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Preseason Game #4: Film Room | Why Spacing Matters

In the second game in China against the Charlotte Hornets, Doc Rivers experimented with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute at SF to start the second half. How did it go? Not well. Not well at all.

Yeah, so the trip to China did not exactly go as planned for the team. Despite their best – err, average – efforts to win both games, the Los Angeles Clippers walked out of the Far East with a couple losses and quite a few questions. The game really got out of hand in a stretch during the third quarter that featured four of the five starters on the floor. While that’s odd to fathom, it’s not entirely crazy since the player that was on the floor with those four was none other than Luc Richard Mbah a Moute; someone who possesses no range and very little offensive impact. The team sputtered mightily, especially offensively, during that stretch. And that’s what we’re going to look at.

It’s hard to call it a new concept since it’s been around for a while, but the added insistence on spacing in the modern NBA is something that’s very real and very prevalent. With the way that their offense is structured, the Clippers need every ounce of spacing with their starters since Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan both take up a lot of space inside. This is why Chris Paul and J.J. Redick are so valuable. Nearly as valuable, however, is the starting small forward spot since that person is the likely recipient of a ton of open looks from three and when cutting. In this game, we saw Doc Rivers go to a new small forward to start the second half. It didn’t go well. What follows are some examples of why it did not go well.

As mentioned, we cut to the action near the beginning of the second half when the Clippers are still in this game and not being completely whitewashed. Blake Griffin gets the ball near the right wing and starts to breakdown Cody Zeller off the dribble before DeAndre Jordan sets a screen to free Griffin up. Jordan gets a deep seal on Zeller after Charlotte switches the pick-and-roll and Griffin’s pass to him goes just wide and out of bounds, thus resulting in a turnover. It seems like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute’s impact on this play is minimal, but that’s not exactly entirely true.

In the far corner as this play starts is Mbah a Moute. He’s being defended by Nicolas Batum. When Jordan begins his roll to the rim, Batum crashes down to help on the roll. In the meantime, Mbah a Moute starts to walk up towards the wing area. Naturally, with it being a difficult pass in the first place, Griffin would have probably foregone the pass to Jordan and passed it to Mbah a Moute on the wing instead for a really good look from three. Griffin has about three passing options here: (1) DeAndre Jordan, (2) Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and (3) Chris Paul on the left wing. The spacing is just a tad off here, though.

With a better spacing option on that wing, it’s certainly plausible that Griffin has more room to operate as a passer and Jordan doesn’t get helped against on the roll. This play certainly isn’t Mbah a Moute’s fault. He’s just a part of the play that moves around. The pass is off and Jordan is sort of grabbed by Zeller. Either way, you can at least see some of the spacing issues here since Batum’s allowed to help more on the roll and doesn’t even look around to locate where Mbah a Moute moves to. He just slides back into help position on any potential move Griffin makes.

This possession might be an instance of KYP – Know Your Personnel. It begins with Chris Paul dribbling past midcourt and getting stifled by Kemba Walker momentarily before regathering his dribble and passing crosscourt to J.J. Redick on the left wing. This is a brilliant piece of vision and passing by Paul as he whips the ball with his right hand directly into the waiting hands of Redick. It’s insane. Redick opts to take the three with Jeremy Lin’s hand in his shooting vicinity rather than kick it down to Mbah a Moute in the corner or even Griffin at the free throw line. The shot misses and Charlotte rebounds to end the possession.

As noted, this definitely could fall under KYP category since Redick eschews a pass to the short corner for a three in favor of taking a highly-contested three himself. Once again, this isn’t to blame Mbah a Moute. It’s just a glaring weakness that the team will have with him on the floor. Batum is guarding the short corner and even he starts to inch towards Redick when the pass is made before semi-recovering to the space between Redick and Mbah a Moute. With Luc in the game, defenders don’t have to guard him as much as they just have to guard spaces on the floor. And that bogs down a lot of the sets that the team wants to run.

A possession later, we get an early shot clock heave from three by Chris Paul. Mbah a Moute attempts to run around a curl from DeAndre Jordan here, but he sort of gives up as he comes around the pick and then slices through the paint in an attempt to get to the left corner. After Mbah a Moute passes around the Jordan screen, Redick tries to do the same thing and heads for the right wing and corner. Paul can’t make the pass, though, because Lin jumps the gap on the screen and prevents the angle for a pass. It’s great defense. This forces Paul into a contested three that clanks off the back iron.

Had Wesley Johnson or Paul Pierce been the small forward on this play then perhaps things work out better for the team. They’d certainly be more adept at running off screens and drawing defenders their way on plays such as this one. Unfortunately, it’s Mbah a Moute who is at small forward and opponents don't respect him enough coming off screens or darting through the paint. This is generally just great defense by the Charlotte Hornets and a quick trigger by Paul. But, at the same time, it speaks to a larger issue of the team missing Matt Barnes’ ability to always be an integral part of the offense.

A minute or so later, DeAndre Jordan runs up and sets a screen for Chris Paul that Kemba Walker does a good job of fighting over. It forces Paul to spin back to his left and into the waiting arms of Cody Zeller. But, as he dribbles downhill and probes, Paul can’t find a passing lane anywhere of note. He does have Mbah a Moute in the near corner, but he opts to pass it back to Blake Griffin, who takes a contested jumper that misses. Yet again, this play isn’t Mbah a Moute’s fault. Nicolas Batum just recognizes what Mbah a Moute can and can’t do, but also does a good job of shuffling over into the space between Paul and Mbah a Moute to prevent a pass. A better threat would have his defender closer to him. If this is Pierce in the corner then perhaps Batum isn’t so far away from him like he is here.

This turnover is hardly the fault of Mbah a Moute, but the spacing still is a problem. Paul dribbles into the frontcourt, receives a screen from Redick, and then passes to Redick at the top of the arc. Redick then feeds Griffin near the elbow and proceeds to run around a Jordan screen. This is a simple miscommunication it looks like. It’s unsure whether Redick or Griffin are at fault on this play. Griffin sails the pass over Redick’s head and out of bounds as Redick curls inside the arc rather than outside the arc. The Mbah a Moute part of the play is that he’s sort of just standing there in the corner without moving. It allows Batum to sprint towards the pass as it’s made. Even if Redick makes this catch at the wing, it’s unlikely he has a shot because of Batum being right there.

As this play is developing, it seems like Mbah a Moute would have been better served cutting along the baseline after Griffin receives the ball at the elbow. It would have drawn Batum away from the passing area and opened up another lane for a pass underneath the basket. This could just be the case of a guy not playing with the starting four as much as everyone else and simply not understanding where to be or where to go. You can see how much they confided in him as he barely touched the ball offensively during his time on the court. Perhaps the chemistry increases with repetition.

Here is the last play of the stretch. It begins with the patented pick-and-roll for the team as Paul comes off of a Jordan screen and then a Griffin screen before slip passing to Griffin at the left elbow. Batum runs up to stop whatever Griffin wants to do, but Griffin gets him out of position with a simple pass fake before rising up to shoot. The shot misses and Charlotte gets the rebound after it bounces around. This is a good look for Griffin that just falls by the wayside. The larger issue is off the ball.

As Griffin receives the pass, Mbah a Moute oddly runs up the wing which limits the space between himself and Griffin. This allows Batum to effectively cover two players in one area. That’s a no-no. Griffin then pass fakes to Mbah a Moute and can’t actually make the pass because of the spacing issue. Mbah a Moute does a good job of trying to hustle for the offensive rebound, though. Even though he doesn’t come up with it, he still made the effort and that’s a big deal. The spacing issues, however, are a bigger deal and more of a negative.

This isn’t to say that all of this is Luc Richard Mbah a Moute’s fault. There’s no blame here for him to accept or receive. This is simply a case of your personnel being your personnel and the opponent knowing who can and can’t do certain things for you. While a good defender (Batum) was on him, it still goes to show you that a player with zero range is of no help to the Clippers with the starting unit. This is where the team does miss Matt Barnes. His timely cutting and confidence from deep was of the utmost importance to the team. Lacking those qualities, Mbah a Moute hinders what the team tries to do offensively. I think we can effectively rule out him as the opening day starter at small forward.