Moses Malone was an all-time great big man, so the NBA community grieved when Malone passed away last weekend at the age of 60. He left a lasting impression on the history of the NBA, leaving as a champion and three-time league MVP while also being the sixth-leading scorer in the combined history of the NBA/ABA.
One of the first players to make the leap to the NBA straight from high school, Malone turned down a scholarship to play in college when he was selected third overall in the 1974 ABA Draft. He decided to make a profession out of basketball and signed with the Utah Stars at the age of 19 and immediately produced in the professional environment, averaging 18 points and 14 rebounds to earn an All-Star nod and All-Rookie Team honors.
Since the early 1970s were a tumultuous time in ABA history, Malone experienced job instability in just his second year of his profession. Yet with a talent like Malone’s, he was not to be jobless for long. When the ABA collapsed and got absorbed by the NBA, the big man was drafted fifth by the Portland Trail Blazers in the ABA Dispersal Draft held in 1976.
The Blazers traded Malone immediately to the Buffalo Braves for a first-round draft pick. Now hold on. I know what you’re thinking…the Portland Trail Blazers traded one of the best 50 players of all time for a draft pick? Well, they weren’t completely crazy. The Blazers had Bill Walton at the time (a great player in his own right) and couldn’t rationalize the hefty paycheck they’d pay for Malone to back up the starting center.
Perhaps trading the ultra-durable Malone cursed the franchise, as he lasted 21 years in the NBA while three lottery picks (Bill Walton (1st), Sam Bowie (2nd) and Greg Oden (1st)) combined to play only 10 seasons for the Portland franchise.
What was Buffalo’s excuse? They had none, yet decided to trade Malone after only two games. Moses was traded to the Houston Rockets for two first-round picks, and he finally had a home where he could get comfortable and showcase his talent.
In his first season in the league, Malone put up a productive 13.2 points per game, but that was largely overshadowed by his uncanny talent for rebounding. Malone gobbled up rebounds over every center in the game, and using his athleticism and feel for the ball, he snatched 13.1 rebounds a game.
Malone was an unbelievable offensive rebounder, able to clean up the glass for his teammates and create second chance opportunities. He snared 5.3 offensive boards a game and ended up setting a new record for offensive rebounds in a single season with 437 (the previous record was 365).
Malone was a key part of the playoff run the Rockets had his rookie year, cleaning up the class (16.9 rebounds a game) and stepping up his offensive production to 18.8 points a game. With the talented Malone, the Rockets reached the Eastern Conference Finals before losing out to the Philadelphia 76ers.
As a 21-year-old (NBA) rookie, Malone had barely scratched the surface of what he was to become. Despite a foot injury that kept him out of the last quarter of his second season, Malone clearly was developing into a superstar.
Coming off rehabilitation, Malone played all 82 games the next season and made the first of his 12 consecutive All-Star appearances with averages of 19.4 points and 15.0 rebounds. The following year, Malone won his first NBA MVP thanks to his 24.8 points and career-best 17.6 rebounds a game. He grabbed a whopping 7.2 offensive rebounds a game and crushed the record (that he set) for offensive rebounds in a season with 587, a record that still stands today.
While Malone was doing his part to keep the team in contention, there wasn’t enough talent surrounding him for the Rockets to make a championship run. Despite leading the league five straight times in rebounds and finishing top five in scoring nearly every year, the Rockets couldn’t make it past the second round.
Then, in the 1980-81 season, the Rockets looked like they had it all figured out. After a strong regular season (second in the conference), Malone took it to another level in the playoffs and led the team to the NBA Finals with averages of 26.8 points and 14.5 rebounds. It looked like this was the year for the Rockets, and they had high hopes as they faced the Boston Celtics in the 1981 NBA Finals. In spite of it all, second-year forward Larry Bird led his Celtics to a six-game series win over Malone for the NBA championship.
While his quiet demeanor on the court never changed, one could tell that coming so close had reenergized Malone. The following season, Malone tore up the league and won his second MVP due to his efforts that produced 31.1 points (second to George Gervin) and 14.7 rebounds a game (league leader).
Despite the individual greatness, the Rockets lost in the first round, and at season’s end Malone decided to sign an offer sheet with the Philadelphia 76ers. Houston didn’t want to pay the hefty price tag, so they matched the offer sheet and then traded the star big man to Philadelphia.
Paired with Julius Erving, Malone and company dominated the NBA landscape and ran through the playoffs. Losing only a single game (just missed on that “fo’, fo’, fo'” prediction), Malone finally got his championship ring in 1983 after sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers.
Malone led the team in scoring and rebounding in the playoffs, notching 26.0 points and 15.8 rebounds a game on 54 percent shooting. Adding in 1.9 blocks and 1.5 steals in the 40.3 minutes he played per game, Malone was surprisingly overshadowed by Erving, his far more glamorous teammate.
As quiet as a superstar could be, Malone was almost a direct opposite of Dr. J. Humble as Erving was flashy, Malone never quite captured the awe of the crowd as the gliding, athletic Erving could. While Malone would go about cleaning up the glass for easy put-backs and making methodical, calculated post moves, Erving would be slicing through the defense and flying high through the air for spectacular scores.
In a nutshell, that was the epitome of Moses Malone’s career. In an era where flamboyancy was being rewarded and individualism was starting to be lauded, Malone seemed to want no part of the spotlight and was instead content on “going to work” – coming in to do what he was paid to do: score and rebound.
It seems impossible to forget about someone with as many accolades as Malone, yet, the modest Malone keeps getting overlooked. Sometimes, people mistake him for Karl Malone (no relation). On his own championship team, he was second to Erving as crowd favorite.
In memoriam, it’s impossible to forget the greatness of Moses Malone. One of the best rebounders of all time, Malone was a textbook example of a franchise player. No drama, all business. Reliable, hard working and incredibly talented. Mix in his skill with his athleticism, and you have one of the 50 best players of all time. Here’s to the Hall of Famer, Moses Malone, who put in 21 incredible seasons in the NBA.