Article Length: about 1,600 words or 10-15 minutes of reading
When fans pine for the brutish basketball of the 90s, many think back to the uber-skilled and strong centers who dominated on both ends of the court such as Shaq, Olajuwon, Ewing, and Robinson just to name a few. It seems that Alonzo Mourning, more than likely because of injuries shortening his prime, has been mostly ignored in that group of upper-echelon post players. If we just look at peaks though, Mourning stands just as tall (or at least close) to his contemporaries.
From this Basketball Reference page, a couple of key statistics jump out (besides Olajuwon’s stupid 6 stocks in the regular season and 6.7 in the playoffs) is that Mourning ranked the highest in block percentage in both the playoffs and regular season. The other is that Mourning, despite ranking somewhere in the middle in advanced catch-alls, ranked last in the group in OBPM during the regular season and playoffs.
When just looking at the stats, it’s not clear why a player who is adept at drawing fouls, an okay free-throw shooter, a solid offensive rebounder, and a higher percentage scorer would rank so low on an offensive metric. This is where film comes in handy. His offense will definitely be a topic in this film review, but it would be a disservice to not discuss his tremendous defense and strength.
The first aspect of Mourning’s game that jumps out is his strength. Basketball Reference lists him as 6’ 10” and 240 pounds, but there is no way he’s that light. Mourning wields an underappreciated physique that he uses to his advantage on both offense and defense. On offense, he uses his strength and tenacity to fight for deep post position and draw both off and on-ball fouls
This second clip showcases Mourning’s tremendous hands down low. Even when players threw a pass a little too hard or off, Mourning efficiently swallowed the ball before making his move.
If he didn’t draw the foul, Mourning had enough moves in his post repertoire to make the defense pay. However, he excelled at ferociously dunking on his opponents even when they matched his stature.
His hookshot game was okay, but as evidenced in these last two clips, he sometimes opted for a tough post shot instead of looking for an easy kickout. In that third clip, it’s clear that he decided ahead of time that he would take that difficult, off-hand shot before making his move. However, this shouldn’t be evidence that he couldn’t isolate. Here are a couple of examples of Mourning taking advantage of Ewing’s deteriorating knees by torching him in the post for a smooth layup and a powerful jam.
Now, the issue with portability and centers is that, if they can’t space the floor, then their skills will encroach upon their teammate’s skillsets. In general, if a traditional center can’t spot up consistently, he can contribute to a high-functioning offense in one of two ways: passing and offensive rebounding.
Mourning was far from a contemporary pick-and-pop threat, but he was good enough to punish defenses that didn’t keep a hand up in the midrange.
His true value in an offball role lay in his ability to muscle (or swim) his way into position for an offensive rebound. In this first clip, Larry Johnson, an undersized yet strong forward, switches onto Mourning, and is no match for Mourning’s size and strength.
Against his normal matchup of Ewing, Mourning showed a willingness to constantly fight for position. Watch as he vies for post position before “swimming” past Ewing for two offensive rebounds.
It doesn’t seem as if he’s a transcendent offensive rebounder, but he grabbed them at a high enough rate to add at least some value to a team.
As for passing, this is by far Mourning’s worst skill on offense. He showed an ability to make extremely simple passes out of the post, but he rarely, if ever, created a good shot for a teammate.
This next clip is extremely interesting. Van Gundy clearly coached the Knicks into using Mourning’s lack of creation against him. Watch as they rotate as soon as he makes a move on offense. They know he can’t make the difficult pass in the corner, so they relocate accordingly.
From my film study, the following is the best pass that I saw from Mourning, and it is even thrown a beat too late (a good Pierce rotation would have shut down that opening).
It’s clear that Mourning was at least a willing passer. He often kicked it out to the perimeter, and even in this instance, he attempts a tough post-pass to a cutting P.J. Brown, but it’s off and a little too tight.
While I say that he’s a willing passer, that doesn’t mean that he always made the right pass. As shown earlier, he sometimes opted for a difficult shot instead. It might be unfair to label him a black hole, but he’s closer to that than a reliable creator.
Offensively, Mourning is a bulldozer in the paint with few other options. He’s tremendously strong, but not skilled enough to get a shot whenever he wants like Olajuwon or Shaq. His passing is basic enough that defenses can commit a ton of attention to him without being concerned that he will punish them. It also seemed that his offensive presence disappeared for stretches of the game. These highlights are great, explosive and agile moments, but they didn’t happen consistently enough. Furthermore, when he didn’t have the ball and he wasn’t chasing an offensive rebound, he didn’t always know what to do. Watch how he clogs the paint after Clarence Weatherspoon grabs the offensive rebound.
On the other hand, Mourning dominated on defense. His block numbers don’t lie as he showed a knack for swatting away balls when coming from the help side.
That last clip shows Mourning’s rendition of a “Russell” block: a block that the defender saves from going out of bounds. I never saw Mourning intentionally swat a ball out of bounds (like Dwight Howard) as he tried to direct the ball to a teammate.
Mourning also picked his moments when going to block a shot. This next clip shows Mourning’s patience as he lets the shot go up and waits Marcus Camby out before blocking him twice in a row.
Furthermore, Mourning, despite his size, could defend in space. He didn’t sprint around the court like Horace Grant, but he could help and recover quickly. Here he helps on the curl before beating Camby to the rim again.
So far, all of these examples would have shown up in the box score. However, as I mentioned before, Mourning’s intelligence in choosing when to attack on defense was itself a weapon. Watch as he either forces difficult shots at the rim or completely deters shots altogether.
Unlike some of the other most dominant big men in history, Mourning made a few errors that led to easy baskets or fouls. Most of these happened when forced into space such as this botched pick-and-roll coverage.
The third clip is simply a bad gamble that Ewing reads and reacts to perfectly.
Does this mean that Mourning couldn’t guard in space? No, but it was definitely a weakness. For good measure, here’s a great rotation from Mourning that leads to forcing Ewing into a tough shot.
Role: Top 10, first-best player in the league (also a top 10, second-best player)
Skillset: Compared to other players at his position
As always, portability is the toughest one to determine. On one hand, he’s an all-time defensive force that could transform a team on that side of the floor; however, he could not play the modern four on either offense or defense, his jump-shot isn’t reliable enough to stretch the floor, and he’s a sub-par creator. With that said, I settled on a 5 because he could have an immense impact (especially on defense) in a perfect team system.
Perception in the NBA: Because of his injury history and defensive prowess, fans would naturally look at him in the same light as Embiid. Because Embiid’s raw scoring stats look more impressive, I’m sure that Embiid would be viewed as better than Mourning despite Ben Golliver’s famous phrase “the best ability is availability.”
Reality: The Embiid comparison is an apt one, and it provides many possible perspectives about what is important in a player. They’re both giant centers that can only play the five, play all-time level defense, struggle a bit in space, aren’t gifted passers (though Embiid is better), don’t reliably spread the floor (again, Embiid is better), draw fouls at a historic rate, rebound at the top of the league (again again, Embiid is better), and struggle with injuries. Two interesting facts make the conversation even more interesting. First, Embiid has actually struggled more with injuries than Mourning at the same age (and, honestly, through Mourning’s prime), and these statistical comparisons are based on Mourning’s 8th season (his 29-year-old season) and Embiid’s 3rd season (his 24-year-old season). From this, one could either predict that Embiid will easily surpass Mourning’s peak since centers have historically peaked later in their 20s, or Embiid’s injuries will end hurt his career even more than Mourning’s. It’s also important to note that Mourning was consistently in better shape than Embiid, and even though he averaged more minutes per game, he showed off a higher motor and more mobility. Looking strictly at their maximum performance, I would take Embiid over Mourning, but if we include reliability, Mourning might just beat out Embiid.