Luc Mbah a Moute's admirable effort against LeBron James didn't stop the Heat from sweeping the Bucks out of the playoffs in dominant fashion. Is he a luxury the Bucks can't afford right now?
If you watched most of the Milwaukee Bucks' first-round playoff matchup with the Miami Heat, you are probably a fan of one of those two teams, and you know Bucks forward Luc Mbah a Moute did everything in his power to make life difficult for LeBron James. He crowded him on the perimeter, dug in against him down low, bothered his dribbling and passing, and contested every shot about as well could be expected. It was, by all accounts, a sensational effort. But what did it accomplish?
Here's the regular-season per-36 statline that garnered LeBron his 4th MVP award:
16.9 FGA, 25.5 pts, 7.6 reb, 6.9 ast, 2.8 tov, 56.5 FG%, 40.6 3P%, 64.0 TS%, 23.3 ASTRatio
And here's his per-36 statline calculated from the 135 minutes he shared the court with Mbah a Moute in the 2013 NBA Playoffs:
13.1 FGA, 22.1 pts, 7.5 reb, 6.7 ast, 4.8 tov, 65.3 FG%, 33.3 3P%, 69.7 TS%, 24.4 ASTRatio
The most notable positive is the spike in turnovers. LeBron's 20.8 turnover ratio from the first round overall is far above either his regular season or postseason averages. Turnovers don't account for those times LeBron was unable to initiate a play, either. As a result, LeBron took fewer shots per minute in the series than in any previous postseason. Making LeBron give the ball up is typically a good plan, but his efficiency is so out-of-this-world right now that it made a shockingly small dent in his scoring and Miami's offense barely missed a beat. They had no issue with giving the ball to LeBron, letting him force his way into the paint and kick the ball out to three-point shooters (especially Ray Allen, who sank 13 triples in the four-game series).
David and Goliath was the metaphor du jour in the Milwaukee-Miami series, and could just as easily have been applied to the Mbah a Moute-LeBron matchup. In both cases, though, the metaphor only held true for initial conditions. David scored a legendary upset in the biblical tale, but Goliath took him to town on the basketball court in April, 2013. Yeah, he picked up a couple scratches and bruises, but his head was still firmly attached to his shoulders after four games.
It was truly a monstrous task laid out in front of Milwaukee's designated David. Unfortunately for the Bucks, they needed the miracle to have any chance of success. Therein lies the problem. The disparity in talent levels between the two teams necessitated some sacrifices by the Bucks. They couldn't match Miami's small lineups without getting killed on defense. In Jim Boylan's eyes, their best chance was to keep Luc on the floor as much as possible in an effort to disrupt the LeBron-led offense. It didn't work. Luc proved little more than a speed bump for the Heat while simultaneously disabling Milwaukee's attack thanks to his lack of range. For all his effort on LeBron, the Heat scored an outrageous 116 points per 100 possessions while Mbah a Moute was on the court. The Bucks meanwhile got suffocated by Miami's defense, which relished the opportunity to help off players like Mbah a Moute and smother the Bucks' guards.
The thing is, Luc's 2011-2012 season was actually a big step in the right direction. He set career highs in per-minute scoring and rebounding, shot 67% at the rim, and rarely turned the ball over. It all added up to a very-respectable-for-a-defensive-ace 13.9 PER. But everything collapsed this year: His shooting percentage at the rim plunged below 50% and his turnover rate ticked up two points. Only Marquis Daniels (43.2) had a lower TS% among the Bucks' regular rotation players than Luc (44.7). He finished the year with a 9.1 PER, far below the level any team would feel comfortable with.
Some of that felt fluky and could probably be chalked up to injuries at least in part, as Mbah a Moute battled chronic aches and soreness all season. But he also attempted more shots per minute than ever before, suggesting that, like much of the roster, he was being relied on to do too much--overexerted to cover for the deficiencies of his teammates. At times it did feel like he was too eager to attack his defender off the dribble, though increased aggressiveness played a big role in his improvement last season.
The complication of playing Luc for significant minutes doesn't seem likely to go away anytime soon. While this past season likely represents something close to his low point on offense, the limitations of featuring him have been exposed. Early in the season Frank addressed the Bucks' curious decision to pair Daniels and Mbah a Moute in the starting lineup, which left them with one semi-dangerous shooter on the floor to start games. That move was largely motivated by the early-season struggles of Ersan Ilyasova, but when he climbed out his funk the Bucks thankfully had other options, something they felt they lacked against the Heat. Injuries bounced Luc in and out of the starting lineup over the next few months while evidence mounted for two main points: 1) Larry Sanders was the only player who could salvage Milwaukee's defense, and 2) The offense suffered from a lack of floor spacing and versatility and couldn't really afford to play 4-on-5 for extended stretches.
All this leads to the one question: Is Luc Mbah a Moute more valuable as a player on Milwaukee's roster than he is as a trade asset? There's fluidity to it. Like I said, Luc's poor season has his value at a relative low point right now, and he probably has to be considered a constant injury risk at this point. But he'll only be 27 years old when next season starts and the two years left on his contract are very affordable. A more complete team could potentially make far better use of his talents than the Bucks currently can. It's questionable what Milwaukee could get back in a deal for Luc; he feels more like a piece of a larger deal than a guy likely to be dealt by himself. The Bucks' potential cap flexibility this summer does open up possibilities to use Luc as a "facilitating" piece, helping other teams match salaries in exchange for assets like draft picks. But it's early to speculate on what the trade market will look like, especially with so many big-name players headed for free-agency.
More importantly, it depends on the Bucks' plan going forward. If that plan involves propping the roster up with a few free-agent signings in an attempt to "build" on this playoff appearance, keeping Luc might be the best option. If the team is finally prepared to start over, exploring trade options for the Prince might be the prudent move.