clock menu more-arrow no yes
Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Clippers

Filed under:

The Hart of the Matter

Isaiah Hartenstein’s rise is something that can no longer be ignored, and it’s created a very interesting offseason for him and the team.

Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Harry Giles or Isaiah Hartenstein?

Hartenstein or Giles?

When training camp began for the LA Clippers in late September, this question seemed to be at the heart of a lot of things for the team. If you can pull yourself back five months and put yourself into the frame of mind at that juncture, you’ll remember that whoever won the third center battle was actually going to be the de facto backup center due to Serge Ibaka’s recovery from back surgery.

What made the preseason battle between Hartenstein and Giles so fascinating was their differing paths to the league. Giles was a former top high school recruit in 2016 before heading to Duke. Unfortunately, multiple knee injuries halted his on-court play for the Blue Devils, rendering Giles to just 300 total minutes during his time in Durham. But, despite that, Giles entered the draft and was still a Top 20 pick largely due to that pedigree.

For Hartenstein, the closest he came to college was being born in Eugene, Ore., just a stone’s throw from the University of Oregon’s campus. But college was not in the cards as the family moved to Germany in 2008 so that Isaiah’s father, Florian, could pursue his professional career overseas. The younger Hartenstein grew up playing on the international circuit before attending the 2017 Nike Hoop Summit.

It was there, inside Portland’s Moda Center, where Hartenstein got his first taste of NBA life. He rubbed shoulders with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, RJ Barrett, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Luguentz Dort. And those were just his teammates on the World Select Team. Across from Hartenstein was a bevy of future NBA talent on Team USA: Gary Trent Jr., Michael Porter Jr., Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., Jaren Jackson Jr., Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and Collin Sexton, among others.

Hartenstein acquitted himself quite well, finishing with 10 points, three rebounds, two assists and a block in 19 minutes during an 11-point defeat. A few months later, the Houston Rockets picked Hartenstein in the second round of the draft. He would spend the entirety of the 2017-18 season in the G League playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, tallying 9.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. The next season would be Hartenstein’s breakout in that league.

After spending the first month or so getting sporadic minutes in the NBA with the Rockets, Hartenstein set sail back to G League where he averaged 19.4 points, 14.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.0 blocks over 26 games as Rio Grande Valley finished with a 34-16 record. In the Vipers’ march through the postseason, Hartenstein was named Finals MVP as he tallied 28.0 points and 16.0 rebounds per game, including back-to-back outings of 33 points and 30 points to bring the Vipers back from a 1-0 series deficit to win in three games.

The following year Hartenstein got more time in the NBA but not up to the level that you would expect. He still dominated the G League, though, averaging nearly 25 points and 15 rebounds across 14 games. However, the Rockets waived Hartenstein that offseason, and the Denver Nuggets signed him to a multi-year deal in Nov. 2020, only to trade him four months later to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hartenstein declined his player option for the 2021-22 season and opted to become an unrestricted free agent.

The decision to leave the Cavaliers made a lot of sense in Hartenstein’s eyes.

“I talked with Cleveland,” Hartenstein said back in October on the same day he found out he was making the Clippers’ roster. “They just had a lot of bigs, so I wanted to play. And that was my biggest thing. I think I’m a good center in the NBA, and so I didn’t want to be in a situation where I’m on a team that I really had no chance of playing.”

Hartenstein beat out Giles for the third center spot thanks to his play in the preseason. The fact he chose to come to the Clippers to compete for the final roster spot said a lot about the amount of internal belief the big man has. But it was what he saw from the organization, and from coach Tyronn Lue specifically, that made his decision easier.

“I think that was one of the biggest things for me was just finding someone that also lets me play my game, I think,” Hartenstein responded when asked what made him choose the Clippers over other suitors. “I think with the situations before, it was I was a young guy, I mean I’m still young, but a lot of situations if I made one mistake I’m coming out, and so now I’m allowed to make mistakes.

“With Denver and the Rockets, I was really looking over my shoulder every game, and it’s hard to play like that. And so now being in a situation where I can just play my game and do whatever the team needs to win.”

Hartenstein, 23, has rewarded both the Clippers and himself for that internal faith. He’s averaging 7.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 blocks this season, all career highs. After missing 13 games due to an ankle injury, Hartenstein has come back into the fold in quality form, but his form has really hit a stride recently. And it’s easy to understand why.

It was not supposed to be anything more than a placeholder job, but what Hartenstein has done is turn that backup center spot into entirely his own. Serge Ibaka, who did miss the first eight games recovering from back surgery, was supposed to reclaim his backup center spot behind Ivica Zubac. Instead, Ibaka got off to a slow start and eventually went down to the G League to play himself into shape.

By the time he returned, the Clippers were already 16 games into their season and Ibaka had only played twice. Ibaka then played nine games before missing more time due to personal reasons. When he returned again, coach Lue opted to try and make the three-center rotation work. The plan was simple: all three would play in the first half and the two that played the best would play in the second half. Zubac, the team’s starter, was essentially safe, which meant it would come down to Ibaka and Hartenstein. The veteran versus the upstart.

Ibaka had his moments, especially in two narrow victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and in a win at home against the Atlanta Hawks. But it was few and far between as Ibaka started to see his minutes siphoned off to Hartenstein more and more. Eventually, the inevitable happened. The Clippers traded Ibaka on deadline day to save some money on luxury tax. But, more importantly, the trade gave Hartenstein the opportunity that he wholly deserved and earned.

Since the trade, Hartenstein has started to find a rhythm again. Over the last six games, the center is averaging 8.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 blocks on 66.7% shooting. The team has been 4.3 points per 100 possessions better with Hartenstein on the floor during that time, which ranks fifth on the team amongst players to log considerable minutes. That’s down from his season mark of plus-12.2 but still remains a quality sign nonetheless.

Where Hartenstein excels is in several key areas: namely around the rim, defending the rim and initiating offense with the ball in his hands high up the floor. To get those three levels of impact from a player who signed for the minimum has been a huge boon to a team that has played significant minutes this season without key offensive cogs such as Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Norman Powell.

In fact, according to Cleaning The Glass, the Clippers are plus-11.8 points per 100 possessions with Hartenstein on the floor without both George and Powell. That’s a massive deal. It jumps up to plus-17.6 when you remove Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow and Keon Johnson, the three players dealt for Powell and Robert Covington.

One of the more fascinating parts of Hartenstein’s game is how adept he is at floaters. For the season, Hartenstein is shooting 60% on floaters (39 of 65), according to NBA Stats. And it’s not hard to see why his floater game has become the talk of Clippers broadcasts and fanspheres. It’s a true out and out weapon for the big man.

It’s interesting to try and compare who Hartenstein’s floater game is reminiscent of. Sacramento’s Richaun Holmes has a very good push shot that does major damage. Through Feb. 27, Holmes was shooting 64.8% on floaters this season. He’d attempted 54 and made 35 of them. Another guy who comes to mind is Memphis’ Brandon Clarke. The springy big man has thrown up 66 floaters and made 41, coming in at 62.1% this season.

But even if the floater isn’t there, Hartenstein’s constant movement and energy allows other things to open up. The big man is one of the best pick-and-roll bigs in the league, averaging 1.24 points per possession, according to Synergy as of Feb. 27. That ranks 12th among the 36 players to log at least 90 such possessions. That rolling and cutting pays dividends for the team. As an aside, Hartenstein’s 1.39 points per possession on cuts ranks eighth among the 32 players to log at least 85 such possessions.

As you can see, by rolling to the basket as hard as he does, Hartenstein is able to occupy two defenders and help leave Covington open for a 3-pointer. The fact that Covington makes the shot is neither here nor there, but rather the process itself is what’s crucial to focus on. As long as you’re doing the right things on the floor then you’re going to make a positive impact, even if the result itself doesn’t go the way you want it to. Process does indeed matter.

Yet that’s not all Hartenstein is providing. Quite often this season, coach Lue has put the ball in Hartenstein’s hands with bench units and had him operate as the facilitator. The reason is simple: the dude can pass. Having a big man able to do this allows others to move off the ball and thus be utilized in better, more efficient ways so as to not wear themselves out. As a byproduct, it yields higher-quality shots.

The way Hartenstein can thread the ball through the tiniest of openings to a galloping Reggie Jackson should not be lost on anyone. He’s throwing Jackson perfectly into the opening so the guard can go right up and dunk. Hartenstein has four games with at least five assists this season, which might not seem like a lot but considering the fact he only averages 16.2 minutes per game, it’s pretty substantial.

Hartenstein’s passing ability shouldn’t be surprising, by the way. While not all of it is because of the time he spent learning under Nikola Jokic, his stint in Denver did play a considerable factor.

“I think before, you would look a lot at the offensive player,” Hartenstein said about examining passing lanes. “But Jokic told me a lot more just to look where the defense is looking. I think that’s how some of the backdoor passes, it looks like the dude is not open, but like I’m really looking at the defense, and if he’s not looking at me, there’s no chance of him even getting the ball because you can’t see the ball coming.”

But what Hartenstein has been able to do has put the Clippers into a bit of a pickle. After all, this isn’t just about this season. A good front office will weigh both the now and the later, and for the Clippers they still need to focus on roster construction going forward into the near future as the team looks to compete for the franchise’s first championship.

The injuries to Leonard, George and Powell have opened things up to allow the front office to evaluate who may and may not fit around that triumvirate. No one’s really had what you could call a “bad season,” and that could make life both easier and tougher for the front office. Easier in the sense that all these guys theoretically fit around the team’s best players when the squad is healthy, but tougher because there won’t be as many minutes to divy up when those guys do indeed come back either this season or next.

That’s what makes the future of Isaiah Hartenstein so interesting. The team clearly believes in him. They believed in him enough to give him the final guaranteed roster spot over a player who had real pedigree as a highly ranked high school player, collegiate player and Top 20 draft pick. Clearly the front office favors performance and willingness to fit in over whatever accolades a player might possess.

Combine that with the fact that they moved Ibaka, a high-profile player they brought in roughly 18 months earlier, in order to solidify Hartenstein’s place in the rotation and not cause anymore unneeded headaches. Hartenstein also adds youth to the team. He doesn’t turn 24 until May, and having a backup center who’s both young and productive is a positive in more ways than one.

Every advanced metric loves him.

Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) grades him at plus-3.0, right alongside Boston’s Robert Williams III and Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton. Robust Algorithm using Player Tracking and On/Off Ratings (RAPTOR) has him at plus-3.9. Luck-adjusted player Estimate using a Box prior Regularized On-Off (LEBRON) paints him at plus-2.4, right around the realm of Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Golden State’s Draymond Green. Now, that’s not to say he’s as good as those players. It’s simply to give you an idea of how positive his contributions are viewed.

The Clippers are essentially getting a career-year out of Hartenstein beyond just the regular counting stats. It’s the best he’s performed in Box Plus/Minus (BPM), Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares (WS) and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48). Every single metric you look at loves him, and it loves the Clippers for having him. In the end, it should help the Clippers realize they need to keep him.

The Clippers are an over-the-cap team and will operate as such this upcoming offseason. They’re also over the luxury tax by a considerable margin, so the only machinations in which they’ll be able to retain the services of Hartenstein is through another minimum contract or the taxpayer mid-level exception, which is rumored to start around $6.15 million for up to three seasons.

Hartenstein is one of two interesting free agents for the Clippers, the other being Covington. Nicolas Batum has a player option that he can decline but there’s no reason to worry about that yet. Might as well cross that bridge when you get to it. But Hartenstein is the test case. Covington can return quite easily due to the team holding his Bird Rights, so the Clippers can offer the veteran forward whatever he and the team deem as fair in order to bring him back.

For Hartenstein, it’s not that simple. It’s either a small amount or up to $6.15 million. Maybe Hartenstein will feel like the Clippers are truly the first team to buy into him and believe in his ability, and thus he’ll opt to re-sign with them as their backup center and lock up a roster spot. That’s the dream. By and large, this team should return next season with a lot of the players already in place. They’re a contender as is, so long as they’re healthy.

Finding tangible help at the backup center spot is tough in this league. It’s hard to find many who can match what Hartenstein has been able to do this season, and that, quite simply, is what makes this offseason fascinating for both him and the Clippers.

There are going to be some teams with cap space, namely the Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and possibly even teams like the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Charlotte Hornets. He’ll have suitors. And that’s before we get into the squads that’ll have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($10.1 million) to offer.

But maybe, just maybe, the season that Hartenstein has had with the Clippers, one in which they’ve paved a way for him to continue getting playing time and bought into him being a vital cog in the machine, will pay dividends at the negotiating table when both sides sit down in the coming months. It’s going to be hard to find better talent out there than him, especially at that price point.

The journey that Hartenstein has had—from playing overseas, to grinding it out in the G League, to betting on himself, and, now, seeing it pay off—is something that this team and front office looks for in a player. They want that grit. They want that drive. Hartenstein has it in droves. We’ll see what the future has in store, but for now it’s been special to watch.

One thing’s for certain: the LA Clippers aren’t having the season they’re having without Isaiah Hartenstein. And he’s not having the season he’s having without the rare ability to bet on himself.


You can find Justin Russo’s daily content on the LA Clippers by subscribing to his Patreon feed, and you can also follow him on Twitter at @FlyByKnite.

Clippers Analysis

No, Devin Booker is not on the same level as Paul George

Clippers In Review: Jason Preston learned from the sidelines

Best of SB Nation NBA

Tyronn Lue and the Art of Adapting