How the 4th pick in the 1991 NBA draft became one of the most fundamentally sound defensive players in modern history. Also, how he will forever be defined by one of the greatest upsets in NBA history.
It all happened in Denver.
Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jeaques Wamutombo (better known as Dikembe Mutombo) was drafted right in the middle of one of the most embarrassing periods in Denver Nuggets history. The Nuggets, in their infinite 1990's wisdom, fired Doug Moe after letting him conduct the 1990 draft (in which he drafted Chris Jackson). In what is truly one of the most head scratching moves ever seen in team history, Bernie Bickerstaff (aided by Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee ... Nuggets minority stake owners) hired Paul Westhead. He being fresh off of Loyal Marymount's miracle run through the NCAA playoffs after the death of their star player Hank Gathers.
Although Westhead had plenty of professional experience (and won a title with Magic Johnson and the Lakers in 1980) his system of basketball (frenetic, shoot as soon as possible and always run and play zero defense) didn't seem to fit into any sort of NBA personnel at the time. Least of which the burgeoning 90's slug it out style game. During his tenure as coach, the Nuggets would become the national punchline of the NBA. He guided the team to their, then, worst record in franchise history of 20-62.
The first evidence of the Nuggets draft lottery curse occurred that off-season when the Nuggets, despite having the worst record in the NBA, managed to get the worst selection their record would allow ... the 4th pick in the 1991 draft. Luckily for the Nuggets of that era, it was a particularly stacked draft (with Larry Johnson, Kenny Anderson and Billy Owens going No. 1 through No. 3 respectively). With their pick the Nuggets drafted Dikembe Mutombo, a 7'2" center from Georgetown.
Mutombo was known for his defense first and foremost. He formed a front-court tandem with the following season's No. 2 Draft pick in Alonzo Mourning at Georgetown. What was particularly stunning was Mutombo's raw ability to block shots, and his advanced defensive footwork was particularly good for a player just out of college with relatively little basketball experience (Dikembe came from the Congo, and was 25 years old when he entered the NBA). Maybe things weren't so bad in Denver? Maybe things were on the upswing ...
Problem was, Westhead's offense was completely unsuited for the type of player Deke actually was. While he would average more points in his rookie season than at any point in his 18 year NBA career (16.6 ppg for that first season, never higher than 13.8 the rest of his career), it was clear that Westhead had no clue how to exploit Deke's big time defensive talent. Several times during that 1991-92 season, Nuggets TV color analyst Dan Issel said that Westhead didn't need to use Mutombo as an offensive center. The center's talent was on the defensive end of the floor.
Even with Deke, the Nuggets only improved their record by four games. Westhead's offense, and offensive pace was taking its toll on the players. Chris Jackson was completely lost and lacking confidence. A change was needed. After the Nuggets completed the 1991-92 season with a 24-58 record, Bickerstaff fired Westhead.
A change was coming ...
The fate of Deke as the defensive force he became was forever defined when Issel was hired as head coach in 1992. While he had raw skill and advanced fundamentals, he was too scattered. Doing too much on offense to pay attention to where his natural skill was ... on defense. Issel's first order of business was to slow the pace down from the Westhead era and with the 1992 NBA draft pick of LaPhonso Ellis he developed an inside-out approach that featured both Mutombo and Ellis. In his second season in the league, Deke went from constant offensive touches to a defensive nightmare for the opposition.
Issel also improved Deke's footwork on offense. Gave him the best offensive fundamentals he could for such a long, gangly body (if anyone remembers Issel from his playing days, he was a 6'9" center who shot 15' jumpers) and told him to develop a hook shot. Whereas Westhead was saying, basically, "go out and play fast" Issel's approach was more of "go do what you do best, and get better at what you don't excel at". This approach likely lengthened his career and made him one of the most menacing defensive forces of the 90's.
Here are some highlights of Mutombo's career night against the Chicago Bulls during the 1992-93 season:
Looking at that old checkered floor that had during that one season gives me the willies...always hated that floor
During the 1992-93 season, Deke would average 13.8 points, 13 rebounds and 3.5 blocks a game. It was a harbinger of things to come the next two seasons. The addition of Issel and Ellis (along with Robert Pack) improved the Nuggets win total in 1992-93 over the previous season by 12 games (Nuggets finished 36-46 that year).
Deke had a remarkable ability, for a man his size, to stay in front of the offensive player he was guarding. So much so that Shawn Kemp must have nightmares about what was done to him in 1994. In addition to his ability to stay in front of players, most of his blocks seemed to come on the strong side ... ie: facing up his defender. This is not done much nowadays because the fear of posterization is too large. Therefore players will often get their blocks on the help-side (weak side) of the defense. Perfect examples of that would be Marcus Camby and Chris Andersen.
Mutombo had no fear of posterization. In fact, it happened quite frequently. You see, he had developed a finger wag after successful blocks. This irritated many other players in the NBA, who took pleasure in dunking on Deke whenever they could. However, there was a reason why the big center from the Congo was defensive player of the year three times. More often than not Deke was a blocking those attempts, and in 1994 he would be increasing his blocking prowess to a very large level. In 1993-94, Mutombo would average 12 points, 11 rebounds and 4.1 blocks a game. An enormous increase over the previous season in blocks.
While the Nuggets had an up and down 1993-94 regular season, their trajectory was pointed to the sky. The team competed in most games, gone were the days when teams would set NBA first half scoring records against the Nuggets (107 points, scored by the Phoenix Suns). With a healthy Bryant Stith and an up and coming roster, Mutombo the Nuggets were on the brink of making NBA history on the shoulders of Mt. Mutombo. The Nuggets finished the season with a 42-40 record, their first winning season since 1989-90.
I won't delve into the actual series between the 8th-seeded Nuggets and the 1st-seeded Supersonics until much later in the year. However, I will say that it's undeniable that Mutombo, despite George Karl's both public and private protestations to the contrary, rendered the Sonics offense impotent for three straight games. Culminating in one of the most remarkable defensive performances that the NBA has ever seen.
Here is the only number you need care about ... 31. That is the Number of blocked shots that Mutombo had in five games. Setting a still-unbroken record for number of blocked shots in a five game series. Kemp, the high flying cohort of future Hall of Famer Gary Payton, was so thoroughly taken out of his game that he was afraid to go into the lane and resorted to 15-foot jumpers from the corner. Don't believe me? Here is a compilation of Deke's blocks in a tidy YouTube highlight package. Easily digestible.
Mutombo's blocks were part of an overall brilliant adjustment made by coach Issel during Game 2 of the series. As we will see in future articles and podcast interviews, Issel's coaching job in the 1994 playoffs is even more remarkable in hindsight. The way he used Mutombo to cover Kemp is nothing short of brilliant and it's criminally underrated.
All that aside, the final image of Deke cradling the basketball in his hands while he wept on the floor after the Nuggets pulled off the then-biggest upset in NBA history is what we all see when we think of Mutombo. Forget about the three defensive MVPs he won when he left Denver. Forget about his finals appearance with Philadelphia. It's this moment that forever defines him. He is forever defined as a Nugget in my mind.
While Deke would win the first of his MVP trophies during the following season, the Nuggets as we remember them at this time were going through turmoil. Bickerstaff, controversially brought in sharpshooter and questionable human being Dale Ellis. A move that upset Issel and nearly destroyed team chemistry. While the team had brought on future star-role player (for the Indiana Pacers) Jalen Rose, there was something ... off about that season. Issel suddenly resigned in January, and assistant coach Gene Littles and then Bickerstaff himself coached the rest of the season and the playoffs (a sweep by the San Antonio Spurs).
During the 1995-96 season, after a game in San Antonio, Bickerstaff called out players for being lazy and seemed to signal out Deke (whom he sat for the entire fourth quarter). This was a sign of how bad contract negotiations had gone with the center who was still tearing up the league with blocks. It's been well covered in other places, but Bickerstaff then let the center walk to the Atlanta Hawks for nothing in free agency. That, along with a couple other incredible personnel blunders that off-season doomed the Nuggets to six seasons of bad to mediocre basketball.
Would Dikembe have stayed in Denver if he didn't feel disrespected by Bickerstaff? Who knows. No one knows for sure if the Nuggets ownership in COMSAT/Ascent would have paid market value for Deke anyway. Such were the 90's Nuggets.
It was so many years ago. So much water under the bridge. One thing we do know is that for five remarkable seasons, Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo was the defensive nightmare who made his bones in Denver. Atlanta may claim him. Philadelphia may have a soft spot for him. Hell, even the Houston Rockets may say the same thing. However, do me one favor. Take a look at those images of Dikembe holding the ball aloft on the court in the old Seattle Coliseum and tell me that Deke is not Denver's.
I dare you.