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Luc Mbah a Moute Key For Clippers’ Defense

Luc Muc Mbah a Moute has been key for the Clippers on both ends of the court this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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Throughout his college and NBA career, Luc Mbah a Moute has mostly flown under the radar. Over his three seasons at UCLA, Mbah a Moute played alongside notable players like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison and Jordan Farmar. Now with the Los Angeles Clippers, Mbah a Moute is the small forward on a starting lineup that has been one of the most efficient offensive units in the NBA over the last few seasons.

The starting small forward position has been an issue for the Clippers in recent years, but Mbah a Moute stepped in last season and has done a good job of fortifying the position ever since. He has received credit for being the team’s defensive stopper, but don’t assume that he has made some major leap forward this year on that end of the court despite the team’s impressive defensive play. The understated forward confidently asserts that he has always been a top-notch defensive player; the only difference now is people are recognizing it more often since he is playing for the team with the best record in the league.

“It’s not taking another step forward. I’ve always been doing this,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders when asked how his defense has seemingly improved in his ninth NBA season. “I think with the success of the team so far, it’s obviously showing more. But ever since I’ve been in the league, I’ve always been guarding the other team’s best player. I’m doing the same thing here.”

Mbah a Moute is right to be unwaveringly confident in his past and present defensive prowess. Anyone who has paid attention to his game over the years knows that he is one of the more versatile defenders in the NBA. Mbah a Moute’s defensive impact has been on full display early this season as he has matched up against athletic wings like Andrew Wiggins, high-scoring forwards like Rudy Gay and explosive point guards like Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard.

In this play, Mbah a Moute fights over a pretty decent screen from Karl-Anthony Towns and stays on Wiggins’ hip as he curls off of the screen. Too often the average defender won’t fight over the screen, which would have forced DeAndre Jordan to jump out and contest Wiggins’ jumper, which would have created a clear path to the basket for Towns. Instead, Mbah a Moute sticks to Wiggins and times this perfectly, putting him in position to block Wiggins’ jumper.

Having Mbah a Moute is a big bonus for the Clippers since no one else on the roster is particularly well-equipped to match up on athletic wings like Wiggins. Wesley Johnson has the size and build to do so, but too often he misses rotations or fails to stay close enough to his opponents to adequately contest their shots. That isn’t the case with Mbah a Moute.

Rudy Gay has been playing well this season, which is why Doc Rivers would want Mbah a Moute covering him as often as possible. In their matchup on Friday night, Mbah a Moute repeatedly hounded Gay and helped the Clippers hold him to just three made field goals on 11 attempts.

In this play, Mbah a Moute again fights over a screen and sticks with his opponent. He fights to stay close to Gay, which puts him in a good position to contest his fall-away jumper.

Mbah a Moute has even checked some of the most explosive point guards in the league this season, which preserves Paul and allows him to focus on leading the team on offense. Opposing point guards like Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard have struggled against the Clippers since Mbah a Moute joined the team last season and that trend has continued this season.

Here, we see Mbah a Moute’s ability to stay in front of a point guard as quick as Lillard, as well as his ability to effectively swat at the ball with his long wingspan. This used to be Paul’s job on a nightly basis, but now he can focus on less explosive wings while Mbah a Moute draws the Clippers’ toughest assignments.

Mbah a Moute isn’t the most athletic forward in the league, but his footwork is disciplined and he uses his body effectively to wall off opponents without fouling, which can be frustrating for point guards who are used to blowing by opponents with relative ease.

Guarding athletic wings, high-scoring forwards and point guards in isolation isn’t all Mbah a Moute is capable of. Coach Rivers is asking Blake Griffin and Mbah a Moute to switch a lot on picks, utilizing Griffin’s above average lateral movement and Mbah a Moute’s ability to check power forwards and even centers.

“I don’t know, I cannot [speak for anyone but] me,” Mbah a Moute said when asked how he manages to guard all five positions. “But for me especially, I just try to do as much as I can. I’ve done it before, I’ve guarded from one to five. I try to kind of rely on my teammates to help me out, but I try to prepare myself, whether it’s through film or whatever, to be in a position to succeed defensively.”

The ability to switch with Griffin on defense has added a new element to the Clippers’ defense that was missing for large chunks of last season. Griffin has improved significantly on defense this season and has partnered up with Mbah a Moute to stifle opposing wings and big men.

In this clip, Griffin switches off of Gorgui Dieng to defend Wiggins. Wiggins can’t take advantage of Griffin, so the ball swings back to Dieng in the post, who tries to take advantage of his height and size advantage over Mbah a Moute. However, Mbah a Moute uses proper footwork and positioning to both swat at the ball and remain directly in between Dieng and the basket, which leads to a turnover.

While Mbah a Moute insists his defense hasn’t necessarily taken a significant step forward this season, it still seems as though something has changed for the Clippers. Mbah a Moute points to two things to explain the team’s improved play – continuity and the return of Griffin from injury.

“I mean, we didn’t play a lot together last year,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders. “We started playing and then Blake got hurt, so it was a different team. So I feel like this year, the fact that we’ve played more and just me finding ways to be efficient on the team with those guys, that’s it.”

In addition to playing lockdown defense, Mbah a Moute looks more comfortable this season on offense as well. Sure, Mbah a Moute is only averaging 5.8 points per game, but on a team that features several explosive players, Mbah a Moute doesn’t need to score in double-digits to help the team on offense.

Mbah a Moute is shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range this season, which is good enough to keep defenders at least somewhat honest. More importantly, Mbah a Moute is making timely cuts when defenses are locked in on guys like Paul and Griffin, which has led to easy baskets at the rim.

In this clip, Mbah a Moute and J.J. Redick set two screens for Griffin under the basket to get him an isolation post up near the rim. In the confusion, Matt Barnes loses track of Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute notices that Barnes is in no man’s land and dives to the basket, where Griffin finds him for the open layup.

Here, the Kings again forget all about Mbah a Moute, which he recognizes. He makes an easy curl into the lane and is rewarded with another easy layup.

Additionally, Mbah a Moute is simply being more aggressive with the ball in his hands. Several times this season, Mbah a Moute has noticed small cracks in the defense that he can attack off the dribble, which he is exploiting more consistently.

Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most mobile centers in the NBA, but on this play, Mbah a Moute waits for Towns to overcommit before attacking him off the dribble. Towns takes a small step forward, which Mbah a Moute exploits in aggressively attacking the rim. Towns does as well as can be reasonably expected to contest the shot, but Mbah a Moute doesn’t hesitate and ends up with the bucket.

The Clippers’ offense has been trending up in recent games and part of that is due to Mbah a Moute knocking down the occasional three-pointer, cutting for open layups against inattentive defenses and opportunistically and aggressively attacking defenders off the dribble. Mbah a Moute will never be able to space the court the way someone like Klay Thompson can, but his movement and intelligence on offense should force defenses to remain honest when guarding him. Failing to do so will result in easy buckets like the ones we see in the clips above.

If the Clippers are going to break through this season and advance past the second-round of the playoffs, it will likely be based on their defensive improvements. The team has started to slip over the last two games, but Mbah a Moute is confident that not only can they get back on track, but can play even better defensively than they had over the first 10 games of the season.

“Yeah, definitely. We still make a lot of mistakes defensively,” Mbah a Moute told Basketball Insiders when asked if the Clippers’ defense still has room to improve. “We want to go out there and play the perfect game. I know it’s impossible, but we want to get as close as possible. I think if you’re consistent on defense for as close to 48 minutes as possible at a high level, that would be great. If we can do that for one, two, three, four, five games … but we’re far from there.”

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17

Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.

As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.

 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.

The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.

 Andre Roberson

There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.

Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.

 Kevin Durant

Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.

How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.

 Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.

Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.

 Eric Bledsoe

Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.

Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.

 Anthony Davis

Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.

Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.

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Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets

The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.

Moke Hamilton

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It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.

Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.

Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”

After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.

The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.

“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.

“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”

Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.

Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.

“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.

“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”

It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.

When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.

In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.

As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.

Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.

Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.

“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.

“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”

Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.

“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.

But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.

“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.

With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.

Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.

But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.

That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.

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NBA DAILY: The Detroit Pistons Are In A Giving Mood

The Pistons were gifting opposing teams with wins during a seven-game losing streak, but Andre Drummond gifted his teammates with nine assists in a near triple-double against the Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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During a seven-game losing streak that ended with Thursday night’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta, the Detroit Pistons crisscrossed the country like Santa while giving away wins.

The team lost in D.C., Philadelphia, San Antonio and Milwaukee before returning home for a trio of losses to Golden State, Boston, and Denver. As the losing streak mercifully ended, Pistons center Andre Drummond turned his generosity toward his teammates, falling just one assist shy of a triple-double.

“Call me Santa Dre,” said Drummond after the Pistons dispatched Atlanta 105-91 ahead of Friday night’s visit to the Indiana Pacers.

“I’m handing out gifts. I’m just trying to move the ball around. I’m trying to get my teammates in the right position to score. When they do get cut off, they’re able to pass the ball back to me to finish the play. So it’s just fun the way we’re playing.”

It’s been a while since the Pistons could take a lighthearted approach during postgame interviews. Coach Stan Van Gundy called Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets, the last of the streak, one of the worst he’s coached in a career that has spanned better than 850 NBA games.

“It’s a win,” said Van Gundy, declining to take much away from a victory over the last-place team in the East.

“It certainly feels a little less burdensome now, so maybe we can just get back to playing basketball.”

Van Gundy had a lot to say about those burdens prior to the win in Atlanta. Asked if his team had fallen prey to any finger pointing during a poor stretch that has undone Detroit’s hot start, Van Gundy didn’t hold back.

“It does happen, but it’s generally because guys don’t want to hold themselves accountable,” said Van Gundy. “They want an excuse. It’s somebody else.”

Van Gundy further hinted that off-court issues may be contributing to his team’s poor play over the last two weeks.

“It’s hard to play when you have dilemmas, whatever they are. If your dilemma is an off-the-court thing, if your dilemma is I’m not getting enough shots, I’m not playing enough, this guy doesn’t pass to me … whatever your dilemma is, it’s tough to play,” said Van Gundy. “We do have some guys who just never seem to have — or at least they don’t bring it here — a dilemma.”

Rather than single out the offenders, Van Gundy pointed to reserve point guard Ish Smith, journeyman power forward Anthony Tolliver and backup center Boban Marjanovic as role models for consistent contribution, while also shouting out guard Langston Galloway and stretch four Henry Ellenson.

“To me, Ish, A.T., Boban, those guys are the same guys every day,” said Van Gundy. “How many times in two years have you sat there and said, ‘Wow, Ish’s energy is really down today?’ Or you see A.T. now going into his second year like, ‘Wow, A.T. just didn’t bring anything?’ You never say that because they just come and play. They don’t think about anything. They don’t think about, is practice too long? Is he wearing us [down]? They show up every day and whatever you tell them to do, they do. And Langston and Henry are the same, they just haven’t played quite as much.

“They don’t burden themselves down thinking about all these other things. Losing has guys down. Guys haven’t been shooting the ball well. That brings you down. All these things [are] weighing them down.”

While Van Gundy spoke of players holding themselves accountable, his actions suited his words following the Nuggets defeat as he took to the podium to point the finger directly at himself.

“I selected these players,” said Van Gundy. “I decide who plays. I decide what we run on offense. I decide how we play defense. That was embarrassing tonight. That’s on me.”

A single win against a struggling Atlanta Hawks team isn’t going to turn Detroit’s season around. The Pistons currently sit two games above .500 and only half a game ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers, which are presently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. But Galloway, who led Detroit’s bench with 17 points in Atlanta, said the Pistons will take any win they can get, given the recent struggles.

“It’s definitely important to get off the schneid and continue to make an effort to get back on track and continue to keep this thing rolling tomorrow,” he said.

A win on Friday in Indiana would certainly help restore some holiday cheer to the Pistons. But the best gift of all would be to string wins together to put Detroit back in the heart of the playoff race.

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