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Clippings: Serge Ibaka’s curious absence continues

The second-year Clipper has been a healthy scratch even with the Clippers increasingly banged up.

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Boston Celtics v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Ten days ago, things were looking up for Serge Ibaka.

The Clippers big had recently returned from his conditioning stint in the G League and had shown steady signs of improvement in the ensuing games: he found his shooting stroke against New Orleans, joined the starting lineup against Sacramento, and then helped the Clippers close a hard-fought win against their Staples Center cohabitants. Ty Lue noted how Ibaka’s spacing “really gave us an advantage” down the stretch against the Lakers.

Ibaka was in the starting five the following game against the Kings, but the Clippers once again got wrecked by Sacramento’s pace, and Lue swapped out Ibaka for Terance Mann at halftime. No matter, the perennially slow Trail Blazers were up next. Except Ibaka only got one shift in Portland, after Isaiah Hartenstein picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter. And then the second-year Clipper didn’t see the court at all against Boston, Orlando, or Phoenix.

To go from his best game of the season (at least by Basketball Reference’s game score) to out of the rotation within 24 hours was quite the fall from grace. Before the Magic game, Lue said nothing happened for Ibaka to lose his spot. The coach had a similar response two days later when asked about the conversations he’s had with Ibaka regarding his minutes. “Keep that between us, but we’ve had conversations and that’s all about all I can go into,” Lue said before the Clippers played the Suns.

The Clippers have two centers who have outperformed Ibaka this season in Ivica Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein — even Ibaka would have to concede that much. But for the team to try out Ibaka at power forward, have success with that unit, and then scrap it altogether when the Clippers have been missing Nicolas Batum and Paul George is strange. Maybe Ibaka hasn’t earned minutes ahead of Zubac and Hartenstein, but it’s hard to argue that he has been surpassed in production by Brandon Boston Jr., Amir Coffey, and Justise Winslow.

Perhaps this recent string of DNP-CDs is merely a blip on the radar. The Clippers have been mixing and matching all season, and right now, it’s simply Ibaka’s turn to take a step back.

But something about this situation feels different. Part of that is Lue’s reserved language when discussing Ibaka now; consider the coach’s effusive praise of Winslow when Winslow was riding the bench, or even how complimentary Lue was of Ibaka back when he willingly went to the G League. There’s also the elephant in the room that is Ibaka’s contract status. Ibaka is on an expiring deal worth $9.72 million; that would be an attractive trade piece at the deadline, and Ibaka will certainly have suitors as a stretch big.

The Clippers aggressively targeted Ibaka in the 2020 offseason and openly lamented his absence during the 2021 postseason as a key reason they fell short in the Western Conference finals. Now, Ibaka’s value has changed. The question is how long the new status quo will remain.

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