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NBA defensive game nothing compared to my era says Dikembe Mutombo

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Since first being awarded in 1983, 16 players have been honored as the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Dikembe Mutombo alone has four of the titles to his name - a record number of wins held jointly with Ben Wallace.

The award is handed out annually to the the player who receives the most votes from a panel of 124 journalists and broadcasters. But, while writers and analysts can judge defensive ability from the sidelines, who better to ask about the current stars aspiring to emulate Mutombo than the man himself?

No school like the old school

GiveMeSport caught up with the defensive juggernaut in an exclusive interview this week, getting his thoughts on the current batch of stars in the NBA known for their defensive prowess. Unfortunately though for the likes of Dwight Howard, current DPOY holder Joakim Noah and rising star Anthony Davis, the legendary Atlanta Hawk instead lamented the current lack of focus on the defensive game.

"They don't play defense like when I played," explained Mutombo when quizzed on the less glamourous side of basketball.

"For someone who came from the old school and you go to the game you're like 'hmm, how did it happen?' "

"I'm happy with how some of the guys are working every given night to prove themselves as a great defensive player in the game today. But they're not in the same calibre as we used to be."

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Mutombo's comments may not go down well with those who pride themselves on keeping down scores in the NBA night after night but the 18-year league veteran is convinced you no longer see the all round defensive display come game night.

"I went to a few games and you see some of the guys coming up. He (might be) one of the best rebounders. Some of the guys can control the paint. But you don't see guys who are rebounding, blocking shots and (getting) steals. Those are the things that I can call a defensive player."

What's changed?

There has been debate over recent seasons about the changing focus of the NBA and the impact new interpretation of foul rules have had on the game - with offensive players seemingly able to draw fouls from minimal contact around the basket.

The likes of Kobe Bryant, speaking in January 2014, have traced the decline of the classic physical shutdown defender to the 2004-05 season. That year the NBA brought in a new rule prohibiting hand-checking around the perimeter, a move that put pay to much of the contact previously expected by players heading for the basket.

“Back then, if you have guys putting their hands on you, you have to have the skills to be able to go both ways, change directions, post up and have that mid-range game, because you didn’t want to go all the way to the basket because you’d get knocked [down].”

It is then perhaps no coincidence that Mutombo's stats noticeably declined from this season up to his retirement at the end of the 2008-09 season. Yes age inevitably played a factor but likely so to did the officials' new directives.  

Change of focus

The changes seen in the game since Mutombo won his last Defensive Player of the Year award in 2001 clearly irk some of the old school. The DR Congo big man though didn't place all the blame on the rule makers. Today's current stars, he feels, simply aren't as interested in the playing the game without the ball.

"I think (its) because of the players. The players themselves are not trying to go the old way. They're trying to find a new way out and I think that is why we're having difficulty. 

"When I came in the NBA I went and found a way. You know Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon who played before me, I came and I carried that game to my generation. But I think that the generation today aren't doing that."

The stats certainly back up Mutombo's claim that today's elite defenders fail to match up to the old school talents.

Between 1982-83 and the 2004-05 season the block leader in the NBA on 11 times registered over 4 blocks per game - the lowest total being 3.23 in 2002-03.

Since 2004 the highest mark achieved was by Serge Ibaka in 2011-12 with 3.65 BPG. Four times in the past decade meanwhile the top blocker in the NBA has averaged under 3 blocks per game.

A bad thing?

Mutombo hints at it in his assessment of the modern game but the NBA these days is built on different foundations to the 1980s and 90s where the imposing centre was king.

Today's stars rise through college focussed on a quick-paced game of offensive strategy and rapid breaks. Today's top defensive players must also acquire the skills to be an effective asset on the ball.

The game is now quicker, there are more points scored, and ultimately this means more interest in the NBA from casual fans. Points win prizes as they say and as such the expectations for an elite defensive player in the NBA have shifted since the days of Kareem, Russell and Mutombo.

The veteran fan may wince at some of the defensive lapses on the court this season but in the age of the highlight reel the defensive game has inevitably taken a back seat.

Current talent

All is not lost however. Mutombo may not list them specifically but Dwight Howard is just one DPOY behind the former Hawks star and Joakim Noah's intensity of defense is to be admired.

Not to mention rising star Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. In the 21-year-old there is hope that the latest recruits to the NBA may once again put defense on the map.

Davis is learning to use his incredible physical characteristics on the defensive side of the ball and is forging a path the likes of Mutombo would be proud of.

 

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