Backpicks GOAT: #24 Moses Malone

Key Stats and Trends

  • Offensive value from dominant rebounding and scoring, not creation
  • Poor impact numbers suggest non-elite peak
  • Average meaningful longevity despite huge counting stats

Scouting Report

Moses wasn’t the Chairman of the Boards for nothing. He made a living from offensive putbacks, parking himself near the baseline to RSVP rebounding position, ready to pounce on interior misses. Unlike Dennis Rodman, another titan of rebounding, Moses wouldn’t chase long balls or tip misses out to himself at the 3-point line. Instead, he used his rebounding strategy as a gateway to get buckets, receiving bricks as if they were meant to be passes. In the following highlight, you can see this tactic and Moses’ quick leaping, along with some agile post moves and a dribble-drive:

Malone dominated the offensive glass unlike any other scorer in history. This rebounding-centric game kept Moses banging near the rim and generated huge free throws numbers. Among volume scorers, Malone’s ratio of free throw attempts to shot attempts for the majority of his prime seasons ranks above the 97th percentile.1

After a few years in the league, Moses added a face-up jumper to balance his arsenal of power moves. The following highlight from the 1981 NBA Finals demonstrates Malone’s offensive tendencies well:

Missing from that highlight — and most of Moses’ career — was strong passing. He lacked court vision and, as a result, was largely nonexistent as a creator, peaking in only the 3rd percentile in Box Creation among 24 point per 75 scorers.

Malone’s all-time offensive rebounding and limited passing forged a unique package.2 He couldn’t create shots for weaker players and the offense ran through him less than his scoring would suggest, but his dominant rebounding added off-ball value that fit almost anywhere.

Defensively, Moses was strong but not elite. He ended possessions with his rebounding and was a solid shot-blocker — his best season in Philadelphia ranked in the 63rd percentile among bigs3 — but his reactions seem a little slow on film, his coverage mediocre. Below is a cut of a 1984 game between Moses and Artis Gilmore that demonstrates his defensive strengths and some laboring movements. His midrange shot and rebounding, of course, are on display, but declining athleticism clearly chipped away at the quickness in his attacks:

Malone faded out of his prime after the 1985 season (and lost the ’86 postseason to an eye injury), but he continued to rebound well on both ends and produced four respectable post-prime seasons banging around the hoop.

Impact Evaluation

Despite three MVP awards, there’s limited evidence that Malone was a high-peak player. He was an impact-rebounder and viable isolationist, but his presence rarely correlated with meaningful team changes (likely caused by the aforementioned passing deficiencies and questionable defense). More detailed value-measurements are even less kind to him.

Moses entered the pros straight from Petersburg high school in Virginia, playing two seasons in the ABA before the leagues merged in 1977. He missed half of the ’76 season with the Spirits of St. Louis, and the team performed nearly identically without him.4 The following year, a 21-year old Malone averaged 31 minutes per game and posted a career-best 19.8 percent offensive rebounding rate, transforming Houston from a below-average offensive rebounding club to best in the league, a trend that would continue throughout his prime.

Since 1974, only 59 teams have posted an offensive rebounding rate at least 4 percent above league average (relative offensive rebounding rate), or about one in 20 teams. Malone was the rebounding force on six such squads, more than any other player by far. 5 Below, you can see that Malone’s presence correlated with massive jumps in his team’s rates (gray circles are the year before/after Moses, whites are the rest of the league):

He ultimately landed in Houston, playing 31 minutes per game in 1977 before taking giant strides in ’78. Malone missed 23 games that year, and without him the “healthy” Rockets played at a 21-win pace (-7.3 SRS), but with him only a 29-win pace (-4.1 SRS).6 Although he was just 22 and rapidly developing, that’s a less-than-desirable result for any star-level player.

In ’79, Houston’s performance improved in conjunction with Moses’ statistical growth as he entered the heart of his prime. That Rocket team, featuring jitterbug scorer Calvin Murphy, Rudy Tomjanovich and a long-toothed Rick Barry, produced a formidable offense (+4.9 rORtg) while playing cringeworthy defense. The net result was barely above neutral (0.9 SRS) and an MVP nod for Moses that looks stranger and stranger over time.7 Until 1982, the Rockets continued to spin on the treadmill of mediocrity, swapping coaches and tweaking the rotation with little effect before filling the ’83 team with replacement parts in a tankathon.

When Moses arrived in Philadelphia in 1983, he joined an upper-crust club that had reached the Finals two of the three prior seasons. The 76ers crushed the league that year, finishing with a defense 3.8 points better than league average and clocking along at a 64-win pace at full-strength (8.8 SRS). But that excellence evaporated in 1984, despite no notable roster changes and a core with five players between 26 and 28 years old. There were grumblings of disappointment from ownership about a lack of effort and the Sixers sputtered to a 52-win pace (3.7 SRS).8

In ’85, Philly bounced back, playing at a 58-win pace (6.0 SRS) with the addition of rookie Charles Barkley. But again, the team regressed in ’86 (50-win pace, or 3.1 SRS) under new coach Matt Guokas as Moses and Erving aged and scoring dynamo Andrew Toney missed most of the season with stress fractures in his feet. Malone was traded to Washington for the ’87 season, where an overhauled Bullets squad played at a pace nearly identical to their ’86 team (38-win pace or -1.0 SRS). Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, with Moses and Bobby Jones gone and Erving in his final year, the 76ers treaded water as an average team (0.8 SRS when healthy).

Fortunately, we have Harvey Pollack’s plus-minus data for Moses’ four seasons in Philadelphia to help evaluate his impact. His AuPM oscillates between strong (but not transcendent) and pedestrian in those four seasons, with ’83 and ’85 looking like typical top-20 seasons and ’84 and ’86 lacking impact. Similarly, Moses’ regressed game-level data tells us that he made a difference, but that his impact was far short of a Grade-A superstar’s.

While his rebounding and physicality likely made him a positive defender — I certainly view him as such — the case for any kind of considerable defensive impact is lacking. Malone played on six below-average defensive teams in Houston, some of which were dreadful, and the Rocket D didn’t collapse after he left. In Philadelphia, the Sixers generated two strong defensive years in his first two seasons (3.8 and 3.0 points better than average, respectively). However, with the core of the team intact (save for Caldwell Jones), Philly’s three-year defensive efficiency peaked in 1981 and ’82 before slowly dropping off in the Malone years.9

Moses’ rebounding does scale well because it’s off-ball — good shooting teams would be even better with more chances — but the rest of his isolation scoring game does not make him a desirable offensive centerpiece; he was a finisher, not a creator. His best years were brief (’79-85), and he missed the 1986 postseason, chipping away value from his last prime year after feuding with coach Guokas. So, despite tallying a ton of games, I only credit him with seven All-NBA seasons, which, combined with a peak outside the top-25, prevents Malone from serious top-20 candidacy. There’s an argument based on his statistical portfolio that he belongs closer to 30th, but that involves dinging his defense slightly beyond my comfort zone. As such, he falls comfortably between 23rd and 26th, earning the 24th spot.

  1. Among all players who averaged at least 20 points per 75 possessions. Note, Moses’ rebounding strategy exposes teams to odd-man breaks, which is likely why it hasn’t been copied in recent years.
  2. The closest per possession statistical profile in history is 2017 Enes Kanter, but he only played 21 minutes per game though, so take that with a grain of salt.
  3. Since 1978, using 1000-minute seasons and basketball-references designation of bigs.
  4. Unlike most game-level WOWY samples, this example does not account for teammates missing time. The Spirits posted a -2.8 SRS with Moses and -3.7 SRS without him. He averaged 27 minutes per game that year.
  5. Of the great offensive rebounders, Jayson Williams played on three +4 percent teams (’96-98 Nets) and Dennis Rodman played on three (’96-98 Bulls). No other big rebounder logged heavy minutes on more than two such teams.
  6. Malone’s missed time came after Rudy Tomjanovich’s infamous face injury, so Houston’s season-long performance with Moses was a slightly better 34-win pace (-2.5 SRS).
  7. Kareem was worthy of the award every season and suffered from voter fatigue, but more importantly, voters were unaware of the importance of point-differential in a season. No team topped 54 wins that year, but the analytics said Houston was milquetoast. Meanwhile, the top-eight teams by SRS that made the playoffs also reached the quarterfinals, and four of the top-six the Conference Finals. Awarding a big-man from a defensively porous squad with an average point-differential likely wouldn’t happen today.
  8. Because the google news archives have been retired, I cannot find an old article discussing their malcontent in greater detail. I’m sure a reader can rediscover it with enough sleuthing.
  9. Caldwell was an all-league defender, so its not damning to be worse than him. It is, however, another example of Moses failing to move the defensive needle much.

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