Dikembe Mutombo being inducted into the Hall of Fame is a great thing for basketball. He was more than just a finger wag. And his induction gives hope to every great player who wasn’t an offensive force or the stat compiler that most associate with the honor.
It’s not that all his stats were terrible. He averaged 2.8 blocks and 10.3 rebounds over an 18-year career, and those numbers were deflated by the last seven years of it. Up until age 35, Mutombo was still racking up 3.4 blocks and 12.3 boards a contest.
He also has some credentials on his resume that you can’t ignore. He made eight All-Star Games in spite of never being much of an offensive force. He won four Defensive Player of the Year Awards and was named to six All-Defensive teams. He’s 12th all-time in defensive rebounds and second with 3,289 career blocks.
But those are his stats, and he was more than that. Long before we had SportVU cameras in every arena and Seth Partnow’s rim protection stats, we had the finger wag. For over a decade, he was the most dominant defensive force in the game:
With the rise of adjusted plus-minus stats and the like, we’ve come to appreciate that some players have more value than their raw numbers indicate. Mutombo is one of them.
One stat that they’ve devised at Basketball-Reference to estimate such impact is Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM), which is an estimate of points saved over an average player on an average team, per 100 possessions.
Using that as a basis, I looked at all the players in history with 10,000 minutes played and a 2.5 DBPM to determine an estimate of which players “saved” the most points during their careers. Here are the players who prevented at least 2,000 points from being scored:
As you can see, Mutombo is in pretty impressive company (and how Vlade Divac is there, I have no idea).
The other way of looking at his career is through the more complicated “Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus,” commonly known as “RAPM.” That’s an estimate of how much impact a player has on both ends of the court based on how many points are scored or allowed while he’s on compared to other players. It’s important to note that this is an estimate and is highly contextual.
That said, remember that he played on five different teams with a variety of different schemes, and he was the context far more than the beneficiary of it.
Jeremias Engelmann of ESPN looked at Deke’s RAPM, and the results speak for themselves.
Using data from NBA.com, adjusted plus-minus tells us that Mutombo ranked first in defensive impact among all players from 1996 to 2000, rating almost a full two points per 100 possessions better on defense than the next-best player. Overall, Mutombo ranked fourth in impact (including the offensive end), behind only Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett.
During his prime, then, Mutombo was the biggest defensive force in the league by a considerable margin. But when you factor in the rest of his career, it’s no less impressive:
When we adjust for age (which puts all the players on more equal footing, since Mutombo was 34 at the start of this phase of his career), Mutombo was a slight negative on offense but was so dominant on defense that he was still one of the best players in the NBA. His age-adjusted defensive impact was second only to Garnett’s in that era (among 1,467 players), putting Mutombo ahead of defensive stars Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace and Dwight Howard.
On my “if I had a time machine” list of things to do, one would have to be including the cameras in the stadiums for the entirety of Mutombo’s career. Frankly, there’s probably no stat that could do him justice, but his induction into the Hall of Fame is easily justified.