NBA 50 Greatest Players: Dikembe Mutombo (#46)

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Dikembe Mutombo’s impact on the court exceeded what we see in the box scores. Mutombo played an incredible 18 seasons in the NBA and recorded 11729 points, 12359 rebounds and 3289 blocks (and about 50,000 red squiggly lines in Microsoft word when I was typing this article). He was the first person to win defensive player of the year 4 times (only Ben Wallace has done it since) and has been selected to the All-NBA defensive first team 3 times (which is a perfect example of how flawed the NBA award system is; a player can win DPOY but miss out on All-NBA first team selection. This happened recently with Tyson Chandler too) along with being voted to the second team 3 times. He was chosen to the All-NBA second team once (2001) and the third team twice (1998 and 2002). He has also appeared in the all-star game 8 times (including as a rookie, where he was selected by the coaches despite competition in the West from David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon).

I can’t lie, that’s an impressive resume. But despite this, Mutombo is often overlooked when we talk about the great players of his generation. He was, during the height of his career, the most intimidating shot blocker the league has seen since Bill Russell (although you can make an argument for Alonzo Mourning). He was the driving force behind the shocking Denver Nuggets knocking off the top seeded Sonics in the first round in the 1994 playoffs, setting a NBA record with 31 blocks in a 5 game series. 20 years later, that record still stands. In 96, he left Denver to play in Atlanta. The Hawks immediately formed a new identity behind their new centre, focusing their attention to their new strength: defence. But if we look at the numbers, Mutombo averaged 3.3 blocks per game. No other Hawk averaged over 1! That’s how good this guy was, you could put him with a bunch of guys that couldn’t play defence (outside of Mookie Blaylock) and the entire team would take on a new identity. It’s also important to look at the era that he did play and the depth at the centre position. You had Shaq, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning all patrolling the paint in the mid to late 90’s, and all of them excelled in protecting the rim. Dikembe walking away with 4 defensive player of the year awards during that period is an incredibly underrated feat.

These two Georgetown Hoyas carried Philly to the NBA finals.

These two Georgetown Hoyas carried Philly to the NBA finals.

In 2001, Mutombo was traded to Philly where he teamed up with Allen Iverson and went on a memorable playoff run. That team in Philly was absolutely perfect for Mutombo, and he played his best basketball of his career. In the conference finals against a loaded Milwaukee Bucks team, Mutombo averaged 16.6 PPG (on 58% shooting), 15.6 RPG and 2.4 BPG. Iverson was spectacular that season, but Mutombo was the perfect teammate for him. In the NBA Finals, Shaq was literally unstoppable and did tear him apart, but keep in mind this: Philly never double teamed him. Mutombo was isolated against perhaps the most dominant player that has ever lived, and he was taking him on by himself. The Lakers won in 5 games (4 of which were incredibly close), but to the 76ers credit, they did win a game. That is something The Blazers, Kings and Spurs couldn’t claim. In 2003, Mutombo was traded to New Jersey where he clashed with head coach Byron Scott, and based off their histories (with Mutombo always being respected everywhere he went, and Scott frequently getting into feuds with players), I’m going to say this is all on Scott. New Jersey still made it to the finals, and played the Spurs surprisingly well. Mutombo would play sparingly, but was extremely effective in slowing down (no one was going to stop him that year) Tim Duncan. If Scott had swallowed his pride and played Mutombo over Jason Collins, New Jersey would have probably won that series.

After a brief stopover in New York, Mutombo played 5 more seasons in Houston and finished his career in 2008 after a serious leg injury. Even in the twilight of his career, it was a big deal (even to the great players) to get a climb “Mount Mutombo” and get a dunk on the big man.

Think of all the great big men that Shaq has dunked on, and for him to wag the finger at Mutombo. This to me was a sign of respect of two rivals after years of competition. This was in 2007, 10 years after Jordan dunked on Mutumbo in the 1997 playoffs and didn’t hesitate in waving the finger.

 

Mutombo vs. Dwight Howard

I couldn’t help but wonder about this comparison when I was typing this and I pointed out how Mutombo made Philly and Atlanta better. First of all, let’s look at the stats (when Mutombo was a starter)

Mutombo (92-02) 12.3 PPG (53%) 12.3 RPG (3.7 ORB) 3.4 BPG
Howard (05-14) 18.3 PPG (58%) 12.9 RPG (3.6 ORB) 2.2 BPG

 

The numbers are in favour of Howard, but let’s not forget what a sensitive player Howard became for a period of time. Teams had to cater to what he thought he was (an offensive superstar). I can’t help but compare how Mutombo acted when he went to Philly: He was the perfect addition to that team, taking any role that was necessary to help that club contend for the title. He didn’t clash with Iverson, and they made each other better. Mutombo knew what he was there for (defence and rebounding), and didn’t try to be something he wasn’t (a scorer). Now let’s look at how Howard acted when he joined The Lakers: He clashed with Kobe, demanded the ball in the post despite his lack of skills and at times was completely disinterested in getting them into the playoffs (Kobe essentially dragged that team into the post-season). As I said in the Dwight Howard article, he was hovering around the 35 spot mark until he started self-destructing. Mutombo was a smarter player, and valued winning more than Howard. I’ve got no problems with placing him ahead at this stage.

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