One of the themes of this blog is how cognitive biases play into evaluating NBA players, from a game-to-game level to entire career arcs to mathematical failures. No one in NBA history is a more interesting case study than Karl Malone, who has the most all-nba teams, top-10 MVPs, win shares, or pretty much anything for a player never to win a championship. (The next closest guy, in terms of career accolades, is Steve Nash, and he is well down the list.)
Not so coincidentally, Malone is also considered a choker. People point to his numerous career upsets, missed free throws in the 1997 NBA Finals and Michael Jordan stripping him at the end of the 1998 season. And we all know coming up short twice and having your team fall short of expectations is a recipe for a bad reputation. Just ask LeBron James.
We also know, as in the case with LeBron, that such reputations are unjustified and caused by a Losing Bias — a tendency to minimize the good when a team loses and instead overemphasize the bad. What’s particularly interesting about Malone is that there is an argument he actually might have been good under pressure (like James for most of his career).
That’s worth repeating: Malone’s Losing Bias was so strong after so many years that it may have masked something he was actually good at, much in the way Dirk Nowitzki was treated until last June.
Regular Season Clutch Statistics
With the recent release of Basketball-Reference’s play-by-play data, we can query older clutch data than ever before. Low and behold, a run of typical “clutch” performance — a 5 point game inside the final 5 minutes — for the year of 2001 showed none other than Karl Malone to be the best shooter from the floor (eFG%, min 50 attempts) in 2001 at a staggering 59.4%, nearly 10% better than his season average. Again, in 2003, he was third in the league at 55.2% , 9% better than his season average. (Note what other “choker” was second in the NBA in 2003.)
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