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Patrick Ewing > Karl Malone & why that matters

No bias. Just science.

Utah Jazz v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Amid my late night Twitter doomscrolling and watching Castlevania for the millionth time, I was struggling to think of something Knicks-related to write about. It wasn’t so much a creative bloc as an inability to focus long enough to actually do it. My mind has felt like one of those people who compete by running on logs in water, always either spinning or falling underwater. I literally felt like asking the universe for help. The universe did.

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

Openly soliciting opinions about Karl Malone in 2022 — on Twitter— isn’t even low-hanging fruit; it’s a hanging slider, belt-high, slurving smack toward the middle of the plate. I’ve written about Malone’s past before, but out of respect for people who aren’t Malone who maybe don’t want their past to become too public, I’m not going to continue publicizing it. Long story short: this is strictly a basketball argument. Two arguments, really. One is which player was better. The other is why it matters, decades after they retired.

The second part of Lambre’s question is the easy part: if Patrick Ewing played with John Stockton he would have won multiple titles. Without question. Stockton’s numbers alone are staggering, but if you’re a primary sources kinda gal take it from his peers: it was he and not Malone opponents feared most.

In 19 seasons Stockton played every game 17 times: seasons one through five, seven through 13 and 15-19. For 15 years, he and Malone were the heart and brain of the Jazz. By contrast, here’s who logged the most minutes on the Knicks Ewing’s 15 years in New York; for years Ewing was first, I’ve noted who ranked second: Rory Sparrow; Gerald Wilkins; Mark Jackson; Charles Oakley (2nd); Wilkins (2nd); Oakley (2nd); Jackson (2nd); Anthony Mason (2nd); Oakley (2nd); John Starks (2nd); Mason; Oakley (2nd); Allan Houston; Houston; Latrell Sprewell.

It’s not surprising, then, that Malone had so much more regular-season success: his Utah teams won 50+ games or won at that pace 11 times. Ewing carried the Knicks to six such seasons. Malone’s second banana was good enough to be first and is one of the top players ever at his position. Ewing’s co-pilot was elite at flagrant fouling people. Pair Ewing with Stockton while letting Malone start alongside late-stage Doc Rivers or Charlie Ward and I bet those win numbers reverse.

There are those who point out Malone scored far more points than Ewing, played nearly 40% more minutes over his career despite only two extra years, and was even All-Defense four times to the Big Fella’s three. But it only takes a little digging to note the numbers don’t prove what they claim. Let’s start with scoring.

Malone is third all-time in points, while Ewing sits 29th, soon to be passed by James Harden and Russell Westbrook. But look closer: the last eight years of his career for which data was available, Malone’s two-point baskets were assisted just under 80% of the time. Over Ewing’s last six seasons, the only ones for which there’s data, a little more than 60% of his 2s were. Ewing averaged 8.9 baskets a game during his Knick career; Malone in Utah was 9.3. Every game on average, then, Ewing had to create three or four unassisted buckets to reach 9. Malone averaged one to two a game. Multiply that workload over 1000 games and the added degree of difficulty Ewing faced, while not closing the gap between him and Malone, does shrink it somewhat.

There are those who note Malone’s superior number of All-Defense teams to Ewing’s. Hogwash. Hogwash I say. All-Defense honorifics matter, yes, but they’re hardly scientifically sound. They’re voted on by the media. You think media votes today can be wild? 25-30 years ago there was no League Pass; there weren’t as many games on cable as there are now. How diligent could the voters have been, even the best-intentioned? The first time Malone was named All-Defense, he beat out Mason and P.J. Brown. The second time, it was Oakley and Tim Duncan. The third time, Brown and Theo Ratliff. Give those names to people who watched the NBA back then. Ask them how high they rate Malone. He’d be no better than fourth.

Ewing was named to All-Defense teams three of his first five healthy seasons. The years he didn’t make it he was beaten out by Hakeem Olajuwon (then “Akeem”) and David Robinson, generational bigs. Still, Ewing led the league in defensive win shares in 1993, 1994 and 1997. There’s more than one way to measure greatness. Don’t overcomplicate this one. Malone was a very good defensive forward. Ewing was an all-time defender at center.

Both players were tough and durable, though here Malone outshines pretty much everyone but Stockton. After Ewing’s injury-plagued first two seasons, he’d miss just 20 games total over his next 10 years. Then came the broken wrist that night in Milwaukee. Ewing’s last three New York campaigns he missed nearly half the games. Malone’s ironman quality was unconditional. He missed 10 games his first 18 seasons, never more than two in any season.

Ewing’s numbers rarely outweigh Malone’s, but in almost every comparison the larger context reveals there was more to Patrick’s production than most players of his caliber. It’s important to share what you remember from times other didn’t live through. It’s astonishing to me how thin a gruel memory can be when contrasted with the rich full flavor of the actual, original experience.

Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Shaquille O’Neal. They’re already underrated. No one mentions Magic or Bird anymore in GOAT debates. Shaq was the single most dominant player I have ever seen at the professional level, yet somehow despite his size and the scale of his success he’s somehow an afterthought. The present and future deserve the best of what we can share of the past. Bill Bradley. Walt Bellamy. Richie Guerin. Don’t let them be forgotten. Patrick Ewing, too. If we don’t care to upkeep the museum of the mind, who will?