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Is Mbah a Moute enough at small forward?

Small forward has been the bane of Clippers lineups for almost as long as I’ve been a fan. Have they finally found an answer?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers have one of the best starting lineups in the NBA. In a league awash in incredible point guards, Chris Paul remains the benchmark for the traditional, floor-general, pass-first flavor. Blake Griffin is among the absolute best power forwards in the game. DeAndre Jordan just won a Gold Medal with Team USA and is the current standard for the defender/rebounder variety of NBA center. And in an age of three point shooting, J.J. Redick led the league in three point percentage last season — just what you want from your shooting guard.

Paul, Griffin and Jordan all have a legitimate chance to be All Star and/or All NBA selections this season. Redick complements them perfectly. Short of an actual All Star team, one could not reasonably hope for much more from four starters.

However, the fifth position on the floor, small forward, has been a sore spot for the Clippers ever since Chris Paul arrived and made them a contender. Of course, it’s been a sore spot for longer than that. Even when Corey Maggette was leading the team in scoring a dozen years ago, it still felt like the three was a problem for the team.

In the five seasons that Paul has been in L.A. prior to this year, by my count there have been 17 different small forwards on the roster. Eleven of them have started and more than that had a legitimate chance to make the job their own had they risen to the challenge (remember Chris Douglas-Roberts?). That’s eleven starters at small forward while Paul, Griffin and Jordan were entrenched as the indisputable starters at their positions.

Players to start at least one game at small forward for the Clippers, 2012-2016

  • Luc Mbah a Moute
  • Lance Stephenson
  • Wesley Johnson
  • Jeff Green
  • Paul Pierce
  • Jordan Hamilton
  • Matt Barnes
  • Reggie Bullock
  • Jared Dudley
  • Caron Butler
  • Ryan Gomes

Other small forwards on the roster in that time:

  • Chris Douglas-Roberts
  • Stephen Jackson
  • Danny Granger
  • Antawn Jamison
  • Grant Hill
  • Bobby Simmons

Amazingly, the guy who currently holds the job was a complete afterthought when he joined the roster. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute signed an unguaranteed contract with the Clippers on September 25, 2015, just days before the start of training camp. Mbah a Moute had signed earlier that summer with the Sacramento Kings but failed his physical and had his contract voided. When he showed up in training camp, few gave him much chance to make a crowded Clippers’ roster. But breaking with tradition, the team entered the season with all 15 roster spots filled, making room for Luc. In their first seven games, he had two DNPs and played less than 30 seconds in four other games. A month into the season, he was the starter, a job he still holds today.

And now the question most often asked about the Clippers is: Can they win with the weak link of Luc Mbah a Moute as their starting forward?

Let’s be clear right up front: if the measuring stick for success is an NBA title this season, then no, Mbah a Moute is not sufficient. But that’s a completely unfair standard, because the Warriors have perhaps the greatest assemblage of talent ever on their roster. Would Luc be enough to start on a championship team in a normal year? It has become fairly clear to me that the answer is yes.

None of this exists in a vacuum of course. Someone has to be the weakest starter in a lineup, and if the other four are good enough, then the fifth starter can suck pretty hard (see Chalmers, Mario; Stephenson, DeShawn; Walker, Samaki; etc. etc. etc). Hell, no one is asking whether the Warriors can win a title with Zaza Pachulia starting at center, and if I were starting a team from scratch I’d take Luc over Zaza in a heartbeat.

More to the point, it may be that Luc is EXACTLY what the Clippers need at small forward. The numbers alone are pretty impressive.

The team was 8-8 when he took over the starting job last November 29th. They are 62-28 since then, and most of those games were played without Blake Griffin.

Despite their recent swoon, the Clippers this season remain the only team in the league in the top five in both offensive (5th) and defensive (2nd) efficiency and they are currently 2nd in net efficiency, trailing only that historically talented Warriors squad. And it’s no secret that the defensive efficiency is the number that has improved the most and has the Clippers feeling pretty good about reaching a conference finals for the first time, despite the continued presence of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference.

Looking at on-court, off-court numbers is very telling. With Luc on the court, the Clippers boast a defensive efficiency of 94.1; when he’s off the court, they give up almost 12 points more per 100 possessions, dropping to 106. The team’s net efficiency goes from +20.9 when Luc plays to -0.2 when he sits — a swing of over 21 points per game. Holy crap. Only DeAndre Jordan (+17.6 to -4.8, 22.4 total) has a more significant impact on the team.

Or look at five man lineups. The Clippers starting lineup has a net efficiency rating of +18.6. Obviously Luc is benefiting from playing alongside some other great players there, but before you dismiss this number, realize that Doc Rivers’ closing lineup where he replaces LRMaM with Jamal Crawford, has a net efficiency of 15.2 — still awesome, but not as awesome. And as you might suspect, whereas the lineup featuring Crawford is 12 points better on offense, it’s over 15 points WORSE on defense.

So the benefit to playing Luc is pretty obvious until you start thinking about the other top teams in the NBA — at which point it becomes a no-brainer.

Just to reach a playoff showdown with the Warriors, the Clippers are going to have to get through the Spurs and the Rockets. If they want to dream of rings. there will be the Cavs or possibly the Raptors to deal with. Who is going to defend the likes of James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and DeMar DeRozan? Who indeed.

Perusing box scores, you see things like Leonard 3-13 and James 5-14 in Clipper wins this season. Even in a drubbing at the hands of the Warriors, Durant was held to 5-17. The best teams in the NBA at present feature wings who are the focal point of high powered offenses. A lock down defender at the three is indispensable in the current environment.

Would it be nice to have a great two-way player at the spot? Of course it would. But it turns out Jimmy Butler and Paul George weren’t actually available this summer (though Durant almost did pick the Clippers apparently — sigh). For this Clippers team, if you are forced to pick between offense and defense in that fifth starter, you definitely pick defense, because of the opposition that must be defended.

And by the way, Luc is not exactly killing the Clippers on O this season either. For that non-star wing specialist, you have a couple of prototypes. The Bruce Bowen guy who can make the corner three; the Shane Battier guy who makes off the ball cuts to the basket. Luc has never been great at either of those things, but he’s doing both of them at a much higher level this season than at any other point in his career. If he can sustain his current rate (and we’re talking about a small sample size so far, so it’s far from certain that he can), his offensive production is more than sufficient as the fifth option in a potent lineup. The Spurs won three titles with Bowen, a .393 career three point shooter. Luc is shooting .395 this season, and as uninspiring as he is as a playmaker, he’s still better than Bowen who literally did nothing but shoot threes on the offensive end.

But obviously it’s on the defensive end where Luc earns his (comparatively) paltry paycheck, and what a defender he is. One of the mysteries about the Clippers for the last several seasons was why they weren’t better on defense with plus defenders like Paul and Jordan and uber-athlete Griffin on the floor. But they never had that lock down wing until now. Matt Barnes did a decent impression of a plus defender, but he got by with hard work and grit — he wasn’t actually that good at staying in front of people.

Luc is a truly special defender. He’s long and gets innumerable deflections and poke-aways. He’s even got 13 blocked shots in 24 games at a rate of 0.8 per 36, More importantly, his versatility (along with the rest of the Clippers’ front court in Jordan and Griffin) is what makes the team’s defense work — in a league dominated by perimeter scoring, the ability to switch screens is crucial. Luc can do a solid job on players from the 1 to the 5 — quick enough to stay in front of point guards, strong enough to battle with bigs and always using his length to bother them all. He’s always in the right spot, he never misses a rotation. This team’s ability to switch and not get beaten is the single biggest reason that the Clippers are a top defensive unit this season.

The Clippers will almost certainly continue to search for an upgrade at small forward. Surprising names wind up on the waiver wire every season at buy-out time, and this year will be no exception. But I’m no longer convinced that an upgrade is imperative. I think Luc provides an answer.

“What happens when defenses ignore him in the playoffs and the Clippers have to play 4 on 5?” Answer — Luc hits enough of his threes to make them pay.

But more importantly, “Who defends Kawhi Leonard in the conference semi-finals, Kevin Durant in the conference finals, Lebron James in the NBA finals?” The answer is Luc, and it’s a pretty good answer.