I have really enjoyed this journey in bringing you my list of the twenty greatest Denver Nuggets of all time and as I arrive at number 4 on the list I bring you the greatest defensive player ever to don a Nuggets uniform….Dikembe Mutombo!
Not only was he a great defensive player but he was a shot blocking machine with a finger wag that ended up changing an NBA rule about taunting. Dikembe Mutombo was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 4th pick in the 1991 NBA Entry draft out of the University of Georgetown. He was the third in a line of Centers that the Hoyas boasted including Hall-of Famer Patrick Ewing and 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Alonso Mourning. Over the course of his career Mutombo became one of the greatest rebounders and shot blockers ever to play in the NBA. After being drafted in 1991, Mutombo came to a Nuggets team that had hired “The Nutty Professor”, Paul Westhead, to coach and things were not going very well. The Nuggets led the league in scoring in 1990-1991 but also led the league in points allowed setting an NBA record giving up an astonishing 130.8 points per game while scoring over 125 points per game themselves. The thought when they drafted Mutombo was that he could help on the defensive end while the Nuggets would run like crazy and drop 130 points on their opponents and this would result in more wins. It did result in more wins….4 more wins. The team went from a 20-62 record in 1990-1991 to 24-58 in 1991-1992. But this was not the fault of the Nuggets new big man.
Mutombo would average a career high 16.6 points per game in the 1991-1992 season because the Nuggets put up shots in the first 7 seconds of the shot clock on almost every possession. He also averaged 12.3 rebounds and showed his penchant for blocking shots by averaging a balky 3.0 blocks per game on the season on an otherwise putrid defensive team. The Nuggets would unceremoniously fire Westhead after the 1992 season and some form of order would return to the franchise after that. General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff dug into the Nuggets storied past by hiring former Nuggets Center Dan Issel to coach the team beginning in the 1992-1993 season and this would turn out to be a boon to the career of Dikembe Mutombo. Under Issel the Nuggets would improve to 36 wins in 1992-1993, 42 and an infamous playoff run in 1993-1994 and 41 wins in 1994-1995. A lot of this was due to the improvement of Mutombo on the defensive end and his occasional production on the offensive end. Issel was a big part of Mutombo’s improvement as he taught him under the basket positioning for blocks and rebounds and even gave him a couple of signature offensive moves to use when the opportunity presented itself.
During Issel’s 3 seasons as head coach Mutombo would average 12 points, 12 rebounds and almost 4 blocked shots per game. He was a great last line of defense when Nuggets guards and forwards would get beat on the perimeter. For his Nuggets career of 5 seasons, Mutombo averaged 12.9 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.8 blocks and lead the Nuggets to their first playoff berth since 1989 after the 1994 season. As we all know that 1994 playoff run was one of magical enjoyment for a franchise on the move up the NBA ladder. The Nuggets would beat the 62 win Seattle Supersonics in 5 games in the first round and take the Utah Jazz to 7 games in the second round before finally bowing out to future Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone. During that playoff run, Mutombo averaged 13.3 points, 12 rebounds and an amazing 5.8 blocks per game. He set an NBA record for blocks in a 5 game series against the Sonics by swatting away 35 Seattle shots in the series, many of them from young star Shawn Kemp.
One of the travesties in Nuggets history would occur after the 1995-1996 season. Mutombo’s rookie Contract expired and he became an unrestricted free agent after the 1996 season. It seemed at the time to be a no-brainer to re-sign the improving big man no matter the cost. But in one of the biggest blunders in Nuggets front office history, Bernie Bickerstaff decided not to match an offer from the Atlanta Hawks and Mutombo was gone. This decision would set the Nuggets franchise back 7 years as they would not recover from the loss of such a great game changing player. The Nuggets would not sniff the playoffs again until 2003-2004 when Carmelo Anthony saved the franchise. He went on to have a very impressive 19 year career with stints in the aforementioned Atlanta, played in an NBA finals with Allan Iverson in 2002 and had stints with the Nets, Knicks and Rockets.
Mutombo shows up on a number of Nuggets top 10 statistical categories, mostly on the defensive side and they are listed here:
10th in minutes played with 14,411
9th in free throws attempted with 2,164
2nd in defensive rebounds with 3,297
4th in offensive rebounds with 1,514
3rd in total rebounds, behind only Dan Issel and Byron Beck, with 4,811
1st all time in blocked shots with 1,486
9th in turnovers with 1,016
5th in field goal percentage at .523
4th in minutes per game with 36.9
1st all time in rebounds per game at 12.3
1st all time in blocks per game at 3.8
As you can see from the stats above, this guy was a defensive nightmare for most teams. He was so good on the defensive end that he won 4 defensive player of the year awards in his career including the 1994-1995 season with the Nuggets. He was on the All NBA defensive 2nd team in 1995 with the Nuggets and the NBA blocked shots leader in 1994-1995 as well. He played on 8 all star teams including 1992, 1995 and 1996 while he was with the Nuggets. He was a member of the NBA All Rookie first team in 1992 and was on the NBA All defensive teams in 5 other seasons after leaving Denver.
The greatest memory I have of Dikembe and one of my fondest in my 40 years as a Nuggets fan is seeing Mutombo lying on the floor of the Seattle Arena clutching the ball above his head after the Nuggets had taken out the heavily favored Sonics becoming the first #8 seed to beat a #1 seed in NBA History. The joy on his face as you can see (somewhat grainy) in the picture attached to this post is infectious and made me feel great about the Nuggets future after that awesome day in team history. I also remember the “Finger Wag”, “Mt. Mutombo”, “Not in my house!” and Dikembe “Shadow Boxing” during the player introductions before every Nuggets home game. He was an amazing player to watch and I actually met him at a Nuggets function in 1995 and was just blown away at the sheer size of this guy. He was a large human being who could play some basketball!
So there it is…. My 4th greatest Denver Nugget of all time Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo! (I have waited 16 spots to type that name!!) Photos courtesy of NBA and Denver Nuggets Archives.