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.”
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