[stag_dropcap font_size=”75px” style=”squared”]I[/stag_dropcap]f you haven’t heard by now, then you’ll be astounded to find out that the Los Angeles Clippers have used a different opening day starting small forward in each of the last five seasons. In order, they’ve been: Caron Butler (2012-13), Jared Dudley (2013-14), Matt Barnes (2014-15), Lance Stephenson (2015-16), and, finally, Luc Mbah a Moute (2016-17). It’s the last one that might be making the biggest difference.
The change on the defensive end for the team – and most notably the starters – with Mbah a Moute in the fold has been quite staggering. Since the beginning of last season, the five man unit that now starts games has played 694 regular season minutes, according to NBAWowy. In those minutes, they’ve held teams to an Offensive Rating of 94.4, which is a staggering mark. A portion of the credit deserves to go to their new-ish small forward.
On Monday night against the Toronto Raptors, Mbah a Moute was tasked with guarding DeMar DeRozan for a majority of the contest. DeRozan finished the game with 25 points on 11-for-21 shooting. But one of the bigger takeaways was that he only went to the line four times after coming into the game averaging about 10.1 free throw attempts per contest. In other words, Mbah a Moute kept him from easy points. Not to mention that he made life supremely difficult on the talented scorer even when he was hitting shots. While the result does matter, the process, as Joel Embiid has shown us, matters more. And if there’s one thing Luc Mbah a Moute is doing, it’s making life a living hell for offensive players due to his elite defense.
The first play that we’re going to look at comes with roughly three minutes to go in the opening frame. It’s a simple isolation post-up for DeMar DeRozan on the left side of the floor against Luc Mhah a Moute. Initially, DeRozan tries to burst by Mbah a Moute, but Luc does a great job of getting low and forcing DeRozan to abandon the idea. DeRozan then tries to turn back to the middle, but Mbah a Moute once again gets into great position to force the shooting guard away from the preferred spot. DeRozan then throws a little shimmy shake and attempts a fadeaway jumper that Mbah a Moute contests extremely well. DeRozan sinks it, and Toronto inches further ahead.
Now, while the end result on this play isn’t exactly ideal for Los Angeles, it’s still a hell of a process by Mbah a Moute. First, he stops DeRozan’s possible foray to the rim on the secondary break, and then he walls him off perfectly on the drive to the middle of the floor. He essentially forced DeRozan into a high degree of difficulty shot that the former USC product knocked down. Tip your cap to DeRozan for hitting this, yet don’t overlook why he had to settle for it.
Roughly a full twelve minutes later we see the Raptors attempt to post-up DeRozan directly on Mbah a Moute from nearly the same spot on the floor. DeRozan catches the entry passes and faces up towards the lanky defender. He attempts to burst to his left to possibly get around Mbah a Moute, but Luc defends it well. DeRozan then pulls up for another toughly contested jumper from the baseline. This time, the shot is off the mark and the Clippers get a stop.
It’s nothing too fancy as far as the play call or defensive work goes. It’s a simple play that starts as a post-up for DeRozan. He eventually works it into a face-up game, but Mbah a Moute forces him take yet another tough shot. It goes Los Angeles’ way this time whereas on the previous play he sunk the contested jumper. This is why the process is so important. You’re not always going to keep the ball out of the net, but you can always play sound, fundamental defense to force the opponent into the shots you want them to take.
A minute later, we see the Raptors with a SLOB set where DeRozan is the inbounds passer and Mbah a Moute is guarding him. After passing the ball to Jonas Valanciunas, DeRozan receives a screen handoff from the Lithuanian big man. Reading the play and the personnel, Mbah a Moute dives under the screen and meets DeRozan as the shooting guard attempts a dribble drive move to the hoop. DeRozan goes into a gather, Mbah a Moute stays disciplined, and the perfect defense forces DeRozan into abandoning the shot attempt in favor of a pass. It’s a quality pass that finds an open shooter, but Cory Joseph fails to knock down the shot, and the Clippers get the defensive rebound.
This is one of the things that Luc Mbah a Moute can do really well as far as the defensive end of the court goes. He understands situations and personnel. He knows that DeMar DeRozan is not a good three-point shooter or even a willing one. He knows that DeRozan wants to get downhill towards the rim so that he can either draw a foul or attempt a shot. Mbah a Moute read everything, and then he stopped DeRozan from getting to where he wanted to go. It forced an audible, and the Raptors didn’t make the Clippers pay for it. DeRozan clearly wanted to shoot here, but denying the shot attempt, and doing so without fouling, helped Los Angeles get a stop.
It’s now early in the second half, and all you need to do on this play is watch how Mbah a Moute operates off the ball as a defender. He navigates underneath the screen handoff again, and then Toronto goes into their action on the other side of the court. When Kyle Lowry gets the ball and goes into a pick-and-roll with Valanciunas, Mbah a Moute expertly helps on the roll. He then passes Valanciunas back off to DeAndre Jordan as Lowry goes underneath the rim and through the other side. When he spots DeRozan creeping back down to left elbow, he attempts to swipe at the pass from Lowry. DeRozan gathers, rises into a mid-range jumper, and Mbah a Moute contests it excellently. Unfortunately, DeRozan makes it.
Once again, the result here makes it seem like this wasn’t great individual and team defense, but it really was. By digging down on the roll by Valanciunas, it prevented the Raptors from getting an easy shot around the rim. Instead, it forced Toronto into getting the ball to a player for a mid-range shot at the elbow, and it just so happened that he made the shot despite great defense right in his face. You have to live with the result, but the process was yet again fantastic. Superb defense, better shot-making.
About a minute later, we see DeRozan getting the ball on the right wing and slowly starting to operate back towards the middle of the floor. That’s when a screen from Valanciunas comes his way. Mbah a Moute once again recognizes the situation and personnel, and he fights to get underneath the screen. When Valanciunas stops dead so that DeRozan has the option to cut back to the right, Mbah a Moute freezes and keeps contact with the screener so that he can navigate back underneath it if need be. DeRozan goes left, Mbah a Moute meets him, and DeRozan fires up another supremely contested elbow jumper. Mbah a Moute nearly gets a fingertip on the ball, but the shot goes in.
This is almost starting to feel like an article about how DeMar DeRozan managed to make a lot of tough shots on Monday night. But the important thing to note here is just how well Luc Mbah a Moute dealt with the screen. He not only went underneath it, which is what he was supposed to do, but he then fought to stay in-balance against the screener just in case DeRozan cut back to the right. Mbah a Moute played this perfectly. He then got back to contest the jumper as well as someone possibly could have. Just great stuff from all parties here.
On this possession, Toronto runs DeRozan off of a screen from Pascal Siakam on the left side so that it can free DeRozan up. Mbah a Moute gets over the top of the screen, and the Raptors immediately run another screen for DeRozan – this time with Valanciunas. Once more, Mbah a Moute goes underneath the high screen, but he then fights back over it when DeRozan cuts back to the left. Mbah a Moute gets into the body of DeRozan, and that forces DeRozan into a tough attempt. Initially, DeRozan loses the ball when going up. He regathers it, which should be a travel, and then goes back up into another shot attempt. That attempt is contested extremely well by Mbah a Moute, as well, and it clanks off to the side.
First things first. They ruled that Mbah a Moute had a block on this play. It was when DeRozan lost the ball and regathered it. However, when you slow it down it doesn’t look like the ball is even touched. It looks like he lost it and got it back. Either way, no harm no foul. Still, the defense shown here by the Cameroonian is impressive. He goes over a screen then under a screen and finally back over one just to get back in position. From there, Mbah a Moute expertly defends two separate shot attempts. Pure quality.
Later in the third quarter, DeRozan gets the ball in the left corner area with 11 on the shot clock. This is a pure isolation against Mbah a Moute. It’s just one-on-one basketball from there. DeRozan swings through to the left and attempts to power dribble to the baseline, but Mbah a Moute cuts him off and forces him into a quick post-up. DeRozan tries to size him up, but is forced to retreat to the perimeter once more. The shooting guard then goes to a quick move to the left and into a stepback jumper that Mbah a Moute contests absolutely perfectly. DeRozan puts a ton of arc on the shot, and it skips off the back iron for a miss.
This is how you stifle a player in a one-on-one setting. DeRozan initially wanted to go baseline in an attempt to possibly get to the rim, but Mbah a Moute shut that right down and forced him into a post-up. Knowing that going to that would likely result in a tough fadeaway attempt, DeRozan brought the ball back out and thought he could jump into a stepback to create separation. Except that didn’t happen. Mbah a Moute stuck right with him step for step and shut that entire play down. It was a total thing of beauty.
Lastly, we have another possession in the third quarter. Mbah a Moute starts out being physical with DeRozan on the left side, and DeRozan eventually makes his way up to receive the ball from Lucas Nogueira. As Nogueira goes to set a screen, Mbah a Moute keeps in constant contact with him by placing his left hand on Nogueira’s chest. When DeRozan bursts to the right and attempts to get downhill off the screen, Mbah a Moute pushes off and swim moves underneath the screen to beat DeRozan directly to the spot. DeRozan is put into a tough situation. Mbah a Moute contests what he thinks is a shot attempt, DeRozan is forced to pass the ball off to Patrick Patterson in the corner, and Patterson knocks down the three as Blake Griffin attempts to close out.
Sure, Toronto ends up making a three on this play, but this is definitely not what they had initially designed or called. The action was to get DeRozan to the rim, and Mbah a Moute’s stellar defensive awareness and ability shut that entire thing down right in its tracks. DeRozan was then forced into a pass, and Patterson knocked down the corner shot. It was just yet another instance of Luc Mbah a Moute being a deterrent to easy shots and looks in this game.
There should probably be some talk starting up relatively soon about Luc Mbah a Moute being a possible Defensive Player of the Year candidate. It’s unlikely that he’ll garner enough votes to actually win the award, but what he’s done on the defensive end of the floor for the Los Angeles Clippers cannot be understated. He’s constantly taking on the best wing scoring option for the opponent and making their night as tough as can be. The players are knocking down some shots, but they’re not easy shots. They’re always contested as well as can be, and that takes a toll on an offensive player.
The Los Angeles Clippers begin a six game road trip on Wednesday night. That’s when they’ll be in Dallas to take on the Mavericks, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Mbah a Moute will draw the assignment of guarding Harrison Barnes. And why shouldn’t he? His job is to ease the burden on the rest of the defense by making it difficult on perimeter players to get to their spots. If he does that on Wednesday night, the Clippers could very well walk out of Dallas with another win, and they would see their franchise-best start extend to 14-2. Some of the reason for that goes directly to a 6’8″ small forward whom they picked up off the scrap heap after the Sacramento Kings voided his contract due to a failed physical just prior to last season.