Sign Deke? That's old news
The Knicks need a big man. Instead, they got an old man by signing Dikembe Mutombo.
The trouble is, it looks like it's three or four years too late.
Coming off two straight non-playoff seasons in the Eastern Conference, where you can't find quality 7-footers, the Knicks could really have used the old Mutombo.
The one who captured an NBA-record four Defensive Player of the Year awards in a seven-year span. The one who deflected shots with one hand and wagged his index finger with the other. The one who blocked more shots than anyone else in the NBA over a four-year stretch. But unless he proves otherwise, the Knicks aren't getting the old Mutombo.
They're just getting an old Mutombo.
"He doesn't play with the same energy he used to -- he's just a 20-minute-a-game player now," said one Eastern Conference scout after the Knicks made it official. "He used to be able to chase down rebounds. Now he gets them when they come to him. He's just slowed down a lot. His mobility has decreased."
Which is precisely the reason Dallas took a pass on the 37-year old, eight-time All-Star. If anyone out West could have used the old Mutombo to shut down the lane, dominate the glass and give them some much-needed toughness on the baseline, it's Don Nelson's team. But as soon as Mutombo reached an agreement to take a buyout from New Jersey, the Mavericks decided he couldn't help. They must have heard his creaky legs all the way down in Big D, because he was immediately dismissed as too slow for their up-tempo style.
Then how come the Knicks chose to increase their league-high payroll to just under $90 million for this season, by giving him a two-year deal worth about $8.5 mil? Because this is what it's all about for this once-proud franchise.
Without a championship since 1973, the Knicks can never admit the obvious and rebuild, not when they lead the league in ticket prices. They're content to continually add to their veteran mix, even if the pieces, like Mutombo, have seen their better days. Sadly, winning games has taken a backseat to winning over the community with player appearances.
For the team's owners, if players are community-minded and can help the marketing department with guest appearances at schools, that's really what counts. What that has to do with winning, no one knows. But it's the reason the team regards players like Allan Houston so highly. And, conversely, part of the reason why Latrell Sprewell, a non-factor in the team's marketing effort, was banished to Minnesota.
Mutombo is one of the NBA's most community-minded and charitable players, so he'll easily fill the Knicks' off-court bill. His tireless efforts on behalf of children and the less-fortunate include the building of a hospital in his native Zaire.
"He's been a player on and off the court who has been a great asset to his teams," Knicks president Scott Layden said. "We've had interest in him for a long time."
|“||I don't know what he has left. He didn't play a lot last year. In the few minutes he got in the playoffs, it looked like he was out to prove something and he was effective. ”|
|— Allan Houston on Dikembe Mutombo|
The Sixers did in 2001, and Mutombo played a pivotal role in helping them advance to their first Finals berth in close to 20 years. Two summers ago, afer Mutombo started to show lots of wear and tear, the Knicks were said to be scared off by his contract, which had close to $60 million left over three years. Instead, Mutombo went to the Nets -- only to play just 24 games after suffering a serious wrist injury. During the postseason, he clashed publicly over his limited role with coach Byron Scott.
Playing third-string behind Jason Collins and Aaron Williams, Mutombo saw brief action in the Nets' first-round series against the Bucks. Then he played all of three minutes against Boston, and not at all in the conference finals against Detroit. In the Finals, when the Nets faced the daunting task of stopping Tim Duncan and David Robinson, he played more than 18 minutes in only three of the six games.
Mutombo's unwillingness to accept a reserve role wasn't surprising. He hasn't adopted the mindset of Shawn Bradley. Despite slowing down over the last few seasons, he still considers himself a force deserving of starter's minutes. Ewing, now an assistant in Houston, and Alonzo Mourning, now with the Nets, both came out in recent days saying that Mutombo still has a lot left and is in his best shape in years. But what else are fellow Georgetown alums going to say? He's shot?
"I don't know what he has left," Houston said. "He didn't play a lot last year. In the few minutes he got in the playoffs, it looked like he was out to prove something and he was effective."
But can he be effective in New York, for more than 20 minutes a night? Mutombo, of course, thinks he can give them 30 minutes a night. If he's right, he'll help a team that has been using 6-9 Kurt Thomas to play center the last few seasons. Last season, en route to 37 wins, the Knicks were dead-last in several critical categories -- overall rebounding, offensive rebounding and blocked shots.
"That's one of the reasons we miss Patrick," coach Don Chaney said. "He stayed back there and he protected everyone in that lane. He didn't get credit for that."
Since Ewing left, the only 7-footers on the Knicks' roster have been of the non-playing variety: Luc Longley and Travis Knight. With a 67-97 record over the last two seasons, the hole in the middle was as obvious as their lack of a front-line point guard.
"There is no question he'll fit right into our system and thrive," Chaney said of Mutombo. "There aren't many players in NBA history that can change the course of a game as much as he does."
Does or did? It all depends on whether the Knicks get the old Mutombo, or whether they're stuck with an old Mutombo.
Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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