Could LeBron James be the next Karl Malone?
Posted by Brendan Jackson on May 18, 2011
As in, one of the greatest players to have never hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy in triumph. Common wisdom/sense/consensus says: not likely (Heat fans say, “Are you out of your mind? He told me we’d win 7!“).
Besides, there’s precedence for winning a Championship after joining a new team. Ray Bourque did it after leaving the Bruins. Alex Rodriguez did it after leaving the Rangers/Mariners. The Celtics very own Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen did it after leaving the Timberwolves and Super Sonics/Bucks, respectively. And then there’s the fact James joined a team that already had two superstars locked in. Surely a three headed monster comprised of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh will eventually, if not this year, win a Championship. That is, unless a there exists the perfect foilable.
How do you build combat a team with two top ten players and one top 20 player? With the best player in the league and a bunch of really good players.
After the Chicago Bulls dramatic Game One win against the Miami Heat, one of my TrueHoop TV co-stars J.A. Adande wrote about Derrick Rose getting consideration for best player in the NBA:
Rose is similarly undaunted by the challenge before him, which happens to be the most important role of any Bull. He has to be better than either Wade or LeBron James. The Bulls can’t afford to have those two be the best players on the court. When the two best players are wearing the same jersey, that team tends to win
That got me thinking. If Rose is the best player in the NBA right now, than he’s the closest thing to Michael Jordan this season. If Rose is Jordan, than what does that make LeBron James?
Which now brings us to the topic at hand. The Miami Heat have an impressive trio that put up big numbers because they are great/good (looking at you Bosh) players. Yet, they got demolished by the Chicago Bulls in Game One because the Bulls had the best overall player (for argument’s sake), had the better defense, better coach, etc. The best part of about this Bulls v. Heat rivalry? The Bulls aren’t going to go away.
Before we get any further into this budding rivalry, let’s go back in time. It’s commonly accepted that the reason Karl Malone never won a Championship because Michael Jordan existed (and because Shaq and Kobe hated each other in 2004?). Even though Utah had great rosters with at least two top players and solid supporting casts, the Jazz could never get over that Bullish hump. Right now, the similarities with today’s Heat team are striking. The 90s Jazz team’s had Malone and John Stockton. This Heat team has James and Wade. The two sets of players may not share the same on-court symbiosis -or the traditional 1-4 pick-and-roll relationship- but they share the two-top player identity.
Talk is cheap, so I decided to do a little digging and compare the Jazz’ top players’ Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) for what we’ll now refer to as “The Jordan Era” with those of today’s Heat team. My findings were incredibly interesting:
Here’s a list of the Heat and Jazz players with their respective PERs and league PER ranking for the season listed:
1. LeBron James 27.3
3. Dwyane Wade 25.6
29. Chris Bosh 19.4
3. Karl Malone 26.2
10. John Stockton 21.3
7. Karl Malone 22.9
9. John Stockton 22.5
4. Karl Malone 25.1
5. John Stockton 23.3
22. Jeff Hornacek 18.6 (first full season with Utah)
3. Karl Malone 26.0
12. John Stockton 21.9
23. Jeff Hornacek 19.1
1. Karl Malone 28.9
6. John Stockton 22.1
27. Jeff Hornacek 18.8
1. Karl Malone 27.9
5. John Stockton 21.8 (64 Games)
26. Jeff Hornacek 19.3
While PER is far from a perfect metric, it’s an easy tool for comparison in this case. In the 90s, I wasn’t delving into box scores so my observation of the Jazz was limited to “Karl Malone is huge and awesome” and “John Stockton’s shorts are too high” which led me to ask for Malone’s road jersey for three successive Christmas’ (1997 was a great Christmas). Now, I come to find out that I passed the eye test. Between 1996-1998, Malone led the league each year in PER with racking up a 28.9 and a 27.9. You’ll notice both of these numbers are greater than the PER James put up this season.
The addition of Jeff Hornacek during the 93-94 season really make this case interesting. His PER is consistently on par with what Bosh put up this year. A perfect third wheel.
The most obvious discrepancy is Wade. His PER is consistently higher than Stockton’s, although not by as much as you may have thought.
After comparing the PERs, you can see this conclusion may not be as far fetched as it sounds. Numbers aside, there is, again, the Heat’s little problem of this Chicago Bulls team. A team that has everything going for them, some of which I mentioned earlier: an MVP caliber player, top-5 defense in the league, youth, a better coach, and all of their key components locked up (Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Derrick Rose*, Joakim Noah) with fairly favorable contracts through the 2013-2014 season. The same season that just so happens to precede James, Wade, and Bosh’s respective player options. In other words, before they all decide to jump ship and join Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire (and Chris Paul?) in New York.
Then there’s the matter of Chicago’s bench being better. Right now, injuries to Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem have rendered the Heat’s two best bench players ineffective while the Bulls are getting huge contributions from Kyle Korver and Taj Gibson. Right now, NBA fans cannot assume that both Haslem and Miller will rebound from their injuries and regain the same abilities they once had. With that reality, the Heat have two players locked up at least through the current James, Wade, and Bosh era that have completely eliminated the rest of the Heat’s salary cap room going forward.
Let’s assume there aren’t going to be wholesale changes to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement next season. Specifically, there will still be a cap around 57 million and teams over the cap will still have some wiggle room to sign players through various exceptions. With these caveats, the Bulls are in much better position to pick up free agents than the Heat for the same reasons that make them a better team than the Heat.
Just imagine: this season, the Bulls biggest weakness was outside shooting. Right now, Ray Allen is only under contract through next season and rumor has it he could player another 3-4 years. An Allen addition would put to rest any question of outside shooting issues.
Many will disregard this theory and dismiss it as “crackpot-esque”. Any they may be right. But if someone ever asks me, “when has a team with two top ten players and one top thirty player ever not won?” I can say the Stockton, Malone, Hornacek Jazz teams of the 90s. Maybe someday, I’ll be able to say the 2010s Miami Heat teams. Besides, I believe the exact quote was, “Not one. Not two. Not three. Not four. Not five. Not six. Not seven.”
* Rose will be a restricted free agent in 2012-2013 but let’s be serious, he isn’t going anywhere.
** All PER information was taken from the indispensable www.Basketball-Reference.com
*** All player salary information was taken from www.HoopsHype.com
****If the Heat win convincingly tomorrow, I didn’t write the preceding article*****
***** Okay, I still totally did but I’ll be scraping a little egg off my face for getting ahead of myself.