Who’s Better: Karl Malone Or Charles Barkley?

Two of the greatest power forwards who ever lived. Two of the best 20-25 players of all-time. Two franchise enforcers who never won rings. Two complete opposites, one an out-going, comedian who’s perhaps become more famous since his retirement. The other, a farm boy from Louisiana who dropped out of the limelight the minute he said goodbye to the NBA. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley carried the power forward torch for nearly two decades (two decades that also happened to hold the best collection of big-men talent the game has ever seen).

So why now? No reason, other than it’s always fun to debate. Who was the better player: Karl Malone or Charles Barkley? We argue. You decide.

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This argument is distorted. It won’t matter what I say. Why? Inevitably, you’ll confuse Charles Barkley the player with Charles Barkley the must-see TV (the guy we love, and as a result, the guy you probably believe was better than Malone)…

In the aftermath of Chicago’s sixth NBA championship, and Utah’s second consecutive loss in the Finals, we all had Karl Malone pegged. He was a great player who failed in crunch time. That was his vice, and rather than the consistent work he put in for nearly two decades, that became his legacy.

On the other hand, Chuck used perhaps his greatest gift (his mouth) to turn himself into the ringleader of the greatest basketball-related show ever. Because we like him so much now, we forget: Barkley had even LESS success in the playoffs then Malone. And while you didn’t expect the Mailman to deliver in a close game, Barkley wasn’t exactly UPS either.

Even though Malone’s best chances at a title (’95-98) produced zero rings, Barkley was playing on a Houston team that was expected to win titles (or at least be in the Finals). But in ’97, Malone and the Jazz beat them. In ’98, Barkley got hurt and guess what? Malone and the Jazz beat them again.

Actually, with the best teams Barkley ever played on – the mid-’90s Suns – he blew a 2-0 lead heading home against Houston in 1994, then a 3-1 lead the following year against the same team.

Chuck was traded twice in his prime. During that same period, if someone had called to check Malone’s availability, offering anyone outside of Michael Jordan, Larry Miller and the Jazz would’ve laughed and hung up before the person could’ve even finished their sentence.

Stats can tell the story too. The craziest number of all: Malone scored nearly 15,000 more points throughout his career than Barkley, and has him beat in every single major category for their careers. By average, Barkley might’ve been the better rebounder (11.7 to Malone’s 10.1), but Malone scored more (25 a night to 22.1). Conference Finals trips? Malone had six runs. Barkley made it there just three times.

Or how about 207 to 10? Malone MISSED 10 GAMES IN 18 YEARS (it wasn’t until his final year – in L.A. – did he miss any extended time). Chuck missed 207 games during the same period (despite playing three less seasons). If you were starting a franchise and had the choice of a 22-year-old Malone or a 22-year-old Barkley, it’s not even a question.

Defensively? Please. Barkley was awful on defense, while Malone was at least respectable (and even made three All-NBA Defensive first teams).

Malone also won two MVPs while Barkley earned just one. Malone finished with 14 All-NBA teams (including 11 consecutive from 1989 to ’99); Barkley, just 11.

Various reasons – constant partying, coming into camp every year out of shape and an infatuation with doing things the hard way – caused Chuck’s prime to last for about half as long as Malone’s. The Mailman delivered for longer, finished with more individual accolades and had more team success.

In 1987, both were already dropping 20/10. By 2003, Chuck was on TNT, kissing donkeys and trying to outsprint old men. Malone was still averaging nearly 21/8. What more do you want?

This may be the most difficult “who’s better” I’ve ever done. Barkley and Malone are both Hall of Famers and two of the 50 greatest players of all-time. Choosing between these two is like choosing between ‘Five Guys” and “In-N-Out.” I’m from California and would argue In-N-Out to the death (order “animal style” fries and you’ll see why) but you really can’t go wrong with either. In fact, I had Five Guys for the first time last week and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Same goes for Barkley and Malone – you can’t go wrong with either. But since I have to choose…I’m taking Barkley. Don’t ask me why yet because I’m not completely sure, but that’s my decision and I’m sticking with it.

Malone was bigger, averaged more points, grabbed more rebounds and played for three more seasons, but I’m still going with Barkley. I think Barkley did more with less, and because of that, I feel his body of work is more impressive. Basically, Malone had Stockton and Barkley had Maurice Cheeks, Johnny Dawkins, Kevin Johnson and Matt Maloney. Not to say these guys are bad players because they’re not. They’re just not in the same class as Stockton.

I think Stockton made Malone significantly better. Have you ever had a teammate set you a screen, then, instead of rolling to the basket, they just stand there and stare at you, clogging up everything and ruining the play? Yea, well, Malone never did that. Never ever. Not to say that he scored all 36,928 points off the pick-n-roll, but Stockton and that legendary play sure didn’t hurt his statistics.

I realize the pick-n-roll argument is a bit of a reach, but when you’re comparing two Hall of Famers that played in the same generation and at the same position, what else do I have? Maybe that Barkley was shorter than Malone, making it harder for him to be effective at his position? Maybe that Barkley was more explosive than Malone, a better athlete making him more valuable?

Look, this argument is like splitting hairs. It’s almost impossible to decipher who’s ultimately better. Both guys bring different elements to the table, each of which improve your team and make other guys better. It’s like someone telling you, “pick your poison,” except each poison is 20-10 every night.

Because I’ve been flip flopping back and forth worse than Vlade Divac in the low post, I’m choosing Barkley for this reason: He didn’t get to play with the NBA’s all-time assists leader. A point guard who was a perfect compliment to his skill set, someone who consistently put him in the right position to succeed, and most importantly, someone he was able to play with for 18 years. Personally, because of Barkley’s superior athleticism and energizer-bunny-motor, I think Barkley could have done more with Stockton. Ask an NFL receiver what it’s like to have a different quarterback every other year. Here’s a hint: it sucks. The inconsistency makes it almost impossible to develop that “teammate ESP.” That indescribable “spidey sense.” The I-know-where-you’re-going-to-be-before-you’re-there instinct. Malone and Stockton had that. Barkley never got the chance.

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