Luc Mbah a Moute is widely regarded as one of the NBA's best defenders, yet his role on the Milwaukee Bucks is constantly in flux. What can he and the team do to maximize his value?
There have been movies made about foreign dignitaries wishing they could live incognito among their subjects. Royal court members don subtle disguises (amazing what a stick-on mustache can accomplish) to walk the streets unmolested. But perhaps the greatest vanishing act of all is being perpetrated right in front of our eyes, by a real-life prince.
I speak, of course, of Luc Mbah a Moute, prince of his native village of Bia Messe in Cameroon. But his royalty extends beyond mere birthright. Mbah a Moute's skillset could fairly be described as limited, but his true selling point places him squarely among the Kings (not those ones) of the NBA.
NBA players typically aren't the greatest authorities on other NBA players, but Luc Mbah a Moute has received overwhelming praise from his peers for his ability to confound the best among them. Kevin Durant calls him the best perimeter defender in the league. He's been commissioned by ESPN to give scouting reports on the top scorers out there.
Despite all that, though, Luc Mbah a Moute remains mostly anonymous to the average NBA fan, and is too often relegated to an afterthought on his own team. Given the complete picture of Mbah a Moute's ability, that fate is more understandable, but still represents a undesirable situation. If the Crown Prince of Defense wants to regain that title (which I just made up this minute), it'll take effort and determination not just on his part, but on the part of his team.
Scouting, grading, and ranking players has gotten much more complicated with the advent of the statistical revolution in basketball. No longer is the "eye test" enough (was it ever?); data and empirical evidence aren't just helpful, they're necessary. Thankfully, the evidence backs up Mbah a Moute's reputation. According to 82games.com, the Bucks have allowed 1.8, 1.9, and 3.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Luc on the court over the last three years, peaking in 2011/12. MySynergySports.com confirms his lockdown ability: last season he gave up just 0.75 points per possession as an isolation defender. He held his opponents to 35.6% shooting and committed only 2 shooting fouls in 67 plays. He was even better two years ago, giving up just 0.72 ppp and 32.8% shooting.
Those metrics look even better when you consider the players Mbah a Moute tends to face each night. For instance, Luc has allowed an average PER around 13 to opposing SFs over the past three seasons. Not necessarily sensational in a vacuum, but he's typically defending the best wing players in basketball, guys who regularly finish with PERs in the upper 20s. Mbah a Moute is able to turn the best players in the NBA into slightly below-average performers.
The method by which Mbah a Moute achieves such success is a testament to...well, everything about him. He has solid length to compensate for his mildly slim build, but he's quick. More than anything, he's smart. He knows every guy's move and how to spot when it's coming. He knows how to adjust to how his opponent is attacking him. Every word we've heard about Mbah a Moute suggests he's an extremely hard worker who takes his role, one of the most under appreciated in the NBA, very seriously.
And none of us, coaching staff seemingly included, really knows how to use him.
There are obvious compounding factors. Exceptional as he is in preventing points, Mbah a Moute's usefulness drops off quickly when he crosses half court. He did set a career high in shooting percentage last season, but many of his baskets come from "garbage" work. Or at least, that's how it's characterized compared to the guys he's trying to stop on the other end. 70.7% of his baskets were assisted last season, as he operated primarily as a cutter around the basket.
Truthfully, Luc isn't an offensive disaster. Off-ball movement is a great way to create easy baskets, and last year's team looked particularly formidable on offense when the ball was constantly zipping around. He set a career high in FG% at the rim last year (66%) and seems comfortable operating in the paint. Unlike many other forwards in Milwaukee, he can actually catch the ball too. But it's more than fair to call him "limited." He'll occasionally sink a few jumpers and make us all think he's added a mid-range game, but there hasn't been even a hint of real improvement over his career. That limitation is undoubtedly a limiting factor in terms of playing time and role. He's averaged around 25 MPG the last 3 seasons, but there are many scenarios and matchups in which the Bucks simply can't justify keeping him on the court.
His knee troubles haven't helped either. He had surgery back in May to alleviate tendinitis and continues to rehab. Hopefully his legs are fresh and healthy this season, which might lend him a bit more athleticism and quickness. To be fair, Luc has ranked 6th, 5th, and 9th in terms of minutes played per game in his last 3 seasons, so it's not like he's an end-of-the-bench guy. But it's still questionable whether the team is using him as effectively as they could be.
That's a tough question to answer, though. With Mike Dunleavy looking like the Bucks' best player at the 3, they shouldn't hesitate to play him as heavily as his body will allow (there's no guarantee he'll have another entirely healthy season), but it seems like he's destined to remain a 6th man scorer. So should Mbah a Moute get the call as the starter? The Thunder have used Thabo Sefolosha in such a role (albeit at shooting guard), allowing him to hound opposing stars for a quick stretch before giving way to a more versatile player like James Harden. But the Thunder obvisouly have more than enough offense from other positions.
Assuming Ersan Ilyasova starts at the 4, Luc's offensive profile might actually be workable. With Luc playing as more of a PF on offense, pairing him with Ilyasova has some potential: Ersan would provide the floor spacing while Luc lurks near the bucket. You're getting next to nothing in terms of ball movement from your two forward spots, though, as neither Luc nor Ersan have ever been seen as great passers (even if they're not unwilling). It's a situation that figures to be key when the Bucks open training camp in a few weeks. Luc should be as healthy as he's been in years, and I'd hope motivation is plentiful.
No matter what happens, Luc's status as a premier practitioner of the less glamorous half of the game should never be an afterthought. Here's hoping more people soon know the name of the Milwaukee's only (?) prince.