Luc Mbah a Moute’s Silent Impact Can’t Be Overlooked

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LOS ANGELES – He leads the Clippers in offensive rating. He leads the Clippers in defensive rating.

It’s not DeAndre Jordan or Chris Paul.

The Clippers score a team-best 116 points per 100 possessions and allow a team-best 92.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.  

It’s not Blake Griffin.

He’s also shooting a career-high percentage from 3-point range, while averaging nearly twice as many points as last year.

It’s not J.J. Redick, either.

Those standout stats belong to the player Jamal Crawford believes is the best perimeter defender in the game, a belief he reiterated more than once as the Clippers closed out the Pelicans to end a six-game road trip. Luc Mbah a Moute may not receive the same kind of attention as the Clippers’ other four starters, but it might be time he get his due.

On any given night, Mbah a Moute could be guarding any position, typically drawing the most challenging defensive assignment. If there’s a star guard or wing, Mbah a Moute’s on him. Crawford could see why many people would choose Kawhi Leonard as the NBA’s most gifted perimeter defender, but he sees Mbah a Moute every day and sticks by his choice.

And he has back-up from a former NBA All-Star.

“Brandon Roy, who’s one of my best friends, said Luc’s one of the toughest players to ever guard him,” Crawford said. “He couldn’t figure him out.”

Neither can the NBA’s elite.

Mbah a Moute’s the one responsible for sticking on LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, Andrew Wiggins, Damian Lillard and Leonard, then holding each player to 36 percent shooting or worse this year – including a 1-for-10 mark for Lillard and a 3-for-13 mark from Leonard.

When the Clippers went to New Orleans, head coach Doc Rivers said he thought Mbah a Moute literally covered everyone on the floor at some point. Defense has always been his calling card, but he’s sticking out even more than usual this year for the right reasons.

Not that he’d boast about it. 

Rivers knows a thing or two about lockdown wing defenders, having coached Tony Allen in Boston. But there’s a stark contrast between the two tenacious defenders, besides the fact even centers aren’t off limits defensively for Mbah a Moute.

“The thing I like about Luc, you’re not going to get any emotion from him,” Rivers said. “Especially the star guys, they love getting guys to engage with them. When you play against Luc, you’re not going to have a conversation, and I actually like that. You can talk to him and all that… he’s not going to respond.”

Don’t take the silence for a lack of self-confidence, though.  

Crawford credits not just Mbah a Moute’s intelligence and instincts for making him such a stout defender, but also Mbah a Moute's belief in himself and dedication to his defensive assignment.

“He’s going to make it hell for them that night, and he does it without question, without a doubt, without anything,” Crawford said. “If he was a safety, he shuts that side of the field down…and it’s the pride he has, not only as a defender – as a person.”

In Mbah a Moute’s opinion, the football analogy ends there. When told his job is to guard the best opponent, his pride kicks in.

“I’m not a football player,” Mbah a Moute said. “I do have to be there on offense…I’ve got to make sure I’m a threat out there, whether it’s knocking down corner 3s, cutting to the basket when those guys get double-teamed, setting screens, just playing within the flow of the offense and getting more familiar with the offense and with the guys.”

Paul, Griffin, Redick and Jordan are in their fourth season together. They can return from a summer off and immediately run the correct sets without saying a word. Throw anyone into that kind of chemistry, and it can be overwhelming.

Mbah a Moute said he’s still trying to get to where they are, but he’s seen improvements. So, too, have the four players around him, who know how difficult that must be.

“That fifth guy, whoever it is, it’s just a learning curve,” Griffin said. “But Luc has done an unbelievable job of just learning it, going in his role, staying in his role, making plays when he needs to.”

With a year under his belt, Mbah a Moute’s figuring it out. His cuts are crisper, and he’s gaining a better understanding of when to make his moves.

Paul said he saw the amount of work Mbah a Moute put in this summer on shooting and attacking, and it’s paying off.  Mbah a Moute’s scored in double digits five times in 21 appearances this year, after only doing so twice in 75 games last year. His 3-point shooting is also up to a career-high 40 percent, and the more it rises, the more trust builds in his teammates.

Mbah a Moute still can’t be sure how often he’ll get the ball on an offense with so many weapons, but he worked to make sure he was as ready as possible when those chances occur. And they’re coming more often, as Rivers is seeing his players swing passes to Mbah a Moute in the corner they never would have in the past.

“He’s got great confidence,” Rivers said. “More importantly, our guys have confidence in him.”

The Clippers brought in assistant Dee Brown for player programs this summer, and it’s rare to see the coach on the court without Mbah a Moute a few feet away. From free throws, to corner 3s, to cuts to the rim, Mbah a Moute continues to work with Brown every day, with much of the focus on finishing around the basket.  

“It’s just been really good, putting me in situations that I’m usually in during the game and just working that,” Mbah a Moute said.

That’s what made it so cool for Rivers from a coaching standpoint when, after an early-season layup where Mbah a Moute finished through contact, he noticed all his players turn and look behind the bench at Brown.

“That’s the work,” Rivers said. “And Luc’s putting in the work.”

While most of Mbah a Moute’s work won’t translate to a stat sheet, there’s an uptick in that regard, too.

He’s averaging 5.7 points per game, nearly twice as many as last year. He’s shooting 51.1 percent from the floor – up from 45.4 percent last year – and his 3-point percentage is up 7.5 percent from last season after going 3-for-4 behind the arc Friday.

“You play with these guys, you don’t know when the shot’s going to come,” Mbah a Moute said. “So, you’ve got to be confident being in that situation. For me, it was tough at first, because they have a way of playing. You’ve got to be comfortable finding spots – whether it’s cutting to the basket, or finding the open spots or spending five minutes without touching the ball – you’ve got to find a way to stay productive.”

On defense, that’s never been an issue. But much like his offense, his stats are rising there, too.

Mbah a Moute’s 1.4 steals per game are more than twice as many as he had last year, and despite guarding the opponent’s best player every night, his .716 points allowed per possession represents the third-best mark in the league among players involved in at least 200 defensive possessions this year.

“I think Luc has had, definitely an All-Defensive year, but consideration as one of the best,” Rivers said. “He’s doing it every night.”

Here comes another positive football comparison.

“He’s like an offensive lineman in football,” Rivers continued, “no one talks about those guys. But, if you call the Cowboys, they’ll tell you how important the offensive line is. Luc Mbah a Moute in a lot of ways is our offensive line.

“He’s guarded literally every position this year, one through five, and he’s been phenomenal, and no one ever talks about him.”

Maybe, it’s time to start.