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Isaiah Hartenstein is the Western Conference’s best-kept secret

Hartenstein has spent his first Clippers season making a constant impact. Seriously, how has this guy played on four teams in four years?

Sacramento Kings v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

That ESPN elected not to broadcast the latest tilt between the NBA’s two Los Angeles franchises is a fascinating development due to the fact that it proves a couple of things.

For one, it proves that neither team carries the appeal everyone believed they would, or were meant to, from the start. In reaction to the news, The Athletic’s Bill Oram tweeted, “ESPN looking at an intracity matchup of LA teams and saying, “Nah, we’re good,” is such a referendum on this Lakers team. Even with LeBron out, even for Warriors/Suns, it’s still a pretty stunning message of the Lakers lack of appeal right now.”

Sports Illustrated’s Rohan Nadkarni, in response, tweeted, “It’s funny in retrospect how much fervor there was around Lakers-Clippers in 2019 when Kawhi and Paul George first teamed up. The LA rivalry, the Christmas games. The teams have yet to play a game of consequence and now are getting bumped from national TV.”

So, yeah. That’s certainly one way to look at it.

I prefer the alternate view: That, clearly, the folks worried sick about ratings over at the World Wide Leader have yet to take the worthwhile time to introduce themselves to Isaiah Hartenstein. They’ll rue the day they ever pulled him off national TV, I say. In 20 years, when they surely look back at the 2021-22 regular season, they’ll regret broadcasting game no. 21 of Steph Curry’s third MVP campaign, pleading to the basketball gods for a second chance. Hartenstein was the way to go, they’ll say. We know this now, and we wish to repent our sins. Or something like that.

I’m a basketball fan, so sure, I thoroughly enjoyed the Suns-Warriors rematch that took the place of the Staples Center showdown. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t second-screening the Clippers-Lakers game in massive part because of the intrigue and fascination I have with Hartenstein. I’m not a full-on big-man apologist, particularly not when it comes to those who are inefficient defensively and clumsy offensively, but thankfully, Hartenstein is neither. He’s sturdy — both his seven-foot frame and his constant effort and impact — and that toughness has been on full display from the get-go. It’s just taken some time for the masses to see it.

Hartenstein has yet to start a game this season, but in 23 appearances, he’s been a force, pouring in better and more consistent averages than he ever has in four seasons. (Some of those averages may have been higher last season in Cleveland, but let’s face it: numbers in Cleveland over the last few years have been mostly inconsequential.) Currently, he’s averaging 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds, both of which increase to 17 and 11.3, respectively, when weighed on a per-36 minutes scale. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 4.3 offensive rebounds, which has him hovering alongside players like Clint Capela, Robert Williams III, and Kevon Looney. He’s an incessant board-crasher; few players in the league can compare.

Hartenstein is, in actuality, the reserve big man equivalent of a Swiss army knife. He has the potential to be a very good shooter, currently maintaining shooting splits of 65-67-59 (yeah, the free throws could use some work) and filling the role of a reliable stretch big. Defensively, and when crashing the offensive boards, his head swivels like an owl on Adderall in an effort to remain wary of every player within his vicinity, not to mention the one with the ball. Hartenstein’s 1.1 blocks per game aren’t exactly earth-shattering, but they represent his preternatural propensity to stepping forward and acting as an impasse for charging opponents.

Watching Hartenstein’s activity in the paint is one thing; watching him stay so energetic and prepared on defense from the outside in should be alarming for any opposing offense. He’s not exactly the quickest on the floor, but due to his basketball acumen, he often finds himself in situations where he gets switched onto a smaller guard. No worries, though — his length makes up for any ground he loses when a guard blows by him, and it gives him the chance to recover with a block. Opponents struggle to score in close when guarded by Hartenstein; they’re shooting 16.8 percentage points worse when guarded by Hartenstein, which is the best in the league.

It’s part of why head coach Ty Lue feels so comfortable to experiment with lineups when all his bigs are healthy and prepared to play within the team’s given scheme. When you have players that can fill as many holes as Hartenstein can, it’s hard to resist.

“We can do anything,” Lue said back in November, specifically referencing the notion that he might start (or, at least, play) Hartenstein and Serge Ibaka together. “I mean, nowadays, you can try anything. Cleveland starts three centers, so you can pretty much do whatever you want.”

With Hartenstein on the floor, that’s proven true, and the results have proven fruitful as well. He’s only managed to log nine negative plus/minus nights this season (again, that’s out of 23), and only two have been double-digit negatives. The Clippers are better with Hartenstein on the floor; their defensive rating when he plays is 101.2, compared to 108.2 when he sits. There’s simply no doubt that he’s been the team’s biggest and most delightful surprise this season, but even better still, he’s been one of their best players. If you had that on your bingo card entering the season, please come to the front desk to claim your prize.

His passing is worth lauding, too. He’s only averaging 1.5 assists per game, but he’s a prolific dimer with vision that feels almost LaMelo-like (on some possessions, not always). He can sling the ball from end to end, as well as react to cutting teammates and find easy lanes to help fellow Clippers find their easiest scoring opportunities. His 20.3 passes per game rank ninth on the team, but when those passes are as sound and intentional as Hartenstein’s are, it's worth highlighting.

Without Hartenstein, there’s a chance the Clippers would be fine on either end, and frankly, to their own downfall, they already give themselves an opportunity to predict what life might be like in said situations given the fact that Hartenstein only plays a shade under 16 minutes per game. The team’s center rotation is a crowded one, so unless Hartenstein starts pouring in All-Star numbers, it’s not likely that he unseats Ivica Zubac for an overwhelming increase in minutes. But perhaps it’s worth considering, given that since the team’s hot streak in early November, they’ve fallen off and returned to a middle-of-the-road squad with a lack of spark on either end.

Maybe unleashing Hartenstein would help play a part in that much-needed fix. At the very least, unleashing him would provide fans and viewers alike a reason to cheer. Just because ESPN didn’t care to display him on their air doesn’t mean you should shield your eyes as well. Much like the network is in a small way, you’d be doing yourself a disservice.