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2016 Clippers Player Preview: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

Mbah a Moute was an afterthought last summer, but quickly rose to become the starting small forward. What does the future hold for him?

Los Angeles Clippers v Houston Rockets Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Name: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

Height: 6’8”

Weight: 230 lbs.

Age: 30 (9/9/86)

Position: SF/PF

Experience: 8 years. Bucks (37th pick) ‘08-’09–’13-’14; Kings ‘13-’14 (9 games); Wolves ‘13-’14 (55 games); Sixers ‘14-’15; Clippers ‘15-’16 (75 games). 541 career games, 362 starts, 12,601 minutes played.

Key Stats: Career 6.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg. Clippers: 75 games, 61 starts. Do the points and rebounds really matter?

Contract Status: 2 year/4.5M deal signed July 7, 2016. ‘17-’18 is a player option.

Breakdown: The annals of Clipper strivings are a rich panoply of dysfunction, misfortune and heartbreak, and last season was no exception. And throughout the last decade or more, at least since the departure of Corey Maggette in 2008, the Clippers have been in search of a credible and dynamic player to fill the small forward spot — SF for the Clippers seems like the drummer’s position in Spinal Tap, a strange twilight zone.

Call it the curse of Al-Farouq Aminu, picked 8th ahead of both Gordon Hayward and Paul George in 2010 (our friend Cole Aldrich was the 11th pick). Any of those players would have been gone, like Aminu, in the Chris Paul trade, but still. Wes Johnson, the 4th pick in that draft and most promising SF at the time, signed to return to the Clippers for the MLE, and he’s not projected to be the starter. Maybe call it the Y2K curse, as the Clippers took Yaroslav Korolev in 2005 and left future All-Star Danny Granger on the board.

Last year’s version of SF musical chairs had Hall of Famer Paul Pierce lined up to take the slot, and at this time last September we were wondering about how it might be a good idea not to start Pierce, and save him in order to repeat the playoff glory he had recently shown on the Wizards. Lance Stephenson was backing him up, a viable starter, and WeJo also had been signed for the minimum.

In the meantime, the Sacramento Kings had signed Luc Mbah a Moute to a two-year deal, disappointing some of us who thought LRMaM might be a good utility addition. But then the Kings, experiencing some preseason chaos, decided to nullify LRMaM’s contract on a trumped up knee injury issue, and he was suddenly a Clipper, signed for the minimum, just as training camp began. Some of us, mostly UCLA fans who remember his steady excellence there and saw him turn into a viable NBA rotation player in Milwaukee, thought he might make a nice contribution somewhere along the line.

People who like to focus on stats, advanced or otherwise, lamented his offensive woes, even after he was coming off a season averaging 10 ppg for the hapless Sixers. LRMaM went about his business, showing up and working hard, waiting for an opportunity. The Clippers got off to a very slow start, winning their first four games but sinking to .500 and posting an 8-8 record in their first 16. Pierce, Lance, and WeJo were all flailing in their attempts to fill the SF spot, while minor injuries to Chris Paul and J.J. Redick were also holding the Clippers back.

Coach Doc Rivers put Mbah a Moute in the starting lineup in game 17, and in a number of ways it turned the tide for the Clippers. Luc’s job was simple: guard the opponent’s best player, and slow him down at the start of the 1st and 3rd quarters. It’s a very basic strategy really, an opening gambit that’s something like an aggressive set of chess moves designed to box in the opponent’s queen. Mbah a Moute went on to start 61 times, virtually every opportunity available. Blake Griffin went out in game 30 against the Lakers on Christmas, by which time LRMaM was a fixture as a starter. LRMaM was a key element in the Clippers’ impressive accomplishment of winning 53 games with one of their All-Stars sidelined for months.

The Clippers have a glittering Core Four, a hard-working and effective gathering of real stars. They’ve assembled a strong bench of diverse talents. There was major upheaval in the composition of the bench at the beginning of last season, with Pierce, Smith and Stephenson all slated to play important minutes along with Crawford and Rivers, while WeJo, Aldrich, Prigioni and Luc were third stringers, all on minimum deals (along with Smith). That script was flipped for the most part, and the Clippers are wisely and fortuitously returning the best players from their bench last season (except Aldrich).

The most surprising of these returns, perhaps, is that of Mbah a Moute. Austin Rivers and Crawford got paid (the Clippers had their Bird rights), and WeJo got the MLE. Mbah a Moute presumably could have gone elsewhere and perhaps found a few extra million dollars, maybe more. But he’s not that guy, and he also had the benefit of previously earning a healthy $20M contract after being a 2nd round pick in Milwaukee. He can afford to stay in LA, and play to win.

Who is Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and what does he do? He’s a selfless player whose offense truly consists of playing defense against the opposing team’s best player with total focus. In a league with staggering talents like LeBron, KD, Kawhi Leonard, Carmelo Anthony along with others, having this type of “jackknife” defender is a subtle but critical weapon, and Doc Rivers is fully aware of its importance and utility. LRMaM’s actual offense is rather ugly, as we all know, but he sets picks and keeps moving and he’s capable of finishing at times. And we’ll see what happens this year, with Blake Griffin returning to the lineup. There are a number of other options at SF, and the Clippers would probably be happy to have a player step up and beat out Luc for the starting spot. But that would take some doing, as Luc’s defense, and the league’s strength at the wing positions, make that a very tough proposition.

Outlook for 16-’17: Doc Rivers said at the beginning of training camp that the SF position is wide open, but it’s hard to imagine that he would demote a proven starter like LRMaM, who has a clear complementary role alongside the high-powered Core Four and tilts the unit towards defensive pressure. The Clippers play some tough teams in their first 10 games, and one would expect that they would want to establish their defensive credentials as firmly as possible early on.

Things are much clearer going into this year, with expectations for Paul Pierce lowered quite significantly. WeJo or Alan Anderson might play their way onto the starting unit, but that would be probably be complicated by a desire to retain their contributions on the second unit. One of the oddities of LRMaM’s role is that he’s best as a 1st stringer or a 3rd string player, as most bench units don’t have players that require the kind of defensive attention he can bring. WeJo has a stronger overall game, and he could easily be a starter, but he can be overwhelmed on defense by elite SFs, and his more general contributions seem better suited to the bench unit, as long as Luc is an option. It’s worth noting that WeJo played 1666 minutes last year, compared to Luc’s 1274 — that speaks to WeJo’s versatility. Improved play by WeJo would probably result in him finishing games, rather moving him into the starting lineup.

Doc talked about the SF derby, such as it is, after the first day of practice, and he mentioned WeJo’s versatility, Anderson’s shooting, and Luc’s ability to cut to the basket. That sounds about right — and Mbah a Moute can earn more minutes if he can finish at the rim on those cuts. Anderson seems like a longshot, and he’ll get his situational opportunities as the season goes on, but he’s going to have to excel in order to break into the rotation.

The dark horse in gobbling up SF minutes and even possibly replacing Mbah a Moute in the starting lineup is Austin Rivers. Austin emerged as the defensive leader of the second unit last season, and his game appears to be on the upswing. His speed could give the Core Four an extra gear, he cuts to the basket well and his ability to get to the rim and finish could get even better if his shot is improved. It seems easiest to start LRMaM/Redick and replace them with WeJo/Rivers (leaving Jamal Crawford out of the conversation for just one moment), but if Austin continues to rise it might make sense for him to start, and then bring WeJo in, along with Jamal. The big complaint about LRMaM is that his lack of offense becomes a glaring flaw that can be exploited during the playoffs, but making a solid and steady contribution that helps the team take aim at 60 regular season wins is a good foundation. I wouldn’t be surprised, if Austin Rivers takes another strong step forward over the course of the season, to see him in the starting lineup in the playoffs. That seems more likely than Wes Johnson or some one else displacing Luc, but there’s a long way to go and a lot of basketball to play.

On a long-term contending team like the Clippers, with a lot of institutional memory and repetition, there’s a lot to be said for reliable, known entities. Mbah a Moute proved his value over and over again last season, and that contribution figures to be compounded with Blake Griffin returning to the lineup, and Luc penciled in as the opening day starter. Alongside the stars, great teams need unsung heroes, and that’s just what LRMaM might prove to be this year.