One of the many peculiar things about being a professional athlete is that your colleagues know exactly how much money you make.
In the 10 years that he’s been an NBA role player, Houston Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute has never been paid as much as his peers. He’s earned less in his entire career than James Harden earned this year alone. As a free agent last summer, he was on the open market longer than most players before he finally signed a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum salary, the least that any NBA team could offer.
“Everybody could’ve gotten him,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said, “and we did.”
He’s been so useful that it has since become clear Mbah a Moute was deeply misvalued by the league. To put it very simply, when he’s on the court, his team is better. And yet D’Antoni can’t fault other teams if they couldn’t understand why. “To be honest with you,” he said, “I didn’t know it, either.”
And what exactly was it that he didn’t know about Mbah a Moute?
“That he’s one of the best players in the league,” D’Antoni said.
Which sounds like an odd thing to say about someone who averages 7.5 points per game coming off the bench. Except he’s precisely the sort of player the Rockets knew they would need against the team they knew they would need to beat.
The Rockets and Golden State Warriors have circled each other like sumo wrestlers all season long, and now they’re colliding in the Western Conference Finals, a series between dominant, intelligent, carefully built teams responsible for many of the stylistic innovations that have defined the modern NBA. The Warriors are the reigning champions eyeing a third title in four years. You may have heard something about them. But the Rockets were constructed specifically to beat the Warriors, and they established themselves as the biggest threat to their budding dynasty by winning the most games in the NBA this season. They became good enough that Golden State losing is at least theoretically possible now.
Every decision in basketball is a reflection of what NBA teams value and why. Because they’re constrained by a salary cap from spending indiscriminately—this is not baseball—they have no choice but to find value in unexpected places. And they win championships by doing more with the same amount of money. The embarrassment of riches otherwise known as the Warriors, for example, only exist because Curry was on a bargain contract until this season, at which point Durant agreed to his own sweetheart discount.
But it has never been more imperative to chase value on the margins in this era of talent consolidation across the NBA. There is a premium on effective, affordable players, and stealing a niche player on a minimum deal can be as important as picking the right star player for a maximum salary.
Which is why every team would take a Luc Mbah a Moute.
There was a simple reason the Rockets targeted Mbah a Moute, a 6-foot-8 forward who could guard anyone, after they paired James Harden with Chris Paul last summer. It was almost entirely because they were obsessed with the Warriors. They didn’t need to crunch the numbers to know they would probably have to play Golden State on their way to an NBA title—this being the Rockets, they crunched the numbers anyway—and that meant it wasn’t enough for them to merely improve. They had to improve in a way that increased their chances against the Warriors.
They were convinced that Mbah a Moute could help. Golden State’s small lineups feast on mismatches, but there is no team capable of starving them like the Rockets. And that’s by design. Houston can surround Harden and Paul with the versatile, interchangeable players required to switch on defense and survive against the Warriors—players like Mbah a Moute. In two games against Golden State, Mbah a Moute was positional silly putty. He defended Klay Thompson on 33 possessions, Durant for 23 possessions and Curry for 13 possessions, according to NBA tracking data.
Luc Mbah a Moute can guard Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry and even LeBron James.
Mbah a Moute, a Cameroonian who went to UCLA and bounced around five teams in five years before this season, was secretly good at lots of little things for a long time until those very things made him valuable.
He moved the ball, spaced the floor and was perfectly happy to guard the other team’s leading scorer. But one reason he was overlooked is that he did not shoot. He was good at not shooting, but not shooting wasn’t an option in Houston, where he’s been encouraged to shoot more than ever. “People thought I wasn’t a good shooter,” said Mbah a Moute, who is shooting 36% on 3-pointers this year, “but it’s because I was never really in a position where I could shoot.”
Houston saw the potential in Mbah a Moute that other teams ignored. It was not an accident that he signed there when he could have signed anywhere. “No, no, no—that one we went after hard,” D’Antoni said.
Rockets executives were on the phone with Mbah a Moute and his agent every day until he agreed to a deal. As he called around the league, general manager Daryl Morey heard so much praise about Mbah a Moute from coaches, executives and former teammates like Paul that he actually got worried. “It was almost toomuch raving,” he said. “I was, like, it can’t all be this good. It’s been even better.”
Mbah a Moute felt the same way as the Rockets. He was a little baffled at how badly they wanted him, especially because they already had P.J. Tucker, another undervalued wing player they prioritized last off-season.
“You just signed P.J.,” he said, “and I think we do the same thing?”
But what Houston realized was that it couldn’t have enough players like Tucker and Mbah a Moute.
“That made sense to me,” Mbah a Moute said. “I felt I could be a complementary piece of the puzzle.”
He was a positionless player before position became a dirty word, and when the game evolved, he took advantage of the ideas that have reshaped the league. Mbah a Moute was suddenly a market inefficiency. What he did was in high demand, and yet he was still available for cheap. That was all the incentive the Rockets needed to pursue him.
It worked out spectacularly well.
The Rockets set a franchise record for wins in a season. Their offense was more explosive than last year’s, when it was one of the most explosive of all-time. Their defense went from mediocre to elite under the influence of Paul, Tucker and Mbah a Moute, whose defensive rating was the lowest on the team.
He now finds himself in line for a richer contract because it turned out that D’Antoni calling him one of the league’s best players was positively D’Antonian: It may have sounded wrong, maybe even ridiculous, until it was right.
In fact, of the hundreds of player combinations that logged more than 1,000 minutes together, the Rockets had the single most productive two-man lineup in the NBA, a duo with a better net rating than even Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
This pair that annihilated other teams: the likely most valuable player James Harden and Luc Mbah a Moute.
By Ben Cohen