Both Robert Horry and Karl Malone played the position of power forward in the National Basketball Association for well over a decade. They are of a select few individuals who were afforded the opportunity to play basketball at its highest level and compete against the best athletes in the world. Only about 400 players from across the globe play on NBA rosters each year, and both Malone and Horry beat the odds and played in the league. They were both 6’9″, athletic big men who were very skilled for their size. They both came from humble, non-basketball conferences in college and excelled against the tougher competition of the pros. And most importantly, both men were highly successful in the NBA. However, the professional basketball careers of Karl Malone and Robert Horry could not have been more different. The former is a sure-fire, first ballot Hall of Fame player. The latter was the ultimate role player, and one the winningest players in NBA history. This begs the question, ‘Whose career would you rather have, Malone’s or Horry’s?’
Karl Malone is a NBA legend. Until Tim Duncan, he was clearly the best power forward that had ever played in the National Basketball Association (and he still is the best if you consider Duncan to be a center instead of his listing at PF). Malone was asked to carry the Jazz franchise from his second year in the pros throughout the entirety of his career in Utah, and he did just that. For eighteen years, he was the face of the team and won countless awards. Karl Malone was a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player and also won a All-Star MVP. He led the Jazz to franchise records in wins, he holds the Jazz records for scoring and rebounding, and finished his career as the second-highest scorer in NBA history with 36,928 points (behind only Kareem Abdul Jabbar) in nineteen years of play. In his prime, Malone never finished outside of the top five in scoring. And in most years, he was a close second to Michael Jordan in scoring. He averaged 25.0 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game for his career, but in his best year, he averaged 31.0 ppg. and 11.1 rpg. Karl Malone was an unstoppable force on the basketball court. Over the first ten years of his NBA career, he kneed, elbowed, and booted opponents around the paint to get to the rim and finish. And as he got older, he learned to shoot short jumpers to elongate his basketball career. Malone transformed himself from a raw bruiser into a polished ball player, and dominated the league in the process. He was both revered and feared on the basketball court, but he never won a NBA title. When the biggest moments arose, Malone seemed to fade despite being one of the best guys on the court. He seemed to shrink every time he played a defining game. And that failure to shine in the brightest moments, ultimately has defined his career.
Robert Horry had a completely different NBA career, though. Throughout his eighteen year career, Horry only averaged over 10 ppg. three times and finished his career with only 7,715 points. However, a collection of Horry’s playoff shots were some of the most clutch and important plays in NBA history. He earned the name “Big Shot Bob” by taking and making season altering shots for every team that would have him. Horry was a bit of a journeyman, but he made a mark in every place that he stopped. He won two rings with the Houston Rockets who drafted him out of college, defending three positions on the floor, hitting threes from the top of the key, blocking shots alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, and slamming the ball on anyone who dared to contest him. From there, he moved on to San Antonio and Los Angeles where he picked up 5 more rings with clutch shooting that propelled both franchises past some of the most challenging teams of the era. Robert Horry had a knack for finding open spaces in a defense and capitalizing off their mistakes. Though he probably could have possibly averaged 12-20 points in the league, he ignored his personal statistics and chose to fill the needs of contenders. And, he excelled at it. Now, Robert Horry has more rings than Michael Jordan. He has more playoff wins than anyone in history. Robert Horry has built a career that many pros dream of through sacrificing his individual stats. But, what career path would you choose if you had a choice between Malone and Horry?
Both men had remarkable professional careers in their own right. One was the talented performer, the other was the ultimate winner, but they took completely different paths in basketball. Malone’s statistics rival the numbers of any player in NBA history. He was more powerful than Kevin Garnett, more dynamic than Tim Duncan, and possibly more dominant than Charles Barkley. He owned the left block in the post. Malone could spin for a quick turnaround jumper in the post, face up his defender and blow them, or bully his way further into the paint with his back to the basket. He rebounded like a center, but could stretch the floor with a barrage mid range shots. He caught passes from all angles and at varying speeds, and finished plays in the paint over taller players. And, he was a good passer too. Karl Malone regularly threw backdoor bounce passes to cutting guards and dropped touch passes into his center. He was an offensive juggernaut, and he was an underrated team defender too. His hands were so quick to the basketball that Malone made multiple All-Defensive teams despite not being a great individual defender. Malone’s relevance in NBA lore is set in stone despite him never winning a championship. But, Robert Horry holds a revered place in NBA history without putting up gaudy statistics. Horry stands as the only non-Celtic to collect seven championship rings. His clutch shots in the playoffs have been so far ingrained into the minds of NBA basketball fans that his candidacy for the Hall of Fame is being considered by some basketball historians despite career averages of 7.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game. Horry was wildly inconsistent statistically. He is one of two players to win a NBA ring on three separate teams, and he consistently hit big shots or made significant plays for each franchise, but his numbers rarely reflected his contributions. He could dominate offensively for a half of a game and disappear in the second half or dominate defensively for an entire game but finish with only one steal and one block. He was a unique player who could perform within a system and defer to superstars, yet play at a higher level when his team needed him. Robert Horry sacrificed his numbers to be a part of something bigger. His win-shares compare favorably to NBA players like Eddie Johnson and Juwan Howard who scored and rebounded more than he did because his teams won more games. And though his teams’ wins were definitely a function of their superstars, they were also a function of Horry’s game.
This is the issue at the crux of choosing between these National Basketball Association players.
Would you want to be the consummate professional who is invisible to the casual fan, or the NBA superstar who despite individual accolades fell short when the game was on the line? Which is more important, the success of your team or your individual legacy? Is your legacy defined by your individual accomplishments or by the efficacy of your team? The answers to these questions reveal more about you than they do about Malone and Horry. So, who would you rather be?