Last November, Serge Ibaka was the signing that arguably saved the Clippers offseason. A year later, the Clippers are once again in need of some saving.
Fortunately, the stakes are lower for the Clippers right now — though a two-game losing streak feels bleak when it includes a franchise-low 26-point second half — because Ibaka isn’t exactly in superhero mode. There’s a reason he stepped away from the team to rehab in the G League for four games: he wasn’t good enough to earn enough minutes for the LA Clippers in his present physical state, and he needed to rectify that.
“Coming back for me from injury, trying to get back my rhythms and playing five minutes, I knew it’s not going to help me,” Ibaka said after an Agua Caliente practice Wednesday. “I really knew it’s not going to help me. It’s just going to make the process longer and longer. I don’t want to wait longer. At the same time I understand the team is playing good, and it’s just hard for me just to come from injuries when I didn’t play to try to come back and try to get minutes there. I had to work my way up there.
“That’s why I decided to go to the G League where I know I’m going to be ready, I’m going to come back. Whatever minutes they’re going to give me I want to do something with.”
Ibaka averaged 15.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game in his four G League contests and says he has his legs back under him. Agua Caliente head coach Paul Hewitt notes that he’s seen the rust come off as Ibaka regains his conditioning and timing.
The G League sojourn has also been a humbling event for Ibaka. Now that he’s on the other side, he can appreciate the experience, but coming to that decision required some soul searching. Ibaka said he was reading Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday and came to the realization that he’d have to forget about his pride and just do what was best for his career.
“Sometimes as a player, we think about what people think about us or what people say. Also it’s kind of funny, I saw some comment people making fun of me. They don’t understand. So it’s okay, they don’t understand,” Ibaka said. “Listen, if I’m f***ing Kevin Durant, I can sit out for two years and come back and I will play. If you’re Serge Ibaka you have to work your way. Nobody is going to give you s**t. It’s been like this since my first day in the league, and that’s one reason I’m still in the league after 13 years, because it helped me, pushed me, to work harder.”
And work he did, even in the NBA’s second division. Hewitt said that if Ibaka didn’t run with the team in transition, his teammates had license to run the offense and shoot without involving him. That’s why Ibaka went from averaging 10 shots in his first three games to getting 20 shot attempts in his final outing as he got up to speed.
Hewitt thoroughly enjoyed having Ibaka around because of the advice he was able to dispense to the younger players about the way they treat their bodies, what they eat, and how they rest. That mentorship extended to the court, as Ibaka had to improve his communication as the de facto leader.
“He’s been a major asset for my coaching staff and I,” Hewitt said. “He’s been particularly good in the half-court situation getting these guys to understand how they’ve got to slow down and read their defender and set up their cuts.”
That eye for detail on offense could come in handy for a Clippers team that is struggling to score. Ty Lue noted that the team has gotten stagnant and isn’t doing a good job of moving the basketball, and those are exactly the principles Ibaka has been drilling in the G League, regardless of the level of competition. Ibaka also is another capable shooter for the Clippers to trot out as several of their marksmen go through cold spells.
The Clippers have been mostly solid defensively, even without the two-time league leader in blocks, but Ibaka does provide another option in the paint, where the team has given up 116 points in the last two games. Ibaka has historically been effective at limiting shots at the rim and swatting them altogether when players challenge him, and began to show off some of that athleticism once again with Agua Caliente.
Ibaka played next to other bigs in his four games, such as Harry Giles and Moses Wright, but Lue mostly shot down the idea of that happening in Los Angeles. It’s not something the Clipper coach can envision, though other teams have been successful with such lineups.
Even if Ivica Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein keep earning the center minutes, the Clippers could probably use Ibaka’s voice on the bench. Ibaka has proven to be the ultimate team player by going to the G League, and that has given him some new perspective and confidence. Whether that helps him provide impact on the court or just better relate to the younger players, there is value in having him around.
It wasn’t too long ago that Ibaka was part of a starting five that had the best net rating of any lineup in the league that played at least 250 minutes. Maybe he isn’t that guy after back surgery, but maybe he’s close enough. The Clippers could use any version of Ibaka for a jolt, and he has his time in Ontario to thank for the preparation.
Just don’t expect Kawhi Leonard to follow Ibaka’s path to the big club. As Ibaka said, when a star like Leonard comes back from injury, they get minutes right away. For the rest of the mere mortals in the NBA, the work is different. And that’s fine for Ibaka — he did what he could to find his way back, and hopefully, the results will come. The Clippers need him.