April 14 2000
Two players that are traded for each other in the future face off in Atlanta.
[Dikembe gets dunked on in front of his father]
Dikembe Mutombo by the time he entered the Atlanta Hawks organization, had already made his name as a top center in the league up in Denver, highlighted by his round 1 upset as the 8th seeded underdogs against the Seattle Sonics. He was an All-Star his first season in the NBA, was Defensive Player of the Year his third season, and led the league in blocks 3 straight times before his arrival in Atlanta.
By the time Dikembe arrived in Atlanta, he was 30 years old in 1996. In NBA center years at the time, he probably had about 3 good years left when compared to his contemporaries in the 1990s. Mutombo continued to thrive in Atlanta, this time with more team success, as the likes of Steve Smith, Christian Laettner and Mookie Blaylock along with coach Lenny Wilkens would be his supporting cast with the Hawks. The team would enjoy success in the regular season, before succumbing in the playoffs.
With the departure of key cast members like Mookie Blaylock and Christian Laettner and most importantly co-star Steve Smith to the Trail Blazers, the Hawks began a descent in the Eastern Conference standings. While the Hawks lost more games, Mutombo actually got a little better. This season (99-00), at age 33, Dikembe averaged a career high 14.1 rebounds, leading the league for the first time in his career. He would do the same the next year, and collect 22 rebounds in the 2001 All-Star game for the East.
While Dikembe led the league in rebounds in the 1999-00 season, the Atlanta Hawks only won 28 games, and had a younger team around Mutombo, as leading scorers on the team were Isaiah “JR” Rider (absent from this game) and Jim Jackson from Dallas. After another half season from Mutombo at the center position, where he put up 9 points and 14 rebounds and an All-Star selection, Dikembe was traded for the first time in his career.
While Dikembe Mutombo was making his mark in Denver, there was a magnificent shot blocker playing at Wyoming named Theo Ratliff. Ratliff finished as the career leader in blocks with 425, a record he still holds today. He was selected 18th overall in the 1995 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons, and after gradually receiving more minutes, was traded for Jerry Stackhouse to join Philadelphia. Ratliff enjoyed immediate but overlooked success, averaging 11 and 8 with 3.0 blocks per game for Philly. At 6’10, Ratliff more relied on timing than his leaping ability to block opponents shots. Shot blocking continued to be Ratliff’s best skill, and was even voted an All Star reserve in 2001.
Ratliff suffered an injury however during the season, and was slated to be out until next season. Meanwhile, Dikembe Mutombo a few weeks earlier put up 22 rebounds in the All-Star game, where he shared the floor with game MVP Allen Iverson, and was coached by Larry Brown. With this performance fresh in their minds, the 76ers sprung a deal for the former DPOY Mutombo, acquiring him by parting with Theo Ratliff along with Toni Kukoc, Pepe Sanchez (first player from Argentina in NBA history), and Nazr Mohammed.
Mutombo and the 76ers would reach the NBA Finals, but fall short to the mighty LA Lakers in 5. At the time of the trade, Dikembe was 34, Theo was 27. Following the NBA Finals trip, Mutombo was again an All-Star at age 35, averaging 11.5 points 10.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. In the same season for Atlanta, Ratliff was only able to play 3 games. The following season, the New Jersey Nets traded for a 36 year old Dikembe Mutombo to fill their need at Center, in exchange for Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch. Mutombo dealt with nagging injuries, but contributed sporadically to the Nets postseason run (lost in the Finals to the Spurs), but it seemed father time was catching up to Dikembe and after one season, the Nets bought out the remainder of his contract. In the same season, Theo Ratliff averaged 8.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and a league leading 3.2 blocks per game. The following year, he would lead the league in blocks once again with 3.6, this season splitting with Atlanta and the Portland Trail Blazers after being traded.
Now my question is this: Would the 76ers have been better off with Theo Ratliff instead of Dikembe Mutombo?
As crazy as it may sound, I think the 76ers sacrificed long-term for the short-term in Dikembe Mutombo. They saw a championship window fulfilled with an All-Star Center, in which they were without due to Ratliff being hurt, and the better player being Mutombo at the time. In the years following the trade, however, Theo Ratliff was the better pro then the Hall of Famer Mutombo.