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.
At least this time around Shaquille O’Neal isn’t here to ruin this outcome.
- But just imagine if he did…
- I have no such logical explanation for other Billy King decisions.
- Don’t think I’ve forgotten about your ’95 All-Star nod, T-Hill.
- 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.
- New Jersey’s hasty reaction to their own merciless beat-down at the hands of the Lakers in 2002.
- Underrated Fun Fact #567: Pearl Jam briefly operated under the band name Mookie Blaylock.
- The 2007 Hawks have a standing reservation on my Maybe Not Necessarily Dominate, But Definitely Awesome Top Ten List.
- 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.
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