Posted Aug 13 2010 8:51PM
Karl Malone is a self-made Hall of Famer. That is what will get lost in the pageantry.
He was a promising talent upon arrival in the NBA as the, yes, No. 13 pick in 1985. And he had a fearsome skill set, a combination of size and speed that made him about the last guy a defender wanted to see barreling down the lane to finish a break. But Malone wasn't drooling good until later in his career, after he practiced becoming a better free-throw shooter and developed the kind of perimeter game that defenses were forced to respect, two aspects that were obviously important complements for his dominating post play.
He was a determined and tremendous worker in that way. One of the divas of his generation, too often asking to renegotiate his contract and pushing the buttons of emotional owner Larry Miller. The first MVP came at age 33 and in his 12th season, when most players are long past their prime, and the second at age 35 and in the 14th season. And then he logged five more seasons after that, four while averaging at least 20 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Malone earned his "Mailman" nickname as a high school and college standout in Summerfield, La. and at Louisiana Tech. Scottie Pippen, his fellow inductee on Aug. 13, was also from the small-town South (Hamburg, Ark.), but Pippen was a gift of versatility, able to beat teams so many ways. John Stockton, his Jazz pick-and-roll partner enshrined last summer, turned into his superstar self pretty quick, with textbook decision making and vision, gaudy shooting numbers and defense within four seasons. Karl Malone, while a 20-10 man his second season, wasn't really Karl Malone until much later.
He was an imposing player who became great, a promising defender who for a stretch became the best in the league at the power positions, a talented scorer who would move within striking distance of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the greatest scorer specifically because of the growth in later years. The Karl Malone of the 1980s and even into the early '90s could never have gotten into that conversation. He was very good, All-Star good and maybe still Hall-of-Fame good, but not the stuff of pushing into contention, and even arguably taking the lead at the time, for greatest power forward ever and moving into second place in career points. That happened because his game dramatically evolved at an arc few see after becoming a superstar.
Free throws were the big thing. The early Malone didn't break 60 percent until his third season and 75 percent until his fourth, and even then, once he got over the short plateau, couldn't stay there consistently. It was particularly agonizing because he spent so much time at the line, the way opponents began to seize on the shortcoming and the way he forced collisions inside with such a physical brand of basketball from the post -- he led the league in free-throw attempts five consecutive seasons and let teams off the hook by shooting 76.4 percent in that time.
Malone made improving a priority and got a huge payoff. The guy who once struggled to stay better than 75 percent broke it his last seven seasons with the Jazz, before dipping to 74.7 with the Lakers in 2003-04, his final campaign, and was at 79.3 or better for three consecutive years.
His first 11 seasons: 72.2 percent from the line.
His final eight: 77.7.
Not coincidentally, it came as the rest of his offense away from the basket was improving. The Malone of later years became a threat with a mid-range game just as he improved from 15 feet out at the line, forcing opposing big men to come out to defend him. The jumper was not merely a last resort if no pick-and-roll option was available or he couldn't bully around the low post. It was dependable.
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While his field-goal percentage took a hit with the increasing use of the perimeter, he made himself more versatile and, therefore, more dangerous. If he hadn't exactly re-invented himself, because the duet with Stockton remained a large presence, the Mailman with the ball was noticeably different the final seasons in Utah. Others have been forced by age to adjust to compensate for lost speed or strength. Malone, though, added depth while continuing as a threat inside.
In the end, he had distanced himself from every player in history except one as the greatest scorer. Abdul-Jabbar scored 38,387 points in 20 seasons, Malone scored 36,928 in 19 seasons and Michael Jordan has a distant third at 32,292 in 15 seasons. The closest active player, Shaquille O'Neal, is 28,255 in 18 seasons, good for fifth place. The assembly line of annual gaudy numbers had been completed with the one Lakers campaign and the statistics would rule all, just as it will be high on the personal marquee at the induction ceremony in Springfield. It just won't come close to telling the story of what really made Karl Malone one of the greatest stars ever.
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