around for about ten years and watched plenty of other teams beat them on the way to the Finals. You never got the feeling that the Jazz could beat the Magic led Lakers, the Blazers of early 1990s, the Olajuwon Rockets, or the Sonics of Payton and Kemp. Still, the Jazz outlasted all these teams and that means something. The Jazz were a dominant team and when they did peak, they marched through some pretty good teams: a Laker team with Shaq, Kobe, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel, a Rocket team with Hakeem, Drexler, and Barkley, and a Spurs team with a young Tim Duncan and David Robinson. That’s quite a gauntlet and an indication that the Jazz of 1995 through 1998 could hang with pretty much any team in NBA history.
Well, I said almost any team. The Jazz’s two Final appearances against the Bulls were well played and competitive. But I didn’t sense the Jazz having much of a shot of winning either series. In fact, the 1998 Finals, where the Jordan hit “The Shot” to win was probably less competitive than the prior series between the two. In 1997, the Bulls took a 2-0 lead for the series before the Jazz came back to win two straight and then the Bulls took two more to ice the series. Game 6 was close and was highlighted by Shandon Anderson blowing a couple of late layups followed by Steve Kerr icing the game on a pass off by Michael Jordan. In 1998, the Bulls actually took a commanding 3-1 series lead. As tight as Game 6 was in this series, my sense was that the series was done after the Bulls smoked the Jazz 96-54 in Game 3.
Were Stockton and Malone Dirty?
The perception was that Stockton was a bit chippy (true) and that Malone was a bit nasty. And it was true. Stockton perfected the art of the moving screen but had rare occasions you could point to where he hurt someone (the one exception being in the 1997 playoffs when he broke Matt Maloney’s nose with an elbow). Malone, however, has quite a body count:
-In 1991-92, Malone leveled Isiah Thomas and opening up his temple with an elbow.
-In 1997-98, Malone elbows David Robinson in forehead, knocking him out with a concussion.
-In the late 1990s (I can’t find when) Malone elbows Shawn Bradley in the face, leaving him bloodied.
So, yeah, they were pretty tough.
Isiah v. Stockton
At the time of the ugly Malone assault on Thomas, the feeling was that this was part of a dispute between Thomas and Stockton because Stockton was chosen for the 1992 Olympic team and Thomas wasn’t. Thomas wasn’t not happy about this and felt he was better than Stockton. (The subtext of this story was that Thomas was left out based upon a “him or me” ultimatum offered by Jordan). The first time that Thomas and Stockton met after the controversy arose, Thomas lit up Stockton to the tune of 44 points. Next time they met, Malone gashed Thomas in the first few minutes of the game. That’s the story. But more interesting question is who was actually the better player.
In the early 1990s, the perception was that Thomas was clearly better. This was primarily based upon Thomas’ two championship and some heroic playoff performances. This probably wasn’t a fair basis to compare the two as placing Stockton in Thomas’ stead on the Piston teams of the late 1980s wouldn’t have been a downgrade. The factor that no one knew at the time was that Thomas’ career would end two years later while Stockton would be going strong for another decade.
So on pure career value, Stockton blows Thomas away. Our own Mike Goodman’s formula puts Stockton as the second best point guard of All-Time behind Magic (and Jerry West and Oscar Robertson but they weren’t pure points). Though Thomas is the next point on Mike’s list, he is a good 12 slots below Stockton. As for peak value, the two were pretty close. Thomas’ peak was 1984-85 when he put up 21 ppg and 13 apg and he had a four-year run (1983-84 through 1986-87) that Thomas averaged a double-double and efficiency rankings over 22. Stockton never scored over 17 ppg but he averaged a double-double for ten straight years and was a .515% career shooter. But with players of this level of ability, the choice between Thomas and Stockton is really one of taste. I recognize that Isiah was by far the better scorer but (Stockton’s career high in one game is only 34) but Stockton is my choice both because of his longevity and because his skill-set (efficient shooter and great passer) could blend into just about any team.
Stockton’s Defining Moment
The funny thing is that neither Stockton nor Malone have many moments that people remember where they made the huge play. Rather, they are remembered for always being there. But Stockton does have one big moment. It was the jump shot to beat the Rockets in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals. The Jazz, though a very good team, had had problems with Hakeem and the Rockets for years and in this game they were able to finally put that all to rest. Up three games to two in the final seconds of Game 6, the Jazz had the ball with a few seconds left down two. Stockton hit a 26-foot jumper to end the series and send the Jazz to their first Finals (aided by a moving Karl Malone screen).
Rapping the Mailman?
Malone is bit of a polarizing figure. In Ken Shouler’s 1996 book “Basketball’s Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years,” Bob Ryan knocked Malone thusly “I can’t ignore the achievements; I can’t ignore the numbers. But I find him to be a boring player, And he’s not great in crunch time. And in both Olympics (1992 and 1996) he’s been so tepid.” Malone certainly never captured the imagination of the hoops fan but it’s hard to knock 19 years of production. (Incidentally, the off handed Olympics comment is baseless. Malone was the third leading scorer in for the 1992 Olympics and played well in limited minutes in 1996). The clutch rap has a little more to it. Malone has clanged some free throws in his career (in particular during the 1996 Western Conference against Seattle and at the end of Game 1 of the 1997 Finals against the Bulls). The only other “bad” moment I can remember for Malone is Jordan’s strip of Malone’s rebound at the end of Game 6 of the 1998 Finals that ended up setting up Jordan’s shot over Bryon Russell.
But all these complaints are nitpicks. If you were to pick a player to have over his entire career, only a few players can be said to have had more value. On a peak basis, however, Malone can’t quite compete with any of the great centers, including guys like Patrick Ewing or David Robinson. This is because while Malone was a good defender he didn’t block shots or deter people on the drives like the the big centers did (Malone only had over 100 blocks once in his career). This point was covered in Dean Oliver’s book–namely that the shot blocking centers like Olajuwon derive a tremendous off value out through defense and reducing the effectiveness of the other team’s offense as a whole, something which I don’t think Malone did. Still, Malone was great and his consistency ranks him as the top power forward of All-Time.
Odds and Ends
-Here are Stockton and Malone’s best teammates (including the duo’s best seasons):
PG: John Stockton 1988-89: 17.1 ppg, .538 fg%, 13.6 apg
SG: Jeff Hornacek 1994-95: 16.5 ppg, .514 fg%, 4.3 apg
SF: Matt Harpring 2002-03: 17. 6 ppg, .511 fg%, 6.6 rpg
PF: Karl Malone 1989-90: 31.0 ppg, .562 fg%, 11.1 rpg
C: Mark Eaton 1988-89: 6.2 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.8 bpg
-The biggest disappointment of the Stockton/Malone tenure had to be 1994-95. The Jazz were just hitting their stride with one of their best teams. The Bulls were not a threat (Jordan had just comeback and was rusty). The 60-win Jazz lost a tough five game series to a lower seeded Rocket team. The toughest part was that the Rockets took Game 5 in Utah, where the Jazz were 33-8 in the season. The Rockets went on a run and won it all while the Jazz blew an open opportunity to get the ring.
-Not only were Stockton and Malone fixtures in Utah, the team was also pretty stable. In fact in all the time they spent in Utah, Stockton and Malone were only coached by two men, Frank Layden and Jerry Sloan (this doesn’t count the few million times that Sloan was ejected in the middle of games and Phil Johnson stood in for him).
-Both Stockton and Malone had a bit left in the tank when they decided to go. Their final year numbers:
Age PPG FG% APG RPG
Stockton 40 10.8 .483 7.7 2.5
Malone 40 13.2 .483 3.9 8.7
Clearly, they both could play. The Jazz are currently struggling a bit but they have a couple of nice building blocks. It would’ve been nice to see Stockton and Malone help acclimate Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer. Hell, I’d rather have Stockton at 42 than Keith McLeod and Howard Eisley.