PHILADELPHIA -- Once again, a team is hoping Dikembe Mutombo can help it win an NBA title.
In a major trade involving the past two Eastern Conference champions, the Philadelphia 76ers sent Mutombo to the New Jersey Nets on Tuesday for forward Keith Van Horn and center Todd MacCulloch.
The deal improves New Jersey's defense and Philadelphia's offense and sends two players -- Van Horn and MacCulloch -- back to the team that originally drafted them.
''With the addition of Mutombo we have the potential to be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA,'' Nets president Rod Thorn said. ''To get a player of that ilk was something we felt we should do.''
New Jersey made it to the NBA Finals last season for the first time in franchise history after joining the league 26 years ago. But the center position was a weak spot for the Nets and they were unable to stop Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Mutombo, a 7-foot-2 center who led the NBA in rebounding in 1999-00 and 2000-01, was acquired by the Sixers at the trading deadline in 2001. Philadelphia was 41-14 at the time of the trade, but made the deal after losing center Theo Ratliff to a wrist injury. Mutombo signed a lucrative contract prior to last season and is due to receive almost $54 million over the next three years.
The four-time defensive player of the year replaces MacCulloch, who played briefly with Mutombo in Philadelphia before signing with the Nets a year ago as a free agent.
The trade also will allow the Nets to move Richard Jefferson, who is coming off an impressive rookie season, into the starting lineup.
''When you put Richard Jefferson, Dikembe Mutombo and Kenyon Martin on the same front line, you have an outstanding defensive team,'' Nets coach Byron Scott said. ''To me, this was pretty much a no-brainer. Rod and I talked about it and I got excited.''
Van Horn was chosen by Philadelphia with the overall No. 2 pick in the 1997 draft but was immediately shipped to the Nets in an eight-player trade that helped the Sixers get rid of some high-salaried players. He averaged a career-low 14.8 points last season and was conspicuously ineffective during several postseason games.
MacCulloch, a native of Canada, is coming off his best professional season, averaging 9.7 points and 6.1 rebounds in 62 games. He missed 20 games because of a foot injury that also will keep him out of the upcoming World Championships.
The addition of Van Horn gives the Sixers another scorer who can -- at least in theory -- take some of the offensive burden off Allen Iverson. Since Iverson was drafted in 1996, Philadelphia has tried unsuccessfully to use Jerry Stackhouse, Tim Thomas, Larry Hughes, Toni Kukoc and others in that role.
''Allen said he needed two guys to score with him,'' Sixers coach Larry Brown said. ''Now, if he's willing to take 20 shots instead of 30 shots per game, there will be lots of shots around for other people with the potential to score the ball.''
Van Horn, a gifted shooter whose toughness has been questioned, averaged a career-high 21.8 points for New Jersey in 1999. He was among the longest-tenured members of the Nets. He will take over the small forward spot from Matt Harpring, who is an unrestricted free agent. Brown also expects to use Van Horn a little at power forward.
''He can shoot he ball from the outside and he's versatile,'' Sixers general manager Billy King said.
Mutombo, 36, has spent 11 seasons in the NBA with Denver, Atlanta and Philadelphia, leading the league in blocked shots in 1993-94, 1994-95 and 1995-96.
Mutombo averaged only 8.8 points in Philadelphia's first-round playoff loss to Boston last April.
''Dikembe was a big part of us going to the Finals. This wasn't easy, but it was something we felt we needed to do,'' King said. ''This makes us a better club.''
Thorn said the Nets and 76ers first discussed a trade on draft night in late June, and the talks heated up again over the past several days.
''If you look historically at the NBA, any time you have a center who is a defender, rebounder and shot blocker, it's always an advantage,'' Thorn said. ''Historically, that's what you need to scale the heights, and from our perspective, we feel that Mutombo will be able to do that for us.''
The Sixers probably aren't finished making moves. Brown said they would at least like to add a veteran backup center. Also, forward Rodney Rogers and center Keon Clark, players Philadelphia has expressed interest in, still are available.
''We lost a great defensive player and great rebounder, but I'm hopeful with all the things we've added, the emphasis won't change, but maybe we'll have to work a little harder to be as good a defensive team,'' Brown said, ''We'll find it easier to score, and I don't think I'll have to do a lot of coaching to make that happen. But I think I'll have to do a lot of coaching to make sure we rebound and defend and be the hard-working team we were in the past.''
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