The Fresh Prince of Defense
Matt Cianfrone is the newest contributor to Hickory-High. He’ll be handling the Friday links in Rants, References and Revelations, and offering longer pieces whenever the mood strikes. You can follow him on Twitter, @Matt_Cianfrone.
There is a player in the NBA that was charged with trying to stop LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade at different points of the same game earlier this season. When Dallas comes to town that same player gets Dirk Nowitzki duty. And when his team travels to Los Angeles, he gets the job of trying to contain Kobe Bryant.
If asked to guess who this was, most people would pick a well-known stopper like Andre Iguodala. Iguodala may very well do the same things (I haven’t watched the 76ers enough this year to be positive) but he is not who this post is about. It’s about Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, the ace defender for the Milwaukee Bucks.
One reason that Mbah A Moute has never received his fair share of praise is that he had never been the best overall defender in Milwaukee. That changed at this season’s trade deadline. The Bucks have featured a stout defense for the past few years but Andrew Bogut has, rightfully, been singled out as the defensive centerpiece. But anyone who has been watching closely will know that Mbah A Moute was never far behind.
The thing that made Luc so important to the Bucks, who have finished in the top half of the league in opponent’s field goal percentage since his rookie season, is his versatility. Mbah a Moute normally will play both power and small forward on any given night and almost never gets beaten up defensively at either spot. Defensive versatility has allowed Mbah A Moute to continue playing heavy minutes despite being a mediocre, if not outright poor, offensive player on a team that has struggled to score since Scott Skiles took over the reigns.
In his rookie season Mbah a Moute was present in four of the Bucks top five lineups that played over fifty minutes for the season, including two lineups that played over two hundred minutes, one of which was the team’s best lineup for the course of the season. The next year Mbah a Moute again was in the team’s best lineup. And a season after he finished outside of the top spot — mostly because all the injuries the Bucks faced left them with no continuity, only one lineup played over 100 minutes for the season — he is right back into the team’s top lineup. The Bucks are also giving up 4.8 points more per 100 possessions with Mbah A Moute off the court this season than when he is on it. That efficiency differential is roughly the same as what separates the Los Angeles Lakers from the Golden State Warriors.
Mbah A Moute’s value is also shown in some of his defensive possession numbers from mySynergySports. Overall he’s giving up only 0.86 points per possession this season, a number close to Metta World Peace who, while slipping, is still considered an above average defender, sporting a 0.83 points per possession allowed this season. Where Mbah a Moute becomes interesting is delving into the more specific play breakdowns.
In isolation situations he is giving up only 0.77 points per possession, causing turnovers on 7.7 percent of the plays, and allowing opponents to score on only 36.5 percent of their possessions. In situations where his man is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, Mbah a Moute’s numbers look very similar. Opponents score only 0.81 points per possession off of the pick-and-roll against Mbah A Moute, scoring on only 38.5 percent of possessions. One difference is in his opponent’s turnover rate. When he is covering the ball handler in a pick-and-roll Mbah A Moute forces turnovers on a sparkling 15.4 percent of the time. In post up situations the turnover rate stays similar, at exactly 15 percent of possessions. In those post ups he does give up a few more points than normal, coming in at 0.88 points per possession a number that rises because of the field goal percentage of his opponent jumps up to 46.7 percent.
One area Mbah A Moute has struggled this season is defending spot up shooters. In those situations he gives up 1.05 points per possession. This is normally because one of his teammates has been beaten. Most of the time this season it has been someone in the Brandon Jennings-Drew Gooden pick-and-roll combo, forcing Mbah a Moute to try and help in the paint. Despite all his impressive defensive tools he still isn’t capable of being in two places at the same time.
That 6-foot-8, 230 pound frame is what makes Mbah A Moute as successful a defender as he is. The key to his defense is the fact that he is able to be so physical with the person he is defending without being knocked away. It also allows him to hold his own in the post against taller players because he is able to keep them off the spots they feel most comfortable.
The most impressive thing about Mbah A Moute this season is that he has put up these numbers without being fully healthy. Luc has missed 17 games this season due to knee and shoulder injuries. Yet he is still holding opposing small forwards to a 9.8 PER and power forwards to a 15.3. Both of those numbers are up slightly from last season when Mbah A Moute held small forwards to a 7.5 and power forwards to a 13.7.
While it may not happen this season, if Mbah A Moute can get back to 100 percent and turn his defense back to where it has been, he may get his chance to be recognized by fans along with the other elite defenders in the league. When that does finally happen it will be well earned.