The Clippers will ask Luc Mbah a Moute to lead them in many ways this season.
After Wednesday’s practice, however, it was the Clippers who accidentally left Mbah a Moute behind.
The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward emerged in a doorway at the University of Hawaii’s Stan Sheriff Center just as a bus carrying teammates and staffers pulled away en route to the team’s waterfront Waikiki hotel. Mbah a Moute raised his arms at the taillights, then caught a ride in a separate SUV.
Mbah a Moute was late because he was the last player off the court for the second consecutive day. He probably could have cut short his post-practice work without any serious consequences. Entering his 11th NBA season, Mbah a Moute knows this league well.
Yet he did not sign a one-year deal worth $4.3 million in July to go gently into the twilight of his career. Instead of dispensing wisdom in street clothes at the end of the bench, he will be asked to guard as many as five positions and serve as a linchpin for a defense with aspirations of being one of the league’s stingiest.
Knowing that, he stayed on the court longer.
“Over the years I’ve kind of changed my routine, but I’ve always been the last guy out,” he said. “Just the way I go about my business. I try to be professional, take care of my craft and if that can rub off on young guys, good.”
Said coach Doc Rivers: “He’s a pro.”
Rivers would know. Mbah a Moute played for him from 2015-17 before spending last season in Houston, where his defense — he allowed opponents to shoot 45.9% from the field and 36.1% beyond the three-point arc — helped the Rockets earn the Western Conference’s top seed. A dislocated shoulder limited him to four games against Golden State in the conference finals, and as he sat the Warriors’ offense took control in the second half of Game 7.
The Clippers’ pitch to get him back in free agency wasn’t complicated. They just had to show him the team’s sieve-like transition defense last season, how it lost shooters repeatedly around the perimeter and reiterate how he could help.
“He knew we missed him,” Rivers said.
Mbah a Moute was gone only 12 months but he’s now part of a locker room whose only holdover from the 2016-17 team is Wesley Johnson.
“It’s a different team, it’s a different vibe, as well,” Mbah a Moute said. “The ball is moving, playing fast, a lot of guys playing good basketball. It’s different because you have a good mix of young guys and some veteran guys as well. I think if we can just hang our hat on playing hard every night, playing great defense and offensively moving and sharing the ball, which is what we’ve been doing, I think we’re going to be tough.”
Toughness is the trait that Clippers executives had in mind when building a superstar-less roster and that is expected to show through most on the defensive end. Rivers called Thursday’s practice competitive to a fault.
“We got a bunch of guys who are very tough and you can see that today, it almost got into one-on-one, ‘I’m going to stop my guy’ than instead of just keep doing the team stuff,” Rivers said. “I thought we got so competitive we forgot who we were, which is a good thing early on. You’ll take that.”
Mbah a Moute will rotate among small forward, power forward and center, with the latter usage something Rivers deployed during their previous stint together because Mbah a Moute defends centers well. He also provides a fifth ballhandler with Danilo Gallinari at power forward and Tobias Harris at small forward. Turn loose veteran guards Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley on the perimeter and that’s a lineup Mbah a Moute called “scary.”
If the defense plays as advertised and the offense can stay close to its top-10 ranking from last season, “we’re guaranteed to be a playoff team,” Rivers said. “And we know that.”
That is a hypothetical, though. Nothing happens, Mbah a Moute knows, without putting in the work.