NBA history is full of highly talented duos who never managed to capture a title together. In recent years, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook failed to win a championship over the course of eight seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor couldn’t capture a title, despite playing together on the Los Angeles Lakers for 11 seasons.
Yet most fans and analysts agree that the most disappointing duo of all time was Karl Malone and John Stockton. Over the course of their 18 shared years on the Utah Jazz, Stockton and Malone failed to win a single championship. Here we take a closer look at the chemistry between the two former stars, how close they came to winning, and why they could never get all the way.
The chemistry of John Stockton and Karl Malone
Both Stockton and Malone boast impressive individual resumes. Stockton was one of the best point guards of all time, with a court vision that few others can match. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Stockton holds the record for all-time assists by a wide margin. His 15,806 assists are more than 3,000 more than the second-place leader, Jason Kidd.
Malone, meanwhile, established himself as the quintessential power forward. Over the course of his 19-year career, Malone averaged 25.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game — truly elite numbers. Both Stockton and Malone owed a large part of their successes to their extraordinary on-court dynamics.
Simply put, Stockton and Malone formed one of the most unstoppable pick-and-roll combos in all of NBA history. They also formed arguably the best duo in the league for most of their time together — better even than Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, in many people’s eyes. Yet unlike Jordan and Pippen, Stockton and Malone simply couldn’t capitalize on their massive talent.
The closest the pair came to a title
The best way to understand what Stockton and Malone couldn’t do is by looking at what they did do. Stockton and Malone’s Jazz squads won 50 games in 10 of their seasons together, and 60 games in three seasons. The two stars both made All-NBA teams for nine straight years. They also made it to the playoffs in every single one of their 18 seasons.
Out of those 18 trips to the playoffs, however, Stockton and Malone only made it as far as the Western Conference on five occasions. On half of those trips, the Jazz got bumped off in the first round.
In only five seasons did they advance as far as the Western Conference Finals. And only twice did they made it to the Finals. The Jazz lost both of those back-to-back Finals appearances to the Jordan-Pippen Bulls.
Explaining John Stockton and Karl Malone’s shortcoming
Losing to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals is no great shame — plenty of other highly talented teams suffered the same fate. Losing twice to the Bulls is tough, but still not hard to comprehend. A tougher question is why exactly Stockton and Malone never found themselves able to get out of the West in other seasons.
Unfortunately, no convincing explanation exists. In some cases, Stockton and Malone simply couldn’t come up with the clutch shots needed to secure close games. In other cases, an opposing star managed to shut them down nearly single-handedly, as in the case of Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston in 1994 and 1995.
Sometimes the Jazz just seemed to crumple against seemingly inferior opponents. That was true of their postseason losses to the Portland Trailblazers in 1991 and 1992, and the Seattle SuperSonics in 1993 and 1996. Stockton and Malone’s failure to win a title continues to hang over them to this day.
Malone’s reputation, in particular, has taken something of a hit in recent years. Many analysts have suggested that his dominant individual numbers were misleading and that he never managed to become a truly impactful player on the team level.