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Could LeBron James be the next Karl Malone?

 

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:

2010-2011

1. LeBron James 27.3
3. Dwyane Wade 25.6
29. Chris Bosh 19.4

1992-1993

3. Karl Malone 26.2
10. John Stockton 21.3

1993-1994

7. Karl Malone 22.9
9. John Stockton 22.5

1994-1995

4. Karl Malone 25.1
5. John Stockton 23.3
22. Jeff Hornacek 18.6
(first full season with Utah)

1995-1996

3. Karl Malone 26.0
12. John Stockton 21.9
23. Jeff Hornacek 19.1

1996-1997

1. Karl Malone 28.9
6. John Stockton 22.1
27. Jeff Hornacek 18.8

1997-1998

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.

  • Jeremy

    Aside from the Kg and Ray connection in one sentence, is this really part of the Celtics blog offseason posts? Maybe its just me but I'm not sure I care for Rose, Lebron, Bosh, Wade or any other player not in green. That said, I am following the Mavs-Thunder game closely just because I still regard Perkins as blue on the outside, green on the inside. In my mind, his heart is still shamrock-shaped.

    So yeah, isn't any blogger going to start profiling possible Celtic draft choices? Or maybe trade options/scenarios that could happen? Heck I'll even take a hate post on Davis and his playing for a contract season, just cause I'd like to read that.

  • Dan

    This is a poor article. First, Rose is not the best player in the league by any metric. Second, this series has gone 1 game and you are already making comparisons between one player who couldn't win a title because he had to go up against the best player ever every single year and a player who is one of the best players ever but has yet to win a title by his 26th birthday. Third, Lebron outpaces Malone in PER if you look at Lebron's last few years in the league. This is a down year for him, which suggests he has yet to really mesh with his teammates and you have to think that the Miami coach will get better at integrating the offensive talents of Wade, Bosh, and Lebron over time. Fourth, Lebron is the best player in the league based on his production over the last few years and is better than Rose by any metric. Malone could not win because he had to face the best player while Lebron is the best player. Fifth, PER is flawed because it over-values high usage players and doesn't weigh offense. WS/48 and SPM are better and both evaluate Malone as a much worse player than Lebron. Sixth, Titles aren't a fair barometer of player ability. Dirk is better than Dereck Fisher, Kobe, Pierce, and Robert Horry but has not had the supporting cast to get it done in the past (although this might be the year).

    And yes, I am a Celtics fan. I just don't think shoddy comparisons should be made for the sake of denigrating a player you don't like.

  • VK28

    Poor Malone was playing the "Maestro" of basketball that would not give anyone a chance. If that was LeBron playing then back in the 90's the result would be the same. point black.. As once Kenny Smith said MJ was number one player in the league, number two player in the league, number three etc'…

  • Dave

    Dan, no one cares what you think!

  • the blind

    Oh, come on. Compare LeBron to Karl??? So unfair to Karl!

  • talesofJP

    I like the article mainly because I hate the Heat. Also, my girlfriend is from Chicago so I sort of root for the Bulls when the Celts aren't involved.

  • Darius

    I like this article, very interesting observation, and the mean, bitter part of me hopes that it holds true. If the Celtics can’t win it I am officially throwing my hat in for Coach Thibs.

  • jacksobd

    Thanks for reading. A couple of things:

    First, the main crux of this article is to suggest that winning a championship(s) for this Wade, James, and Bosh era Heat team is not a foregone conclusion. Many people have simply dismissed any notion to the contrary with the rationale, "Oh they are so good, they'll definitely win multiple championships." However, no one predicted how good this Chicago team is now or their potential going forward. As stated in the article, this Chicago team is better than this Heat team and has a better chance of maintaining this advantage/progressively getting better going forward (assuming the new CBA does not include too many drastic changes).

    Secondly, Adande asks, "how do we define "best player"? You say advanced stats. I say a combination of eye test, numbers, and wins. Adande suggests that since Rose outplayed both Wade and LeBron in game one, a consistent performance from Rose could alter the narrative of LeBron James and his "best player" moniker. I'm taking this one step further to suggest that Rose's ascension, coupled with the Bulls having the better team, could prove the bane of James' existence. The thorn in his championship-seeking side.

    Thirdly, the PER numbers are just interesting gravy. These are solely used to point out some interesting observations (most notably, Chris Bosh and Jeff Hornacek are on the same production level).

    Finally, I LIKE LeBron James. I really do. He's dominate, phenomenal, and one of the best players in the league. I'm just not willing to concede that he will always be the best or will definitely win a championship(s).

    • I_Love_Green

      BJax wins.

  • zack

    i like the article, and hope they never win a title

  • Batman

    If u think Wade and Lebron only depend on athleticism and can't transition when they r older you r doing this wrong

    • Jeremy

      Well maybe Lebron could transition a post game but Wade is no Kobe. He is far from lethal with his long range shots. His 3p% sucks. So yes I'd have to say that right now alot of his points come from his athleticism and unless he shows a different set of skills, I'd have to say his body will break down the soonest out of the Big 3.

  • Morpheus

    Love the article because i hate Miami.

    And i hope it's right on all accounts.

    "Not 1. Not 2. Not 3. Not 4. Not 5. Not 6. Not 7"

    • Batman

      I hope they don't match our ring
      That would be sweet

      • Morpheus

        Forgot the s

        • Batman

          :( don't make me cry

          • Batman

            but thumbs up anyways

  • Ashok

    congratulations.. on your stupid comment on being real about Haslem .. lol.. How many rings do you have ? ooo .. may be you are one of those who talks !!.. just that !

  • Mike

    this article seems kind of silly now. Hindsight's 20/20.

  • RJS

    Alero vs Alero ? well
    Alero vs PF ???? BAD

    karl malone is the number 1 in its position

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