In what’s been an up-and-down season for the 14-10 Los Angeles Clippers, it seems the team might finally be hitting stride, as they find themselves winners of seven of their last nine games.
Having to deal with injuries to not just starting point guard Chris Paul, but his fellow starting backcourt mate J.J. Redick as well has given this Clippers team a ton to overcome. As if injuries aren’t enough, the team’s also had to deal with pretty much all of its offseason additions playing some of the worst basketball of their lives, as Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith are all posting negative net ratings, per NBA.com.
If you’ve watched the NBA much over the last couple of seasons, you already know that the Clippers have one of the best starting fives in the league, with it’s sole weakness consistently being the small-forward position. Coach/President Doc Rivers thought he solved that problem this past summer by adding not just Stephenson, but by re-aligning with Pierce, who was arguably the best player on the championship-winning Boston Celtics team that Rivers coached.
After the last several games it seems more and more that Rivers was able to answer his team’s small-forward dilemma, but it clearly didn’t come with the addition of either of the two aforementioned players. Instead, both Luc Mbah a Moute and Wesley Johnson have emerged as integral role players, who seem more than happy to fill the roles necessary of that position.
Over the past several years it’s been guys like Jared Dudley and Caron Butler, players who will focus mainly on the defensive end, but stay out of the way on offense and shoot at an above-average clip from three, who’ve been the best fits at the position for this Clippers team. Neither Stephenson nor Pierce have been positive difference-makers on the defensive side of the ball, and offensively they’re shooting 36.9 percent overall and 30.6 from three combined.
Then you have Mbah a Moute and Johnson, who are combining for a shooting line of 45/39.5, while posting the second- and fourth-best defensive ratings on the team, per NBA.com. One of the two have started the last 11 games, which the team is 8-3 over, and unlike Stephenson and Pierce, both have been defense-first players for the duration of their careers, and both have made their bones by earning reputations as hustle/dirty work players.
That last statement is easier applicable to Mbah a Moute, an eighth-year tweener forward who creates mismatches for both positions with his length and quickness. After spending the last two seasons with losing franchises like the Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves, it’s great to see the UCLA product finally catch on with a good team and be able to play a meaningful role for them. Just looking at the numbers, it seems Mbah a Moute may have been slightly more efficient as a reserve, but as the starting small forward over the team’s last eight games, he’s posted a +2.3 net rating (per NBA.com), and again, really fits nicely as the starting 3 as he gives his all defensively and is unselfish on the offensive end:
Johnson’s journey to Clippertown has been a bit more of a struggle, as the former fourth overall draft pick has only played on losing teams, and he never really found a consistent role for any of them. Like Mbah a Moute, Johnson’s long for a small forward, but he hasn’t been a plus defender until this season. According to Basketball-Reference, Johnson’s posting career bests in both field goal and three-point percentage, as well as offensive and defensive rating. Maybe he’s been so efficient because he’s played the least amount of minutes per game in his career, or because he’s finally playing with a roster filled with capable NBA players, but maybe less is more for the 28-year-old wing, which is proving to work out just fine for his latest team:
While neither Mbah a Moute nor Johnson will likely be counted on to play huge minutes, I think it almost works out better for Doc and the Clips that he has them as stopgaps for the time being. Sure, I don’t think it’s unfair to say Johnson may have the potential to win-out long term as the team’s answer at the small-forward position, but you have to believe that Rivers is still hopeful that Pierce can get his legs under him and be a relevant rotation player for this team by the end of the season. I also can’t imagine that Rivers is ready to give up on Stephenson, who’s been better as of late and is even shooting over 40 percent from three on the season.
For now, a situation that seemed like it was going to be a major problem for this team seems to have an answer. Even if it’s just temporary.