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.
Player REB AST PTS Malone 114 43 262 Kemp 92 11 178
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.
Player FG% TO/Poss OREB% FTM/FGA Malone 47% 0.13 9% 0.27 Kemp 67% 0.25 9% 0.49
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?
FREE THROW PERCENTAGE
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.