The Mutombo Era in Denver or a Lesson For Portland Fans Today

The big story of the summer – after the Celtics acquisitions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett – is the Portland Trail Blazers acquisition and subsequent loss of Greg Oden.  One reaction I have noticed to Oden’s injury is the sentiment that ultimately Portland is going to be fine.  The thinking is that Oden will return healthy, and the line-up he is returning to is young and “full of potential”.

Certainly the Blazers are young. Beyond Oden, the Blazers have 2006 Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and a trio of recent lottery picks in LeMarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye, and Martell Webster.  Plus the Blazers have a collection of young guards which includes Rudy Fernandez, Petteri Koponen, Sergio Rodriquez, and Jarrett Jack.  All eight of these players have less than three years of NBA experience, giving the Blazers a core of talent that just reeks of “potential”.

When I hear people note this plethora of potential, I can’t help but think of the Denver Nuggets from the early 1990s.  Like the Blazers with Oden, the Nuggets from this time period were both young and built around a dominant big man – Dikembe Mutombo.  And although the Nuggets also had a plethora of potential, the Mutombo Era ended in Denver without the team ever living up to the dreams all that potential inspired.

The Mutombo Era in Denver

The Mutombe Era began in Denver in 1991.  That year I graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan and then soon afterwards, packed up my 1978 Plymouth Volare and drove to Fort Collins, Colorado to begin graduate school at Colorado State. When I arrived in Colorado I began to pay a bit more attention to the Denver Nuggets.  And Tables One-Five report what I saw (well, not exactly…Wins Produced came about quite a bit later).

Tables One-Five: The Mutombo Era in Denver

The story I witnessed had its beginnings in the 1980s. The Nuggets of that decade were coached by Doug Moe, whose motion offense was largely credited with creating a team that was a consistent winner (although not really a title contender). Moe’s last season was the 1989-90 campaign, which saw the Nuggets win 43 games. The next year Bernie Bickerstaff took over with a plan to build the Nuggets into a true title contender by focusing on youth. 

The first year of the Bickerstaff regime was a disaster.  The new coach, Paul Westhead, implemented the same strategy he had used at Loyola Marymount.  The idea was to run the other team into the ground.  This strategy – which deliberately de-emphasized defense – led to one of the worst defensive teams in league history. Denver surrendered 110.5 points per possession, and not surprisingly, only won 20 games.

Although the 1990-91 season went badly, the team was rewarded on draft day with the lottery talents of Dikembe Mutombo and Mark Macon. These two joined a young roster featuring Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Todd Lichti, Marcus Liberty, and Reggie Williams.  Mutombo produced from the start, with a Win Produced of 11.3 his rookie campaign.  Unfortunately, the remainder of the roster didn’t help much and the team only won 24 games.

The lack of success led to another eventful draft night in 1992.  This time the team acquired the talents of LaPhonso Ellis and Bryant Stith. Denver also traded for Robert Pack, a point guard with only one year of NBA experience.  With these players on board, every single player on Denver’s roster who played at least 750 minutes in 1992-93 was both young and “full of potential.”  The team also won 36 games in 1992-93, marking the Nuggets as a definite team of the future.

In 1993-94 the Nuggets added both Brian Williams (who had played two seasons with Orland0) and took Rodney Rogers in the lottery.  Mutombo again led the team, producing 20.4 wins.  In addition, the combination of B. Williams, R. Williams, Ellis, and Stith offered 23.4 victories.  The remainder of the roster did very little, though, and the team won only 42 contests. 

In the playoffs, though, Denver was treated to one of the greatest upsets in league history.  In the first round the Nuggets took on the Seattle SuperSonics, the team with the best record in the NBA.  I can still remember John Elway asking Denver if it was “ready to Mutombo?”(or some such phrase).  With such inspiration, the youthful Nuggets defeated the Sonics in five games. In the second round the dream almost continued, with the Nuggets pushing the Jazz to the limit before bowing out.  After such playoff success, it certainly looked like Denver was on the rise.

Although that was the look, the reality was the team began to slip.  The Nuggets did add Jalen Rose in the draft in 1994.  And Mutombo again led the team in wins in 1994-95, producing 19.1 victories.  But the team only won 41 games.

The next season the team regressed even further, winning only 35 games in 1995-96.  When this season ended, Mutombo signed with the Atlanta Hawks and the Mutombo era in Denver was over.

In these five seasons the team won 178 regular season games, or 35.6 per season.  The summation of Wins Produced across this time period was 177.9.  Of these, 86.6 – or 49% — could be linked to Mutumbo.  Yes, Mutombo was everything the Nuggets hoped he would be.  But the young talent around him never produced enough to turn this team into a legitimate contender for the title.

After Mutombo departed the Nuggets regressed to 21 victories in 1996-97, 11 wins in 1997-98, and 14 wins (or the equivalent of 23 victories) in the lock-out season of 1998-99.  So a decade that began with promise, ended in disaster.  By the time the 1990s ended, the only “young player with potential” left was Bryant Stith. Even Bickerstaff had moved on to other pastures.   

It ‘s important to remember that the team Bickerstaff inherited in 1990 won 43 games.  The Nuggets with Mutombo and all that youth never got back to that level. 

The Lesson Learned

So what does this story tell us about the Blazers today?  The Blazers currently combine two elements of the Nuggets from early 1990s: A dominant big man in Greg Oden (we think) and a collection of young players that each have the “potential” to be good.  When we look at the Mutombo Era in Denver – and NBA history in general — we see one statement that might serve as a splash of cold water for today’s Blazers fans.

Often a young player with “potential” turns into an old player that was never very good. 

Remember, as noted in the discussion of the Pareto Principle, 80% of wins in the NBA are produced by 20% of the players.  Or looking at the flip side, 80% of NBA players only produce 20% of the wins. 

Which side of the coin do we expect to see most of the young players currently on the Blazers?  It’s this question I will look at tomorrow.

- DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are Discussed in the Following Posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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