According to the casual fan, the sole purpose of an NBA player's existence is to make a meaningful contribution toward a team's championship season. Even if you are one of the greatest players of all time, your career doesn't have a definitive moment if you never hoist a Larry O'Brien Trophy while showcasing overwhelming happiness in spite of extreme exhaustion. By these cruel standards, Karl Malone is one of the great failures in league history. But how did he become the face of the championship-less NBA player?
There are many nuances to Karl Malone's personal brand. On the court, it felt like he rarely missed high-percentage shots, showing discipline by always playing within the context of the Jazz's pick-and-roll offense. Malone and Jazz point guard John Stockton were the perfect teammates, creating a team chemistry that now seems impossible to attain because of the influence of AAU teams on young players. Malone was part of an extinct generation of power forwards who naturally exerted themselves on the defensive end and used their basketball IQ and physical advantages to effortlessly secure rebounds. It sounds so great to describe Malone with romanticized NBA player traits, but since he doesn't actually have a championship, I mainly think of him wearing sleeveless shirts, doing things like hunting, fishing, and chopping wood on acres of land.
Karl Malone's identity is defined by two connected traits: He's a Hall of Famer, and he never won an NBA championship. The next generation of relevant power forwards (Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki) all obtained championships, disproving that the next Karl Malone had to be a 'power forward.' The 'dominant power forward' eventually went extinct, but the idea of Karl Malone lives on. One unloved player will be remembered from every era, his lack of a championship outweighing any of the positives of his NBA career.
In other words: Someone really, really good is going to lose out during LeBron James's NBA reign. Who is the most likely to assume the mantle of Malone?
Chris Paul: Most Likely to Be Disliked
Every time there is a conversation among bros concerning a hypothetical situation wherein you are a general manager "starting an NBA team right now with an unlimited budget," Chris Paul is one of the first players to be selected. His situational basketball IQ is always valued, along with his 'fierce desire to win above all' that overshadows his label as a 'dirty player.' After failing to maximize the Clippers' opportunity to make the Finals this year, Paul is about to enter a new phase with new questions. Namely, what do we actually like about him? It's becoming harder and harder to justify his Napoleon complex.
This is the guy who grounded 'Lob City' in an effort to play half-court offense with a bunch of shoot-first swingmen and high-flying big men. Chris Paul has wavered between 'celebrated pseudo-player-coach' and 'coach hostage-taker.'1 This season, it felt like his aura of veteran leadership turned into condescending lessons and dirty looks for the younger players impeding his vision. Paul probably needs to chill out rather than perpetuate this idea of himself as a franchise puppet master. Maybe he'll get lucky and win a championship after his prime in a role similar to Jason Kidd on the 2011 Mavericks.
Blake Griffin: Most Likely to Win Kia-Sponsored Events
When it's all said and done, Blake Griffin will be remembered as the greatest NBA player ever to dunk over a Kia, securing himself a long-term partnership with one of the league's official sponsors. His commercials will have changed the way that NBA players market themselves, utilizing a quirky 'webisode style' to establish his offbeat personality with emerging fans. He is really good at dunking, which seems to get people talking as they gaze at muted televisions at the local Buffalo Wild Wings.
While Blake Griffin might be a master of sponsored opportunities, his identity operates in contrast to Karl Malone, spokesman for Skechers Shape-ups. The career of the most overbranded player in the NBA would likely be considered a success if he were remembered in the same breath as Karl Malone. That would mean he developed his offensive game to take advantage of his physical and athletic gifts. For now, he is the guy who dunked over a Kia.
Kevin Durant: Most Likely to Raise the Bar for 'Second Best'
For the Durantian romantic, the loss of Russell Westbrook gives fans the opportunity to find out 'just how great Kevin Durant can be.' He will spread his wings and finally play the purest form of hero ball. But in reality, Durant is just producing as much offense as he can for his team to remain competitive in the playoffs. Without Westbrook, Durant is defining his ceiling as an NBA player, a dangerous proposition for the basketball blogosphere's proudest son.
After you've reached your peak during your prime, there's nothing left to analyze but the flaws. Fortunately for Durant, we live in an evolved time when manufactured controversy for the sake of the news cycle is acknowledged by those who create said news cycles, which should minimize the psychological effects of this postseason. It will probably be much easier for Durant to break through if LeBron opts to leave Miami, giving him a two-year grace period within the LeBron era, similar to the Rockets championships in the mid-1990s during Michael Jordan's first retirement.
Dwight Howard: Most Likely to Be Dismissed From Memory
Karl Malone's Utah Jazz were the model for the perfectly assembled small-market team. The team's two stars operated efficiently to create offense for themselves and their teammates, bringing them desperately close to an NBA championship. Stockton and Malone will always be legends in Salt Lake City. Dwight Howard could've built a similar franchise model in Orlando, but small-town wasn't enough for him. He won't be remembered for leading the Orlando Magic to a competitive NBA Finals matchup with the Lakers in 2009. As he enters NBA free agency this offseason, I think we're all hoping he's the first, last, and only Dwight Howard.
Steve Nash: Most Likely to Be Overpraised
Both Malone and Steve Nash made late-career moves to the Lakers to enhance their chances of winning an NBA championship. Both won MVP trophies when they weren't actually the best player in the league. Both are regarded as players who represent 'what the game is all about.' Even at the end of their careers, physically compromised and severely challenged on the defensive end, we still watched them and focused on the positives that they brought to an NBA team. Nash is 39 years old. His window may be closed.
As championship-less legends fade, we don't overrate them. We over-revere them. Since they don't have the term 'champion' associated with their names, we are left scrambling to find contrived 'good stuff' to say about their careers. It's all an eternal apology because they existed in someone else's time to dominate.
It is probably unfair that whenever Karl Malone is mentioned, I picture Jimmy Kimmel's Malone telling Kobe Bryant's wife that he's "hunting for little Mexican girls" (while wearing Skechers Shape-ups). As a player, Malone had different priorities — he wasn't interested in constructing a personal megabrand in a big market. His NBA skill set was well defined. We needed Karl Malone to exist because without his methodical greatness, Michael Jordan would not have been able to 'overcome' a seemingly equal force who was missing the intangibles represented by the Jumpman logo. The idea of the large market squashing the small market would not endure. We would have no context to fulfill our desire to project 'greatness' onto select individuals.
Most of these players may never win championships, but the memory of them as tragic historical greats does have a purpose: It solidifies the narrative of someone else's more fortunate career.