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Clippings: How much do the Clippers benefit from playing a stretch five?

In Serge Ibaka’s absence, Ivica Zubac has proven he’s the best center on the Clippers roster.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers have spoken often this season about how playing Serge Ibaka at center in the starting lineup helps the team’s spacing. Ibaka’s presence on the perimeter pulls defenders out of the paint, which allows other Clippers to drive to the basket.

While it’s true that the Clippers get more threes with Ibaka on the floor than with a traditional paint-bound center like Ivica Zubac — by a substantial amount, to be fair — that’s because Ibaka personally takes threes. Him being on the court doesn’t appear to open extra space for the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to get to the hoop.

Owen Phillips wrote an interesting piece called “The Myth Of The Stretch 5”, which explores the idea that defenses are content to let centers camp out beyond the 3-point line and let them launch. He notes that only 35.2 percent of Ibaka’s threes are contested, meaning defenders are within six feet of him. So a majority of the time, defenders are still protecting the basket instead of staying attached to Ibaka.

Obviously, the Clippers offense thrives with Ibaka on the court, but it’s worth considering if it’s too much of a good thing. The team only gets 26.2 percent of its shots at the rim and free throws on 15.4 percent of possessions in Ibaka at center lineups. Contrast that to when Zubac is playing, and the Clippers get 27.9 percent of their shots at the rim and have a free-throw rate of 22.1 percent.

The last few games with Zubac in the starting lineup have shown a new side to the Clippers, one that is a little more physical and a little more aggressive. Whether that ultimately translates to more success is an open question, but there’s no denying that the Clippers were in a bit of a lull, and extra Zubac seems to have lifted them out of it. Perhaps there’s some value in playing a center who puts more pressure on the basket, since the Clippers have plenty of perimeter players to create for themselves from distance.

The Clippers will probably return to Ibaka as the starter once he is healthy. It’s worth considering if that’s the right move.

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