In a world of ever-evolving basketball narratives, where debates over eras and players rage on, the legacy of Moses Malone, a dominant figure in the history of the game, has been quietly and unjustly overshadowed by the passage of time
The center position might be one of the most heralded in the history of basketball. So many of the greats played the position and those players have helped to define the history of basketball as we know it today. The list of great centers is so vast that if you were to play a game with a basketball fan to name the 10 greatest players at each position, I would wager that they could come up with 10 great centers the fastest. And while we have had books and written and movies filmed about greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and Bill Russell there is a great center that is one of the best that the game has ever seen whose name is constantly overlooked. His name was Moses Malone.
We recently passed the 8 year anniversary of Malone’s untimely passing at 60 years of age as a result of heart disease. As I look at the conversations around the great NBA players on social media and other circles, I consistently notice that his name is absent. Moses was a trailblazer, a master of the center position in his era, and a deliverer of one of the most iconic predictions in NBA history. As we pass another anniversary of his death, it is important to remember just how great he was and perhaps learn a little more about ourselves and why we have decided to forget that greatness.
The Resume Speaks for Itself
Malone played for a remarkable 21 years in professional basketball between the ABA and NBA (Malone was drafted into the ABA two years before it merged with the NBA). That is especially impressive when you consider that the average NBA career when he was drafted in 1975 was just under 5 years, a number that has continued to rise in the modern era. The later years of his career can simply be attributed to an older player just hanging on to a roster spot, but even at age 36 in 1992 Malone averaged a respectable 15 points and 9 rebounds per game for the Bucks. It cannot be said enough that Malone had incredible longevity for his era.
Moses Malone was also a history maker before he even started a professional game. In an era where 4 years of college basketball was almost a prerequisite to make it to the NBA, Malone was the first player ever to make the leap from high school to the pros when he was drafted by the Utah Stars of the ABA instead of committing to the University of Maryland. This move was clearly one that was ahead of its time, as it was not emulated until Kevin Garnett was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves straight out of high school in 1995.
The accolades that Malone accrued throughout his career are simply staggering. His most notable years were spread between two teams: the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Here are some of the accomplishments that Malone had throughout his career:
Pro Basketball Hall of Famer
13-time NBA All-Star
6-time Rebounding champion
1983 NBA champion
8-time All-NBA selection
2-time All-Defense selection
3-time League MVP
1983 Finals MVP
Member of the NBA 75th Anniversary team
Both the Rockets and 76ers have retired Malone’s number in their rafters, which speaks to the impact that he had on both cities. It is a rare honor that only 13 other players in the history of the NBA can also claim. Malone’s lone championship in 1983 is one that is particularly significant. That ‘83 76ers team also featured Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks, and is considered one of the best teams ever assembled in NBA history; and Moses Malone was their best player. That championship is also notable because it is the only year in the 1980s where a team besides the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics won the championship. People will often overlook the 1983 76ers, much as they have overlooked the greatness of Malone.
Rare Skill Set
Historically speaking, great rebounders are generally not also great scorers (the obvious exception to this rule is Wilt Chamberlain). Typically, a team's best rebounder is a non-existent offensive player (such as Dennis Rodman or Ben Wallace) or is an average offensive player (such as Rudy Gobert or Dave Cowens). Moses Malone was the rare case of being a truly elite rebounder and a prolific scorer as well.
In 1981 and 1982, Malone was the second highest scorer (behind Adrian Dantley & George Gervin, respectively) and the highest rebounder in the league. For some context on how impressive that is, 76ers center Joel Embiid just finished a campaign leading the league in scoring and finishing 8th in rebounds per game. The MVP runner up, Denver’s Nikola Jokic, finished 18th in scoring and 2nd in rebounds per game. To finish so high in both categories is difficult, and to do it two years in a row is even more impressive.
Malone would go on to lead the league in rebounds per game for each of the next 5 seasons until his streak was snapped in 1986 where he finished 4th. This was then an NBA record, until it was broken by Dennis Rodman in the 1990s. What makes Malone’s feat so remarkable was that he was in the top in scoring every single year, while dominating the offensive glass.
He was so dominant as an offensive rebounder that he is the league's all time leader by a very wide margin (Malone holds the record with 7,382 with Artis Gilmore being over 2,500 rebounds behind him in second place with 4,816). The margin is so wide that the closest active player to the record, Andre Drummond in 22nd place with 3,391, would have to average 7 offensive rebounds per game (he has never averaged more than 5 in a season) and play in every game over the next seven seasons to surpass Malone. This record, along with John Stockton’s assist record, feels incredibly unattainable by the modern player.
The record books surrounding Malone are incredibly impressive. He finished his career 9th in points scored, 1st in offensive rebounds, 6th in defensive rebounds, 3rd in total rebounds, and even cracked the top 25 in blocked shots. In an era where the big man was defined by interior post play and owning the paint, Malone was what you looked for. He possessed an unlimited arsenal of post moves, never quit on rebounds, was a good defensive presence, and shot incredibly well from the free throw line for a big man (76% career free throw shooter with over 10 attempts per game in his prime years). And yet despite all of that he gets lost in the shuffle when discussing great centers in NBA history.
The Glorified Position Lost to Time
There have been a lot of great centers throughout NBA history. There were the early days of George Mikan, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain. Then the 1970s brought in talents such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld, and Bob McAdoo. Abdul-Jabbar was a staple in the league throughout much of Malone’s prime, only to be replaced by more modern contemporaries such as Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Of his three MVP awards, Malone won two of them in the midst of the Lakers Showtime era and their infamous clash with the Celtics. Much like the Bad Boy era Detroit Pistons, Moses Malone existed and thrived when all the headlines were being funneled to Boston and Los Angeles.
As newer generations of centers have come and gone it seems that we forget about someone like Moses Malone. The 90s saw the proliferation of Olajuwon and Ewing, the entrance of Shaquille O’Neal into the category of the greats. Today we have Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic who are shattering records and showcasing offensive versatility that is redefining the position. The more time goes on the more it seems that we have an “oh ya I forgot about him” moment with Moses Malone. A big part of this is due to the era that he played in.
Malone started his career in the mid 1970s, a time when the NBA Finals were on tape delay and many teams were struggling to be profitable. By the time he entered his prime and was dominating the league, many in NBA circles couldn’t care less as they were preoccupied with the riveting Celtics and Lakers rivalry. It also did not help much that Malone was always described as humble and quiet, typically shying away from media attention. Abdul-Jabbar was also stoic but it worked more for him since he was alongside the charismatic Magic Johnson.
In many ways Malone reminds me of an old slogan from Taiwanese electronics manufacturer HTC; quietly brilliant. He did not ask for attention and was often overlooked for it. He might have been the most underrated superstar in league history. As time goes on, I am reminded of Moses Malone and the other greats that have played in this league and how we as a general sports consuming public have discounted them and their accomplishments.
The Aging Process
We’ve all seen the comments on social media. A debate rages about if LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan was and you inevitably see a comment that goes something like this
“Michael Jordan played against plumbers”
It is a tired joke and one that addresses the fact that today’s NBA players are “more skilled” than those of previous generations. The issue with these era-based debates is that it is impossible to come to a resolution, and in that sense it is evergreen content that people can continue to recycle. But in the process, we have taken any era that was before the year 2000 and assumed it was unathletic players throwing a leather volleyball around into a peach basket while Dr. James Naismith watches astutely from the sidelines.
The style that was employed by someone like Moses Malone is extinct in today’s NBA. This was a player that dominated through post moves, had the upper body strength to rebound at a high percentage, and lived in the paint. In his 21 year career, Malone only attempted 83 three point shots, making only 8 of them. In today’s game he would be a dinosaur and maybe that is why his greatness was discounted by so many that grew up in the 1990s and 2000s. In the context of the era that he played in he was a dominant force, who won as many MVP awards as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did, and yet he is the forgotten one.
The center on the low block is a thing of the past, but the accomplishments of Moses Malone should not be diminished because of it. In some ways, Moses Malone was a victim of poor timing, overshadowed by the spotlight that was given to Kareem, Magic, and Bird. I wonder about another quiet superstar that may be diminished over time as well: Tim Duncan. Like Malone, Duncan accumulated accolades and continued to win with a solid fundamental game that didn’t translate to highlight reels. Have we become such victims to dunks from Ja Morant or dribble moves from Kyrie Irving that we discount pure basketball excellence? Considering the way that many have chosen to forget about the greatness of Moses Malone, it seems that we absolutely have. And that is the true tragedy of modern basketball fandom.