Luc Mbah a Moute sits at his corner locker in the TD Garden, tying his shoes before warming up prior to the Sixers' Feb. 6 game against the Boston Celtics. Just past the half-way point of his seventh season, Mbah a Moute has turned heads with his improved jump shot this year. Mbah a Moute's defensive versatilty has been extremely key to the Sixers' ability to compete this season as well. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 2, Mbah a Moute started the game off defending Kevin Love, then switched onto LeBron James, J.R. Smith and even Timofey Mosgov for stretches.
The UCLA product has fit in seamlessly with the defensive-minded roster Sam Hinkie has assembled and Brett Brown has molded. At the All-Star break, the five-man unit of Michael Carter-Williams, K.J. McDaniels, Robert Covington, Mbah a Moute and Nerlens Noel is number one in the entire NBA in defensive efficiency.
The lineup allows just 86.0 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would best Golden State's league-best 97.3 rating by a staggering 11.3.
"I didn't even know they had stats like that," Mbah a Moute says with a big smile.
It's a statistic that naysayers like Charles Barkley scream has no importance, but one of hundreds of metrics that drive Hinkie's roster decision-making. He's accumulated a bushel of lanky, athletic specimens that are simply nuisances to opponents on the defensive end.
"When you look at the team, we have length and athleticism at pretty much every position, so I think now that we've started playing together and being complimentary to each other, whether it's the ability to switch because we've got [Carter-Williams], who's a 6-7 guard, or guys like me who can guard smaller or bigger guys, things like that really help," Mbah a Moute says. "We're all pretty good defenders. I consider myself one of the best defenders in the NBA. [McDaniels] has got a lot of potential to become a really good defender. [Noel] is protecting the rim."
The Sixers as a team rank 12th in defensive efficiency. Even better, Brown's crew is eighth in defensive efficiency since Jan. 1.
The coaching staff has schematically focused on smoothing the team's rotations. A lot of the team's improvement goes back to Mbah a Moute's comments on positional versatility. Members of the Sixers coaching staff and front office feel it's no coincidence the defense has rapidly improved after removing Henry Sims from the starting lineup in favor of a more small-ball unit.
Look at how on opening night, Hollis Thompson gets stuck behind two screens and bumps into a retreating Noel while going underneath a Luis Scola screen.
The next possession, Roy Hibbert's post-up sucks Noel all the way down to the left block from the right elbow. Meanwhile, Thompson fails to come over and check Noel's man, Scola, at the high post, giving up a wide-open 15-foot jumper.
Flashing forward to that aforementioned Cavs game in Cleveland, with the players fully buying into Brown's system, watch Covington slide down to block Mosgov and two other Sixers get in position to corral the rebound.
"You've gotta guard your guy, know your rotations when the ball swings and that's one thing we've gotten better with as a team," Covington said. "It just comes from repetition and, as we get older and continue to go through it, we've done a good job with it."
Pablo Torre wrote extensively about the Sixers' staff's attention to detail on the defensive end. Liberty Ballers had also learned about the team's "effort chart." In part of the exercise, each player is scored on things like contested shots, tips and deflections.
The practice is a fusion of the front office's attention to analytics and Brown's obsession with the finer details of player development.
"We have inched along and I'm proud of our improvement," Brown said. "We've moved up the food chain to being 12th now in defensive efficiency and it's something that, personally, it's how I see the game, it's what I want our program to be known for."
With Brown and his band of athletic dynamos, The Sixers will continue to wreck havoc defensively this season. They rank first in steals and fourth in blocks — JaKarr Sampson, Jerami Grant, Noel and McDaniels all are top-five amongst rookies in opponent field goal percentage at the rim. Together, Philly could be building a defensive powerhouse for years to come.
"I think in the city of Philadelphia," Brown said, "you better come with a hard hat."