Missed the Cut: Mutombo & Wallace
Written by Isaac O’Neill with additional editing and contributions by Chris Howson-Jan
Mutombo — 11.9 PPG / 12.6 RBP / 3.1BPG
- 8× NBA All-Star (1992, 1995–1998, 2000–2002)
- All-NBA Second Team (2001)
- 2× All-NBA Third Team (1998, 2002)
- 4× NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001)
- 3× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1997–1998, 2001)
- 3× NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1995, 1999, 2002)
- 2× NBA rebounding champion (2000–2001)
- 3× NBA blocks leader (1994–1996)
Beginning his NBA career at age 25, Mutombo immediately became a defensive force. He has eight All-Stars, three All-NBA appearances, and 4 DPoYs. He’s second all-time in blocks, and a 3x league leader. We have come to realize that blocks do not equate to good defence, but for Dikembe the numbers ring true. According to this article, drawing data from NBA.com, Mutombo has far and away the best defensive plus/minus of anybody in the league through his late prime of 1996–2000.
However, the reality is Mutombo was a very weak offensive player. He averaged a double double for much of his career, but only eclipsed 15+ points in his rookie season. Not exactly a load that could carry a decent team, much less a title team. He is not even on Rudy Gobert’s level in that respect, much less Alonzo Mourning or Dwight Howard.
But more than ever we know how much value a defensive role player can have fitting in with a great supporting cast. Gobert being the first example. Mutombo was fairly unlucky with teammates. Only ever playing with two All-Stars — Christian Laettner and Steve Smith — both on the Hawks. But in his 18 seasons, his teams missed the playoffs 5 times and lost in the first round seven times. On paper his 2001 season is his most successful. He was All-NBA second team, and starting center on the Sixers team that Iverson dragged to the Finals. The list of “second best players on championship teams is quite impressive, but the ’01 Sixers were perhaps the weakest post-1980 Finals team ever, and not a true contender. According to Thinking Basketball (p. 147), the ’01 Sixers would win a title just 3% of the time, based on their point differential.
Though comfortably a top 20 all-time player defensively, he was paid similarly to guys able to handle a bigger offensive load, often hampering his team. Mutombo was elected the Hall of Fame in 2014, and deservingly so. But he is substantially worse offensively than other players on the Top 100, and just about every other player on the long list of guys in consideration.
Wallace — 8.2 PPG / 12.8 RPG / 2.8 BPG
- NBA Champion (2004)
- 4 x NBA All-Star (2003–2006)
- 4 x Defensive Player of the Year (’02, ’03, ’05, ‘06)
- 3 x All-NBA 2nd Team (’03, ’04, ‘06)
- 2x All-NBA 3rd Team (’02, ‘05)
- 5x All Defensive 1st Team (2002–2006)
- All Defensive 2nd Team (2007)
- 2x NBA rebounding leader (2002, 2003)
- NBA blocks leader (2002)
Wallace is extremely similar to Mutombo, in style and in resumé. They will probably be the only two guys with four DPoY awards. Wallace, much like Mutombo, was an extremely flawed offensive player, perhaps even more so. He never averaged over 10 points per game.
He benefited from a fantastically cohesive Pistons team that won the title in 2004. There’s been some revisionist history with the ’04 Pistons, arguing they only won because the Shaq and Kobe Lakers were crumbling. But the Pistons were a legitimately all-time defensive team, who became greater than the sum of their parts due to a deep bench of solid players. Not entirely unlike the ’89 and ’90 champion Pistons teams. Wallace was a crucial part of that. And could prime Mutombo have replaced Wallace to play that same role. Yes. But part of greatness is right place right time, and so Wallace deserves credit. He’s posted some of the stock (steals+blocks) totals ever. And could standing only 6'9", could guard guys much bigger than him. That versatility and athleticism would no doubt translate well to today’s game. But similar to Mutombo, if you look at the Top 100, the guys on the lower end could carry offensive loads, or were primary contributors to teams that won multiple rings. Examining the table above, Wallace’s point totals, (8.2PPG) combined with his efficiency (48% TS), are easy evidence of his major offensive shortcomings.
Though I think Gobert’s pitfalls are overblown, there’s a reason James Harden’s Rockets continually beat up on Gobert’s Jazz. Offence matters more than defence in the NBA. Wallace, who narrowly missed out on the Hall of Fame this year, should eventually make it. Being in the Hall of Fame is not a pre-requisite for this list, but it shows his flaws are obvious to more than just us. Even though his resumé stacks up next to Mutombo’s, the consensus is he wasn’t quite on his level. He deserves mention in the great defensive players, but the Top 100 players list fills out quicker than one might think.
If you’re still not convinced, use Bob Lanier as your test case. Lanier is the lowest ranking centre on our broader list. He ranked at #92 on Bill Simmons Top 96, and currently ranks #104 on this one. Lanier played in the 70s, for the Pistons and Bucks, and was an 8x All-Star. His teams never made it far in the playoffs, but he averaged an impressive 20.1 PPG among true centres all time for his career, best for 12th all-time, and ahead of players such as Willis Reed and Artis Gilmore. Lanier may raise a team’s floor more than a ceiling, but his all around game has to be respected more than the one-trick ponies Mutombo and Wallace were. Draymond Green would similarly not raise a team’s floor greatly, but his passing and ball handling make him far more valuable in terms of scaling onto a good team. So if you are making the case for either of these centres, you have to place them above Lanier, along with a slew of other modern players knocking on the door of The Pyramid. Even still, the #100 player, currently Connie Hawkins, still sits a few spots away.