Showdown: Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone

Earlier this week I took a close look at John Stockton and Isiah Thomas. Today I’m going to put two all-time great power forwards who were teammates on the 1992 “Dream Team” — Charles Barkley and Karl Malone — under the microscope.

I. Awards and Honors

Let’s take a look at the qualitative information first:

  • Both players are in the Hall of Fame.
  • Malone was a 14-time All-NBA selection (11 first team, two second team, one third team) while Barkley was named to 11 All-NBA teams (five first team, five second team, one third team).
  • Malone was selected to the All-Defensive team four times (three first team, one second team). Barkley never received this honor.
  • Malone received MVP votes in 15 different seasons, winning the award twice (1996-97 and 1998-99). Barkley earned MVP consideration in 12 different seasons, winning once (1992-93).
  • Malone was selected to play in 14 All-Star Games, Barkley 11.
  • Malone was named All-Star MVP two times, Barkley once.
  • Malone played in three NBA Finals, losing the first two to the Chicago Bulls and the last one to the Detroit Pistons. Barkley played in one NBA Finals, also losing to the Bulls.

I think the qualitative evidence clearly comes out in favor of Malone.

II. Offense

There are many things a player can do on offense to help his team, but the five most important skills are probably the following:

  1. Make shots from the field.
  2. Get to — and make shots from — the free throw line.
  3. Minimize turnovers.
  4. Create shots for others.
  5. Extend possessions with offensive rebounds.

Let’s compare and contrast Barkley and Malone in these categories.

Make shots from the field

Barkley was incredibly efficient from the field: his career effective field goal percentage of .558 is the 15th highest in NBA history (minimum 2,000 field goals made).

But Barkley could have been even more efficient from the field had he not taken so many three-pointers. Barkley averaged 1.9 three-point field goal attempts per game during his career even though his three-point field goal percentage — .266 — was the worst in NBA history (minimum 1,000 three-point field goal attempts).

On two-point field goals, Barkley’s career field goal percentage of .581 is the 4th best all time (minimum 2,000 two-point field goals made).

Malone was also an efficient scorer, but he was not in the same class as Barkley: his .518 career effective field goal percentage is good for 98th on the all-time list.

Verdict: Big edge, Barkley.

Get to — and make shots from — the free throw line

Malone is the all-time leader in both free throws made and attempted, both by significant margins.

At the start of his career, Malone was a terrible free throw shooter, shooting just .481 from the line in his rookie campaign and .598 in his second season. By his third season, though, he reached .700, and his career free throw percentage is a more-than-respectable .742.

Barkley was also very effective from the line, averaging 7.9 free throw attempts per 36 minutes — Malone averaged 8.7 — with a career free throw percentage of .735, just .007 behind Malone.

Verdict: Edge, Malone.

Minimize turnovers

Malone had more turnovers than anybody in NBA history (4,524), but part of that is due to his longevity: only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played more minutes.

Per 100 plays*, Malone averaged 12.4 turnovers, a rate that betters the league average of 14.2 during his career by almost two turnovers.

* A play is defined to be a sequence that ends with the player (a) attempting a shot from the field, (b) taking two (or three) shots from the line, or (c) turning it over.

Barkley was more generous than Malone, coughing up the ball almost 15 times per 100 plays (14.8, to be exact).

Barkley was especially bad his first three seasons in the league, averaging 17.9, 21.3, and 21.4 turnovers per 100 plays, respectively. For the remainder of his career his turnover rate never exceeded 15.2, and his average for those seasons was 13.3.

Verdict: Edge, Malone.

Create shots for others

Barkley averaged 3.9 assists per 36 minutes compared to 3.4 for Malone, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that Malone took more shots than Barkley.

If we adjust for that, we find that Malone assisted on about 17.6 percent of his teammates’ field goals while he was on the floor, which is essentially a statistical tie with Barkley’s assist percentage of 17.5.

Verdict: Push.

Extend possessions with offensive rebounds

Barkley was a fantastic offensive rebounder, averaging about 12.5 offensive boards per 100 opportunities. His offensive rebound percentage is the 12th highest in NBA history among players with at least 15,000 minutes played.

Malone’s offensive rebound percentage was a rather pedestrian 7.9. Part of this difference is due to Malone taking more shots — meaning he was often out of position to grab the offensive rebound — but the margin is so large that it’s clear to me that there are other factors at work here.

Verdict: Big edge, Barkley.

III. Defense

What about defense? That can be harder to measure, of course, but let’s take a look at the evidence we do have, namely:

  1. Team Defense
  2. Defensive Rebounding
  3. Steals
  4. Blocks
  5. Personal Fouls

As in the section above, let’s compare and contrast Barkley and Malone in these categories.

Team Defense

Malone played on 13 teams with a top 10 defense (based on points allowed per possession), including three teams that led the NBA and two more that finished in the top five.

Barkley’s teams never finished higher than ninth in points allowed per possession, and only three of them finished in the top 10.

We obviously can’t assign all of the credit to Malone for the success of his teams on defense, just like we can’t assign all of the blame to Barkley for the defensive shortcomings of his teams.

That said, both players played significant minutes for their teams — Malone averaged 37.2 minutes per game, Barkley 36.7 — at an important defensive position, so we can’t just ignore the evidence.

Verdict: Big edge, Malone.

Defensive Rebounding

While Barkley was clearly the superior offensive rebounder, on the defensive side there was not a significant difference: Barkley averaged 23.7 defensive rebounds per 100 opportunities, Malone averaged 23.5. That’s close enough that I can’t call this category a win for Barkley.

Verdict: Push.

Steals

Barkley averaged 2.09 steals per 100 opponent possessions, a rate that was a bit higher than Malone’s rate of 1.95. Given that these numbers are estimates based on season totals, though, I don’t feel comfortable declaring a winner in this category.

Verdict: Push.

Blocks

Both players were good — but not great — shot blockers. For his career, Malone averaged 1.47 blocks per 100 opponent two-point attempts, while Barkley’s block rate was 1.39. Once again, I don’t find the difference between them to be significant.

Verdict: Push.

Personal Fouls

Malone and Barkley each averaged 3.0 personal fouls per 36 minutes. Barkley fouled out of 39 games (4.0 percent of all regular season games) compared to 28 games (1.9 percent) for Malone. In the end, though, neither player really had a positive or negative impact due to personal fouls.

Verdict: Push.

IV. The Decision

With the caveat that I would not place equal weight on all categories (e.g., shooting efficiency is much more important than offensive rebounding), Malone gets the edge in three categories (one big) and Barkley gets the edge in two categories (both big), with five pushes.

About ten years ago I developed the win shares system for basketball. In simplest terms, it is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player through his offense and defense. Malone finished his career with 234.6 win shares (third all time), while Barkley earned 177.2 win shares (12th all time).

However, Malone’s career was much longer than Barkley’s. If we look at win shares per 48 minutes, the order is reversed: Barkley leads with a rate of .216 (13th all time, minimum 15,000 minutes) with Malone checking in at .205 (24th all time).

Barkley also had the “bigger” seasons. If we rank the seasons of each player by win shares, we find that Barkley had three of the top five seasons:

Rk Name Season WS
1 Charles Barkley 1989-90 17.3
2 Charles Barkley 1987-88 16.7
3 Karl Malone 1996-97 16.7
4 Karl Malone 1997-98 16.4
5 Charles Barkley 1988-89 16.1

But wait a second…

Yes, Barkley has three of the top five seasons above, but that conveniently leaves out the fact that Malone has the next seven seasons on the list:

Rk Name Season WS
6 Karl Malone 1989-90 15.9
7 Karl Malone 1990-91 15.5
8 Karl Malone 1992-93 15.4
9 Karl Malone 1999-00 15.3
10 Karl Malone 1988-89 15.2
11 Karl Malone 1995-96 15.1
12 Karl Malone 1991-92 15.1

Given the choice of one of these players for a one- or two-season span, I might be compelled to pick Barkley since, at his peak, he was slightly better.

But under almost any other scenario, I’m going with Malone.

Malone rarely sat out — he missed two games or fewer in 18 of his 19 seasons — while Barkley was often out for long stretches, missing at least 11 games in half of his 16 seasons.

So with Malone I’m getting a player who would provide both quantity — Malone rarely missed games — and quality — per 3,000 minutes, the difference between Barkley and Malone was less than one win share.

Both of these players are easily among the 25 best in NBA history, but in the end I have to make a call: I’m going with Malone in a split decision.

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One thought on “Showdown: Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone

  1. You left out how these players amassed the stats to make your comparison. One finished plays started by John Stockton in a conservative pick and roll offense that made his scoring both easier and more of a focus. The other got the ball on the wing or the block or.off the defensive boards and made something happen. That’s not to necessarily say that Chuck is better, but context helps us reach accurate conclusions.

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