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.”
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”