What If Karl Malone Was Traded to the Knicks?

Karl Malone Knicks

Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes. 

Two superstars grow increasingly frustrated in the summer of 1994. One, in New York, came just seven points short of winning his first NBA championship in June. The other, in Utah, has just seen one of his biggest rivals, Hakeem Olajuwon, snatch up that very title he believes should be his. So the frustrated star in Utah tells his agent to force a trade. He thinks that a partnership with New York’s embattled All-Star will finally deliver the championship he craves. So just before the 1994-95 season, Karl Malone gets his wish and is traded to Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks for a package led by Charles Oakley and rookie Charlie Ward.

The fit takes some time. Derek Harper and John Starks can’t quite match John Stockton as a pick-and-roll partner for Malone, but raw talent alone carries the Knicks to a conference best 59-23 record. That talent is molded into a cohesive team by the second round, when Ewing and Malone finally get their shot at Michael Jordan and the Bulls. They come into the series seen by some as underdogs, but leave after a decisive five-game victory as the clear championship favorite. Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic put up a good fight in the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing can stop the inevitable Knicks-Rockets NBA Finals rematch.

HOUSTON - 1994: Hakeem Olajuwon #34 of the Houston Rockets grabs a rebound against the Boston Celtics during an NBA game at the Compaq Center circa 1994 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1994 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

Both teams come into the series far stronger than their previous incarnations. The Knicks obviously bring Malone to the table, but aren’t to be outdone by Houston’s addition of Clyde Drexler. The new guys make their presence known early on, with Drexler hitting a game-winner in Game 1 and Malone scoring 36 points to even the series in Game 2. The Rockets take two at home to return to New York with a 3-2 series lead. Malone almost turns into the goat when Drexler steals the ball from him in the post and takes the ball coast-to-coast to give Houston a one-point lead late in Game 6, but in redemption for his failure in the ’94 Finals, John Starks hits a game-winner to force a seventh game. The Knicks take it with relative ease. New York wins its first championship in over 20 years, Starks is named Finals MVP, and five days later, head coach Pat Riley agrees to a five-year contract extension despite overtures from Miami to run the entire Heat organization.

The Knicks never quite reach championship heights again. Michael Jordan’s second Bulls dynasty sees to that, but both Ewing and Malone eventually see their numbers retired in New York, cementing their status as Knicks legends.

Things don’t go quite so smoothly for the team Malone leaves behind. John Stockton tries to play the good soldier and compete with teammates he’s given, but after several years of losing both sides grow agitated. Stockton wants to win, and during the 1998 NBA lockout he begins to seriously consider retirement. The Jazz, refusing to lose him for nothing, begin to shop their aging star to contenders as soon as the labor crisis is resolved. They find an eager suitor in the San Antonio Spurs.

PORTLAND - DECEMBER 27: John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz catches a pass during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at The Rose Garden on December 27, 2002 in Portland, Oregon. The Blazers won 103-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice: 2002 NBAE. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images)

With the young Tim Duncan and veteran superstar David Robinson, the Spurs head into the 1998-99 season primed for a championship run. But Avery Johnson is hardly an appealing option at point guard, so when the opportunity to upgrade to Stockton arises, San Antonio leaps. They send Johnson, Mario Elie and draft picks to Utah for the aging point guard and never look back. The Spurs waltz to the 1999 NBA Championship giving Stockton his first title. Who do they beat there? Stockton’s old teammate, Karl Malone, and the New York Knicks.

Despite the loss, Malone embraces Stockton in the tunnel after the deciding Game 5, congratulating him on finally earning the ring he so obviously deserved. When the press asks about the encounter afterwards, Stockton is coy, telling them only how much he enjoyed playing with Malone and that he wished him the best going forward. Malone is a bit more forthcoming.

“We talked about teaming back up some day, maybe trying to win one together, like we should’ve all those years ago,” Malone is quoted as saying, “who knows, I hear the Lakers might be interested…”

10 thoughts on “What If Karl Malone Was Traded to the Knicks?”

  1. If the Magic don’t make the 1995 Finals, maybe the vibe on that team is a lot different (they are more hungry and less star-crossed after getting swept out of the Finals). They still have problems with the Bulls (who may not be quite as motivated as they were, but with MJ, they still would have been hungry, and they still get Rodman), and they lose to them in 96 and 97 (they keep Shaq for four more years in this scenario) before getting by them in 98.

    Then, after winning the 98 title, they decide to lock up Shaq for three more years on top of that, ensuring that he will be there until 2003. They also find a way to make Penny happy, and they trade for a guy from the Wizards named Ben Wallace that will eventually take Horace Grant’s spot.

    As for Rodman, I have another “what if”? What if he was traded to the Suns in the fall of 1993 for Richard Dumas? That almost happened, but the trade was voided because Dumas got in trouble for drugs again.

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    1. I’ll look into that Rodman-Phoenix what if. Rodman and Barkley on the same team, they’d get every single rebound.

      As far as Orlando goes, I have to imagine Shaq is leaving regardless. Remember, as much as Shaq has said in the past that he wanted to stay, the Lakers out-bid Orlando by I believe $16 million over the full seven years. I can’t imagine any scenario where Orlando matches that contract figure, and for all we know Penny might have just been predisposed to injury no matter what. So either Shaq leaves, or Penny gets hurt and he pouts his way into a trade a few years later. That being said, if he could’ve stayed and they still would’ve hired Chuck Daly, they could’ve been a powerhouse.

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  2. My favorite Knicks “What if”…Xavier McDaniel resiged with Knicks. I think they beat the Bulls in 7 games in the ’93 conference finals… But would they stop Barkley and beat the Suns?

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    1. My honest guess is that Phoenix would’ve won that series. That was just a bad matchup for them, Phoenix beat the by 30 the last time they played in the regular season. But could X-Man have made a difference against Houston in ’94? Yea, I think he could’ve.

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      1. I completely agree. I wonder if the knicks would still pull the Jackson for Rivers deal and if so, how would it have been executed? Does Mason still blossom with Xman around? Could that 1 change have led to 3 possible NBA Finals appearances instead of 1?

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      2. I imagine the Jackson trade still happens, but the Mason question is a good one. My gut is that he still does, because the minutes would have still been there for him even if the role was smaller. He didn’t become a starter ’96 anyway. Regardless I do think Macdaniel leads to at least one more trip to the finals and likely the ’94 championship.

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      3. Gotta love “What If” scenarios. Just like Marvel’s “What If…” comic series, I’d love to see sports “What If” stories publicized. As a Knick fan, the big 1 that lingers for me is… What if Olajuwon doesn’t get a piece of Starks’ 3 pointer at the end of game 6 in the ’94 Finals… And where would they put Starks’ statue? Lol

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      4. I love What If’s in both comics and sports. They’re just so fun to speculate on. If you’re a football fan I did a big What If NFL series at The Sports Post if you’d like a link, and I also do an NBA What If here every Wednesday. Just one of my favorite things to write about.

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    2. That is a good one. He was the Pippen Harasser. They should have kept him and Mark Jackson, and they also could have had Latrell Sprewell in the 92 draft instead of Hubert Davis.

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      1. As a general rule I try not to treat teams too badly over picks in the 20’s. Yea Sprewell would’ve been a great pick at the slot, but several other teams should’ve taken him as well.

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