Why Karl Malone might be the greatest power forward ever


Editorial note: The following is an almost entirely a work of fiction centered around the first two quotes, which in fact happened. Tim Duncan is, in reality, the greatest power forward to ever play the game. 

A little over an hour before the San Antonio Spurs were set to take on the Utah Jazz in game one of their opening playoff round, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich turned what typically is a mundane media scrum into anything but.

The rumors had swirled around the organization for some time, and in this crazy, condensed season the buildup was finally about to boil over.

It began with the same tired question, one which reporters had asked at multiple stops to no avail. This time, however, Popovich answered with a response that would shake the basketball world to its roots.

“Do you know who you’re going to start at the five tonight,” ask San Antonio Express-News NBA beat writer Mike Monroe.

Without skipping a beat, Popovich took a quick sip from his Rock & Hammer limited release 2004 pinot noir and proceeded to, for all intents and purposes, throw his franchise cornerstone under a bus.

“Tim Duncan, like we have for 15 years,” replied Popovich.

The moment was unexpected, and perhaps even a little surreal. Finally confirmation: Tim Duncan is a center, and has been for quite some time.

Stunned, a million questions ran through the minds of the medium scrum, almost faster than such thoughts could be processed.

And as if right on cue, in some terrible, wonderful awkward moment came Duncan himself.

“What are we worried about today, Pop?”

“We’re worried about how our center is going to match up with Al Jefferson,” replied Popovich.

That’s right,” Duncan stated with an oblivious smile, or at least what passes for a smile across his stone faced visage.

“That’s what I was just telling them.”

And like that Popovich was off before the reporters and radio talk show hosts could recover, leaving Duncan before the vultures.

“What do you have to say regarding the rumors about you playing center,” the reporters asked in unison.

“It’s not true. You tell me,” an amused Duncan said. “You guys are the ones with all your ‘sources’.”

“But Popovich just said you’ve been playing center for the past 15 years.”

“This interview is over.”

Tim Duncan is a center. The source is management itself.

  • TheRealDirtyP1

    That would mean that San Antonio started two centers for 6 years. Riiiiiiiight.
    The Admiral started at center w/Tim as PF from 97-03. The next year Rasho and Willis played center…whatever…Pop being Pop.

  • Steve T

    Is it just me, or did that interview go EXACTLY like the SVG/Howard interview of a few weeks ago? 😉

  • cr0w

    Pop is just messing with the dumb reporters, why ask who is starting at the 5, everyone knows it’s Tim, don’t know who’s the dumbass who came up with that one. Garnett and Tim like to be called PF no matter what, doesn’t mean that the media should be braindead about it. That news tell me more about the SA media than anything.

  • ThatBigGuy

    I’d give my let arm to hang out with Pop for a season.

  • theghostofjh

    The 4/5 has been interchangeable on this team since TD arrived. He can play the 4 or 5, defensively and/or offensively. Whatever the team needs is what has always mattered most to Pop and TD. Pop was, as usual, just messing with the inanity of the media once again.

    P.S. Diaw played center for quite some time for the Suns when Amare missed most of a season due to injury.

  • Ike Mana

    No Steve, it’s just you. Tim and Pop aren’t at odds. There are no substantial similarities at all. Pop deals with the press with tongue in cheek.

  • Ken Billings

    This acutally brings up a pet peeve of mine. When someone says that Tim Duncan is the greatest powerforward of all time, I almost want to yell, “Tim Duncan is one of the greatest players of all time, regardless of position!!” I almost feel that it is a bit condescending to say that he is the greatest at an arbitrary position. I don’t care whether he is a powerforward or center, a 4 or a 5. Those terms are becoming obselete anyway. As an NBA basketball player, there are only a handful of players that I would concede have been better at the game in all of its facets than Timmy Duncan.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    The piece is fictional. Except the first two quotes. I wrote it as a bit of a parody of that SVG press conference.

  • Bob


    Good point. TD is one of the best 2 way players of all time. Defense tends to get overlooked sometimes when people consider great players.

  • http://www.48mintuesofhell.com Bry

    I similar question came up a few months ago as to whether Tim is a PF or a center. And the answer is still “whichever one he happens to be playing at the moment”. LBJ can play multiple positions at any time. But, his basic position is small forward. Duncan is a PF who now, as he ages, plays more and more often at the 5 (which is extremely similar to the 4 anyway. It’s not like the difference between a point guard and a shooting guard, where they have completely different roles). I’ve always argued that you can’t be credited with playing a position that you can’t defend. That seems obvious to me. Lebron James CAN defend a PG (just look at what he did with Rose last year). Because Duncan can – and often does – routinely guard both positions he can still claim to be either one he pleases. The same goes for Manu at the 2 or 3 (I’m not sure how well he could reasonably be expected to guard a PG). Jordan, Drexler, McGrady etc. graduated up to SF after starting out SGs because you keep your strength (and smarts) a lot longer than you keep your lateral movement and agility. So, it makes sense. That’s why Magic was never a PG, despite people constantly pretending that he was. (Just because a big man was a great passer and could handle the rock doesn’t make him a point guard. Johnson didn’t guard PGs, and would have gotten eaten alive had he tried). So, as long as Timmy can still defend the PF position (and I think he still does so well), he can continue to be called a PF. Regardless, for the first 8 or 9 years of his career, he had Robinson and Rasho starting with him, and those guys were Cs. So, whatever Timmy ends up calling himself, he’s still the greatest PF to ever play the game. And considering what he brings to both ends of the floor, whoever is 2nd greatest isn’t a close second anyway.

  • http://www.48mintuesofhell.com Bry

    And while we’re playing “Who’s the greatest?”, I’ll stir the kettle a little bit. Assuming one has to be able to defend their own position, and that we actually take defense into account when measuring greatness, I’ll put up my opinion just for fun. I apologize in advance for only having one Spur:

    Center – Bill Russell
    Power Forward – Tim Duncan (Peerless)
    Small Forward – Lebron James (Yeah, I said it)
    Shooting Guard – Michael Jordan
    Point Guard – John Stockton

    Center is the hardest one to choose. The other categories seem like no-brainers to me.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    Bry, for small forward you misspelled Larry Bird.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    @Bry, regarding Magic Johnson: He must transcend positions then because he really couldn’t guard any of them, haha.

  • ChrisTx

    \¸ GO SPURS GO & Pacquiao

    / \

  • Titletown99030507d

    If Pop gets coach of the year he should also get smartass coach of the year. They should start that one.

  • deeds130

    Tim Duncan is one of the best BIG MEN ever to play the game of basketball. He excelled at doing what every coach ever wanted a big man to do in the game as it was traditionally played. There have been several great centers, but at the 4 spot nobody ever did it better or accomplished more than Timmy. A lot of that was luck, landing in SA on the Admiral’s team. If he had gone to BOS or anywhere else, he would of been a center from day 1. On offense he owned the low post, while Robinson faced up, and on D, he didn’t get assignment to put a body on Shaq… so he was a 4, and started piling up NBA 1st team all-star appearances for the West. I’m sure KG would have done well next to Robinson if such luck had gone his way, and maybe people would say he was the best PF ever.

    Timmy was more than a two way player, he was, and is, a consummate teammate… much of his greatness isn’t in the highlight films. To say he’s one of the greatest basketball players of all time goes without saying, but because his skill set is narrow by comparison, he never gets mentioned in the same light of MJ, Lebron, etc… as if the game were hypothetically a one-on-one game. If it were a one-on-one game, Kobe would be the greater player, hands down. But IT’S NOT A ONE-ON-ONE GAME. IT’S A TEAM GAME, AND TIM IS THE PROTOTYPICAL BIG MAN. What’s more, it’s harder to find great bigs, so Timmy had fewer peers, and thus, more on-court value. Who could have won with Shaq and Phil, or with Pau and Bynum? Eddie Jones, Ray Allen, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Dwayne Wade, and others. By comparison, Timmy had very little lottery talent around him, but was blessed to co-anchor the Popovich-Duncan era in San Antonio.

    Was he better than Hakeem? Uh, it’s a little like saying Emmit Smith was better than Barry Sanders. Hakeem’s skill set was unique; he didn’t see much time throughout his prime as a PF, so he’s thought of as a center, and get’s compared to Kareem, Russell, Shaquille. Someday, people might say the best power forward ever is somebody who hangs out on the perimeter on offense and leads the league in blocks. But so far, Amare, Bosh, Love, Aldridge, and Nowitzki haven’t shown they can change the game defensively… so the old school big men still own the shortlist.

  • theghostofjh


    Like your best-ever picks, although, however talented LBJ is, there’s no way you can take him over Larry Legend.

    Also, center is a hard pick. Kareem & Wilt are right there with Russell.

  • http://www.48mintuesofhell.com Bry

    You’re both right; center is the hardest one to pick, and Larry is great. But, when you take defense into account, he’s not nearly at the level of the other guys. Hats off to Larry, the Big O, even Scottie Pippen. But James dwarfs all but Scottie defensively, and up until last year was basically doing it alone (Big O had Kareem, Scottie had Mike, and Larry had a number of Hall-of-Famers his whole career). Plus, Larry’s career seems a bit truncated unfortunately due to his back injuries. Defense is still half of the game (which is a big reason why I feel Timmy has no peer at Power Forward), so I just can’t put Larry Bird at the top, especially when you consider the ridiculous amount of first-ballot Hall-of-Famers he consistently played with during his career. I guess defense is also why I hesitantly put Russell in at the Center position as well.

  • merl

    I think that the concept of a 4 or 5 is a little outdated. Really, you have point guards, wings and bigs. It doesn’t matter whether your bigs are forwards, centers, or rotisserie chickens. What matters is how they play defense.

  • DorieStreet

    We as basketball fans tend to oversimplifly comparisons of players regarding who was better at a particular position, not taking into account the difference in time/era each played in, rule changes/pace of the game —AND— what the individual player was asked/required to do by his head coach/staff in order for the team or franchise to succeed (fan appeal, wins, playoff appearances, championships).
    The Mailman and The Big Fundamental might, in basic basketball terminology, played the same position = Power Forward, the No. 4, etc. –but their skill strengths, court prescence and game style showed significant differences to think outside of the box of strict tit-for-tat comparisons.
    For example: any NBA fan who viewed the Jazz games during Malone’s career would think of him as an “enforcer” – one who denied access to easy opponent baskets in the lane; but his career blocks for game average is 0.7, with a career high of 1.5 bpg in ’93-94 (and 3x at 1.0); Duncan’s BPG for a career is 2.2, with his lowest season blocks per game being 1.5 twice (in ’09-10 and this season- ’11-12).
    But—because of about 2 dozens or so plays –chief among them the well publicized karate chop on Isaiah Thomas and his low-blow cheap shot on David Robinson–Malone is thought of as being the ultimate intimidator at the PF/4 position much more than Duncan.

  • JeffZ

    I really don’t know how to say this without sparking controversy: Tim Duncan is probably the best PF to play the game, but David Robinson had a better skill set for the 4 spot, even though he was a center. So pretty much, Duncan is the best PF because Robinson wasn’t a PF.

    And if you had to compare who was a better 7 footer, Admiral without a doubt.

  • theghostofjh


    “Larry is great. But, when you take defense into account, he’s not nearly at the level of the other guys.”

    Bird was an underrated defensive player, particularly as a “team” defensive player. He also made all-NBA defensive team (2nd) three years. LBJ has become very good defensively just in the last few years.

    “Plus, Larry’s career seems a bit truncated unfortunately due to his back injuries.”

    Even though Lebron came into the league 4 years earlier than Larry, so far Bird has played SIX more seasons than Lebron. I wouldn’t call Larry’s career truncated in any meaningful way in terms of his greatness.

    Bird, of course, has won three more titles than LBJ, and regardless of the excuses, he can’t be ahead of Larry unless he closes this gap, or surpasses it. Also, even though Lebron is a huge stats guy, Larry has virtually the same career scoring average, has more rpg., more apg., more steals per game, the same blocks per game, a higher FG%, a higher 3-point %, and a higher FT%.

    “I just can’t put Larry Bird at the top, especially when you consider the ridiculous amount of first-ballot Hall-of-Famers he consistently played with during his career.”

    Like who? Robert Parrish? Kevin McHale? That’s it, and there’s a decent chance that neither of them would have made the Hall without Bird. He was that good. You ask either of them that question, and I bet you they’d both agree, without Larry they may very well have not made the Hall of Fame. Larry was the prototypical leader that also had the skill-set to make the players around him so much better, particularly in major playoff intensity competition.

    “I guess defense is also why I hesitantly put Russell in at the Center position as well.”

    As you know, it takes a strong “combination” of both defense and offense to be truly great. Wilt and Kareem were in no way slouches at the defensive end, and they were also much better offensive players than Russell. This position is clearly a toss-up.

  • http://www.48mintuesofhell.com Bry

    @ghost I did say that the center position is the most difficult. But, you’re pining too much for Larry (what, no mention of Oscar?) LBJ has for the past few seasons been in the conversation for DPY. Larry was a smart player, which he used well in defense, but he’s not anywhere near that level. He played 12 years with both McHale and Parish, 8 and a half seasons with Danny Ainge, and seven years with Dennis Johnson, who was a star BEFORE he got to Boston. With other names like Sam Mitchell, Rick Carlisle, and even sixth man Bill Walton, there was NEVER a time where Bird was surrounded by all-stars and future hall of famers. And, no, I don’t think they were stars just because Larry made them so. There is no comparison between the talent Bird played with and other comparable SFs. And I’ve never been one to judge an individual by championships. There is too much luck and dependence on teammates to fairly judge somebody by that standard. Larry was good (and I’m no Miami fan) but LBJ is better. In fact, by the time his career is over, it won’t even be close.

  • theghostofjh


    “There is no comparison between the talent Bird played with and other comparable SFs.”

    That’s because there is no “comparable” SF’s. Lebron is the closest. Oscar was a SG.

    And over the last two years LBJ’s talent around him is significant. Wade is a certain Hall of Famer, established way before he even played with LBJ. It’s still too early to tell, but Bosh has a decent chance of making it as well. He’s surrounded by VERY solid role players in Battier, Miller, Jones, Haslem, Turiaf, and Chalmers.

    In Boston’s 1985-86 title year, Walton was productive off the bench, but he was a shell of his former self. In fact, Haslem puts up comparable numbers now to what Walton put up in 85-86, except for shot blocks (they got Anthony for that). And I would take Miller, Battier, Chalmers, and Jones over Ainge, Wedman, & Sichting, and “other names like Sam Mitchell, Rick Carlisle” (Mitchell never played with Boston, and Carlisle never played on their championship teams). The big three for each team are fairly comparable, at least in terms of stats career to date. Obviously the positions don’t match entirely. The Celtics had the edge with DJ. But overall, the team talent level is not much different.

    “Larry was good (and I’m no Miami fan) but LBJ is better. In fact, by the time his career is over, it won’t even be close.”

    No mention of the statistical advantages Bird has over Mr. stat himself, LBJ? LBJ is/will be better than Bird hands down even with no titles?

    “And I’ve never been one to judge an individual by championships. There is too much luck and dependence on teammates to fairly judge somebody by that standard.”

    Did LBJ need “luck”to win a title last year? Does he need luck to win a title this year? Does he need luck to win a title next year? Does he ……………