Is Dikembe Mutombo a Hall of Famer?

April 4, 2014

The Keltner List is a series of subjective questions formulated by famed sabermetrician Bill James used to help assess whether or not a player deserves to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Although the system was designed to evaluate baseball players, with a few minor tweaks it can also be used to assess the Hall-worthiness of basketball players. Today I will assess the Hall of Fame chances of Dikembe Mutombo, who will be eligible for election for the first time in 2015.

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 1990s, and I would also classify him as the best player on the Hawks teams of the late 1990s, although some people might go with Steve Smith. In Philadelphia he played second fiddle to Allen Iverson, and after his days with the Sixers 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. He was a key player for the 2000-01 Sixers, who lost to the Lakers in five games, and he was a bit player for the 2002-03 Nets, who lost to the Spurs in six games. In all fairness, though, the 2000-01 Sixers probably would not have advanced to the Finals without Mutombo, who was acquired in a late season trade with the Hawks.

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

Mutombo was an effective player into his 40s, so the answer is definitely yes. In fact, his 2006-07 season (5.2 win shares, .193 win shares per 48 minutes) was probably the second-best season by a player 40 or older*.

* John Stockton’s 2002-03 season (9.0 win shares, .190 win shares per 48 minutes) was easily the best.

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

I don’t think he is. It’s a close call between Sidney Moncrief and Kevin Johnson, but I would go with Moncrief.

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

Mutombo had 117.0 career win shares. In addition to Mutombo, there are 12 other retired players who had between 110 and 125 career win shares: Elvin Hayes, Buck Williams, Horace Grant, Dominique Wilkins, Chet Walker, Bob Lanier, Bailey Howell, Walt Frazier, Kevin McHale, Jack Sikma, Terry Porter, and Wes Unseld. Eight of these players are in the Hall of Fame; the non-Hall of Famers are Williams, Grant, Sikma, and Porter.

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

Mutombo’s Hall of Fame probability is very low (0.064). 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 number 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 First Team and three Second Team selections).

As for the quantitative evidence, Mutombo’s career defensive rebound percentage of 26.2 percent is the sixth highest in NBA history (minimum 5,000 defensive rebounds), his block percentage of 6.3 percent is the ninth highest (minimum 1,000 blocks), his 68.6 defensive win shares are the 15th most, and his rate of .089 defensive win shares per 48 minutes is the 18th best (minimum 25 defensive win shares).

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?

Yes, I believe he is the best center on the upcoming ballot.

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 received just one fourth-place vote and one fifth-place vote in the balloting.

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. In addition to Mutombo, there are eight other retired players with exactly eight All-Star selections: Rick Barry, Dave Cowens, Dave DeBusschere, Alex English, Larry Foust, Bob Lanier, Yao Ming, and Bill Sharman. All but Foust and Yao are in the Hall of Fame, and Yao is not yet eligible.

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 1990s, and none of them advanced past the conference semifinals.

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 signature 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

I think Mutombo would be a welcome addition to the Hall of Fame. He was one of the finest defensive players of his generation and although he was never a high volume scorer, he was an efficient offensive player.

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