The Los Angeles Clippers got a much-needed boost when they got Serge Ibaka back from injury in mid-November. The big man fought through his rehab following back surgery, asked to go down to the G League to work his way back into game shape, and did everything necessary to return to the lineup.
The Clippers seem to have found some success over the last few games, but unfortunately for Ibaka, he hasn’t been a part of it. Well, at least not on the court.
Despite a stretch where Paul George and Nicolas Batum have both missed multiple games, the Clippers have run off four straight wins. A road win against Portland started a new winning streak, and that was followed by home wins over the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, and Phoenix Suns.
Ibaka played just over seven minutes in the loss to the Blazers and has been a healthy scratch for three straight games. In Monday’s win over the Suns, Ibaka arrived to the Clippers’ bench late.
The Clippers started two bigs in Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac against the Los Angeles Lakers, but didn’t do so against equally big teams like the Boston Celtics (Robert Williams III, Al Horford) and Orlando Magic (Wendell Carter Jr., Mo Bamba).
Ibaka’s role is in question, to no fault of his own. Zubac has started games and has been fantastic since last season. His backup, Isaiah Hartenstein, has developed a strong on-court rapport with Luke Kennard and Terance Mann as part of the second unit. Hartenstein was signed to simply provide frontcourt depth for as long as it took for Ibaka to work his way back. In short time, Hartenstein has made himself irreplaceable and life very difficult for Tyronn Lue.
“That’s what we kinda got accustomed to because Serge is out for a while,” Coach Tyronn Lue said Monday. “I think Zu, he’s been doing pretty good job, but Isaiah’s been really good. Especially with that second unit, not having guys who can create shots from that second unit, Isaiah pretty much becomes our point guard and so we kind of run our offense through him. He makes great passes, and just I think we need him with that second unit — so he’s been great.”
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Lue also says he has had a discussion with Ibaka about what his role will be like moving forward, but it was one he wouldn’t share.
“I’ll keep that between us, but we’ve had conversations and that’s about all I can go into.”
Ibaka is clearly unhappy, and if there were any doubts about it, his demeanor on the sidelines during the last few games proved it. Some fans even pointed to his reaction to Reggie Jackson’s game-winner over the Magic:
Reggie Jackson for the lead! pic.twitter.com/iLgdyGG2OM
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) December 11, 2021
It’s also certainly possible that Lue is playing coy and reserving Ibaka as a counter for bigger lineups. So far that hasn’t happened often.
Ibaka is currently in the second and final year of his two-year deal. He opted into the $9.74 million he was owed for the 2021-22 season this offseason in an attempt to stay with the same team. Now, it would appear his future with the team is uncertain. Could Ibaka actually be okay with playing second or third fiddle behind a few talented bigs, or will the Clippers center start to hint at potential trades to maximize his skill set and a return for him?