Atlanta Hawks

Hoops Rumors Retro: Dikembe Mutombo to the Sixers

The mandate at Hoops Rumors is to consolidate news from throughout the professional basketball world, but nobody ever specified from which decade. Join us as Austin Kent, a grown man with a binder of 1996/97 NBA trading cards beside his desk, cannonballs down the rabbit hole of nostalgia to give significant trades of yesteryear the modern media treatment.

This isn’t the first time a sassy, seven-foot pillar of physical wonder from Africa has arrived in Philadelphia and immediately upgraded the status of the Sixers’ organization, but while Dikembe Mutombo may not publicly hound Rhianna with the same vigor that Joel Embiid does1, his brief tenure in Pennsylvania does deserve its own small subsection in the Philly basketball history books.

In February of 2001, Allen Iverson’s Sixers were barreling toward the Eastern Conference Championship at a 41-14 clip. Their biggest problem, however – a gigantic Shaquille O’Neal-shaped problem – remained unsolved.

Could the Larry Brown-led ensemble of ragtag supporting cast members in Philadelphia really give the league’s leading scorer and ultimate MVP enough help to actually compete with the Lakers in their bid for a second-straight title? Would it make a difference if you piled George Lynch, Aaron McKie and Tyrone Hill on top of one another, veiled them in a gigantic trench coat and threw them in the low post to defend 28-year-old O’Neal at the height of his prime?

The answer to both is ‘Probably not, but actually, well… I don’t know, maybe’.

Regardless, fate had other plans, and on that February 22, 2001 trade deadline, it commandeered the mind and body of Billy King and made the decision to go big or go home2.

Perhaps it was the untimely wrist injury to 27-year-old defensive anchor Theo Ratliff that compelled Philly to pull the trigger on the deal that would land them a 34-year-old, three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Perhaps it was just growing trepidation that what they had wouldn’t be enough to keep up with the Lakers. Maybe they just couldn’t find a trench coat long enough to cover three professional basketball players without anybody noticing.

What we do know is that the Sixers didn’t want – and possibly couldn’t afford – to take any chances. Not with Ratliff sidelined and question marks surrounding his long-term health. Not with Iverson somehow single-handedly dragging fellow starters Lynch, McKie, and point guard Eric Snow to relevance for the first and only times in their respective careers3.

Alas, with pressure to keep their arguably unsustainable momentum rolling, the Sixers dealt Ratliff, along with Toni Kukoc, Nazr Mohammed and Pepe Sanchez, to Atlanta in exchange for Mutombo and Roshown McLeod.

In Mutombo, the Sixers gained a generational defensive stalwart, somebody with the gravitas to convince Iverson that they were committed to building a winner around him. The best part is that it worked. Sort of. The acquisition helped Philadelphia stave off the best that the Eastern Conference could throw at them, something that even the staunchest critics of the deal would have to agree wasn’t guaranteed.

“My sense is we might not have been able to hold on without Theo,” head coach Brown would tell the Associated Press several weeks after the team completed the trade. “I didn’t expect him to be back and contributing until the playoffs.”

Mutombo averaged 11.7 points and 12.4 rebounds per game for the Sixers over the course of the subsequent 26 regular season contests – and while his 2.5 blocks paled in comparison to the 3.7 bar Ratliff had set in the season’s first 50 games – there was finally an established star on the roster to help shoulder some of the pressure otherwise carried by Iverson alone.

In 23 playoff games that year, Mutombo ramped up his averages to 13.9 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game, but not even that would be enough. Though Mutombo would respectably claim his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award during that postseason run, the team still couldn’t find a way to slow the 300-plus-pound O’Neal when they eventually encountered him.

En route to his second consecutive Finals MVP, O’Neal overpowered anything Philadelphia decided to throw his way, averaging 33.0 points and 15.8 rebounds per game in the eventual five-game series. Seeing as both O’Neal and Mutombo have since been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, that’s more of a compliment to the former than it is a knock on he latter, but it is kind of both.

Simply put, the peek of the Iverson Era Sixers happend to overlap with O’Neal’s physical prime. That’s not Mutombo’s fault, it’s not Iverson’s fault – it’s not even King’s fault. Just because doubling down on the present didn’t work, doesn’t mean it wasn’t still the best course of action.4

Sure, one need not look far to find Sixers fans griping about King’s decision making while an executive with the organization, but while I won’t defend the fact that Ratliff and Mutombo were literally the only players to be named to an All-Star Game alongside AI during his entire Philadelphia tenure, the deal that yielded Mutombo can’t be judged too harshly.

Hindsight reveals that the blockbuster deal didn’t deliver the result that Sixers fans wanted at the time – and, granted, it may have hamstringed them down the road – but hindsight also tells us that Ratliff was never quite the same player after the deal as he was before. In fact, when you consider that Mutombo was promptly unloaded to the Nets when the Sixers started trending downward the following season5, all hindsight really tells us is that Shaquille O’Neal was a destroyer of worlds who feasted on the souls of any who dared to oppose him, striking fear in the hearts of Eastern Conference executives whose only conceivable response was to desperately acquire Dikembe Mutombo and hope for the best.

This is nothing that we couldn’t have guessed at the time.

In that spring of 2001, the Hawks were in no position to contend in the Eastern Conference and Mutombo was a pending free agent, anyway. For Atlanta, the move was a no-brainer. In reality, the decision to move their cornerstone effectively served as a symbolic end to the era in which he and Steve Smith combined to position the team as fringe contenders year-in and year-out6.

As a result, the Hawks team that Ratliff would join was a dismal one led by a 23-year-old Jason Terry and, although it would eventually feature an impressive-sounding frontcourt of Ratliff, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Glenn Robinson two seasons later, nothing would ever come of it. The Hawks franchise wouldn’t win more than 35 games until Joe Johnson and Josh Smith led them to the postseason in 20087.

With little incentive to rush back, Ratliff didn’t return from his wrist injury during that 2000-01 campaign, suggesting that Brown’s concern over Ratliff’s health was eerily well-placed. The next season, his first full one in Atlanta, a hip injury sidelined the big man for all but three games and he would never go on to average more than 8.7 points again for the remaining 10 years of his career8.

More impactful during his stint with the Hawks was Toni Kukoc. Despite that or perhaps because he joined a team whose only real offensive weapon was a diminutive second-year guard named Jet, Kukoc came alive in Atlanta, showcasing his versatility and the potential to lead an offense that he had occasionally shown flashes of with the historic Bulls several years prior.

In 17 games with his new team, an admittedly bitter Kukoc averaged 19.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game – not bad for a 32-year-old after two underwhelming half seasons in Philadelphia. He didn’t quite match those numbers the following year as the Hawks wisely set about rebuilding and brought in Georgia native Abdur-Rahim to be their focal point, but it was an entertaining taste of what the international star could have been producing all along had he originally landed in a different situation than with Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and the Bulls.

Of course history won’t remember Kukoc’s brief dalliance with greatness during his 14 starts as a Hawk back in 2001 or Ratliff’s admirable attempts to re-establish himself as a defensive anchor in the early aughts. It won’t even remember that King and the Sixers quickly cut their losses and got at least something out of Mutombo before the sun finally set on Iverson’s time with the franchise in 2006.

No, all history will remember about this trade is the beloved, larger than life, physical powerhouse that arrived in Philadelphia one day, a highly acclaimed fan favorite charged with the unenviable task of leading the Sixers to the next level.

Sound familiar?

At least this time around Shaquille O’Neal isn’t here to ruin this outcome.


Footnotes:

  1. But just imagine if he did…
  2. I have no such logical explanation for other Billy King decisions.
  3. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about your ’95 All-Star nod, T-Hill.
  4. For all we know King could have stood pat at the deadline only to watch the Sixers slide out of pole position in the East, ultimately get dumped in the first-round by a healthier team, exacerbating the rift between Iverson and the team brass, eventually catalyzing their star’s exit from Philadelphia. Way to go, Hypothetical Billy King.
  5. New Jersey’s hasty reaction to their own merciless beat-down at the hands of the Lakers in 2002.
  6. Underrated Fun Fact #567: Pearl Jam briefly operated under the band name Mookie Blaylock.
  7. The 2007 Hawks have a standing reservation on my Maybe Not Necessarily Dominate, But Definitely Awesome Top Ten List.
  8. Although in 2003-04, he would go on to play in 85 games. A product of another mid-season deal, this time to the Trail Blazers.

Hoops Rumors Retro is a weekly feature. Be sure to follow and get at Austin Kent (@AustinKent) with suggestions for future pieces.

Jan. 14, 2017 – Penny Hardaway to the Suns.
Jan. 7, 2017 – Gary Payton to the Bucks.

Stein’s Latest: Nurkic, Millsap, Gay, Tucker

The latest column from ESPN.com’s Marc Stein is filled with fresh rumors as next month’s trade deadline approaches. We’ve already shared the Bulls’ interest in Chris Bosh and the Magic’s offer for Goran Dragic. Here are some more intriguing trade tidbits:

  • Nuggets big man Jusuf Nurkic is almost certain to be traded before the February 23rd deadline. Denver officials admitted that pairing Nurkic with Nikola Jokic didn’t work, and they want to ship him to a team where he has a chance to be a starting center.
  • Teams are very skeptical about the Hawks‘ assertion that All-Star forward Paul Millsap has been pulled from trade consideration. The 31-year-old has a player option worth nearly $21.5MM for next season and is expected to test the free agent market.
  • The Kings had numerous offers for Rudy Gay, mostly during the offseason but also more recently, but elected to keep him in hopes of earning a playoff spot. The Thunder, Heat and Blazers were the most interested teams last summer. Gay is out for the season after tearing an Achilles tendon Wednesday night.
  • The Kings would like to find teams willing to take Ben McLemore and Arron Afflalo.
  • The Clippers offered the Suns a future second-round pick for P.J. Tucker, but Phoenix is holding out for a first-rounder. The Clippers owe their first-round pick this year to Toronto and in 2019 to Boston, so the next first-rounder they could offer would be in 2021.
  • Tucker and Brandon Knight are considered the most available Suns. Coach Earl Watson said this week that the team will not trade veteran center Tyson Chandler.
  • The Nuggets would like to sign Alonzo Gee to another 10-day contract once Mo Williams clears waivers. Gee’s first 10-day contract expired Wednesday, the same day Williams was waived after being acquired in a trade with the Hawks.

P.J. Tucker Drawing Trade Interest

The market for P.J. Tucker, who is on track for unrestricted free agency this summer, is growing and several teams hold interest in acquiring the veteran small forward, John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM reports. The Clippers, Bulls, Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Hawks all have interest in trading for Tucker, who is known for is defensive prowess, Gambadoro reports.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the Knicks had interest in Tucker as well, but Gambadoro did not add New York to his list. Gambadoro cautions that a trade may not get done for a few reasons. The main one seems to be that Phoenix is also interested in re-signing Tucker because it does not have another player like him with his defensive and rebounding abilities, Gambadoro writes. Unless the Suns are confident they can re-sign him, however, it makes to shop him around.

The Suns likely aren’t willing to part with Tucker unless they can get a first-round pick or good prospect in return, Gambadoro reports, and for a team like the Clippers, that may be a deal-breaker, considering Tucker is only a marginal upgrade over someone like Wesley Johnson. This is simply my speculation, but of the teams listed, a larger trade would likely have to take place for it to make sense because those clubs do not have much to offer in terms of draft picks or young talent.

Tucker has made only 17 starts for the Suns this season, but has appeared in 41 games. His minutes are down a bit at 27.4 per game. Never known as a particularly strong shooter, Tucker is averaging 6.3 points per game and is attempting 5.7 field goals per game. His 5.7 rebounds per game is lower than any of his averages in that category in his three previous seasons with the Suns.

Budenholzer Has Coached Neal Before

  • Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said his familiarity with Gary Neal played a role in the team’s decision to sign the veteran guard to a 10-day contract, relays Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Budenholzer was an assistant with the Spurs when Neal played for San Antonio from 2010-13. “I have a great comfort level and confidence in Gary,” the coach said. “His ability to shoot and make shots and be a weapon coming off the bench in big games. He is a competitive guy, a smart guy.” Budenholzer plans to use Neal primarily as a third point guard.

Hawks Sign Gary Neal To 10-Day Contract

3:25pm: The signing is official, according to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Twitter link).

9:08am: The Hawks will sign Gary Neal to a 10-day contract, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical. Atlanta will open up a roster spot by trading Mo Williams to the Nuggets.

Marc Stein of ESPN reported over the weekend that the team was “strongly leaning” toward signing the shooting guard. The 32-year-old previously played under coach Mike Budenholzer when Budenholzer was an assistant in San Antonio.

Neal has been playing for the Texas Legends, the D-League affiliate of the Mavericks. He’s played for five teams over his six-year NBA career, including the Wizards last season.

Nuggets Acquire, Waive Mo Williams

1:40 pm: The deal is official, according to a Hawks’ press release. As part of the deal, Atlanta will gain a $2.2MM trade exception that will expire one year from today.

8:49 am: The Hawks have agreed to send Mo Williams and cash considerations to the Nuggets in exchange for the rights to Cenk Akyol, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reports. Denver is expected to waive Williams upon arrival.

The point guard’s contract, which is worth $2.2MM, will get the Nuggets within $7.66MM of the salary floor. Wojnarowski notes that the move will save the team roughly $1.0MM in addition to the cash considerations Atlanta will send its way.

Williams hasn’t played this season and while he’s expressed interest in playing again, he hasn’t committed to making a return to the league. Akyol was selected in the 2005 draft but never came stateside. Wojnarowski notes that he’ll likely never play in the NBA.

Lowe’s Latest: Barnes, Howard, Evans

Zach Lowe of ESPN.com examines the Pelicans‘ roster building strategy and cautions that the team doesn’t have much time to build a championship roster around Anthony Davis in his latest piece. It’s is packed full of noteworthy trade rumors and tidbits, including the story we passed along earlier today about how the Sixers will take a “hard look” at Jrue Holiday in free agency.

Here are more highlights from the piece:

  • The Pelicans considered making a sizable offer to Harrison Barnes in free agency before deciding to spend their available cap space on multiple players, sources tell Lowe. The scribe adds that Barnes would have considered New Orleans had the team contacted him.
  • The Hawks and Pelicans had exploratory talks about a Dwight Howard deal a couple weeks ago, but that was before Atlanta pulled all of its players off the trade market. Lowe notes that it’s unclear how interested New Orleans was in the deal and adds that there was not unanimous support to acquire Howard within the organization.
  • If the Pelicans decide to shake up the front office at the end of the season, Danny Ferry, who is currently serving in an advisory role with the team, is not likely to take over GM duties, sources tell Lowe.
  • Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday will both be free agents this offseason and Lowe notes that it will be hard for the Pelicans to keep both. The scribe adds that retaining Holiday remains New Orleans’ higher priority.

Hawks Auditioning For Fourth Wing Spot

Hawks May Sign Gary Neal To 10-Day Contract

JANUARY 15th, 11:08am: Atlanta would waive Mo Williams if it signs Neal, tweets Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders. Williams, who was acquired from the Cavaliers in the Kyle Korver trade last week, underwent surgery on his left leg in October and is officially retired. The Hawks will have to pay the remainder of his $2.2MM contract even if he is released.

JANUARY 14th, 7:34pm: The Hawks are “strongly leaning” toward signing Gary Neal, tweets Marc Stein of ESPN.com. Atlanta worked out the veteran guard earlier this week and may be ready to give him a 10-day contract.

Neal recently joined the Texas Legends of the D-League (Twitter link). He spent last season with the Wizards, where he averaged 9.8 points and shot .410 from 3-point range in 40 games. The 32-year old has also played for San Antonio, Milwaukee, Charlotte and Minnesota in a six-year NBA career.

The Hawks have an open roster spot to sign Neal after waiving Ryan Kelly last week.

Cavs Send $750K To Hawks In Kyle Korver Deal

  • The Cavaliers are sending $750K in cash to the Hawks as part of the Kyle Korver trade, tweets Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders. As our Salary Cap Snapshot for the Cavs shows, the team has now sent out cash in three separate trades during the 2016/17 league year. Cleveland is eligible to send out another $750K.

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