News - Measuring Mutombo

Should the Hawks trade their star center?

The clock is ticking toward the NBA's Feb. 22 trade deadline and you're thinking feverishly (OK, you're mildly curious): What huge deal will the Hawks swing by the 6 p.m. EST witching hour?
Not so fast, Hawks fans, whoever you are. Whatever deals are bubbling around in your head are not going to happen. Especially not if they involve Dikembe Mutombo.
Absolutely, Pete Babcock is listening to offers. But no matter how many teams are desperate for a center and no matter how much Mutombo rumbles about wanting to play for a championship, there is no escaping these two little words: salary cap.
Do you think the Hawks absolutely, positively must make a trade because their year is in the tank? Wrong. The trade does not exist that could change this season, so why disrupt the rhythm developing among the younger members of the squad?
Given that no deal will substantially alter this season, then, the goal should be to strengthen the Hawks for next year. Does dealing away an All-Star center accomplish that? Not likely, but it might, depending on whom the Hawks could get in return.
That's where the salary cap comes in. NBA trades involve dollars as much as players. Mutombo's mega-millions salary means that the Hawks would have to get several players in return. How likely is it that a championship-caliber team would be parting with the kinds of blue-chip players the Hawks need to improve significantly?
But don't the Hawks need to trade Mutombo rather than lose him to free-agency next year?
Free-agency in the NBA is a myth. Technically, it exists, but the reality is that a veteran player can get more money from his own team than from anyone else. That puts the Hawks in the driver's seat. Sure, Mutombo says he wants to play for a championship. That's what they all say. Until it's time to talk money.
If Mutombo wants as much money as he can get — and trust me, he does — he has to sign with the Hawks. That doesn't necessarily mean he will play here next year; the Hawks can work out a trade with another team, then sign Mutombo for the maximum amount and deal him — hence the catchy phrase "sign and trade" — thereby getting more or better players in return.
Would the Hawks be better off without Mutombo? It's easy to think so every time he stops dead under the basket to wag his finger No! while the game is going on at the opposite end of the court. It's easy to think so when he doesn't take three measly pills that could have prevented the malaria that dogged him the first month of the season, during which time the Hawks got off to that horrendous start. It's easy to think so when every trade rumor sends him into a funk.
On the other hand, if it were easy to get 20 rebounds a game out of the average NBA center, Mutombo wouldn't have been the subject of trade rumors for the last five months. That and the fact that next summer's free-agent crop consists of Mutombo, Chris Webber and such players as John Stockton, have made Mutombo a prize.
But is he? His head isn't always in the game. He doesn't play as hard as he should every night. Despite the fact that he's the Hawks captain, he is more likely to sit at his locker muttering darkly about young players not playing defense than to lay down the law. But he responds to a challenge, as he demonstrated by changing the outcome of Sunday's NBA All-Star game.
Still, the hard, cold facts are that any team close to a championship already has a center more physical than Mutombo, with the possible exception of the Knicks — the jury is still out on Marcus Camby. But every player not in the Knicks' current rotation is injured. So much for trade bait.
As Branch Rickey so famously said to Pittsburgh slugger Ralph Kiner when the 1940's home run king asked the cellar-dwelling Pirates for a raise, "We could have finished last without you."
Exactly. The Hawks can lose 60 games without Mutombo. But that's this season. If the young Hawks are to get anywhere, they'll need a center. The frenzy for Mutombo should tell you that.
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THERE'S NO TRUTH TO THE RUMOR -- that Georgia State men's basketball is outdrawing the Hawks.
FANTASY LEAGUE -- Who would you rather have on your team: Duke's Jason Williams or North Carolina's Joseph Forte?

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