How Good Was Charles Barkley?

The NBA has seen few characters as magnetic as Charles Barkley. His controversies and work as an analyst have drawn plenty of attention over the years — so much so that his playing career can be overlooked. This is a mistake, however, because Barkley is one of the best power forwards to ever play the game.

The Auburn University alum was a dominant force in the paint despite being shorter than most of the players in his position. Barkley never won a title, but the lack of a championship does not diminish his standing in the NBA.

“The Round Mound of Rebound” arrives in Philadelphia

“A fat guy… who can play like the wind.” According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this was the description of teenage Charles Barkley by an Auburn scout after watching him play for the first time. It’s impossible to describe a figure like Barkley with one quote, but that one comes as close as you could get.

Barkley was always undersized and overweight for his position, but it never stopped him from wreaking havoc on opponents. While playing at Auburn, he averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 68% from the floor. His performances earned him one of the best nicknames of all time: The Round Mound of Rebound.

Charles Barkley arrives in the NBA

Charles Barkley, forward for the Philadelphia 76ers on free-throw line
Charles Barkley of the 76ers on free-throw line | Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Barkley left Auburn after his junior year, and the Philadelphia 76ers chose him No. 5 overall in the seminal 1984 NBA Draft. Despite their high draft pick, the Sixers had plenty of veteran players like Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and Maurice Cheeks. These established NBA stars, especially Malone, helped Barkley manage his weight and get in condition.

Once Barkley learned how to train like a real professional, he took over as the team’s star. He became the Sixers’ starting power forward in his second year. The young athlete led the team into the playoffs and averaged 25 points and 16 rebounds per game. 

Barkley’s numbers were amazing throughout his Sixers tenure. He ended his 76ers career ranked fourth in team history in total points (14,184), third in scoring average (23 points per game), third in rebounds (7,079), eighth in assists (2,276), and second in field-goal percentage (57.6%)

Unfortunately, playoff success was intermittent. The most glaring example took place in the 1987-88 season when Barkley had his most productive season. (He averaged 28 points on 59% shooting and 12 rebounds per game.) Nevertheless, the Sixers missed the playoffs for the first time since 1975.

When Philadelphia did put a good supporting cast around him, Barkley had to face Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The 76ers lost twice, both times in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Barkley demanded a trade a season after the second defeat. He first moved to the LA Lakers. But the transaction fell through, and he landed with another Western Conference team.  

Barkley’s Suns can’t make it happen

Barkley excelled immediately after arriving in Phoenix. He averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds, and a career-high five assists per game, leading the Suns to an NBA best 62–20 record. Barkley won his only MVP award in this season. But the NBA’s ultimate prize was still out of his grasp.

Jordan’s Bulls got the best of Barkley again, beating the Suns in the finals in six games. The familiar theme of Barkley’s teams coming up short against other teams with generational superstars continued the next two seasons. Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets beat the Suns twice in the postseason and went on to win the title both times. 

The next season, Barkley became the 10th player in NBA history to reach 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds in their career. But the Suns lost in the first round of the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs. Then, before the 1996-97 season, Barkley was traded to the very team that caused him so much frustration in Phoenix. 

Barkley exits on a high in Houston

Barkley joined the Rockets in a bid to get a ring of his own. He made up a big three with Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Sadly, all three players faced the end of their prime years. Barkley became the team’s top scorer, but he couldn’t average over 20 points for the first time since his rookie year.

Barkley only played 53 games due to injuries and suspensions. And the Rockets ended the season with a 57–25 record. Houston advanced to the Western Conference Finals, but they lost to the Utah Jazz in six games. 

This was the last time Barkley got close to the Finals. The last few years of his career were increasingly disrupted by injuries as the Rockets’ title window closed for good. The 1999-2000 season was his last in the NBA.

During a game against the Sixers, Barkley ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his left leg. He knew his time was up, but he had one last thing to accomplish: walk off the court on his own terms. He returned for one final hurrah, a home game against the Vancouver Grizzlies. Barkley scored off of an offensive rebound and walked off the court to a standing ovation.

After the game, Barkley said: “I can’t explain what tonight meant … I’ve won and lost a lot of games, but the last memory I had was being carried off the court. I couldn’t get over the mental block of being carried off the court. It was important psychologically to walk off the court on my own.”

Barkley never won a title, but he did things most players only dream of doing. He’ll always be one of the first names fans think of when discussing ’90s basketball.

Post-retirement, he’s become one of the most charismatic personalities on Inside the NBA. Barkley is a one-of-a-kind athlete and personality who reached iconic status by always being himself. That is harder to attain than a ring.

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