The Serge Ibaka Debacle

The LA Clippers’ sideline erupts as Marcus Morris Sr. hits another tough turnaround jumper. Morris trots back on defense as members of the bench cheer and eject from their seats with excitement. Smiles, high fives, and various celebrations stemmed from every player, except one. Serge Ibaka, the team’s premier free agent signing in 2020, sat idly by. Slow clapping with his hood over his head. Ibaka’s playing time has been diminishing ever since Isaiah Hartenstein entered the rotation. Ibaka’s absence may not be felt on the court, but the cultivation of his rotation vacancy is a story in itself that may affect the team off the court. From starting the 2020-2021 regular season as the starting center to DNP – CD’s in December of 2021, there is more than meets the eye in the Serge Ibaka debacle.

The Serge Ibaka Debacle

Misled by the Medical Staff?

Ibaka was starting games and playing solid basketball for the Clippers last season. His ability to stretch the floor gave the team a pick and pop threat that current center Ivica Zubac and former center Montrezl Harrell did not provide. But after almost half the season elapsed, Ibaka suffered a back injury, nearly ending his season. He would eventually rehab and return for the last couple of games of the regular season. He even played in Game One in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks. Unfortunately, the 14-year big man could not finish the postseason and ended up requiring surgery for his back.

“I [was] told with this… keep working. Keep taking care of the back. Strengthening my core. I’m [going to] be fine. But it was not the case… I wish I could’ve [got] the surgery… you know, earlier during the season,” Ibaka said on Media Day.

From his quote, it is quite easy to tell that Ibaka was misled in terms of dealing with his injury. It appeared that the team wanted him to be ready for the playoffs and surgery would have shut those expectations down. Instead of surgery, Ibaka embraced his rehab process. But it was not enough as his back did not cooperate. Thus, resulting in the Clippers losing their stretch big for the entire postseason.

Return to Action

With the entire postseason and offseason to recover from surgery, Ibaka was eager to get back onto the court. During training camp, he steadily ramped up his workload from 3-on-3s to 5-on-5s. He even checked into a scrimmage during the team’s open practice at USC’s Galen Center. Though he was not ready by opening night, Ibaka continued to work and make progress towards a return.

Once Ibaka finally returned against the Charlotte Hornets, he did not look like himself. Keeping up with the speed of the game and getting his legs under him was a challenge. As expected from anyone returning from a serious injury. After two scoreless games, Ibaka chose to go down to the G-League to get his rhythm. A class move from a veteran player, putting his ego aside for the betterment of himself and the team.

After regaining his rhythm with the team’s G-League affiliate, Agua Caliente Clippers, he returned to the main roster, ready for action. Though he was ramping up, Ibaka’s movement was clearly improved from his short stint in the G-League. Eventually, Ibaka played side by side with Hartenstein in a two-big lineup, a rarity in the NBA. He continued to move well and even played a key role in the team’s 119-115 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Ibaka knocked down jumpers, moved the ball, and gelled with the units he played with. But this was no indication of what was soon to come.

Falling Out of the Rotation

Though Ibaka played and moved well in recent games, head coach Ty Lue elected not to play him in the following contests. Matchups against other teams that could not feature the two-big lineup played a role. But also the stellar play from Hartenstein. The big man from Germany clearly earned the backup spot over Ibaka with his ball movement, defense, offensive rebounding, and cohesiveness with the second unit. He has even displayed nice touch on his floater and improved pick and roll chemistry with guards as of late.

As Hartenstein continued to shine, the DNP’s stacked for Ibaka. The big man was not seeing the floor for the first time in a long time during his successful NBA career. The lack of playing time was appearing to take a toll, as Ibaka seemed disengaged and enthusiastic on the bench while watching his teammates play.

Things got even more interesting when Ibaka was caught ‘liking’ a tweet stating that he could be traded by December 15th, the date where most of the league becomes tradeable.

“I’m 90% sure Serge Ibaka’s getting traded on December 15th,” the tweet read.

His ‘like’ made rounds on Clippers Twitter as eagle-eyed accounts shared his recent activity, thus resulting in Ibaka ‘unliking’ the tweet. After falling out of the rotation, the apathy on the bench, and his recent social media activity, things are not looking ideal for the veteran big and the team.

What’s Next for Serge Ibaka?

It is unlikely that Ibaka earns his spot back in the rotation unless Hartenstein or Zubac miss time due to injury or in health and safety protocol.¬†Knocks on wood. It is no easy situation for the Clippers. The team may feel they need Ibaka’s championship presence later in the season and in the postseason. His friendship with star forward Kawhi Leonard is also a factor in how the team plans to progress with the situation. It would be safe to assume that moving his friend would need to be approved by Leonard before pulling the trigger, but all that remains to be known.

Business-wise, the Clippers could use Ibaka as a trading chip to bring back another quality veteran that could help with their bottom-five offense or regain draft capital that the team lost in the Paul George trade.

What happens next is not clear. But no matter what, the Clippers must make a decision that is in the best interests of the team’s current roster construction and chemistry.

 

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