Big men still have a place in the NBA: Dikembe Mutombo

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Former NBA player Dikembe Mutombo speaks to media at Marina Bay Sands on April 5, 2016 in Singapore. Photo: Lim Yong Teck


With most teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA) dominated by small ball plays and lineups, it is hard not to notice the game-changing plays of the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player and one-half of the ‘Splash Brothers’, Stephen Curry.

While the likes of Curry and several other point guards like Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving are household names to young basketball fans, the idea of the traditional big man in the middle may have been overshadowed.

However, former NBA centre and eight-time NBA All-Star Dikembe Mutombo begs to differ.

His name may not ring a bell to younger fans today, but some may remember Mutombo for his iconic right-index finger wag and his superior defensive presence in the paint.

The four-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2015 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee still leads the league with 3,256 blocked shots, trailing only Hakeem Olajuwon.

Both Mutombo and Olajuwon had made historic contributions in paving the way for African players to compete in the American-dominated league. Does he think current lineups are getting smaller and finding less need for the man in the middle?

“I think that the big men still have places in the league and for a good team to win a championship, they still need a big man,” said Mutombo. “We still have many great big men who are still playing in the league. In Detroit, we have Andre Drummond. In Sacramento, we have DeMarcus Cousins and we also have the two Gasol brothers.”

The 49-year-old attributed much of the small-ball plays and lineups to the Golden State Warriors, whose plays appear to focus on its strong backcourt.

“And don’t forget, Golden State has about three to four big men who are helping but nobody is talking about them. They only talk about those little two kids (Curry and backcourt partner Klay Thompson) who are incredible, who I love so much myself and who are a pleasure every time I turn my TV on to watch.”

“Every other good team has a big man as well,” added Mutumbo, while making several references to the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry (30) congratulates Klay Thompson, right, after a score against the Phoenix Suns during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. At left rear is Suns' T.J. Warren (12). (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Fundamentals of the game remain
The dominant Warriors lead the league in scoring from the three-point line, making 56.2 per cent of their shots from beyond the arc. But Mutombo argues that this does not mean the game is moving away from the paint.

“Yes, we have many big men who are shooting more from outside the paint, but it doesn’t change that much. The fundamentals are still there. The game is still great. Our fans are still there, still enjoying the game.”

The Congolese American also demurred when asked for his playoff predictions, emphasizing that it was still anybody’s guess which team would emerge champion in June.

“If you look at the way the playoffs are played, everything becomes an inside game. You can speculate and talk about how the game is played and how the game is changed, but for you to win a championship, you need a big man to give you the lift and the support from the inside.”

Seeking to debunk the notion that Warriors achieved their current status due to the heroics of Curry, Mutombo added, “They had two great coaches in Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr and that’s why we see the success.

“Five years ago, you wouldn’t see them where they are now. They really built the team from ground up. That’s what many teams are doing now, and maybe we might see that happen with the 76ers, who have a group of talented young men as well.”

Retired but still active in the scene, Mutombo was in Singapore for the second meeting of the Junior NBA Asia Advisory Council, which is part of the league’s expanded efforts to encourage participation and active lifestyles among youth in the region.