The Surprising Mount Mutombo

On December 23rd Yao Ming fractured his leg. As a result, he missed the next 32 games. One would expect that losing a center that John Hollinger has named as the most likely current big man to be listed someday as one of the top ten centers of all time (insider only) would severely harm a team. Yet in the 32 games Ming was lost to injury, the Houston Rockets managed to win 20 times. This 0.625 winning percentage exceeds the 0.586 winning percentage the Rockets have posted with Ming in the starting line-up. So does this mean that Ming is really not that good?

Not exactly. Entering this season Ming had produced 45.7 wins in four seasons. His Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] stood at 0.231, which more than doubles the WP48 of an average player (0.100). This season Ming’s WP48 stands at 0.209, a mark that is again well above average. Clearly Ming is a “good” player.

How can losing such a “good” player, though, not impact the team’s ability to win?

To answer this question, let’s turn to the Wins Produced of the Houston Rockets after 61 games.

Table One: The Houston Rockets after 61 games

The Rockets players are ranked in terms of Wins Produced, and at the top we see Dikembe Mutombo. Mutombo entered the league in 1993 and is currently 40 years of age. Since leaving Philadelphia in 2002, he has played limited minutes for New Jersey, New York, and the Rockets. Prior to Ming’s injury, Mutombo was averaging less than 10 minutes per game this season. Given his age and limited minutes this season, I fully expected the Rockets to look elsewhere to fill Ming’s missing minutes.

The Rockets and Mutombo, though, had other ideas. In Ming’s abscence Mutombo played 27.5 minutes per night. And surprisingly, his per-minute Win Score of 0.382 surpassed the 0.294 per-minute mark offered by Ming this season.

When we turn to WP48, we see 0.340 for Mutombo, a record that again surpasses the production of Ming.

Although it’s surprising to see this production from an average 40 year old player, Mutombo has spent his career as an above average performer. To illustrate, compare the career marks of Mutombo and Shaquille O’Neal.

Table Two: Dikembe Mutombo vs. Shaquille O’Neal

ESPN recently listed Shaq as the fourth greatest center of all-time – behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell. Entering this season Shaq had produced 244.7 wins and posted a career WP48 of 0.338. Although I do not have career numbers of Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, and Russell (because the NBA did not track all the stats prior to 1973), we can see that Shaq is quite a bit better than Yao Ming.

Surprisingly, though, Mutombo – who did not receive any consideration as one of the all-time greats at his position — is not far behind Shaq. Mount Mutombo has produced 183.6 wins in his career and offered a 0.303 WP48.

What do we learn from all these numbers?

  • Yao Ming is very good.
  • Shaq is much better.
  • And Mount Mutombo appears very much under-rated. He is more productive than Ming, although not quite as good as Shaq.

Fortunately for the Rockets this mountain of productivity was waiting on the bench when Ming was hurt. As a result, the Rockets are still in the playoff picture with a month remaining in the season.

Unfortunately for Houston, the NBA considers it a Western city. So although the Rockets are at least as good as anyone in the East, it’s not likely that Ming, Mutombo, and McGrady – with support from Luther Head and Chuck Hayes – are good enough to knock off any of the big three out West.

But that ultimate disappointment should not detract from the fact that playoff basketball will come to Houston this year. And it looks like the team has Mount Mutombo to thank for that event.

- DJ

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