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Keltner List: Dikembe Mutombo

Posted by Justin Kubatko on April 27, 2009

After rupturing a quadriceps tendon in his left knee during Houston's 107-103 playoff loss to Portland last Tuesday, Dikembe Mutombo announced his retirement from the NBA. Mutombo leaves behind a legacy of being not only one of the NBA's finest defensive players, but also of one of its finest humanitarians. A reader suggested we run Mutombo's career under the microscope of the Keltner List, so here we go...

Position: Center
Height: 7-2 Weight: 245 lbs.
Born: June 25, 1966 in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
High School: Institute Boboto in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
College: Georgetown University

Drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the 1st round (4th pick, 4th overall) of the 1991 NBA draft.

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in basketball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in basketball?

No on both counts.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

Mutombo was the best player on the Nuggets teams of the early 1990's, and I would also classify him as the best player on the Hawks teams of the late 1990's, although some people might go with Steve Smith. In Philadelphia he played second fiddle to Allen Iverson, and after his days with the 76ers he was mainly a role player (albeit a very productive one).

3. Was he the best player in basketball at his position?

Mutmobo's career overlapped the careers of centers like David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O'Neal, so the answer is no.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or Conference Finals?

No. Mutombo played on two teams that advanced to the NBA Finals, the 2000-01 76ers (lost to the Lakers in five games) and the 2002-03 Nets (lost to the Spurs in six games), although he was just a bit player on that Nets team. In all fairness, though, the 2000-01 76ers probably would not have advanced to the Finals without Mutombo, who was a late season acquisition from the Hawks.

5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?

Mutombo was an effective player into his 40's, so the answer is definitely yes.

6. Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

Mutombo is not yet eligible, so right now this question is moot.

7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Mutombo has 115.6 career Win Shares. There are six former players who have a career Win Shares total between 110 and 120: George Gervin, Horace Grant, Kevin McHale, Terry Porter, Jack Sikma, and Dominique Wilkins. Exactly half of these players (Gervin, McHale, and Wilkins) are in the Hall of Fame.

8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

Mutombo's Hall of Fame probability is very low (0.006). Why? He didn't do the things that the Hall of Fame voters seem to focus on. In particular, his career scoring average was very low (9.8 points per game), he received almost no MVP consideration (see #11 below), and he never played for a championship team.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Yes, and this is where Mutombo's case can best be made. Traditional statistics are inadequate, at best, for evaluating defense, and defense was Mutombo's calling card. First, let's look at the qualitative evidence. Mutombo was named Defensive Player of the Year four times, tied for the most in NBA history (with Ben Wallace), and he was also named to six All-Defensive teams (three 1st team, three 2nd team). Examining some more advanced defensive statistics, Mutombo's career defensive rebound percentage of 26.2% is the 7th-best in NBA history (since 1973-74); his block percentage of 6.3% is the 9th-best (since 1973-74); and he has 67.9 Defensive Win Shares, 9th-most in league history (since 1973-74). Both the qualitative and quantitative evidence suggest that Mutombo was one of the premier defenders of his time.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?

Mutombo is not yet eligible, so right now this question is moot.

11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

The only season in which Mutombo received any MVP consideration was 1996-97, and that year he had a mere four points in the voting.

12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?

Mutombo was selected to play in eight All-Star games, a very respectable total. Six former players have appeared in exactly eight All-Star games: Rick Barry, Dave DeBusschere, Alex English, Larry Foust, Bob Lanier, and Bill Sharman. All but Foust are in the Hall of Fame.

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win an NBA title?

It's unlikely. Mutombo was arguably the best player on five playoff teams in the 1990's, and none of them advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

14. What impact did the player have on basketball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way? Was his college and/or international career especially noteworthy?

Mutombo was a very good college player, although his collegiate career was not especially noteworthy. On the court, Mutombo's famous "finger wag" after blocking an opponent's shot was banned in 1999 following complaints from other coaches and players, although eventually the NBA relented and allowed Mutombo to do it as long as he did not wag his finger in an opponent's face. Off the court, Mutombo has been involved in numerous humanitarian efforts to aid his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Verdict:

Mutombo is a Hall of Famer. He was one of the finest defensive players of his generation and, while never being a high volume scorer, was also a very efficient offensive player.


32 Responses to “Keltner List: Dikembe Mutombo”

  1. Jason J Says:

    Dikembe was actually a member of two Finals teams. He was a starter for the Sixers when they lost to the Lakers in 2001 and a reserve for the Nets when they lost to San Antonio in 2003. Byron Scott gave him almost no daylight because he didn't pass well in the Princeton offense, but he was their best option to cover Duncan.

  2. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Jason J, you're right. I'm going to make that correction.

  3. Duff Soviet Union Says:

    I'm surprised you mentioned his impact on basketball history without mentioning "Who wants to sex Mutombo?"

  4. Luke M Says:

    I love these things. Here's my All-90's Keltner List Wish List: Mitch Richmond, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber, and Jason Kidd.

  5. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Luke M wrote:

    I love these things. Here’s my All-90’s Keltner List Wish List: Mitch Richmond, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber, and Jason Kidd.

    Other than Jason Kidd, I think that's a pretty good list. Kidd, to me, is a no-brainer.

  6. jon teitel Says:

    7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?

    Win Shares are neat, but I prefer more simplistic stats.
    Mutombo is 1 of 5 NBA players with 12,000+ career rebounds and 2,000+ career blocks: the other 4 include 1 future Hall-of-Famer (Shaq) and 3 current Hall-of-Famers (Olajuwon/Kareem/Parish). It would have been nice if he could have scored more points or won a title, so I don't think he's a "no-brainer", but I do think he belongs in the Hall.

  7. bryan Says:

    he's a border line hall of famer at best. id put alonzo mourning ahead of mutombo by a hair. so if zo gets in, dikembe should go as well.

  8. Alex S. Says:

    "Mutombo was named Defensive Player of the Year four times, tied for the most in NBA history (with Ben Wallace), and he was also named to six All-Defensive teams (three 1st team, three 2nd team)."

    In 1994-95, he was apparently good enough to be Defensive Player of the Year, but not good enough to make 1st team All-Defense.

    I love the NBA!

  9. Jason J Says:

    Nice catch, Alex! Typical award voting. The voters on these awards are preposterously unscientific. On the other hand it's true that between '94 and '97 you could pretty much have given the DPoY or the 1st Team All D center spot to Dream, Admiral, Deke, or Zo and not really been wrong to go with any of them (well maybe Zo).

  10. mole Says:

    doesnt the hall of fame take into account off court accomplishments? I think just based off his charity work in his native country he will get in for sure

  11. biggles Says:

    3. Was he the best player in basketball at his position?

    Mutmobo’s career overlapped the careers of centers like David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O’Neal, so the answer is no.

    This worries me a bit: if a player was very obviously not the best at his position even at his peak, making a HoF case for him isn't straightforward. (Deke obviously has career value; it's his peak value that's in question.)

    Looking at All-NBA selections, he was 2nd team once and 3rd team twice, which doesn't sound like a HoF guy. Is there reason to think the voters underrated him? Let's look season-by-season.

    Prior to 95/96 he was clearly behind Robinson, Shaq, Dream, often others. In 95/96, even if you discount Shaq because of injury, Deke was way behind Zo.

    In 96/97 you have the best argument Deke was screwed over by the voters. What was perhaps his best year coincided with injuries to Robinson and Shaq, while Dream and Ewing were past their peaks. There's a good case he was the best center in basketball that year, with maybe his strongest competition being Laettner if you count him at C rather than PF. (I should note here that for this exercise I'm not counting guys like Duncan as true centers.)

    In 97/98 voting was 1st Shaq, 2nd Robinson, 3rd Mutombo; PER says 1st Shaq, 2nd Robinson, 3rd Sabonis; win shares says 1st Robinson, 2nd Shaq, 3rd Mutombo. You could make a strong case for Deke at second but not really for first.

    98/99 was of course a weird year because of the lockout. Voters went Zo, Shaq, Dream; I think it was Shaq's year with Deke, Zo and Robinson all having arguments for second.

    99/00 was an up season for centers: with Shaq and Zo having career years and Robinson also doing well, Deke isn't in the picture.

    In 00/01, Deke was voted 2nd team. How he was placed ahead of Robinson is beyond me.

    In 01/02, Deke was voted 3rd team, which sounds about right. That was his last year as a serious All-NBA candidate.

    Playoffs are kind of a wash; Deke performed as well as you'd expect but his teams usually didn't go far.

    So looking on Deke as favorably as possible, he was best center in the NBA for one season, second-best for two seasons, third-best for two seasons. Remembering to give him extra credit for a long useful career, is that the record of a HoFer? Er well maybe.

    Of course, if you put significant weight on his off-the-court achievements, he's in easily.

  12. rusty Says:

    That's the thing: it's the BASKETBALL HoF, not the NBA HoF -- contributions like his work overseas and the globalization of the game that occurred during his career are significant. Not to mention career longevity, which seems to only really factor into '5' but is a big deal (compare your measures of peak season and best-at-position to what gets players into Cooperstown...). Of course, as a Denver fan, he has my vote locked up already.

  13. mack Says:

    it's kinda lame that you didnt address questions 6 and 10. i know hes not eligible yet, but considering this whole post is one big hypothetical exercise, it just seemed like a bit of a cop out not to answer them.
    other wise it was a good read and i agree with your conclusion.
    always been a mutombo fan.

  14. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Mack wrote:

    it’s kinda lame that you didnt address questions 6 and 10. i know hes not eligible yet, but considering this whole post is one big hypothetical exercise, it just seemed like a bit of a cop out not to answer them.

    If you've read any of the previous Keltner Lists, then you know the answer to both of those questions: Artis Gilmore.

  15. Romain Says:

    Talking about great rebounders/defenders who were offensively challenged to say the least, I would really love to read a Keltner List on Dennis Rodman !!

    About Mutombo, as you said he played during an era that was dominated by centers (well, exept that MJ guy in Chicago...), and to me he always was way behind Olajuwon, Shaq, O'Neal, Ewing and even Zo.

    By the way I think a great article would be about the way rule changes have affected the game over the last decade. In the mid-90's 60% to 80% of top-ten scorers were either PF (Malone, Barkley) or centers (O'Neal, Olajuwon, Robinson, Ewing, sometimes Zo). Now it's just the opposite, over the last 4 years only one PF has made regularly to the scoring top 10 (and that's Nowitzki... who also won the 3pt shooting contest so he's clearly not your typical PF), and centers are nowhere to be found

  16. Ryan S Says:

    The one thing that separates Mutombo from being average is his humanitarian efforts. His global contributions and what he has done for the image of the NBA/basketball players should be enough alone to get a nomination for the hall.

  17. Daniel Says:

    When you think of blocked shot-- you think finger wag. He is one of the most memorable players in history, and he did NOT play second fiddle to Iverson in 2001. Notice that he had 3.7 win shares during the playoffs, compared to Iverson's 2.7 win shares. Iverson was a poor first fiddle if he was less productive than the second fiddle. THAT'S the kind of thinking that may keep Mutombo out of the Hall of Fame. By the way... Iverson's teams never got out of the second round without Mutombo.

    How on earth do you miss that?

  18. Sean Says:

    Ryan: "The one thing that separates Mutombo from being average is his humanitarian efforts."

    Well that, and the fact that he was one of the best defensive big men to ever play the game. If all-offense/no-defense guys like Alex English and Adrian Dantley are worthy of induction, then it's only fair that stalwart defenders like Mutombo or Rodman be inducted as well.

  19. Gord Says:

    You always hear people say how Iverson carried the Sixers to the finals all on his own in 2000-01, but nobody even mentions how Deke was on the team...he definitely deserves more credit for that run.

  20. mrparker Says:

    Its called the hall of fame and not the hall of the statistically the best. I think Dik is criminally underated but that doesn't mean I think he belongs in the hall of fame. "Kids get you calculators out we are getting close to Dikembe Mutombo's exhibit."

  21. orin Says:

    what if you lead your team to the nba finals, doesn't that count for something?

  22. Brandon Says:

    Alright, I have a suggestion for a Keltner list and it has probably been mentioned before, but I'd like to see Scottie Pippen done. I know it seems odd, but you did do Allen Iverson, and Scottie Pippen was never really considered the best in the game at any point in his career. So if you could that it'd be awesome.

  23. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Thanks for the suggestion Brandon, but to me Pippen is a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer. I see the Keltner List as being a useful exercise for guys who are on the fence, but Pippen is guaranteed to go in on the first ballot.

  24. anon Says:


  25. Sportscentury Says:

    I'd like to see you discuss Chauncey Billups. And how about Dirk Nowitzki (or is Dirk too much of a no-brainer shoo-in)?


  26. Wes Says:

    Defense alone will get Dikembe into the Hall. His humanitarian work and his unique personality are the icing on the cake. As long as he doesnt do something stupid in the next 5 years he will be going in.

  27. Phil Says:

    And remember this, he is the "Only" NBA Player to be "called out" at a Presidential State of the Union address. talk about being a light to the sport of basketball! this cannot and will not be overlooked.

  28. Jimmy Says:

    I love the idea of doing the keltner list. I agree with your answers to all 14 questions, but don't understand the conclusion here. The answers are a clear "no" for 10 of the 14 questions--so he should not be in the Hall of Fame.

  29. Alan Says:

    I think that Dikembe Mutombo should definitely be in the Hall of Fame. Just look at some of his stats:

    11 seasons of 10+ points per game.
    11 seasons of 10+ rebounds per game, (both of which coincide with each other.)
    8 seasons of 3+ blocks per game.
    11 seasons of 50 % field goal shooting or better.
    8 seasons of 80 games played or more (5 of which were 82 games, which is a full season.)

    When he was productive he was very productive. For an entire career, I think you can certainly say he was better than Bill Walton who is in the hall of fame, and last but not least, his free throw % is WAY better than Shaquille O'Neal's.

    I think he should get elected on the 1st ballot.

  30. john dough Says:

    Mitch Richmond, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber, and Jason Kidd.


    kidd unquestionably should be in the Hall...Reggie will be in, too.

    the other 4 im not so sure, maybe webber...kemp, no

    rock richmond is an interesting case, as are the other run-tmc guys, tim and chris...all 3 are borderline, and richmond is the most underated and under aprreciated of the bunch

  31. Brian Says:

    Some random notes from the world's biggest Mutombo fan

    Mutombo's shot block stats probably understate how good he was, as he changed how players and teams operated in a way no other center did. For example, most bigs who got offensive rebounds against Mutombo teams would pass the ball out rather than try a stickback. Guards would refrain from driving the lane when he was in. Opposing teams wouldn't run any plays for the centers or not play a true center at all.

    Mutombo could have easily won two more DPOY awards. He didn't win the award in 95-96, even though he had his best statistical season -- 332 blocks in 72 games. He also lost in 93-94 to Hakeem Olajuwon, who actually said as the award was given to him, "This could have just as easily have gone to Mutombo" (meaning it should have gone to Mutombo)

    Mutombo had an indirect effect on the '94 playoff finals by singlehandedly leading Denver to a historic upset over 63-19 Seattle with one of the greatesst displays of defense in NBA playoff history. In two series, Mutombo registered 69 blocks which for a period of ten days was an NBA record for blocks in an entire postseason! Look at the the link and note the dates and you'll see this is true. Even now, this mark is ranked fifth all time!!

  32. Roosevelt Taegel Says:

    . Thank you so much.