Karl Malone vs Kevin Garnett… Part 2

My column last Tuesday must have been a hit, because I received a stream of emails larger than any other column before. Yes I beat my personal record of 1 email, and received 2 whole emails on the topic. Technically this will be the third posting in this series, since the one last Tuesday was an email response to my column on May 20th.

…my only point was that since both were all-D 1st team they are by definition comparable (of equal value, etc – the very best for a specific season). often we get people posting to the APBR groups who are young and have seen the players of today but not those of yesteryear (not that malone was great all that long ago). not knowing who you were/are, i had to wonder if you saw malone play. my point was that anyone who had seen karl malone play alot during that time would have come away thinking he was a helluva defender…

my personal belief is that he was a great defender for a long time but himself did not get the recognition from the sports media and public as one of the best because a) he was also a great offensive player, and often people think the two do not go hand in hand, and b) he played in utah, not the mecca of pro hoops, and the jazz were not center stage until 96-97 and 97-98, having lost in the finals both times to the bulls….

bob chaikin

I have to agree with Bob in that I haven’t seen Malone play alot. Being a Knicks fan, and living on the East coast didn’t give me many opportunities to see Malone’s defensive abilities. Maybe I’ve saw him play once or twice a year. Bob is right in a way, that since Utah is a West coast team without appearing in the Finals until late in his career I can’t judge Malone’s defensive game. When Malone did appear on the main stage (for us right coasters), he was a bit older & played against an offensively challenged player in Dennis Rodman. By that time in his career, Rodman’s sole abilities were rebounding & defense. Defending against an offensively challenged player is hardly a way to show your defensive skills.

Bob claims that Malone doesn’t get the respect he deserves because of his offensive skills. So is being a good offensive player is a detriment to winning defensive acclaim? Here are the All-NBA Teams for two recent years.

2002-03
FIRST TEAM

Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota
Ben Wallace, Detroit
Doug Christie, Sacramento
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers

SECOND TEAM
Ron Artest, Indiana
Bruce Bowen, San Antonio
Shaquille O’Neal, L.A. Lakers
Jason Kidd, New Jersey
Eric Snow, Philadelphia

2001-02
FIRST TEAM

Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota
Ben Wallace, Detroit
Gary Payton, Seattle
Jason Kidd, New Jersey

SECOND TEAM
Bruce Bowen, San Antonio
Clifford Robinson, Detroit
Dikembe Mutombo, Philadelphia
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
Doug Christie, Sacamento

The awardees seem to be primarily in one of two groups: either great offensive players (Duncan, Garnett, Kobe, Shaq, etc.) or horrible offensive players (Wallace, Mutombo, Bowen, etc.). There is a third group with offensively mediocre players (Artest, Christie), but I don’t see how being a great offensive player hurts your chances of getting acclaim for your defensive play.

Bob wasn’t the only one to have an opinion on the Garnett vs Malone defensive matchup:

…I think Garnett’s defensive ability is something that might be deserving of a whole column/blog entry. He’s got all the All-Defense nods, but there are also those that think his rep vastly overstates his actual ability (Kobe Bryant falls into this category to an even larger degree).

I recall a few years ago, the Sonics coaching staff said at a season ticket-holder Q&A that Garnett could be beaten if you went at him — in other words, he’s an excellent team defender, but not as good one-on-one. Dean Oliver said something similar when I asked him about Garnett recently (we were watching Game 7 of Kings-Wolves).

His opponent performance by postition (http://www.82games.com/03MIN12C.HTM) is pretty good, but not in the stratosphere of Tim Duncan (http://www.82games.com/03SAS15C.HTM). Does his team defense make up for that?

Kevin Pelton

I’m sorry to say I can’t answer any of those questions. Right now I think it’s safe to say that nobody can give a definitive answer as to how good a player’s man-to-man defense or help defense is. I think in time we might be able to extrapolate +/- data in such a way that we can verify how good each player’s defense is. Maybe there will be a more advanced way in the future to figure these things out.

One question that we can start debating about is whether being able to play good defense against your man (man-to-man) is greater or less than being able to play good help defense (team defense). I would imagine doing the former wouldn’t show up anywhere on the box scores other than maybe a drop at the opposing player’s points scored (or eFG%, TO/48, etc.) at the same position. For example if Garnett is a good man to man defender, it’s possible that all the PF who’ve played against him will score less than their yearly average. Of course there are many ways this data could be corrupted as well. [For example a team may have a great shot blocker or play a slow tempo game (with few possessions).]

Without evidence to the contrary, I would say that being a good team defender is more important than being a good man to man guy. Being able to stop your opponent is a good thing, but let’s say you’re a SG, and your opposing team’s best scorers are the SF & C. You aren’t able to help your teammates as much. But if you’re a good help defender, you should be able to help your team whoever their scorer is, whether you’re Garnett helping out with a block, or Jason Kidd doubling down to getting a quick steal.

Knicks 102 Wizards 98

It was one of those games as a fan, you love to watch. There was a little bit of everything for everyone. The Knicks are still fighting for a better playoff spot, so it was a meaningful game. Even though they clinched a playoff spot, a few wins might move them up to a higher seed. However since the playoffs are so close, the Knicks also want to give a rest to their starters. They don’t want their best players tired in their first round matchup. So the Knicks were trying to win an important game with playoff indications on the strength of their (mostly) young players. If that isn’t enough to get the fans’ blood pumping, the game was close throughout, and went into overtime.

With all the Knick’s youth on the floor, it was like a glimpse into the future. The only regulars were Tim Thomas (because of a lack of SF depth due to Penny’s stomach virus) and the prehistoric center Dikembe Mumtombo. For most of the crunch time, it was DerMarr Johnson, Frank Williams, and Michael Sweetney on the floor. Frank Williams, one of my favorite underused Knicks, didn’t play exceptionally well. He did hit a “clutch” layup, but only shot 2-3 with 3 TOs and 4 ASTs in 32 minutes. Of course he played better than Morris, who shot a horrible 1-8 and had only 1 assist with his 1 turnover.

One of DerMarr Johnson’s weaknesses over his career has been his average shooting. His career FG% is just 38%, and more importantly his career eFG is an unspectacular 45%. Yesterday he shot 54% with an eFG% of 62%! I couldn’t pinpoint anything different, except going to the hoop more often, including a two handed jam. His shots just seem to be going down.

DerMarr is an interesting player. He has Reggie Miller’s frame, but other than that has little resemblance to one of the most efficient scorers over the last decade. He’s an average scorer, at best, and lacks Miller’s incredible shooting eye. Like most players that come out of Cincy, the former Bearcat is an athletic defender. The 2002 Basketball Prospectus called him “one of the best defensive prospects in basketball.” From what I’ve seen the 23 year old is still a prospect. He was no match for Ron Artest at SF in Indy the other day. His skinny 6-9 body with long arms is more suitable for defending against SGs.

MSG’s player of the game was the Knicks’ first round pick Michael Sweetney, and rightfully so. Sweetney was, as Clyde Frazier likes to say, omnipresent under the boards. He picked up 5 offensive rebounds, and 7 on the defensive end. Combined with Mutombo, they did an excellent job countering the Wizards advantage on the glass. As for his offensive game, Sweetney shot 6-9 and I noticed he plays a little bit better when given ample playing time. In the 8 games he’s been given 20 minutes or more, he has shot 22-40 or 55%. Last night, he showed a nice array of post up moves. At one point he turned a near blocked shot into a left handed layup by adjusting mid flight. I’ve seen him make this type of adjustment at least twice on the season, and they are impressive to watch.

These last few games should be interesting to watch. The Knicks’ might be playing these guys more often. Sadly, it could the last time you see any of them in a Knicks’ uniform. Isaiah Thomas has a trigger finger when it comes to trades. Any or all of them could be gone if he feels he can net a better player in the process. In a way it’s a shame, since I’ve grown to like all three, and can see potential in all of them. There is something special in sports when you watch a young player develop into a good or great player. However sports is a business, and I would trade any of these guys if it meant getting a top notch player.