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Clippings: Isaiah Hartenstein has convincingly won the backup center battle

This could make it easier to cut ties with impending free agent Serge Ibaka.

LA Clippers v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Clippers signed Isaiah Hartenstein in the offseason — and put him through a training camp battle with Harry Giles — the expectation was that the 23-year-old would serve as a stopgap backup until Serge Ibaka was healthy enough to return.

Hartenstein manned that position with aplomb while Ibaka recovered from back surgery, to the point that Ibaka didn’t have a place in the rotation. After two games, the veteran center went down to the G League to regain his condition so he could better impact the Clippers. It worked to an extent, but Ibaka essentially shifted over to power forward, playing more than half of his minutes next to either Hartenstein or Ivica Zubac.

It wasn’t until Hartenstein injured his ankle, and Zubac then entered health and safety protocols, that Ibaka got real center rotation minutes. And once all three bigs were healthy, Ty Lue pledged to give all three a chance, at least in the first half, in each game. But over the past seven games with all of them available, it’s become clear that there is a pecking order at the big man position, and Hartenstein is not at the bottom.

LA Clippers v Washington Wizards
Serge Ibaka can shoot from distance, but that’s the only thing he does better than Isaiah Hartenstein at this point in their careers.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The German-American is a better defender than Ibaka both at the rim, where opponents shoot six percent worse with him on the court, and in space. He is a secondary hub on offense, springing the Clippers’ shooters and drivers open with his handoffs, his favorite partner obviously being Luke Kennard. And if it weren’t for his propensity to foul so much, Hartenstein might even be an option as a starter.

The statistical chasm between Hartenstein and Ibaka has become too glaring to ignore. Over the past seven games, the Clippers have a plus-17.5 net rating with Hartenstein on the floor and minus-17.4 when Ibaka plays. The younger big is a more effective scorer and playmaker whose primary defect is that he doesn’t space the floor, but the Clippers have enough scorers to mitigate that weakness.

At this point, the Clippers have to consider moving on from Ibaka. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, so he might leave anyway, and the Clippers could use the roster spot. They need to sign Amir Coffey to a full-time contract to avoid losing him this summer, and that prospect is far more frightening than parting ways with Ibaka.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ibaka moved at the trade deadline for that reason. He has had his chance to prove his value to this team; unfortunately for the veteran big man, the Clippers have a better option who deserves those minutes.

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