Here’s the second episode of “Biggest Bargains of NBA Free Agency,” looking at the best value contracts handed out around the league.
The Houston Rockets became a winner this offseason when they traded for Chris Paul. They won more when they added stellar defense, versatility and toughness in the form of P.J. Tucker. They won bigger still when they re-signed Nene Hilario on a cheap three-year, $11 million deal. They weren’t done.
They found another absolute bargain in Luc Mbah a Moute on a one-year contract for the veteran’s minimum.
I’m one of the bigger Mbah a Moute fans. Not everyone has to be a big-name player or an offensive stud. Sometimes hustle, great defense and hard work are fun to root for. Mbah a Moute couldn’t solve all the L.A. Clippers’ long-lasting problems at small forward due to his offensive limitations and a low volume of 3-pointers, which allowed defenders to sag off him and focus on Blake Griffin when they wanted to. However, despite being nine years into his career, Mbah a Moute took it upon himself to improve last season, reaching a new career-high 3-point percentage of 39.1 to go along with 0.5 makes in his 22.3 minutes per game, hitting a total of 43 for the season.
He’s effective from the corners. Even though he doesn’t take too many 3s, he can hit enough to keep defenders closer to him than previous years. He has shown a better knack of turning that threat into occasional drives and layups past closeouts. With Chris Paul and James Harden able to find him for open looks, Mbah a Moute will be just fine in his limited offensive role.
That’s just a bonus, though. Mbah a Moute won’t play a ton of minutes. What he brings defensively should make Rockets fans pleased with this signing.
At 6-8 with a wingspan just over 7-0; quick feet to cover guards; good strength to protect the post against forwards; fast reactions; and a high motor, Mbah a Moute has all the prototypical tools teams look for in a reliable defender. He put his skills to great use to guard and switch across every position from point guard to power forward, helping the Clippers allow 6.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor last season. His performance is backed up by his Defensive Real Plus/Minus, where he ranked ninth among power forwards and 33rd in the NBA.
This block on Paul Millsap is a perfect representation of Mbah a Moute’s effort, speed and pesky length. Even after moving right under the basket to help on a Dennis Schroder drive, he was able to recover to the 3-point line in a flash and smother Millsap’s shot:
Mbah a Moute’s length can frustrate anyone. Here, Mbah a Moute sticks to Gordon Hayward off the ball and nips past a Rudy Gobert screen quickly enough to stay on Hayward’s tracks and prompt a pass, before finishing the play by staying in front of Hayward and elevating with his massive reach to force a high, awkward release and miss:
While Mbah a Moute won’t need to defend point guards too often, he can still step up to the challenge when necessary and provide the Rockets extra switch-ability. When the Clippers needed him to, he gladly took on difficult guard assignments, including phenomenal scorers such as Damian Lillard.
Take these few possessions, for example. Mbah a Moute hounds Lillard on the ball and demonstrates just how quick his hands are to jab away the ball and interrupt Lillard’s dribble. With the ability to stick to Dame’s drive, Mbah a Moute’s versatility is evident:
Mbah a Moute is such a reliable presence all over the floor. He will ensure that Trevor Ariza won’t be the only sound wing defender the Rockets have to use against top scorers. Mbah a Moute and Tucker give them a host of depth in that regard, not to mention fiercely tough lineups for opponents to face when they share the floor.
The Rockets can use lineups featuring Chris Paul, Tucker, Mbah a Moute and Clint Capela, giving them three great perimeter defenders at once with an athletic rebounder and shot blocking presence in the middle. Even if Harden is with that group (he will be held accountable by Paul to step up his effort on defense), the Rockets have serious defensive firepower to shake things up when they don’t want to rely on their offense.
Finding this level of depth, versatility and top-notch defense from Mbah a Moute for the smallest price possible is the very definition of a bargain. Daryl Morey and the Rockets have had one amazing summer.