Back on March 14, when Clippers starting center Serge Ibaka exited L.A.’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans with lower back tightness, it was not readily clear how long, it at all, he would be out.
“I’m not sure,” said Clippers head coach Ty Lue at the time when asked about Ibaka’s status. “I just know his back tightened up on him, back spasms. It’s all I know right now, so we’ll see tomorrow.”
Cut to now, 26 games and more than 50 days later, Lue and the Clippers still can’t provide a definitive answer about Ibaka’s return date.
Suboptimal for the Clippers: Ty Lue announces the Clippers have no return date for Serge Ibaka https://t.co/SgWKNF88OK via @DimeUPROXX
— Chris Manning (@cwmwrites) May 5, 2021
Talking to reporters prior to L.A.’s unimpressive 105-100 victory over the Toronto Raptors Tuesday night, Lue said that Ibaka, who joined the team in the offseason following three-plus years in Toronto, is working hard to get back into game shape but that he is still out of the lineup for the foreseeable future.
“I know Serge has been doing everything in his power — five, six, seven hours a day of just rehabbing — trying to get himself back,” Lue said. “Seeing him on the floor the last few times playing four-on-four, five-on-five, just trying to get used to and acclimated to getting hit again, getting banged, the physicality of the game. That’s gonna take some time, especially when you come off the situation that he’s going through right now, and that’s to be expected. But just seeing him on the floor is a positive for us right now. We don’t have a return date as of right now.”
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Zubac and Cousins Have Cushioned the Blow
Obviously, news that Ibaka remains sidelined isn’t exactly music to Clipper Nation’s ears, but it’s not the kind of doomsday scenario that it may have once been.
Since Ibaka’s injury, L.A.’s opening day backup center, 24-year-old Ivica Zubac, has played exceedingly well, averaging 10.7 points on 64.0% shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks. By comparison, when Ibaka went out, he was averaging 10.9 points on 50.7% shooting, 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks, so the drop-off in those areas has been minimal, even nonexistent.
Also helping to cushion the blow from Ibaka’s absence, the Clippers acquired former perennial All-Star DeMarcus Cousins in April via the buyout market. Cousins, who was arguably the top center in the league for several years before three leg injuries derailed his career, has played well and provided depth behind Zubac, even stepping in as something of a mentor to the young Croatian.
“I love Zu,” Cousins said at the end of April. “Incredible young player. He’s full of potential. I just want to be that big brother for him, that OG for him, and continue to drop knowledge on him daily, nightly. I just want to make his job easier for him with the knowledge I already have.”
I swear zubac be trying to dunk everything https://t.co/J7LNwrrArx
— JG 🕺🏾 (@_JG10_) April 19, 2021
But Ibaka brings something that neither Zubac nor Cousins can match: the ability to spread the floor. As a career 36.0% shooter from behind the arc, Ibaka gives the Clippers the luxury of starting their sets five-out — that is, all five guys starting from behind the three-point line. It’s a look that would be unrecognizable to players from a different era, but is effective in opening up the middle for drives or drive-and-kicks, which is particularly useful given that the Clippers lead the league in three-point percentage.
Yes, Cousins is shooting 46.7% from three since joining the Clippers, but that’s on only 1.4 shots per game, and he doesn’t present nearly the threat from long distance as Ibaka. Most teams, in fact, would gladly opt to give Cousins open looks from three as opposed to him getting the ball in the post where he is dangerous as both a scorer and passer.
Out, But Not Out of the Picture
Although he’s been out for a while and not traveling with the team for road games, Ibaka has not been detached from the team. Far from it, in fact, according to Clippers forward Paul George.
“[Serge is] still staying involved, he’s still communicating with the group. Still engaged with the games, he’s still pretty much a part of this team, even when we’re on the road and he stays behind to train and rehab,” George said following the Raptors game, in which he and Marcus Morris led the team with 22 points. “We’re not rushing him. We understand the severity of the injury and his rehab. We’re with him when he’s available, when he’s ready to go. We support him through this whole process.”
Paul George on Serge Ibaka: “We’re not rushing him. We understand the severity of his injury and his rehab.”
— Farbod Esnaashari (@Farbod_E) May 5, 2021
With only six games remaining in the regular season, it’s a process the Clippers hope ends sooner than later, especially if they expect Ibaka to play any sort of significant role in the playoffs. But for now, Zubac and Cousins, are doing an excellent job holding down the fort.
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