Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why does The Mailman get all the blame?

I guess I'm a masochist.

There has been a lot of discussion in the sports world about two of the stars of the current NBA Finals, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James. This talk has not been focused on Dirk's dominant playoff run or LeBron's annihilation of the Chicago Bulls. Instead the talk has been focused on their failures of playoffs past. It has been about their psyche and whether or not they have the will or ability to rise to the challenge in the final moments of a championship series. So far, both players have had their ups and downs in this series.

As a Jazz fan with a typical years-of-getting-my-heart broken complex, my mind drifted to the championship failings of the two superstars who define the franchise. Their names have been mentioned a lot these past few weeks, joining LeBron and Dirk on the list of great players lacking a championship on their résumé (yeah ... I used the fancy e's). I saw those two series losses on ESPN's list of the greatest playoff series ever. Because hearing that was not pain enough, I have been trying to relive those series against the Bulls (now over a decade ago). I watched nearly the entirety of 1997 Game 6.

That was not enough though. I needed to see for myself how the so-called "choke jobs" of LeBron and Dirk matched up against the choke job closest to my heart. Karl Malone was my favorite player long before I can remember. In the summer of 1996 I dragged my grandmother to the Fanzz (what was it called in 1996? I can't remember) store in Crossroads Mall to buy a Karl Malone jersey the first day you could buy those putrid purple jerseys with the copper trim and mountains on the front (they were the coolest thing in the world then). My brother loved Stockton, but I was a Malone man. This is why it pains me so deeply that whenever he is mentioned nationally today, he is only mentioned as someone who choked during those two finals.

So I looked at Malone's stats during those two Finals to compare to LeBron and Dirk's. Malone's stats were actually pretty good for someone who supposedly didn't show up. During his 12 Finals games Karl averaged 24.4 ppg 10.4 rpg 3.6 apg while shooting an okay not great 47% from the field. Fine. He also shot only 67% from the free throw line including multiple games where he missed crucial ones that could have changed the course of NBA history. Still, if Chris Bosh were putting those stats up right now he would be the Finals MVP and the media would be talking about him like he was one of the Top 5 players in the league.

While running over the stats from those finals, something else caught my eye. It begged a question that I have never asked, nor have I heard anyone else ask. Did John Stockton also choke? The many years that I have endured the bashing of Karl Malone's performance in the clutch has changed the way I look at Malone. I used to think he was the best thing (to borrow a term from KOC) canned soup. Now if you were to ask me the greatest player in Jazz history and I would say John Stockton. For some reason both nationally, in the local media, and within the Jazz fan community whenever the Jazz's playoff failings are brought up the only name ever mentioned individually is Karl Malone. Karl Malone choked away a chance at a championship at the expense of Michael Jordan. I have never batted an eye at this. However seeing the stats from those Finals of my youth changed my perspective somewhat.

During the course of those fateful 12 games in June of 97 and 98, John Stockton averaged 12.3 ppg 8.8 apg and 3.3 rpg while shooting just under 50% from the field and 81% from the free throw line. Not exactly the numbers you think of when you think of John Stockton. The numbers are not terrible, but we are talking about arguably the best (or 2nd best) player on the team and one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history (currently Top 25 on Basketball Reference) and a player thought of as the greatest player in franchise history among the fans. Shockingly Stockton was actually not good at all in the 1998 Finals where he put a very 2011 Jason Kidd-eque 5.8 ppg 8.6 apg 2.5 rpg while shooting 48.9% from the field and 72.7% from the free throw line.

Now I understand that Stockton by that point had been in the league for 13 and 14 years respectively, and that he began the 97-98 season by breaking his leg, but still. The Jazz needed more from him right? Somehow though, Stockton has completely escaped the venom that Malone has experienced as a result of those losses from Jazz fans. It's pretty shocking how much of the blame Malone shoulders even though he was almost entirely carrying the team offensive load on his back. Do you think that Phil Jackson in the locker room before the game said "Gang, tonight we have to focus our defense to stop Bryon Russell and Greg Ostertag because they have killed us this season!"? NO! They were geared entirely to stop Karl Malone from scoring the basketball. He still put up 24 and 10 while shooting 47%.

I understand that it was Malone who missed some big free throws and it was Malone who fell asleep and let Jordan strip him to setup the shot in Game 6. People have completely forgotten that in famous "Flu Game", Stockton had free throws at the end of the game which could have forced the game into OT against a completely drained Jordan, but he missed.

It's time that people take some of the burden of those Finals losses off of Karl Malone's shoulders. Like LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and the other great players who never won a championship, the Jazz as a team just didn't have enough.