Thursday, February 26

Kemp is better than the Mailman

For a few years back in the late 1990s, your intrepid narrator managed to finagle a press pass for the Vancouver Grizzlies, enabling me to take in about 100 or so games at GM Place in Vancouver.

As you can imagine, these were not the Boston-Los Angeles clashes that made the NBA famous, unless by Boston-Los Angeles, you’re referring to something along the lines of Dino Radja versus Pig Miller and not Bird versus Magic.

Anyhow, it gave me a good schooling on how irrelevant certain regular season games can be, so much so that I developed a 3-point rule for determining if the players and fans are into the game at hand. If you can answer yes to all three questions, then you are watching a game that nobody cares about:

1. Can you hear the players’ sneakers squeaking?
2. Can you hear the head coach calling out plays?
3. Do the players behave in a friendly manner with one another, e.g., chatting at the free throw line, helping up opponents, laughing at turnovers?

Believe me, there were plenty of nights when I answered yes to all three of those questions at GM Place back in the day.

I tell you that to tell you this – judging players solely on statistics without taking into account the importance of the game can be misleading. Anyone who has watched more than a dozen NBA games can tell you the players bring a completely different level of intensity for playoff games than they do for Tuesday games in February against the Grizzlies.

So, with that in mind, I set about determining what were the ten most important games Shawn Kemp played against Karl Malone in their careers. Obviously, series-deciding games would have to be included, and there are four of those. Add in the Western Conference Finals of 1996 and, voila, you’ve got ten games to consider.

Yes, it’s a small sample size, and, yes, it may not be the best way to judge these two, but it is a valid point to consider: When the games mattered the most, when both players were playing their hardest, when both teams and coaches expended the most amount of energy, who fared better, Karl Malone or Shawn Kemp?

At first glance, the edge seems to go to Malone, especially if you’re relying on traditional numbers such as points, rebounds, and assists.


Case closed, right? Well, not so fast, Mailman fanatics. In his great book Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver argued that there are other elements beyond the basic stats which are more indicative of player or team success. Oliver labeled them the Four Factors, and they are:

1. Shooting percentage (10)
2. Turnovers per possession (5-6)
3. Offensive rebounding percentage (4-5)
4. Getting to the foul line (2-3)

The numbers in brackets after each factor is the value Oliver places upon them. With that in mind, let’s see how Kemp and Malone stack up.


One of the four is a push, one goes to Malone (turnovers), and two go overwhelmingly to Kemp. So, right off the bat, according to one of the brightest statistical minds in the basketball universe, Kemp has an edge, and not a small one either when you consider Oliver’s belief in the importance of shooting percentage.

But it doesn’t stop there. Almost any Sonic fan more than 25 years old can tell you the enjoyment we felt in watching Malone fail at the free throw line, and the joy we had in counting down from ten while he struggled at the stripe in KeyArena. But was that just our memories, or did Malone fail as much as we remembered?

He did.

Kemp 77%, Malone 62%

Thanks to Oliver, NBA number-crunchers have become obsessed with possessions, and rightfully so. While in the old days a player such as Alex English could be lauded for scoring 30 points, now we’re a little more cautious – sure, he scored 30, but how many possessions did it take? Sure, the Nuggets and Suns give up a lot of points on defense, but does that mean they’re lazy without the ball, or that they just have more possessions than most teams?

The same goes for the Kemp/Malone argument. For example:

Kemp 132, Malone 102.7

That’s a huge difference, no? Look at it this way: points are like miles driven, and possessions are the number of gallons of gas you put into the car to drive those miles. Judging players only by points scored is like judging a car’s fuel economy by the numbers of miles it traveled – it’s incomplete. Sure, Malone outscored Kemp 262-178, but it took him almost twice as many possessions to do it (255-135). It’s like the difference between a Prius and a Hummer, for crying out loud.

The ultimate illustration of the contrasting styles of the two players came in game seven of the 1996 Western Conference Finals, a game the Sonics won 90-86 in Seattle. A cursory look at the boxscore the next morning would have left the reader to think that the two men played to a draw, with Kemp getting a slight edge.

Malone – 22 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds
Kemp – 26 points, 14 rebounds, 1 assist

But looking more closely, you can see that Kemp had huge advantages. Malone’s 22 points came on 31 possessions, while Kemp scored 26 points on only 18 possessions. Malone hit only 6 of 12 free throws, while Kemp hit 10 of 11. Kemp had a true shooting percentage of 77%, while Malone’s was a dismal 40%.

Yes, it was one game, and considering how well Malone played over the course of 42 matchups between the two, we shouldn’t throw all of his accomplishments in the wastebin because he came up short one time in 1996.

But, really, it’s not just one game. In the ten most important games the two men played against one another, when the stakes were as high as they could get, when both teams tried to squeeze every last ounce of talent from their players, Shawn Kemp was the better basketball player, and not by a small margin either.

One could argue that Malone’s achievements from a career standpoint would outweigh Kemp’s accomplishments in the post-season, and that’s a fair consideration. But I look at it from this vantagepoint: What is a team paying a player to do?

He is paid to do two things. First, get his team into the playoffs. Second, once the first objective is reached, he is paid to get his team a championship.

Shawn Kemp certainly took more than a few nights off during the regular season, especially when compared to Karl Malone, so you have to give the edge to the Mailman for that aspect.

But when it comes to getting his team to a championship? When the crowd is deafening and coaches have to scream their instructions even when the players are standing right next to them?

In that case, my friends, I’ll take the Reignman.


Anonymous said...

One of the main reasons the Reign Man had fewer possessions is that he could never figure out how to stay out of foul trouble. He was the master of the cheap reach-in.

Anonymous said...

He was the master of the cheap reach-in.

That's what she said!

Anonymous said...

So Kemp was more efficient - agreed. Also much more exciting to watch.

But Anonymous #12 has a point - shouldn't minutes factor into this? Especially when your major success metrics (shooting pct, offensive rebounding, ability to get to the foul line) are significantly impacted by how tired a player is.

Malone played 299 mins in that 7-game Western Conference Finals, while Kemp played only 235.

To look just at efficiencies is fine if the players are playing equitable minutes, but there's a reason John Paciorek isn't remembered as the greatest hitter that ever lived, and it's not his 1.000 career batting average.

Anonymous said...

It's more than just minutes - it's possessions. If it takes Malone an extra 30 possessions to produce as many points as Kemp, you have to also figure in what the Sonics did with those extra 30 possessions - assuming a decent player would be using them (not a crazy assumption considering the team Kemp played for), that's a huge advantage for the Sonics.

As was mentioned in the recent NYT article, we have to look beyond the boxscore numbers to really see how effective players are. Consider the two players' points/36 minutes. Kemp had about 18, Malone about 22. But you have to remember that Malone needs 18 shots to do that, while Kemp only needs 10. That difference of 8 shots is huge, it means 8 extra possession for the Sonics.

I know, to look at these numbers without taking into consideration that Malone is on the court for almost 10 extra minutes a night is foolish. Those minutes aren't just theoretical, they're factual. While Malone is out there for those 10 minutes, Kemp is producing zero for the Sonics, and I'm not sure how you take that into account. If I was smart enough, I could figure out what a replacement level player would be worth for those 10 minutes, then combine that with Kemp's numbers to show what Kemp-36+Replacement12 is relative to Malone 42+Replacement6. I'm guessing the Kemp/Replacement player would be more productive than the Malone/Replacement.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree you need to look beyond the boxscore to assess performance. Completely agree that Kemp was better . . . when he was on the court. It's just tough to overlook the fact that Malone essentially played two more games than Kemp in the Finals.

Trying to assess how much worse Kemp 'would have played' had he gotten Malone minutes and (simultaneously) how much better Malone 'would have played' had he gotten Kemp minutes is, to coin an Obama phrase, well above my pay grade.

So....good luck with that!! Isn't it just that sort of analysis that my subscription to your website pays for??

For what it's worth, looks like Kemp's replacement (in the WCF anyway) was Vincent Askew (his minutes are almost exactly negatively correlated with Kemp's). Who knew?

MC Welk said...

Is this what it's come down to? Get a team!

Basketbawful said...

"He is paid to do two things. First, get his team into the playoffs. Second, once the first objective is reached, he is paid to get his team a championship."

Interesting. Forget the fact that Malone has almost as many career victories (981) as Kemp has games played (1051). Check out these numbers: Malone -- 193 career playoff games, 2 NBA Finals appearances. Kemp -- 88 career playoff games, 1 NBA Finals appearance. I would say that the 105 more career playoff games and twice as many Finals games seem to indicate that Malone did the job he was paid to do better than Kemp did his.

Now, if you insist on using advanced stats: Malone -- career PER of 23.9 (with the five highest being 28.9, 27.9, 27.2, 27.1 and 26.2) and a career playoff PER of 21.1 (with the five highest being 25.8, 25.0, 24.6, 24.6 and 24.2).

Kemp -- career PER of 19.1 (with the five highest being 23.6, 22.9, 22.6, 21.7 and 20.7) and a career playoff PER of 20.5 (with the five highest being 26.6, 25.9, 23.6, 23.0, 21.3).

So Kemp's best regular season PER was barely better than Malone's career average. Note also that while Malone's top playoff PERs came during extended playoff runs, Kemp's top two occurred in first round series that his teams lost to the Lakers (in 1995) and the Pacers (in 1998). So I guess you could say that when Kemp was at his absolute best in the playoffs...his team wasn't.

I'm just sayin': It takes some selective figuring to come to any conclusion that says Kemp was anywhere close to as good as Malone, let alone better.

Basketbawful said...

Oops. Kemp's highest regular season PER was actually less than Malone's career average. My bad.

Anonymous said...

Without getting all numbery on you, my completely biased opinion is that Shawn Kemp was every bit as good as Malone, in each of their primes.

Shawn Kemp is definitely my personal favorite all-time dunker. He threw it down with a VENGANCE. He was stuffing the ball through the hoop like it tried to steal his wallet or something. I am pretty sure that the whole NBA was afraid of him, and if they weren't , they should have been.

It's too bad that he left Seattle to suck in Ohio for the rest of his career.

Anonymous said...

No Power Forward can EVER match the intensity and heart that Karl Malone played with. He is Nomero UNO. Period.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think in heart/36 min., Malone was behind Duncan. His intensity/poss. was definitely #1, though.

That was a joke, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Basketbawful - I'm on your side to a point, but at least give the author his due that they were similar players in the playoffs. Their career playoff PER's (according to your own data) were essentially identical.

Also, agree with Ryan on Duncan's superiority in heart/36 mins. The real difference-maker for Malone was that his TARP (Tenacity Above Replacement Player) and his GCP (General Clubhouse Presence) were both off the charts.

PN said...

Yes, but Kemp leads in CIC/SE (Conception of Illegimate Children/Sexual Encounter).

chunkstyle23 said...

I'm just amazed that after 13 comments between people who disagreed with each other, no one got called an idiot, a homosexual or a Nazi. I had to make sure I was still reading this on the Internet.

Anonymous said...

I can see why BB would take issue with what I said - the problem with a site like this is that I sometimes assume people have read the preceeding stories I put up, when they most likely have not. The headline was a bit misleading, and maybe I should have used something more along the lines of "The Case for Shawn Kemp" rather than such a definitive statement.

I'll sum up my thoughts this way: I think that in a head-to-head situation, when both players were at maximum motivation, Shawn Kemp was better than Karl Malone. Unfortunately for Sonic fans, the Reignman didn't have maximum motivation anywhere near as often as the Mailman.

Also, Hacksaw is a homo.

Keith said...


Keith said...

Okay. I can see from your last comment, Nuss, that you're willing to soften on the bold - to say the least - claim that Kemp is better than Malone, so maybe I shouldn't laugh so hard. Kemp certainly had some talent, and it's good to recognize the ways he excelled. Still, that title gave me a nice chuckle, and for that I thank you.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, this could be one of the silliest comparisons among players in recent years. Lets put it this way. If you could start a team with one of these 2 players, who are you taking? I know ill take the man who can score, defend, rebound and pass. Oh wait, and also shoot a 17 foot jumpshot. Sure, kemp was FUN to watch. By no means was he a fantastic basketball player. And yet you compare him with the man who is, in my eyes the best or second best power forward to ever player basketball. You are silly sir, very silly.

Anonymous said...

And for those of you talking about possessions, thats the teams style of play. Thats like saying, if the Cavs averaged as many possessions as the Lakers, then Lebron would average 50 points. Thats IMPOSSIBLE to say. Kemp could have just been a system power forward, and that was probably the only reason why he is even being brought up in the same sentence as Karl Malone. P.S. the one thing he was better than Malone at: DUNKING. BIG DEAL

Anonymous said...

So, how many of those MVP things did Kemp get?

Anonymous said...

Of course everyone is going to vote for Shawn Kemp. This IS a Sonics blog. And although chunkstyle called Hacksaw a homo, Hawksaw is right. The entire time I was reading this I kept thinking how many children Kemp had fathered with how many different women vs. Malone.

Malone had a better foul shooting percentage, better shot selection ability, and probably had more people in and out of the NBA pissed off at him (see Isiah Thomas). Any basketball player (and football) can dunk. It is shooting which makes a player valuable.

Now if you want to count who was better at talking out of only one side of their mouth...Kemp is the winner.

Anonymous said...

Malone versus Kemp, from the 96 WCF:

Mail: 27 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 5.1 ast, stil 2.1, blks 0.4

Kemp: 20 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.3 ast, 0.9 stl, 1.3 blks

Ownage, pure and simple.

It also should be noted that Malone would consistently defend Kemp, but Shawn would never be assigned to Malone.

Very. Telling.

I remember Steve Jones pointing that out in game 5.

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