The final week of the NBA season is no time for players to sustain injuries. The last thing a team gearing up for a playoff run needs is for its rotation and harmony to be thrown into flux by the loss of a key contributor.
Luc Mbah a Moute’s recently dislocated shoulder won’t unravel Houston’s title hopes, but it will underscore his importance within the context of his team. The Rockets’ roster was fastidiously constructed to complement its two best players and combat a specific opponent, and every weapon must be available and optimized in order to win at the highest level.
Mbah a Moute fits within that model. His skills are limited, but his role is imagined with those limitations in mind, making his function vital. He has long been one of the most valuable and impactful perimeter defenders in the NBA, capable of hounding the league’s best wings and plugging any defensive gap that needs stopping. He may not smother another team’s superstar, but he’ll make them work for whatever they can manage. Few defenders combine length, strength, positioning and quick hands quite like Mbah a Moute, who is among the best in the league at recovering from screens and challenging shots from the rear. That skill came in handy in the Clippers’ drop coverage against the pick-and-roll last season:
This year, his versatility has allowed Houston’s switch-everything scheme to click. He’ll seamlessly slide from one spot to another, often guarding several positions in one action. If he’s not shutting off a drive to the rim, he might be chasing a shooter off the ball or denying a post entry. Try to back him down on a switch, and he’s sturdy enough to stonewall people on the block.
That adaptability serves an especially useful purpose against the Warriors, whose offensive weapons build upon one another to a point of excess. The best — and perhaps only — way to truly combat that threat is with versatile perimeter defenders that can minimize the number of weak points for an opponent to target. Mbah a Moute is well suited for that task and has a clear fit in a potential series against the defending champions. Six of Houston’s eight best lineups include Mbah a Moute, and its defense is four points per 100 possessions stingier with him on the floor.
His improved utility on offense has made him a far more palatable option in Houston’s 3-point and layup-heavy ecosystem. The Rockets’ offense drops off by just over two points per 100 possessions with Mbah a Moute on the court, but still hums at a rate that would rank second in the league (behind Houston, of course). That trivial a discrepancy is worth the added benefit he offers on the other end of the court. He’s stroking triples at the second-highest rate of his career and has become functional with the ball in his hands.
Between the many threats the Rockets can place on the floor at once, Mbah a Moute can be a convenient hiding spot for opponents’ weakest defenders – or big men when Houston goes small. That choice becomes less enticing, however, when he’s attacking those plodders decisively:
Mbah a Moute’s improvement as a straight-line driver, usually attacking closeouts, has been a quiet subplot of the Rockets’ season. Houston will never subsist on his creation, nor will opponents account for it in defensive gameplans, but the added wrinkle of him putting the ball on the deck adds just a touch more dynamism to an already lethal offense.
Next to Harden and Paul, that’s enough. They unlock role players in ways most guys can’t, and Mbah a Moute has proven a particularly easy one to elevate.