Throwing It Back: Karl Malone vs. Charles Barkley


As Tim Duncan wraps up his career as the best power forward ever (really, he’s a center, but we’ll give that a pass), he has supplanted two legendary power forwards of the 80s and 90s. One was the prototypical four man, the other was anything but–I’m talking about Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz and “Sir” Charles Barkley.

Barkley was a six-foot-four power forward with outstanding athletic ability, guard skills and an undying motor who boggled the mind with his rebounding prowess. Malone was every bit the ideal power forward in the NBA: six-foot-nine, strong, mid-range game, great defender and ran the pick and roll with John Stockton to perfection.

In Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, he discusses where players belong in his “pyramid,” which is a ranking of the top 96 players in NBA history. Of course, I kept an eye out for Stockton (25th) and Malone. However, Simmons placed Malone and Barkley side by side in the rankings instead.

When comparing the resumes, Malone definitely had a better career. He was more durable (and more productive as a result), a much better defender and garnered one more MVP award than Barkley. However, Barkley was arguably more talented. His peak as the second best player in the NBA was better than Malone’s. Yet, with all of that talent, Barkley could’ve had a much more productive career with Malone’s work ethic.

Simmons went through a list of things to compare Malone and Barkley–namely durability, bad luck, nickname, etc. I wanted to touch on some of the basketball stuff and either disagree or agree with him.

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Durability – Simmons gave the edge to Malone here and it’s not hard to figure why. The Mailman only missed ten games in his eighteen seasons with the Jazz. His only problems came in his last year as a Laker. Barkley missed 121 games from 1991 – 1999.

Verdict – Agreed.

Bad luck – Simmons thinks Barkley had more bad luck than Malone, which is understandable. He cites Barkley’s early Philadelphia years, where Sir Charles had to carry a lackluster supporting cast following the trade of Moses Malone and the dealing of the No. 1 pick in the ’86 draft which could have been Brad Daugherty.

He mentioned the good luck that Malone had with Stockton as his point guard for all of those years. What he failed to discuss was Malone’s injury-riddled final season, his last chance to earn his first NBA title. The Lakers fell to the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and many point to Malone’s injury as a key factor in their defeat. His absence left the Lakers with only Slava Medvedenko and Brian Cook as natural power forwards. After all the healthy years of playing basketball, he couldn’t contribute to the Finals run. That’s bad luck. (Ed. Note: Thanks Lakers medical staff!)

Verdict – Agreed, but he should have at least mentioned Malone’s bad luck as well.

Ability to Finish in Transition & Most Distinct Strength –  I decided to combine the two because I disagreed with Simmons on Barkley’s most distinct strength. He felt that Barkley’s strength was his offensive rebounding, while I thought it was his ability to grab a defensive rebound and take it coast to coast. This coincides with his first category, so I combined the two.

Malone and Barkley were both known for being outstanding running forwards with great touch, hands and finishing ability. No one took a charge from the Mailman, and no one took a charge from the Round Mound of Rebound.

What Barkley couldn’t do like Malone was completely nullify defenders on ball screens. When you think of Karl Malone, you think of John Stockton and their ability to run a pick and roll like no other duo did. Everyone knew it was coming, and no one could stop it. That’s what you call a strength.

Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Verdict – Disagree & agree, they have even ability to finish in transition (Simmons gave the edge to Barkley) and Malone differed from Barkley with the added dimension of a roll game.

Fatal flaw – This was an interesting topic. Simmons touched on Malone’s ability in the clutch, stating his tendency to come up short when it mattered most. He specifically mentioned Game 1 of the ’97 Finals and Game 6 of the ’98 Finals. In the case of Barkley, he ripped on his work ethic.

Both were fair points, but I wanted to give Chuck a fair shake. He was as competitive as anyone there was and wanted it more than Simmons let on. In my opinion, his fatal flaw was attempting to do too much. Odd, in a sense, but historically Barkley is the worst-ever three point shooter with a minimum of 1000 attempts. 1000 attempts! What was he thinking? Making matters worse, he actually attempted 2020 for his career while shooting an atrocious 26.6 percent.

Verdict – Disagree, both flaws were equally harmful to the players’ career. Simmons had Barkley’s flaw as work ethic and gave the edge to Malone.

"“Barkley’s apex was definitely better, but not so much better that it outweighed Malone’s longevity and consistency.”-Bill Simmons"

In the end, Simmons gave the edge to Malone in his pyramid, ranking him 18th over Barkley. He cited the longevity and consistency of Malone’s career while stating Barkley had better peak years. However, if Derrick Favors was not on the Jazz (hypothetically Faves!) and I was given the option of having a rookie Barkley or rookie Malone on the team, I would actually have to pause for a second.

Though Malone would bring consistency and a dominating force to the Jazz, the current roster outside of Hayward lacks a distributor that would elevate Malone to the next level. However, in the end, that pause would be short lived as Malone was a much better defender than Barkley in his career, something that’s much too important in today’s game.

Verdict – Agree with Simmons, Malone was better. Nice work Sports Guy.

Next: Three Utah Jazz Players Named in SI's NBA Top 50

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