Center is no longer the marquee position in the NBA that it once was. Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic is the only real throwback to an era when 7-footers dominated the paint at both ends and served as their team's first option on offense in the post. Howard suffers in part from the lack of a true rival. Whereas Bill Russell had Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon had David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, Howard has no equivalent center to test him.
So let's give him one. Few centers ruled below the rim as effectively as Moses Malone, who won three MVPs from 1979 through 1983 and helped lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1983 championship. Like Howard, Malone went pro straight out of high school, and he played all the way to the verge of his 40th birthday. In our scenario, we'll imagine that he was part of the same high school class as Amare Stoudemire. Had Malone been able to spend two years in a rival league like the ABA, he would have reached the NBA in 2004-05, just as Howard was beginning his career, and would now be in his prime.
Because the NBA did not yet track turnovers in 1977-78, we can't translate Malone's stat line for that season, so we'll begin with his first MVP campaign--2005-06, in our vision. Here are his statistics updated to modern times.
Year Tm G MPG PPG RPG APG FG%
2006 HOU 59 35.7 16.4 12.9 0.4 .508
2007 HOU 82 41.3 20.7 15.8 1.5 .541
2008 HOU 82 38.3 21.6 13.2 1.5 .483
2009 HOU 80 40.6 24.1 13.6 1.4 .515
2010 HOU 81 42.0 27.6 13.9 1.5 .497
2011 PHI 78 37.5 20.7 13.4 1.1 .492
2012 PHI 71 36.8 19.1 12.6 1.1 .456
2013 PHI 79 37.4 20.4 12.3 1.3 .454
2014 PHI 74 36.6 19.9 11.0 1.0 .449
2015 WAS 73 34.1 20.7 10.4 1.4 .436
2016 WAS 79 34.1 18.4 10.8 1.2 .481
2017 ATL 81 35.5 16.6 10.4 1.1 .474
2018 ATL 81 33.8 16.0 9.3 1.3 .472
2019 ATL 82 23.3 8.8 7.2 0.7 .455
2020 MIL 82 30.6 13.9 8.5 1.0 .474
2021 MIL 11 9.5 4.1 3.8 0.5 .316
2022 PHI 55 11.2 5.1 3.7 0.5 .443
2023 SAS 17 8.8 2.8 2.5 0.3 .371
Although we envisioned Malone as a rival for Howard, at first he would have taken the torch from an aging Shaquille O'Neal as the league's best center. The two would have traded places during 2006-07, when O'Neal was hampered by injuries while Malone was posting the first of seven 20-point, 10-rebound seasons.
Malone's steady development would have culminated in 2009-10, which was in actuality the second of his three MVP seasons. His 27.6 points per game would have ranked fourth in the NBA and tops among post players, while Malone would have surpassed Howard as the league's leading rebounder.
In our scenario, Malone and Howard would be separated by just two years in age, giving them a lengthy period of time to battle each other--especially after a trade sent Malone to the Eastern Conference with the Philadelphia 76ers. 2010-11 would have been the first time Howard outscored Malone, while Malone's translated rebounding averages are similar to Howard's.
Our modern Malone would have begun to decline late in the decade after being dealt to the Atlanta Hawks, coming up with one last hurrah in 2019-20 with the Milwaukee Bucks (possibly as Andrew Bogut's replacement) at age 36 before finishing up his career as a reserve.
Adding in the season we couldn't update (1976-77), Malone's career totals are not quite as lofty as reality but impressive nonetheless. Playing a contemporary style, Malone would have finished with 23,564 points (good for 18th all-time) and 14,945 rebounds (sixth). His 5,167 offensive boards would have been a significant decline from his actual total (6,731) yet still good enough to rank best in NBA history by more than 500 rebounds.
Malone's prowess on the offensive glass would have stood out even more in today's NBA than it did in the 1980s. Because coaches are so concerned with getting back defensively instead of crashing the boards, and because of the rise of the three-point shot, offensive rebound percentages have been declining steadily since the late '80s. Whereas one in three rebounds was grabbed by the offense in 1982-83, today that number is not much more than one in four (26.4 percent, to be exact).
Malone's translation shows him averaging better than five offensive boards per game three times. In reality, that mark hasn't been reached since Elton Brand averaged 5.0 in 2001-02. Malone would have dominated the offensive rebound leaderboard before Kevin Love topped him with 4.5 per game last season.
The growing importance of the three-pointer would have worked to Malone's benefit. That sounds odd, given that Malone made just eight triples in his entire NBA career. Where more outside shooting would have helped Malone is by making it more difficult to double-team him in the post. Howard is a great example of this. When the Magic signed Rashard Lewis and upgraded their perimeter attack in 2007-08, it allowed Howard to dramatically cut his turnover percentage from 21.4 percent of his plays to 16.1 percent.
In general, players turn the ball over less frequently than they did in the '80s, so our projection sees Malone's career turnover total decline from 3,804 to 3,027 -- a difference of more than 20 percent that takes him from fourth in NBA history all the way to 18th.
The lack of competition in the middle outside of Howard also could help Malone boost his numbers. However, part of the reason for the position's decline is that today's best post players tend to drift to the power forward position. Some of them could have handled Malone, who was only 6-10. In fact, last season's closest comparison for Malone's 1982-83 season was actually Love. Similarly burly Zach Randolph also ranks in the top five along with Howard, Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol. As it turns out, offensive centers didn't die. They just moved over a position.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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