Karl Malone is one of those all-time greats who don’t have an NBA Championship on his resume. Some say it’s because his prime coincided with the great Michael Jordan. However, if we are to ask Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas, Malone never won a title because he was the “weak link” of the Utah Jazz.
Thomas explained why Malone, despite one of the Jazz’s brightest stars, was also its primary liability. From Thomas’ perspective, it all boils down to Malone’s inability to knock down free throws. This made him the main target of opposing teams, especially in crunch time.
“When you’re playing at that level, you come down to the last 30 seconds or the last minute of the game. If that guy can’t make foul shots, then he’s the weak link. He’s the guy that you foul. He’s the guy that you want to put on the line. You’re not fouling Stockton. You’re not putting him on the line, you’re not letting him take the shot. Everything is going to Malone. I thought Malone’s inability to make free throws stopped them from winning the championship,” Thomas said.
Stats reveal that Malone was a career 74.2% shooter in the regular season and 73.6% free throw shooter in the playoffs. This is a decent percentage no matter what era you are from. Malone actually started as a sub-50% free throw shooter in the first two years of his career. He improved almost overnight when he boosted his free throw percentage to 70% in his third season.
Crucial free throws
The numbers do not necessarily back up Thomas’ claims. And so why did he drop the bomb on Malone? Does IT secretly hate the Mail Man? Is it related to Thomas’ exclusion from the Dream Team?
If we dig a little deeper, we will find out what Thomas was talking about. He was referring to Malone’s crucial misses at the free throw line in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals. The Jazz and Bulls were knotted at 82 with 9.2 seconds left. If he made those two free throws, the Jazz probably would have won the first game, giving them momentum.
But the Mail Man missed both. Jordan got the rebound called the timeout, and the Bulls huddled for one final play. In classic Jordan fashion, he toyed around Bryon Russell before knocking down the game-winning buzzer-beater.
The story that night was Scottie Pippen’s lethal words to Malone before he went to the charity stripe - Pip actually considers it to be the best trash-talking line in NBA history. But from Thomas’ perspective, the only story was those misses.
To win the title, one should have nerves of steel. And the way IT sees it, Malone never had it in him.