Knee Surgery On Tap For Luc Mbah a Moute, But Expect Good Things In 12/13

Despite a painful knee energy, Mbah a Moute found new life in the Bucks' improved offense.

Charles Gardner writes that Luc Mbah a Moute will undergo surgery on his troublesome right knee next week, though thankfully he's expected to be healthy well in advance of camp in October. Mbah a Moute has had nagging knee issues dating back to his UCLA days, and he wrote in January that his latest problems began with the quick ramp-up from free agent inactivity to compressed NBA schedule.

Mbah a Moute knew as early as February that he had a partial tear of his patella tendon and was shelved by the injury off and on throughout the season, missing a combined 23 games. It also impacted his play when he was able to suit up--some nights he seemed to be lacking the same burst and energy we've come to expect, a major disadvantage for any professional basketball player, let alone one who doesn't have a high skill level to help compensate. Which makes it all the more impressive that he still managed his most productive NBA season to date.

While his minutes dipped slightly to 23.5 mpg, Luc posted career-bests in fg% (51.0% overall, 56.3% after the all-star break), true shooting (54.0%), pts/40 (13.2), ppg (7.7) and PER (13.94), while continuing to post solid rebounding numbers (9.0 rpg/40, 12.4% rebound rate). Not mind-boggling numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but still encouraging for a guy who a) had previously shown zero improvement statistically since his rookie year and b) contributes in ways that go well beyond the box score anyway. I'd love to tell you it was because Mbah a Moute finally added a jump shot or improved his ball-handling, but there's really no evidence visually, statistically or otherwise that any of those things happened. So how does a guy with a bum knee and no demonstrable improvement in skill become a more productive player? It's all about playing to your strengths.

Positional Ambiguity

As noted in the defensive player of the year post yesterday, Mbah a Moute's positional splits are comparable to previous seasons, and at this point it's tough to say if we'll ever see him graduate to a more defined position. My guess is probably not, but considering he's owed less than $14 million over the next three seasons, I'd argue that he still represents a relative bargain in spite of his positional ambiguity. The problem at this point is well known: while his size and build will always scream small forward, Mbah a Moute's mediocre ball-handling and passing and continued inability to hit a jump shot make it difficult to consider him a long-term solution on the wing.

His fg% on long twos slumped to a cringe-worthy 23% this season (down from 36% a year ago), though his overall efficiency bump owes largely to an improvement in his shot distribution. He shot fewer long twos (from 1.8 fga to 1.2 fga per game) while his finishing at the rim both improved (67% from 58%) and became more frequent (from 2.8 to 3.8 attempts per game). Not that I wasn't gritting my teeth every time Luc tossed up a jumper--as in previous seasons, he still seemed to feel obligated to hoist up open looks just to keep the defense honest, but it got to the point this season that Mbah a Moute shooting outside 15 feet was almost the equivalent of giving up a possession.

At home in Bucks' new offense

Thankfully those wayward jumpers didn't happen as frequently as before, and the Bucks' up-tempo, ball-moving approach also played to his strengths: running the floor, moving without the ball and using his (underrated) craftiness around the cup. While Brandon Jennings is often cited as the biggest beneficiary of the Bucks' more free-flowing approach in 11/12, I'd argue Mbah a Moute comes in a close second.

The numbers paint a pretty clear picture. MySynergySports.com attributed nearly a quarter (!) of Mbah a Moute's plays as coming off cuts, nearly 10% more than last year, while his percentage of plays in transition bumped from 7% to 12%. Those figures not surprisingly parallel his redistribution of shots towards the area closest to the basket, and make his improved scoring efficiency understandable in spite of both a) the limited mobility he had on many nights and b) his struggles shooting from the perimeter. Mbah a Moute converted a whopping 70% of his shots off cuts this year, and you don't need a calculator to figure out that any offense which increases the frequency of easy looks is going to be a good thing.

Looking Ahead: Optimism for 12/13

So what does it mean moving forward? At this point we're probably beyond expecting Luc to dramatically change in terms of his skill set, but he may not have to in order to have a career-year in 12/13--good heath and a good system would likely do the trick. That said, it's not clear who will be back from the current roster next year, and the same is true of Mbah a Moute, whose elite defensive skills and reasonable contract will always make him a desirable trade target. Even fans of Mbah a Moute (myself included) realize that he's not good enough to be an untouchable, and at this point I'm not holding my breath that he even develops into a regular starter.

But let's not confuse the Bucks' more fundamental need for a superstar with them not needing versatile, hard-working and affordable players like Luc. If dealing Mbah a Moute helps the Bucks add an all-star caliber player, then so be it. But as long as the Bucks have ambitions of winning basketball games, hanging on to Mbah a Moute will make plenty of sense.

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