Why the Jazz should look to deal Karl Malone
In the past week Karl Malone bought a gerbil for his children, changed the oil on his motorcycle and took his wife to dinner, but none of that took his mind off what lies ahead for the Jazz: Shooting guard Jeff Hornacek has retired, John Stockton will follow him after next season and coach Jerry Sloan is likely to be on Stockton's heels. Malone will be alone. Nobody executed the pick-and-roll like Stockton and Malone. No coach emphasized fundamentals like Sloan. Utah was the NBA's version of Pleasantville: no fighting, no drug problems, not even any flashy dunks, for crying out loud.
But the glory days are over. Utah looked old and vulnerable in losing to the Trail Blazers in five games in the Western Conference semifinals. "I've thought about [quitting]," Malone says. "I say to myself, Should I retire [early] because everyone else is? Or do I say to myself, I can still play this game?
"You think about retiring, but then you suit up, and you're out there running and scoring. The game is getting easier for me, not harder. I still command a double team. I've always said I'll keep playing until they say, 'Aw, we'll give that to him.' Then I'll know it's time to go."
Malone will be 37 on July 24, but when you are a chiseled, 6'9", 255-pound power forward who is perhaps the best ever at that position, who has missed only six games in 15 seasons and might be the best-conditioned guy in the league, age is not a concern. That is why Utah owner Larry Miller should do Malone a favor and trade him to a contender.
Malone is on the books for a salary of $15.75 million next season, but that won't stop a number of teams from bidding for his services if he becomes available. Think, for a moment, how devastating Malone would be in a Knicks uniform. Or picture him running the floor alongside Scot-tie Pippen in Portland. Those two franchises have deep pockets, and neither has been shy about pulling off a big deal.
So what's in it for Miller? He rewards his 12-time All-Star for years of meritorious service with a chance to win the championship, and, at the same time, gives Utah a running start on the rebuilding process by making a multi-player swap for, say, Allan Houston of New York or Steve Smith and Jermaine O'Neal of the Blazers. Sure, Miller could wait another year, but each passing season diminishes his leverage.
"Do I think about being traded? Hell, yes," Malone admits. "Could I go somewhere else? My loyalty is with the Jazz. It would be strange to wear a different uniform. I signed an extension [which runs for three more years] knowing those guys would be gone by the time [my contract is] up. So, really, it's not for me to say."
There's something almost sacrilegious about the idea of breaking up Malone and Stockton with only one year left together—on top of everything else, trading Malone would leave Stockton alone to play out the string—but look what sentiment did for the great Celtics teams of the '80s. They had opportunities to trade Kevin McHale and Robert Parish but held on to their Big Three ( Larry Bird was the untouchable third), got nothing for any of them and have wallowed in mediocrity ever since.
If Utah keeps Malone, its options are limited for next season. The Jazz has committed close to $50 million to its core players, and Utah has had trouble persuading players to relocate to Salt Lake City (see Derek Harper, Rony Seikaly). "It bothers me people don't want to be here, because I love this place," Malone says. "But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a problem."