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For Thomas: Aging Malone remains a force

Aging Malone remains a force
Updated: September 13, 2004, 10:58 AM ET
By Terry Brown | NBA Insider

If Karl Malone isn't the greatest power forward of all time, then Tim Duncan will be. And by the time this argument is all said and done, Kevin Garnett may supplant both of them. But with the Mailman's decision to return for one or two more years possibly with the Spurs or Timberwolves, he has one last chance to affect this power forward debate.

If Malone moves to San Antonio, not only do the Spurs remain the favorite to win the NBA title, which would be their third in seven years, but Duncan moves to center and the argument turns into one involving Shaquille O'Neal and the post position.

If Malone chooses Minnesota, not only do the Timberwolves become the favorite to win the NBA title, their first in franchise history, but Garnett switches to small forward.

And don't think for a second that Malone doesn't know what's going on here.

For years now, we've alternated between O'Neal and Duncan as being the best post player in this generation of NBA participants. It was easy, though, because the loser of the debate still got a spot on the All-NBA first team because Duncan has always been listed as a power forward and O'Neal has always been listed as a center.

Duncan won NBA titles in 1999 and 2003 and MVP Awards in 2002 and 2003. O'Neal won NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and an MVP in 2000. That was how the NBA world was divided and conquered.

O'Neal was the dynamic personality who mugged for the camera and cut record deals while using the regular season to shed his summer inconsistencies before exploding in the playoffs. Duncan was the stoic performer who posted double-doubles ad nauseam from the first day of his NBA career to the last without cracking a smile or, seemingly, breaking a sweat.

Karl Malone
Power Forward
Los Angeles Lakers

42 13.2 8.7 3.9 .483 .747

With Malone as a Spur, though, Duncan would almost have to move from his comfort zone to the center of attention. For years, he's made a living working that 45-degree angle into short, turnaround jumpers and bank shots.

After 36,928 points, that's about all Malone has left offensively. He can't beat younger power forwards half his age up and down the court in a running game and his spring has sprung under the bucket.

But he can muscle his way into the post, pass with precision and hit the wide open jumper from that same 45-degree angle. Duncan, on the other hand, can run, can jump, can get into the middle and mix it up with the best of them. Only now, he'll have to do it with regularity. He'll have to be a center with his back to the basket and his reputation on the line.

Last year's starting lineup of Tony Parker, Hedo Turkoglu, Bruce Bowen, Duncan and Rasho Nesterovic severely lacked perimeter punch. This would change everything. And while Nesterovic has improved greatly, he remained a non-starter for his first three years in Minnesota and most recently averaged 5.9 points per game in the playoffs. Hall of Famers don't ride pine through introductions for this.

Brent Barry and Malone would not only provide that to the Spurs but squarely pit the two best low-post players in the game against each other. We have been waiting for this forever. No more skirting around the issue and comparing apples to oranges to fundamentals to Aristotles. It could be one of the great rivalries of all time. It could be exactly what the NBA needs. Starting at center for the Western Conference all-stars could be Duncan. Starting for the Eastern Conference all-stars could be Shaq.

… unless, of course, Malone chooses the Timberwolves.

In that case, the Timberwolves would be able to live with Ervin Johnson or Michael Olowokandi in the post for another season simply because Malone would provide the necessary forearm shivers down low and defensive rebounds. As mentioned before, Malone isn't the up-and-down player he used to be. But he can lock arms and bang with absolutely any player in the league.

But he's still 6-foot-9 while Johnson is 6-foot-11 and Olowokandi and inch taller than that. But we're missing the point here. With the center position taken care of and the power forward position now solidified, we could be in for something very special from the Timberwolves.

Starting at small forward for Minnesota could very well be the 7-foot Garnett not one year removed from his MVP season.

Try and imagine 84 inches springing up and down the court while averaging almost 14 boards a game without giving up one iota of agility or dexterity to smaller, more human, counterparts. For years now, we've alternatingly praised and cursed Garnett for his all-around game. Now, we'd get to see it in all its splendor and make a decision once and for all.

The former Timberwolves lineup was nearly two-deep at every position with players like Troy Hudson, Wally Szczerbiak and Fred Hoiberg coming off the bench while Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell, Trenton Hassell and Garnett would start with either Johnson or Olowokandi in the middle. The were good, sometimes great, but when playoff games turned into greco-roman matches, their advantage in quantity turned into a liability of quality.

The Lakers dumped the ball into O'Neal down low time and time again and the center ended up shooting 57 percent in the Western Conference Finals to defeat the regular-season champs. The series seemed to hinge on one matchup while Garnett attempted to deal with Malone on the boards, O'Neal in the scoreboard and Bryant on the perimeter.

With a lineup bolstered with Malone, there wouldn't be a matchup at small forward that the Timberwolves wouldn't be able to exploit and dominate as much or more than the way the Lakers used the center position.

Of course, both of these arguments in Minnesota and San Antonio are valid because even at 40-plus years, Malone remains a viable NBA player who averaged as many points as Antawn Jamison last year, as many rebounds as Dirk Nowitzki, as many assists as point guard Darrell Armstrong and shot as well as Pau Gasol.

Who wouldn't want him to start at power forward even if it meant moving another future Hall of Famer to center or small forward?

In the first round of the 2004 playoffs, Malone averaged 18 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists while shooting 49 percent from the field and guarding Yao Ming for stretches at a time. For what it's worth, he remains the greatest 41-year-old power forward in the history of the NBA.

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